Internet safety consultant Charles Conway accuses popular Facebook game "The Sims Social" of rewarding kids for engaging in underage "cybersex".
"Create unique Sims and live out their dreams—or stir up trouble by pulling pranks. Develop deep relationships to unlock new features and advance: befriend and fight, date and cheat, love and betray. Play with life in a whole new way—with your real friends, for free!"
That's the hype on the latest version of Electronic Arts' popular "Sims" franchise, bringing the game to Facebook in the form of "The Sims Social".
On the face of it, the game looks like fun. Players can create an online alter-ego, build a house, buy furniture, take care of their personal hygiene needs and socialise with other players. By building your character's social life, you earn points which help you to unlock new features, buy more stuff for your character and advance in the game environment.
Charles Conway, a consultant at Internet safety training firm Clear as Crystal Training and the editor of online security website Scam Detectives says that the personal relationships that can develop between players should give parents cause for concern.
"When playing "Sims Social" players can interact with other users in a lot of different ways, but they are rewarded for entering into romantic relationships with other players. These romantic relationships can develop quickly into sexual relationships, with options to have sex in different locations, including the bedroom and the shower. Sex between players is rewarded with "social points" which are then used to advance within the game environment" he said yesterday
Charles has some tough questions for the game's developers, who he says should restrict access to more adult features of the game to “adults only”.
Even if Facebook did verify the age of it's users (which it doesn't), at what age does it become acceptable for a child to engage in "virtual sex" for rewards? Does it ever become acceptable? Isn't sex for rewards the very definition of prostitution?
How is playing this game different to children having "cybersex" in a chatroom?
Doesn't encouraging and rewarding sexualised behaviour between "avatars" encourage underage "offline" relationships of an inappropriate nature?
Is there a risk of bullying when two players enter into a same sex relationship?
Shouldn't sexual activity within the game environment be restricted to those who are at or above the legal age of consent for "real life" sex?
"I'm also very concerned about the opportunities this game opens up for online grooming" said Charles.
"When 40% of kids admit that they have Facebook "friends" that they don't know in "real life", there's a real risk of a predator using a game like this to build a relationship with a child that could lead to real world abuse. Paedophiles rely on their ability to break down a child's inhibitions and get them to talk about sex, which is why we as parents teach our kids that talking about sex in the online space is not acceptable. So why does a game like this actually enable children to explore sexual relationships without warning of the dangers?"
In conclusion Charles says that, whilst parental control and supervision is vitally important to online safety, online content developers have to play their part too.
"By restricting access to this game to over 18's, or at the very least creating a "child friendly" version of the game that does not allow sexual relationships, Playfish and Electronic Arts could demonstrate a commitment to keeping teens safe online. By not doing so, they're potentially putting kids at risk of grooming, cyberbullying and confusion about where "real world" boundaries lie".