Today’s computer gaming has changed in recent years from a one-to-one experience where it was you against the computer (Pac Man) or another friend connected via a joystick. Now, online gaming is an interactive, multiplayer experience known as:
- Massive Multiplayer OnLine Role Playing Games (MMORPG) such as Everquest, Tibia, Guild Wars. Here users will create an Avatar (digital persona of themselves) within the game.
- Massive Multiplayer Online First Person Shooter Games (MMOFPS) such as Call of Duty and Halo.
- Massive Multiplayer Online Real-Time Strategy Games (MMORTS) such as Command and Conquer and Total War.
Of importance to parents is the fact that our youth can access these MMOR games via:
- Home computer connection to the internet
- Laptop via WiFi connection
- Computer game consoles such as Microsoft Xbox, Sony Playstation, Nintendo Wii
- iPod or PSP
- Mobile cell phone
As long as the youth has a live network connection via one of the above access technologies, then your son or daughter is now connected to the cyber world, and those who may be looking (“creeping”) for their prey. What better place to interact with youth than in a MMO site, and sexual predators know this and regularly frequent these sites. Just like a social network, many gaming consoles also provide the user with the ability to text, IM, VOIP, and videoconference in real-time just like a home desktop computer. This is why, if your son or daughter are playing online games, you want to ensure that all privacy settings are in place on your home computer. Also, most gaming consoles also allow parents to set privacy settings that can limit your child’s access via text, IM, or VOIP. Also of note is the fact that the pornography industry is now plugging into online gaming to attract users to their sites as well. By advertising stealth sites via popup ads in games, youth will click these links thinking that it is a part of a game, but in reality it redirects them to a XXX site. This is one reason that our youth should be taught that they should never click on any popup ad that may appear during their gaming experience.
Many gaming sites also allow for chat capability, which parents should be aware of, and thus can become an electronic avenue for predators to make contact with our youth. Many of these gaming sites, “Club Penguin” for example, allow parents to set safety parameters which can minimize the opportunity for others to make contact with our children. Known as “Ultimate Safe Chat” in Club Penguin, this setting prevents your child from sending or receiving any typed message to or from other players, and only allows them to send a greeting to other players from a predefined set menu of greetings. Other popular child gaming sites, such as Webkinz, also allow similar filtering options. Remember to set those privacy settings in gaming chat rooms, but ultimately, remember that there is no substitute for parental supervision, especially at those younger ages.
Also of note is that gaming consoles are becoming more popular targets for identity thieves, given that they usually do not possess the same security functionality as mobile phones and computers. Case in point, Sony’s PlayStation in early 2011 was hacked which affected over 100 million users. Sony disclosed that 12,700 accounts including credit card numbers were compromised.
Some safety strategies for online gaming:
- Do not give out any personal information to other players that you have not met face-to-face.
- Never give your account information out to anyone.
- Have a game dedicated email account rather than using your own personal email account.
- Never meet an unknown on-line player face-to-face.
- Do not accept downloads from strangers.
- Do not use a webcam while playing an online game.
- If someone is being rude (game rage), ignore that person and contact the admin of the game.
Of interest to parents is that the “Entertainment Software Rating Board” (ESBR) has created a scale of ratings for software games that are commercially available to the public. These ratings range from “E” for everyone, to “A” for adult content. Information about these ratings can be located at http://www.esrb.org/ratings/index.jsp. These ratings are specific to the content of the game and DO NOT apply to any online interactions that may take place which are text or VOIP-based. What this means is that even if the game is rated “E” (6 years of age and older) for everyone, the interactive text-based communication or VOIP might have adult content.
Both Microsoft and Macintosh allow the parent to set the privacy settings in their computer’s control panel based upon the ESBR ratings. Why are these ratings important? Because some of the more popular games being played by our youth such as “Grand Theft Auto” actually have explicit sexual content embedded in the game itself, where the player engages in virtual or simulated sex acts to accumulate more points.
To learn how to set your ESBR privacy settings, the Entertainment Software Association of Canada has produced a video that can be located at:
One more note for parents about online gaming: it can be very easy for children to rack up real charges, which will be attached to your credit card or app store account, buying items in the game believing that they were using “imaginary” money rather than real money. In an article dated February 14th, 2011, “The Columbus Dispatch” reported that an eight year old girl unknowingly amassed a $1400.00 bill from apple, by dressing up her simple mushroom home on the iPhone game “Smurf’s Village”. This is not unexpected when many games that children play online require imaginary virtual payments of pretend coins, treasure chests and gold to advance in the game. This challenge is especially becoming more prevalent in many Smartphone app stores where although the app may be free to download, it charges users for products and services when the application or game is launched. Known as “in-app purchases,” these programs are only going to become more common because mobile apps are the new user platform for kids, and seen to be huge moneymakers for their creators. One way to prevent this from happening with younger kids is to ensure that settings are in place on the child’s Smartphone, thus ensuring that a gaming app cannot be purchased unless a password that the parent only knows is entered. Again, we believe that communication is key; have a discussion with your child about not downloading any game until authorized by you first, given that there may be hidden costs that they may not be aware of.
Digital Food For Thought