"Be careful, there's nasty stuff out there on the internet."
It's frustrating to hear this warning clarioned over and over again. We're gamers ourselves, after all. We know easily children can get in over their heads on the internet. "Be careful," intone the experts. "Watch carefully, and be very, very careful ..." But how? What must we be careful to do? To not do? What does "being careful" mean in actual practice? Specific online safety tactics – and putting them into practice without driving anyone crazy in the process – become an epic quest reward that always manages to stay two turn-ins out of reach.
As we mentioned last week, your main objective as the parent of a young MMO player is to remain figuratively logged in to their activity. When children are online, parents cannot afford to be figuratively AFK. We're not suggesting you pull up a chair and some popcorn to faithfully oversee kids' every move online. No child needs direct supervision to kill 10 rats (or pick 20 flowers or befriend 30 fairies or frag 50 enemies ...). But young gamers do need your boundaries and your guidance (as well as your feedback, your enthusiasm and your support). Just how strong the boundaries should be will depend on the age of your child and the game that they're playing. Apply common sense, based on your own MMO experience, along with these 17 tactics for safe online gaming.
Make gaming a family activity. One of the best and easiest ways to keep an eye on things is keep gaming in a common family area. Don't let kids sequester themselves and their computers in a bedroom. Keep everything in a shared area: desktop computers, laptops and TV-based console games. Then it becomes natural to observe, comment and participate from your position in the overall flow. It's no different than keeping an eye on what kids are seeing on the internet or TV. You don't have to hover -- but you should always seem both present and available.
Limit interaction with others for younger players. Limit the amount of direct contact that kids (especially younger children) have with other players. Turn off chat channels completely, especially zone-wide public channels with a reputation for wild chatter. Activate language/profanity filters. Disable voice chat features, and don't use applications such as TeamSpeak and Ventrilo. Other interactions you might consider blocking include whispers/tells, group invitations, guild membership invitations and player-to-player trades.
Let kids evolve in their interactions with other players according to their age, experience and interest. For example, six-year-olds can play in low-level zones quite happily without chat of any sort, while an older child would probably want to be able to group, whisper and trade, and a teen would want to be able to chat with guildmates on Vent.
No sharing personal information. No exceptions. Teach kids not to divulge personal details about themselves online to players of any age who they've not met in person-period. Go over the list of no-no's specifically: real names, addresses, neighborhoods or areas, school names, phone numbers, e-mail addresses and AIM or Twitter handles. Be prepared for protest. Most kids will object strongly to these rules, especially if they think the people they play with are the same age they are. Your job here is to help them see that while the internet is not inherently fraught with danger, there are people out there who might spend weeks and even months posing as something they're not – the same gender or age, a sympathetic teacher or authority figure, anyone who might elicit your child's trust – in order to tempt them into giving out personal information.
Protect your family's accounts and personal information. Don't let children share their accounts and passwords with friends and other players. There's nothing but horror in the havoc that will rain down upon you after a breach of your personal details (you don't use the same password for other log-ins, do you?), credit card numbers and banking information ... And let's not forget hard-earned in-game gear, game money and rewards. Sharing accounts is against most games' terms of service agreement, anyway; offenders could be permanently banned. If the game you're playing doesn't allow it, you shouldn't, either.
Don't forget to check the "rules of acceptable" that are specific to your child's game and server of choice. A name like "OscarMeyer" that could be acceptable on a regular server may be out of bounds on a roleplaying server -- or it could be that trademarked names are outlawed anywhere in that game. Remember, your kids aren't going to check the fine print of the Terms of Service agreement. Do it for them.
Follow the rules. Speaking of rules, make sure both you and your children know the code of conduct for the games they play. Make a point of looking up the rules on the web site of each game, and review them together. Breaking the rules ("But Moooooom, I didn't know!") may lead to a suspension or ban (whether you've already paid for the next three months or not).
Manners -- more than ever. In a world where business is conducted via e-mail and instant messages, kids need to learn that interacting with others online is never, ever "just a game." Teach them to respect other players as individuals with preferences and feelings. Make sure your kids don't fall prey to the pack mentality. Don't allow them to take advantage of rules and other players simply because they can. MMOs and the internet are public places, and your children should learn to conduct themselves accordingly.
What happens in video games stays ... everywhere. Kids believe that the things they do and say on the internet -- including online video games -- remain anonymous. Nothing could be further from the truth. Game companies log information about your child's game character, chat logs, game actions. Other players save chat logs and take screenshots. They may even post them on Facebook or internet forums to make a point. Intentionally or not, your gaming child is building an online reputation via a virtual identity. The thing that most children fail to recognize is that what happens in the digital world is permanent. Your child's escapades online are immortalized in chat logs, screenshots, forum posts and in-game footage. They can and will come back to haunt them. Employers and colleges now routinely run background checks and scan social sites on the internet. Don't let the picture your kids have painted over time be an ugly one.
Don't punish children for other players' misbehavior. If another player does something to (or with) your child that's out of line, don't punish your child by taking away the game. That's visiting the sins of others on your own child's head. If someone bullies your children online, don't forbid them to use the internet. If someone tries to get them to divulge personal information, don't deactivate their game accounts. The things that other players do are not under your child's control. Yanking their gaming privileges whenever they run into a problem with another player not only teaches them nothing about how to handle sticky situations, but it increases the chances they'll simply stay mum the next time.
Step in and help with messes. When kids get into sticky situations with other players, it's time to lend a hand. Talk about how to handle cyberbullies (coming up just ahead) together. When a situation occurs, help your child identify the best approach and help report the problem through the in-game help system. Keep your feelers on your child's mood and reactions to gaming and monitor play a little more closely than usual to make sure things stay on track.
Urge kids to run with their own pack. Encourage kids to play with their real-life friends. Making new friends online is fine and dandy, but grouping up with kids your children have actually met offers a layer of protection. It's like a picket fence around a small park within a city full of strangers. Help kids set up guilds, teams or chat channels for their friends. Sticking together not only gives kids more time with their friends but also insulates them from griefers who prey on vulnerable, lone players.
Teach kids not to feed the trolls. Teach kids to ignore cyberbullies, both figuratively (by not responding) and literally (by activating in-game /ignore features). Most bullies get bored and quit when ignored and feed off reaction and drama. We gamers know the rule: Don't feed the trolls. Teach kids to never retaliate, never react in kind. Encourage kids to use the in-game help system to report griefing and inappropriate behavior.
Scrutinize mods and add-ons. Mods and add-ons may be designed and distributed by the game company, or they may come from unreliable, independent sources. Another hard and fast rule: Before your kids download any patches or mods, they need to clear the source and content with you.
Check out your child's guild. If your child is old enough to want to join a team or guild, make sure that these players are people you want your children spending time with. You'll find the whole kit and caboodle in MMO guilds, from chatty 12-year-olds to blustery college kids to irascible adults logging in after a hard day at work. Most groups are fairly protective of members they know to be younger, but you'll want to be sure your impressionable pre-teen daughter doesn't end up hanging out with a bunch of hard-partying frat boys. Make a thorough scan of the guild's forums before things get too far to make sure you're comfortable with the tone and goals of the group.
Use game tools to create social fences. Turn off chat channels and trades to limit interaction with obnoxious gamers and cyberbullies. If you'd prefer that your kids stick to typing, block voice communications. If your kids are adamant about chatting but you're still worried, you can use voice masking tools to hide their age or gender. Parental controls on games like World of Warcraft removes the possibility of kids' logging in during off-limits hours.
Practice safe internet security. Don't neglect to protect your family's hardware and personal information. Deploy internet protection tools including firewalls and routers, virus protection software and strong passwords. Take advantage of account security devices such as Blizzard's inexpensive mobile authenticator device for World of Warcraft.
Practice what you preach. Most importantly, don't place yourself above the letter of the law. If you don't want him exposed to griefers, don't toy with the newbies. If you don't want her to create a stable of characters with socially unacceptable names, don't name your engineer "SteelNutz". If you want your child to think of MMOs as a glorious opportunity to frolic in an imaginary world with other players who share his energy and vision, play along with him -- but that's an article for another week.