Monday, July 07, 2008

Bullies on the Virtual Playground

An article that appeared in last Wednesday's LA Times, written by Alana Semuels, caught my attention this morning with its very provocative headline: "In virtual worlds, child avatars need protecting -- from each other". The article discusses the various types of subversive play that children engage in within virtual worlds, focusing on the bullying and insults that seem to be an inevitable part of anonymous online communication no matter the age of the users, as well as how preventing these behaviours is translated into the day-to-day operation of virtual worlds for kids. Semuels provides a good introduction to the various moderation practices and techniques used by VW operators to keep their sites safe for kids (and appealing to parents), which in turn hints at some of the underlying politics of how and what decisions are made when it comes to restricting and limiting kids' online communication. Unfortunately, Semuels doesn't really get deep into these underlying politics, and instead keeps the discussion at the level of protectionist discourse...with a bit too much vilification of child users for my taste. Here's an excerpt:
To keep these worlds from turning into a virtual "Lord of the Flies," websites are monitoring every word children type, limiting them to only preapproved dialogue and patrolling the websites with employees undercover as kids. Some also are giving kids the equivalent of a 911 call, so they can holler for help.

What really caught my eye was that the designers/operators Semuels interviewed also describe using these types of strategies to prohibit "cheating" within virtual worlds. More than simply restricting swear words and personal info exchanges, the game operators also take it upon themselves -- in some cases, at least -- to determine and delineate a pretty specific (and highly idealized) categorization of which play practices are acceptable and which are not. For example:
Other sites have set up stings to catch cheaters, posing as children or watching players who know information that could be acquired only by cheating. Some of the monitoring borders on pesky. Kids sometimes roll their eyes at moderators and continue whatever it was they were doing.

"When in doubt, we err on the side of the user," said Debbi Colgin, head of community and customer services at Habbo, a virtual world that monitors its chats 24 hours a day. "We would rather educate them and warn them than not."

In November, Dutch police arrested a teen who stole passwords and furniture from Habbo users, and they questioned five others. The case is pending.

Of course, this approach to cheating is quite common within digital games, but when it comes to kids, I think we really need to be careful about the translation of ideals (and what is more idealized than childhood?) into an overly-restrictive and narrowly-defined (corporate-)regulation of play. For example, are the notions of property (ownership and theft) that appear to be emerging within the regulation of kids' virtual worlds the same as those found within virtual worlds for adults? Are they more strict, more liberal, are they rights-based, or do they have more to do with social expectations around kids and "fair play"? What happens when "cheating" is both defined and regulated by a corporate entity, as opposed to the player community, parents, social norms, etc.? What space is left for kids to experiment with submitting and subverting rule systems if this type of experimentation is systematically removed from their play spaces? Where should the line be drawn, and whose interests should take priority?

When games are rationalized to this degree, is free play really possible?

I've been trying to work out a better understanding of the delicate balance between rules and freedom that is needed in order for a game to function -- as a game, as a play space, as a community, etc. -- as I work on the revisions for a paper I co-authored awhile back with my senior supervisor (Andrew Feenberg). This has allowed me to (finally!) get the chance to read Mia Consalvo's recent book Cheating: Gaining Advantage in Videogames, which explores the practices, importance and implications of cheating, delineating a long history of both (player) cheating and the prevention of cheating (by industry, as well as other players) within digital gaming. I really like the way she tackles the various issues/politics/ethics (et al.) around cheating and play, and how traditional dynamics are altered by the introduction of digital technologies. For example, Consalvo (2007, p.147) writes:
In these instances, code is being used to define particular activities as cheating as well as draw attention to those engaging in such practices. Code is largely repressive, disallowing specific actions and enforcing certain norms of behavior. Player input on this process is limited. That's not necessarily a bad thing, but it is definitely one-sided. Players may choose not to play on such servers, but that option has its limits. It encompasses an all-or-nothing approach -- either you play by our rules or must find your own way.

While dealing with the topic of cheating and how to curtail it, this framework also relates back to issues of gameplay, and what players, developers, and others believe are correct and incorrect ways to play a game. In addition to highlighting certain social norms for behavior, cheating also lets us see what we consider the correct way to play a game to be, and how that conceptualization has changed over time and become better defined.

Furthermore, the fear that left to their own devices kids will turn virtual worlds into Lord of the Flies is, I think, much more reflective of the long tradition of seeing children and children's culture as something disruptive and unruly that must be contained and channeled by adults. Yet subversive play is also a key component kids' play, as noted by scholars such as Brian Sutton-Smith, Helen Schwartzman, Allison James and numerous others. Recent studies, including the one cited by Semuels conducted at UCLA by Deborah Fields and Yasmin Kafai on teens and cheating in Whyville, can be contrasted with other studies of youth online (such as Rebekah Willett's study of teens and social-networking sites, and Sonia Livingstone's study of kids using chat sites) in their exploration of the layered function of subversive and "inappropriate" online behaviours in young people's construction of identity, peer groups, etc. And an approach that "errs on the side of caution" is (from what I've observed in these games/vw's) unlikely to consider the less obvious value of allowing subversive behaviours to unfold and peer cultures to interact spontaneously.

Not to say that bullying and launching insults in a kids' game isn't problematic -- and mechanisms should be in place for kids to complain about and stop abusive interactions with other kids online. And not to mention the crucial role game/vw operators play in keeping out child predators, a key responsibility that many have taken on with little-to-no governmental or institutional support beyond legislative requirements. But I wish that the press coverage of these issues was more nuanced, and considered some of the other facets involved -- the politics of who decides (and why) what is appropriate and inappropriate within these spaces, whether or not kids are involved in these decisions and what this means for the shape and contents of their digital culture, how a recognition of kids' right to communicate and freedom of expression means accepting that they will sometimes say and do things that adults will not like or deem appropriate -- instead of limiting the discussion to the usual paradigm: wherein complex issues are simplified (and exaggerated) into moral panic, and corporate solutions are offered up (and celebrated) as the best and only response.

For a different, more industry-focused perspective (and some good food for thought) on this same article/issue check out Izzy Neis' post on "funsuckers, griefers and bullies". Excellent commentary as always Izzy!


Izzy Neis said...

Ah, Sara... thank you for the kind words. You. Rock.

Also - I LOVE it when someone quotes your name. One of my co-workers did about two days ago and I gave him a double take. I was very excited to hear your name & research repeated in a place I wasn't expecting it. W00t.

Sara M. Grimes said...

very cool!