Thursday, July 24, 2008

Kids Outsmarting VW Safety Systems

Kids' virtual worlds expert Izzy Neis wrote a great post last week on how kids are outsmarting, bypassing and subverting the safety systems in online games and vw's. Her post (complete with comments and some great Youtube examples) discusses a piece that appeared on NetFamilyNews, describing the "Top 8 Workarounds" kids are using to bypass the chat restrictions and break the rules in Club Penguin. The original author, Anne Collier, is a journalist and co-director of ConnectSafely.org, and her list is derived from both her own experiences as well as from the results of in-game field work conducted by Atlanta-based parenting columnist Sharon Duke Estroff. Here's a summary of Collier's list:
"1. Beating the language filter."
By "putting consecutive words in separate message "bubbles,"" adding spaces between letters, using capitalization and punctuation, etc. In BarbieGirls, I've seen many of these same practices, along with misspelling words or spelling words phonetically to get around restrictions.

"2. Code lingo."
Using secret code to communicate. Not just initialisms (like LOL and POS), but also "text-formatting tricks that get around safe-language rules: e.g., if language filters don't allow numbers, kids share their ages by expressing them in dots. For example, they ask, "How many dots are you?" and get back: "I'm ........."" I've also seen examples of wearing certain clothing items as a way of communicating real life identity (such as gender, etc.).

"3. Identity theft, kid-style."
I've seen this quite a lot over the past few years, kids claiming to have "hacked" (or to have been hacked) or "stolen" (of have been stolen from) someone else's password. But the reality is usually that the two shared passwords at some point, and the tersm "hacked" or "stolen" become a way of describing a misuse or abuse of the other person's password (and trust) to do something mean. This seems to be the case in Club Penguin as well, as Collier writes: "Password-sharing, however, is rampant in kid virtual worlds - a popular way of offering and accepting best-friend status. It becomes a problem when your "best friend" logs on as your avatar and makes it break the rules so you get kicked out."

"4. Stealing virtual possessions."
"Kids also use peers' passwords to steal their virtual clothes, furniture, and other in-world possessions". For the victim, this means starting over, and for the thief, they get the extra social capital associated with having lots of items, and with having "hacked" the system (see above). This also links into real world peer relationships - Collier writes - "as Sharon said, a lot of penguins know each other as humans at school too." We can definitely imagine how this would work for bullying and social exclusion.

"5. Abusing abuse reporting."
As Collier describes, "Kids can report other kids for all kinds of vague reasons, but they don't have to give a reason - all they have to do is press a button on the player card and the complaint goes straight to the monitor," Sharon said.

"6. Using safety features to bully."
Players always have the option of blocking or ignoring other players, and they use these tools to ostracize and exclude.

"7. Digital "Spin the Bottle.""
Collier explains how traditional pre-teen games for exploring sexuality and dating have been translated into virtual worlds. Here's her description of one specific example of "virtual spin the bottle":
"An example in Club Penguin: "Spin the Fish," only the fish doesn't spin; "you have to pretend it does," according to young CP lifestyles blogger Imatweetybrd, whose blog Sharon found. "You either say 'I'll spin!' or someone will tell you to spin. Then, most likely, you are just going to say 'spin,' then 'it landed on [the penguin's name that you like most]. At that point, you go up the person and say 'mwah.' Then your turn's over. Your penguin might like you back and ask you out or maybe you want to ask him out, then you guys can leave the game or whatever.""

"8. Kid avatars have cheats too."
I've found this particularly true in Club Penguin as well - the only real way to play and make $$ is to figure out the tricks and "cheats" - most of them are pre-programmed (part of the game's design) and passed along throughout the player community by word of mouth (and possibly through the in-world newspaper as well, though I still have to check on this). Collier and Sharon found that cheats are also circulated outside of the game, on the various webpages that provide tips, walk-throughs, etc....sites that are easy to find through any search engine, and -- as Collier points out -- a totally normal part of gamer culture.

Awesome! And be sure to check out both Collier's post and Izzy's post for some additional analysis, examples and commentary.

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