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Blogged Out: 'Kids, Vigilance, And Online Worlds'

The latest 'Blogged Out' column looks at issues raised by Sony Online Entertainment's president John Smedley about the responsibilities of parents with regard to kids and online games in the Internet age - how exactly should they interact?
Welcome to 'Blogged Out', the regular news report that looks at the world of developer blogging and the conversations being had with the community at large. This week, we look at parenting, children, and online gaming. Vigilance In Cyberspace This week the regular blogging of Morgan Ramsay of IGDA San Diego has brought to my attention the blogging of John Smedley, president of Sony Online Entertainment. Smedley’s recent column entitled ‘Be Vigilant’ asks parents to take a little time to understand the online games that their children are playing. “We’ve all seen the stories about kids being contacted by older strangers and trying to lure them into doing some dangerous and bad things. I’m here to tell you to be extremely vigilant. Make sure as parents you are very aware of what games your kids are playing and exactly how communication happens in these games.” This is a commendable request, particularly from someone so influential in the online game industry. One of the most significant problems the online world faces is the lack of comprehension among parents and responsible non-gaming adults, many of whom are surprised, shocked or simply confused when they encounter online gaming environments. Admittedly, these accelerated technologies can be hard to get a grip on, but sensitive and intelligent decisions about what games kids should be playing, and how, can only be made if a parent or guardian is informed about the subject. (How many adults really understand the difference between World of Warcraft and Puzzle Pirates?) Themes Of Control Everyone in the games industry knows that the medium is too important and complex to be ignored, but we’re often a little lazy about articulating that to non-gamers. Usually we simply don’t have the time or the patience, and it’ll take more like voices like Smedley’s to broadcast these ideas effectively. However, as the piece progresses Smedley’s thoughts become a little more controversial as he makes suggestions as to what game developers can do to help: “I’d like us to implement a parental control that would allow parents to receive an email once a day of every piece of chat that their child was able to see that particular day. I welcome your thoughts on this.” Thoughts were indeed shared, and Smedley subsequently republished a few of these. One reader wrote: “[A] kid needs to learn to build its own communication skills in the Internet as much as in real life. When they know they’re being monitored, they feel that they are restricted and cannot express themselves sincerely. That situation may create insecurities towards social interaction over the Internet. Even more seriously, could it stand as an obstacle in parent-child communication?” Furthermore, if such a facility were to be provided for a parent, would they necessarily know what they were looking at? Smedley’s post was born of the worries of a tech-savvy parent, but other parents might feel less confident in interpreting the interactions of an online world and might potentially be put off from allowing their child playing online games at all. Those new to online gaming environments are bombarded by unfamiliar information, and it’s tough to know what to ignore and what to take heed of. Online gaming worlds are always populated by a disproportionate number of socially repugnant or idiotic individuals – hardened gamers know this, and know what to watch out for, who to block, how to filter chat channels, when to ignore tells, when to delete spam, when to boot the idiot from a group of guild. A parent guiding a child will struggle to understand any of these things if they are not a gamer themselves, even if their child rapidly learns how to respond. The first answer to this problem, it seems to me, is education. We need to carefully define the boundaries between games for adults and games for children. Most games are played by adults, they are violent and do contain adult situations. It’s one of the most basic lessons of gaming, and many adults are still ignorant of that fact. More importantly, publishers and developers need to provide materials that inspire confidence in their products. Right now they’re such a murky area for most parents that they simply don’t feel ready to understand them. We know that these are safe environments as long as they are used correctly, but that needs to be conveyed to worried parents. Crucially, parents don’t need to be taught all the nuances of gaming, just how to offer support to their offspring in the process of learning. They need to be confident that these are activities in which their children can safely become proficient. They also need to know what game content means. There might be fighting in World of Warcraft, but I’d be happier with my children playing WoW than the non-violent Second Life, thanks to the proliferation of certain (age-restricted) adult themes in the Linden’s world. Safety In Numbers Children need to have the (actually fairly limited) dangers made clear to them, but it also needs to be made clear that as long as personal details are kept private, online gaming worlds are safe places for fun and experimentation. This, I believe, is the crucial message that needs to be delivered to everyone playing games online. Don’t get too intimate with someone you have never seen, especially if you’re not old enough to deal with the consequences. Sound advice for all walks of life, I think. Ultimately, though, Smedley’s blogging raises a far bigger issue for game developers: we need to think more generally about whether the industry’s attempts to cater for children are adequate. Games are generally intended to entertain adults because we have the money, but children should not be ignored or sidelined. There are few online games, like Disney’s Toontown Online and others, that try to provide worlds for the young, but I’m yet to be convinced that the industry has created truly valuable experiences that are of use to children. When developers are mature enough to create a truly edifying children’s MMO, I think we will have come of age. [Jim Rossignol is a freelance journalist based in the UK – his game journalism has appeared in PC Gamer UK, Edge and The London Times.]

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