Scores of games in Google’s Play Store that are rated safe for kids are packed with guns, gore and panda mutilation – but little is being done to stem the flow of inappropriate and dangerous content
Young children can download and play games packed with shooting, stabbing, gore and microtransaction gambling on Google’s Play Store – even when parents turn on controls to make them toddler-friendly. All these games and apps have one thing in common: they’re marked as being safe for young children. Yet many of them are anything but.
Mad Max Zombies, an Android first-person shooter full of spurting blood, disturbing imagery of walking corpses and realistic firearms, was rated by its creator as Pegi 3 – a rating that’s considered suitable for all age groups, with no sounds or pictures that are likely to frighten young children and only the mildest, most childlike depictions of violence.
It’s just one gory example of a growing problem. The Play Store is full of apps that defy Google’s age rating policy and filtering tools. Some of these games have been installed millions of times. After we sent Google a sample of 36 games with inappropriate content for their ratings and a further 16 with other forms of dubious content and permissions, including some which tracked the location of users, 16 games have so far either been entirely removed or re-released with revised ratings and permissions.
The Play Store is big business for Google. The company takes a 30 per cent cut of all purchases, subscriptions and microtransaction payments on the store, with its share of subscription fees dropping to 15 per cent after 12 months. It also runs the AdMod advertising placement portal that allows developers to monetise free apps. Although it’s hard to break out exactly how much Google makes from the Play Store, Sensor Tower statistics show that Android mobile game revenue added up to a total $21.5 billion in 2018
In contrast to Apple, which has a strict age rating policy and approval process on all apps, Google seemingly does not invest its profits into building a robust, human-monitored system to ensure that all age ratings across its platform are correct. In fact, there’s very little control whatsoever of ratings given to games that can be downloaded by children through the Play Store. Behind the scenes, each game’s age appropriateness is assigned automatically by a questionnaire filled in by its creator. For anyone downloading a game, the Play Store displays an official Pegi age rating, despite there being no manual monitoring and rating for individual titles.
You win each level in Mad Max Zombies by gunning down the moaning horde, lining their rotting faces up in your machine gun sights and pulling the trigger as blood gouts from the neck of a walking human corpse. Which wouldn’t be out of place in the world of gaming, if it hadn’t been rated as safe and appropriate content for a three-year-old. Since we flagged it to Google, the game has been removed, re-rated as Pegi 12 and re-released as Mad War Zombies.
Across Europe, games are issued ratings by Pegi (Pan European Game Information). But, when it comes to digital-only releases, to help manage the thousands of apps submitted every day by small developers, the ratings process is automated via a questionnaire created and administered by the International Age Rating Coalition (IARC), with the cost of issuing ratings borne by the storefront, rather than individual developers.
Developers are required to fill this questionnaire out in good faith when they upload an app or game, but Google itself never checks the accuracy of a rating unless a game is submitted to its separate, safer, Designed for Families scheme – an area of the Play Store that is vetted by Google, but that can’t be used by parents as a locked-down, child-friendly space to download apps and games.
Bacioiu Ciprian, the owner of Bearded Giant Games, recently released the entirely age-appropriate endless runner Retro Sail on the Play Store. He says the Play Store’s age rating questionaire is “100 per cent based on the honour system”.
Technically, it’s the job of the regional ratings agencies, such as Pegi, to monitor accuracy using the tools IARC gives them. “Given the high volume of published games and apps, participating rating authorities are not able to monitor every single release,” an IARC spokesperson says.
This means that many ratings aren’t checked by anyone at all. A number of app publication guides suggest answering ‘no’ to all the questions in order to get an E for Everyone or Pegi 3 rating. Tick a few boxes, confirm that what you’ve said is true, and your game is automatically assigned an age rating based on your responses.
The international regulators involved in IARC work together to conduct human checks on submitted apps. But because around 10,000 IARC-rated apps are released every day, it’s not possible for them to monitor every single one. “The regulators focus their efforts by checking the top downloaded apps and by performing targeted searches,” says a spokesperson from the UK’s Pegi-affiliated Video Standards Council.
However, even games that get plenty of downloads over a long period, such as Drive Die Repeat – Zombie Game, released in 2016 and with over 100,000 installs, still had a Pegi 7 rating to go with gameplay that has the player mowing down zombies with their car in an explosive spatter of blood. Since we raised it with Google and Pegi, it’s been upgraded to Pegi 12. The game has always had a 12+ rating on iOS.
The IARC questionnaire is used by many online stores, including the Nintendo eShop and the Microsoft Store for Windows and Xbox. But rogue apps promoting adult gameplay to children aren’t a conspicuous problem for Nintendo, which manually reviewsevery title submitted to the eShop. Apple runs its own strictly enforced age rating system. Google, by comparison, has opted to rely almost entirely on IARC, despite the massive size and reach of the Play Store.
Apple’s App Store also uses a questionnaire to give apps an age rating but, unlike Google Play, Apple has a review process that typically takes a day or two. Apple doesn’t comment on its app approval process and how it’s implemented, and declined to tell us how much human involvement there is when it comes to approving apps. However, Apple is very clear about its age rating categoriesand requires developers to follow them in order to publish anything on the App Store.
Developers are asked to classify how frequently content including various kinds of violence, mature themes, real or simulated gambling and sexual content appears in their apps. “The default [App Store age rating] is four plus,” says developer Tom Royal. “Some settings give you an immediate notice that you just can’t publish that on iOS, and it warns you if the settings you’ve chosen will prevent publication in [certain countries].”
Google and Pegi were quick to remove or re-rate the most concerning apps when presented with our research, although a number, including realistic depictions of guns and gambling-style microtransaction games, were left with Pegi 3 ratings due to a lack of appropriate classification criteria.
“When we find that an app has violated our policies, we remove it from Google Play,” a Google spokesperson says. “We want children to be safe online and we work hard to help protect them.” However, thanks to an easily gameable rating system, its content filtering tools are next to useless.