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Interactive Gaming, Safety, And Privacy

There are sites that are fun and safe for kids to visit, Parry Aftab notes. Plus, WiredSafety.org lists its top kid gaming sites.

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 14-year-old gamer. He loves playing computer games and, like most 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's also a TeenAngel (teenangels.org). TeenAngels are teens who have been trained by the FBI and other Internet safety, privacy, and security experts. They then design and deliver Internet safety programs to other kids, teens, and even parents and senior citizens in their community. 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 also was 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's 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.

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