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Teenangels / For Parents / Computer Games

Computer Games

Computer Games

Computer gaming has changed in recent years. It’s gone from a one-to-one gaming experience (you against the computer or video game) to a multiple player experience (when you had more than one joy stick and a connector). But with the advent of interactive Internet gaming with unlimited players from around the world and, in some cases, voice chat capabilities, the gaming experience has been revolutionized.

Andrew is a fourteen-year-old gamer. He loves playing computer games and, like most of the other preteens and teens, seems to have been born with a controller in his hand. Until recently, though, gaming was a solitary experience. He could play against the computer, or with a friend sitting next to him. Sometimes he would sit on the speaker phone and chat with a friend who was playing the same game online – thereby creating their own interactivity and chat.

But last year Xbox® changed the way Andrew plays games. Fitted with a headset and microphone, he can now dispose of the speakerphone gaming arrangement, and chat (or shout) at people from around the world in real time.

Andrew is more than a gamer, though. He is also a Teenangel so when Andrew found himself in a situation where his online safety expertise was needed while gaming, he realized he needed to educate others about interactive gaming and how to be safe.

Until this one particular night, the worst Andrew had seen while playing interactive games was swearing and shouting by other gamers. Most gamers only minded this when it interfered with the game. And then, as most gamers have always done, they used self-help…and blocked the other gamers, muted them or kicked them out of the game. But this night was different. This night a female gamer came into the game and began egging on the gamers. She had played games with Andrew before, and this was new behavior. Before now she was “one-of-the-guys” and a serious gamer. He suspected that someone else, perhaps one of her friends, was using her account and trying to provoke a response from the largely male group. If that was the intention, it was more than successful. The other gamers began to act up. They were graphic about what they would do to this woman if they met her. The discussions became more heated and more outrageous until Andrew, in disgust, left the game.

Until then, Andrew had barely paid attention to any of the game’s safety features. But that changed after that night. He found that Xbox® Live had a reporting feature that allowed players to notify Microsoft when someone was disruptive or, as applicable in this case, lewd. That’s when Andrew decided it was time to warn others about the kinds of things that can go wrong in interactive gaming and what you can do to have a safer gaming experience. It was also when Andrew decided to petition the other Teenangels and me to create a special award category – Safe Gaming. Xbox® is the first recipient of the 2003 Safe Gaming Award because of its careful design of the Xbox® Live which provides reporting and privacy features.

As a Teenangel, Andrew knew that you shouldn’t give out too much information online to strangers. Often, in an online chat situation, that includes disclosing your age or gender, since predators tend to prey on younger female chatters. But when you have live voice chatting, age and gender are patently obvious. Microsoft designed around that too. You can select a voice mask that changes your voice to that of a robot, adult or even a little girl. (Some gamers don’t like chatting with someone who is using a voice mask, but it protects the younger gamers, especially females, from online harassment.)

Not all gamers use voice chat while playing games. Some find it a distraction. Others are too busy trying to win. It is generally judiciously used to either create new game strategies or to create new methods of gaming. Those who talk too much in a serious or difficult game find themselves ousted quickly.

Andrew seems to have spotted a problem early. Most live chat gamers are serious gaming fans. They may swear or shout in their enthusiasm or exasperation, but they don’t have the time to harass others. As interactive gaming becomes more popular and less-experienced gamers begin to flood the games, more harassment should be expected. As younger gamers begin to use the games, online sexual predators will begin to track them there.

Yet, interactive gaming is what kids and teens enjoy the most. And what used to be a solitary and isolating activity is now a community and social activity. Dr. Deanna Guy, a pediatrician with Vanderbilt Medical Center in Nashville, Tennessee, and an expert on children and the Internet believes that community gaming is far healthier than solo computer gaming. But she has her concerns about children engaging in voice chat with strangers before they are educated in online safety and “stranger danger.” From her years as “KidDoc” for AOL’s parenting channel, Dr. Guy realized that people let their guard down when chatting online. She fears that the precautions used by children in typed chat may not apply for long when voices are concerned. “Once a child is talking to someone, it’s difficult to convince them not to give out their telephone number. After all…what’s the difference between chatting on a computer microphone wearing a headset and on a telephone receiver? To a child or teenager, there is little difference.”

But from an Internet safety and privacy viewpoint, there are serious differences. A telephone number can often lead to a name and address. All you need to do is visit and put in the telephone number. A reverse search will often disclose the name and address linked to the telephone number. A quick visit to Mapquest then gives you a map to the gamer’s door. In addition, once armed with the telephone number, anyone can reach out whenever they choose to communicate with the gamer. While the voice chat in the game is controlled by the gamer him or herself.

As entertaining as interactive gaming is, parents should be aware that their children can speak, using their own voice, with strangers online. Xbox® comes with built-in parental controls which prevent the child from using voice chat until the parent feels they are able to handle it safely. They need to be aware that networked gaming devices offer voice chat. They also need to understand that many other interactive voiced games can be accessed online using an ordinary headset.

But attempting to ignore the new technologies won’t help. Our children and teens will be using them, if not at home then at their friends’ houses. The old adage of keeping the computer in a central location doesn’t cut it when their gaming consoles are voice-enabled and our children carry their own text-messaging devices and cell phones. Our children and teens need to be taught how to talk, safely, with strangers and what to do when things go wrong. Luckily, Microsoft has thought ahead and given parents and the gamers the tools they need for a safe and fun interactive gaming experience.

The only interactive live voice game that WiredSafety has approved is Xbox®. None of the others we reviewed contain the safety features and the report functions that are essential to a safe and private interactive gaming experience. However, recommends that Xbox® live be reserved for children over 12, and that parents closely supervise the live chat experience and until they are sure their children are ready for the verbal assault many games engender, set the parental controls to block live voice chat. While predators are still rare in the intense activity of a challenging game, as more inexperienced gamers and younger gamers begin to use the voice chats it is expected that predators will become a bigger problem.

The best way to avoid online predators is to make sure your children know they can come to you if things go wrong without worrying that you will over-react and throw the game console out with the bathwater. Report anyone that violates the terms of service, and make sure that Microsoft knows of any improper communications with your child. Finally, the worst that can happen in a game is that someone says something that hurts your child’s feelings or uses language that is inappropriate for children. The old saying “stick and stones will break your bones, but words will never hurt you…” applies in this case. The real dangers lie offline - if your children agree to meet someone in real life or doing something in real life. Make sure that they understand the real risks of meeting Internet strangers offline. And being open-minded if they come to you and ask for you to go with them to meet their new online friend is the secret to making sure they consult with you first. Remember that the cute fourteen year old boy they want to meet in real life may not be cute, my not be fourteen and may not be a boy.

There are also safe and fun options to live voice gaming. Recognizing how much kids and teens enjoy interactive gaming, but aware of the privacy and safety issues, Disney designed its new ToonTown interactive game. The Teenangels and I were consulted in its design and our suggestions and its safety features were built-in from the beginning, not just overlaid. With safety ensured, the ToonTown designers could focus entirely on fun. ToonTown uses the robot “Cogs” as the bad guys and fights them using flowers that squirting water and cream pies. The points earned during the game can be used to buy more similarly-styled weapons of Cog-destruction and to decorate your own house.

At first blush, it appears that ToonTown is only for younger kids. But teen Andrew will argue with you on that point. An avid Xbox® Live gamer, he enjoys ToonTown just as much. He see strategy as the most challenging part of the game – knowing when to use which weapons and how to get others to assist in Cog-attacks, is key to playing ToonTown. Zach, a ten year old TeenTown subscriber, loves that he feels safe and doesn’t have to deal with foul language and bullying while playing the game. Andrew’s younger sister likes that she doesn’t have to type and play games at the same time. Instead she can click on pre-formulated phrases from a drop-down menu and communicate with the others playing the game. And a special feature that let’s parents add one real life friend to real time interactivity avoids Andrew’s having to get his friend on speaker phone. Now parents can let their children communicate directly with their friend down the street, or their cousin across the country, when they are playing ToonTown. That let’s them play as a team and use strategic combinations to best the Cogs. Now kids and teens can meet up in the ToonTown town square…and join forces in keeping ToonTown safe from evil Cogs.

Other game sites have passed the strict scrutiny of WiredSafety and WiredKids reviewers as well. Although not interactive in the same way that Xbox® and ToonTown are, every year Wired Kids names a select group of sites as its “Best of the Web.” The review process is extensive and unique. The sites are actually selected by the kids themselves and must pass parental and cyberlawyer scrutiny. While approximately 375 sites are nominated by the kids and teens, the parents cut that down to about 45 sites, and only a quarter of those sites make it through the rigorous privacy and safety review. And out of the twelve select Wired Kids best of the Web award winners this year, seven have fun and safe online games.

AOLKidsOnly - for AOL members, a kids’ size AOL with fun, games and educational content. It’s one of the biggest reasons for joining AOL. Their new AOLKidsOnly is even better (if that’s possible). If you have AOL 9, you have Kids Only, now known as “KOL” for no additional charge. - Games and activities for all ages; You can even visit Toontown ( their new safe gaming site and Surfswell Island ( their online safety guide for parents, teachers and kids. (This award is for several of the Disney family sites, including the

ABC Kids, Toon Disney and the Disney Channel sites. To find them all ask your kids, or visit and click on “search.”) - a wonderful site where kids and their parents can raise a virtual pet, and find safe fun and gaming for hours. You can trust your children to the people at Neopets. They put their money where their mouth is when it comes to protecting kids at the site. And it’s so entertaining that we dare anyone to try it and not return over and over to build their own Neopet virtual world. - The fourth-time winner. Where else can you find kid favorites like Jimmy Neutron and SpongeBob Squarepants and safe gaming? is a great site for the younger children too- lots of preschool activities and games with Blues Clues. They have a great section for parents too. (This award is for both and - from the people you trust when it comes to kid-size media that parents enjoy too! Everyone finds something funny, entertaining and valuable at this site. The fun comes in all sizes. (The award includes both and - kids love its kids-size games and multimedia resources. They consider it a favorite site, not a kid-safe search engine (where looking for “sex” brings up the sex lives of Galapagos endangered turtles).

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