What you should know about your children playing cute-looking online games

By Diana Selck and Thomas-Gabriel Rüdiger

“Don’t talk to strangers!” is something we tell our kids before going to the playground. But does that apply for the virtual playground as well?

Yes, it does. Even more so due to the unawareness of parents, supervisors and kids themselves as well as the anonymity that covers the real identity of players who approach children and adolescents in online games pretending to be a peer.

Recent cases show that risks of becoming a victim to online predators and cybergroomers are real. In June 2016, a 12-year-old boy from Switzerland met his perpetrator in an online game that is recommended for the age 6+ (USK), 9+ (iTunes) and 7+ PEGI (GooglePlay store). Minecraft is a game in which players build their own world based on cubes (see picture). Paul was lured into a world, which was created by his predator and offered Paul benefits within the game in order to gain his trust.

After a while he agreed to meet his online friend in person and was held and sexually abused against his will for 8 days until the police was able to rescue him. His sexual predator was in real life a 35-year old, male cook. Paul become victim of a so called cybergroomer. Cybergrooming describes how an adult approaches children and adolescents through the internet with the intention of sexual abuse. Similar cases can be found in the case of Breck Brednar, a 14-year-old boy from the UK, who was groomed the same way as Paul and sexual abused and murdered by his online friend. The most recent case of a cybergroomer who had more than 100 victims between the age 7 to 13-years old, shows the dimension of this crime. Victims were even from three different countries. The perpetrator contacted his victims through the free-to-play online game moviestarplantet and convinced girls and boys alike to send him pictures and videos of themselves posing and doing sexual acts. Moviestarplanet is a game in which users create their own movie stars that can be shown in movies, games and chat rooms. The international Google Play store recommends this game for the age of 3+ PEGI, the German Google play store recommends 0+ USK/ IARC and iTunes’ age recommendation shows 4+. @Thomas-Gabriel Rüdiger showed already a few months age in his publication how problematic such age recommendation can be. After all, the online game Moviestarplanet did undergo the usual steps of youth media protection by the German USK (Unterhaltungssoftware Selbstkontrolle) and was still recommended for the age 0. Parents and supervisors who use USK/ IARC and PEGI (Pan European Gaming Systems) as a guideline to decide if games are appropriate for their children, seem not to be able to protect children against sexual predators as the case of Moviestarplantet underlines.

A game-study: What are the risk for children and adolescents to become victim of sexual predators?

As the above-mentioned cases describe, nowadays sexual perpetrators are able to get in contact with children and adolescents through online games and more specifically through enabled chat functions provided by these online environments. Virtual spaces such as online games provide anonymity and make it even more difficult to recognise adults and sexual predators who attempt to approach children. Many online games enable communication and interaction between players and thus enable a limitless access to children and adolescents, especially in gaming environments that are made for this age group (free-to-play, cute, colourful, musical, etc.).

In our study we analysed risk factors that would reveal how easy it is to approach children and adolescents in cute-looking online games. Besides age restriction and available payment options, the enablement of chat functions were tested in 32 free-to-play online games of German game providers (in order to review full paper – click here). When considering online games, we understood online games as games with a functional internet connection in order to play with other players, especially online games in which players are able to meet people, join gaming groups and other forms of alliances as well as communicate with each other. Games, e.g. massively multiplayer online role – playing games (MMORPGs) and massively multiplayer games (MMOGs) are widespread and two of the most popular types. Most online games allow for social interaction, leading to organised alliances or groupings known as guilds, clans and tribes, which collaborate with a small but still unknown group of people.

Ducheneaut, et al. (2006) characterise guilds as places where most of a player’s important relationships are formed. Guilds, clans, tribes and other forms of alliances play an important role and show how easy it is to meet strangers online and form relationships on the basis of the provided information given by players themselves. Both age groups, children/adolescents and adults are equally engaged in these forms. Until today, MMORPGs are very popular games in the digital games market, offering a platform for virtual communities and a basis for social interaction (ibid.: 472f). Some games involve group mechanisms that are depending on the length of a game provide incentives for users to join groups instead of playing individually. Alliances are characterised by clear work distribution and hierarchies, which can have an advantageous effect. Participants of these groupings are in a constant development of their avatars and virtual realms.

Consequently, many online games pose risks for children and adolescents due to the nature of today’s gaming environment enhancing communication and interaction among players.

Online games barely considered as risk generators and platform for sexual predators

One of the problems we faced in our study was that current literature lacks the consideration of analysing gaming environments and take gaming platforms into account when investigation sexual perpetration online. As other scholars have recognised paedophiles using chat rooms increasingly to target victims and lure children into potentially dangerous situations (Joint, 2003). According to Joint, children enjoy the exciting opportunity to flirt and chat to others in their own age. This becomes problematic due to the anonymity of the internet, children and adolescents cannot be sure of the proclaimed age of their fellow players.

“By creating a false identity, lying about their age, ‘grooming’ their potential victims and then arranging to meet them in person, children easily become sitting ducks for child abusers.” (Joint, 2003: 44)

While admitting to the possibilities of grooming children in chat rooms, Joint does not consider online games as potential platforms for these criminal activities. This might be due to the date of the year in which the article was published.

The same might also be evident in the research of Sylvia Kierkegaard from 2008. Even though, she considers the Internet as a place for positive and negative opportunities and thus recognises online grooming and sexual perpetration as a growing issue, Kierkegaard does not consider online games as such. In her analysis, Kierkegaard (2008) states that among privacy issues and exposure to harmful content such as pornography, grooming and encouragement of harmful behaviour, these issues have become problems of an international wide-ranged nature. She identifies chat rooms, blogs, email exchanges, mobiles and other social network sites as places in which deliberate grooming exploitation of a child by an adult takes place (ibid.) and thus covers various meeting points for victims and offender but not online games specifically. Nevertheless, Kierkegaard (2008) considers the virtual world and the Metaversum of Second Life and age play. Second Life is the largest virtual world created entirely by its users (www.secondlife.com). Children age play is an in-world sexual activity between a child avatar and an adult avatar that engage in simulated sex (Dirry & Rüdiger, 2015). With the issue of age play, a whole new discussion emerges of rather simulated sex and online rape should be considered as criminal activity and thus illegal (Kierkegaard, 2008: 44).

Methodological approach to analyse risk factors such as sexual perpetration

This study was of a qualitative nature using mainly participant observation as research method. As participant observers, avatars were created, villages set up, clans, guilds and other association were joined and it was participated in group-activities, e.g. clan wars and communication with group members. Simultaneously slipping into the insider and outsider role as a participant observer.

The research was conducted between December 2014 and March 2015 and last checked of its validity between September 2015 and November 2015. The total of 32 online games were tested, most games chosen from well-known online gaming companies from Germany. Approximately 70 hours of game time, including systematic observation of game mechanisms such as registration processes, age recommendation, enablement of chat functionalities, interaction between players and payment options.

After registration and first steps within the game, it was searched for chat functions and messaging possibilities. In some games, a great amount of time had to be spent due to limitations within the games. Limitations were for example the necessity to play and upgrade to a certain level before functions were enabled. Concluding into rather long involvement before chat functions were made accessible. Other games provided chat functions from the start. Online games, which provided accessibility to other gamers only in higher levels, were consequently more time consuming to analyse. Chat options in online games were called differently (guild chat, clan chat, global chat, buddy chat, etc.) but functionality was the same. The provision of opportunities to communicate with other gamers was usually shown in an open or global group chat. But other forms of communication and interaction between users were evident. Some online games also offered private communication possibilities between only two users. This could be similar to emailing or private messaging, without other players being able to follow up on messages and thus is considered more problematic when it comes to communication between adults and children.

The purpose of this analysis was to find out whether the game supplies chat channels, if yes, which forms? Can any stranger contact anyone? Is there a private chat available, in which online perpetrators could gain a rather secure access to children?

Results of the 32 tested online games

As our findings show, twenty-six out of the tested online games enabled chat functions and thus access to players (see diagram). Forms of communication that were found were global chat, private chat, guild and clan chat. One of the tested games differentiated even between communication channels by the categories “buddies”; “alliances” and “strangers”. Underlining the reality that strangers approach other gamers and thus children and adolescents.

Consequently, this means that in 81% of the tested online games, perpetrators can anonymously interact and communicate with children and adolescent without identifying themselves as adults. Online games create an increasingly entertaining and attractive virtual world in which children and adolescent enjoy being part of. Surprisingly then, that research regarding online games and the accessibility which online games provide between children and online perpetrator is nearly non-existent.

What can be done?

(1) Societal debates seem necessary in order to explain why we forbid games for children under the age of 18 in some cases, but allow adults to play and interact anonymously with children in other cases.

(2) It is significantly important to consider all forms of online games and clearly distinguish between them in order to understand the risks they can pose. For example, there are online games that can be considered as games, which are offered on online platforms such as Steam, which can be played online, but include no possibilities for communication and interaction with other gamers. These forms of online games do not face the same online risks that can be experienced with games that provide an anonymous way of communication and interaction with strangers. It is noteworthy, that other risks exist, which will not be considered in this paper. Among others risks such as violence, exposure to pornography and extremism can occur in online games (Krebs & Rüdiger, 2010; Rüdiger & Pfeiffer 2015).

(3) As a parent and/or supervisor we recommend to test all games that your kids want to play. It is important – as thus study shows – that you play online games for a longer time period because some functions such as chats will only be enabled in higher levels.

Sources: 

Dirry V, Rüdiger TG (2015): Extremismus in digitalen Spielen. In: TG Rüdiger und A Pfeiffer (Hg.): Game! Crime? Frankfurt am Main: Verlag für Polizeiwissenschaft, S. 223–248.

Ducheneaut N, Yee N, Nickell E, Moore RJ (2006) “Alone Together?” Exploring the Social Dynamics of Massively Multiplayer Online Games. Proceedings of the SIGCHI Conference on Human Factors in Computing Systems, 407-416.

Joint A (2003) Online Chatroom Regulation – Protecting children from paedophiles on the Internet. Computer Law & Security Report Vol. 19 (1), 44- 48.

Kierkegaard S (2008) Online child protection
Cybering, online grooming and ageplay. Computer Law & Security Report 24, 41–55.

Krebs C, Rüdiger, TG (2010): Gamecrime und Metacrime. Strafrechtlich relevante Handlungen im Zusammenhang mit virtuellen Wel-ten. Frankfurt, M.: Verl. für Polizeiwiss.

Rüdiger TG, Pfeiffer A (Hg.) (2015): Game! Crime? Frankfurt am Main: Verlag für Polizeiwissenschaft.

Second life. http://secondlife.com. Retrieved: 3rd of February 2016.

Title picture – source: pexels@pixabay

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