Ironically, gamers probably have a leg up on the Catfish scenario, since there are plenty of examples of players misrepresenting themselves through their in-game avatars. And there's often a grey area when it comes to roleplaying and honesty. In this week's MMO Family, let's look at the lessons of gaming, identity, and social media and what children should learn about all three. (And I promise I won't mention Manti again in this column.)
You lost to a girl (or did you?)
From the first day my kids and I played MMOs together, I've stressed how the avatar they see is not the person they might interact with. I'm constantly surprised when I'm joining my kids online at how many players take things at face value and confuse the avatar with the person. Last week, someone challenged me to a duel in Clone Wars Adventures, and after I beat him, he was incredulous that he lost to a girl. When I told him that he'd lost not only to a girl but to someone who was probably old enough to be his mother, he couldn't wrap his head around it. I think he's still trying to process that even today. Apparently, he would have been OK if I had beaten him while playing a male character, and that really says a lot about how easily players assume that the avatar is the person (not to mention, he's got a nasty case of chauvinism).
Kids hear a lot about the internet boogeyman, but the warning should be broader and clearer. Kids don't need to hone just their internet boogeyman skills; they need to hone their ability to ignore the facade of the avatars that surround them wholesale. They need to look at a female avatar and conclude that there's a good chance it's played by a male (or vice versa). Similarly, they need to look at a newly added Facebook friend and conclude that the young smiling face on the profile might not actually be that young (or smiley). It's an important skill to have, and it applies both to online games and social media.
Surprisingly, that doesn't always seem to be the way when it comes to people and social media. Facebook and Twitter are also virtual worlds in a way because we have control over how we present ourselves to others. Even the most honest Facebook profile isn't a true representation of someone; there will always be details left out that do affect how others perceive a person. What's disconcerting is that there's so much weight put on Facebook identity, rather than real-life identity, and it's a much more nuanced dichotomy than an in-game avatar versus a real person.
Catfishing is the buzzword these days, but back in 1996, it was a story about a tree that caused a stir. A player named Karyn (not me, honest!) was a law student and a Miss Norway finalist who became an active player in LegendMud. She became very popular among players, so when they found out she died in a tragic car accident, their emotions of grief were genuine even though they had never met her. They held an in-game memorial and created a Garden of Remembrance, where they planted a tree in her honor. And the story about a tree was a poignant reminder that there are real connections made in-game and real emotions as a result. In short, they proved it was a lot more than just a game.
Eventually, though, it turned out that Karyn wasn't really a Miss Norway finalist, she didn't attend law school, and she wasn't killed in a car accident. The community had essentially been misled about why Karyn hadn't logged on in two months, and their outpouring of grief was over something that turned out to not be true at all.
It's easy to dismiss the story about a tree given the fact that it was based on a lie, but that's the wrong thing to do. Despite the hoaxes and the false portrayals that occur both in our virtual game worlds and our virtual social media worlds, you really can't work in absolutes. You can't say that all roleplaying is malicious. Likewise, you can't dismiss those true friendships and social connections because of the misrepresented ones. You also can't dismiss true tragedies because of contrived ones. More importantly, regardless of whether things were made up or not, every emotion that results is true and valid, and that can't be ignored.
It's important that children grow up with a healthy skepticism about those they come across online. In reality, encountering the internet boogeyman is unlikely, but there's a good chance they'll meet people who are falsely representing themselves in the virtual space, and it's important for kids to be responsible when it comes to making connections. They don't have to wall themselves off from MMOs or Facebook, but they do need to be able to separate the portrayed identity from the real one behind it and to not easily take things at face value.
Internet safety is an important topic, but it tends to touch on the easy things, like not giving out your personal information online. It's time to really get into these tougher areas, though, because even though they don't have quick, concrete solutions, they can be equally harmful.
The MMO Family column is devoted to common issues with families and gaming. Every other week, Karen looks at current trends and ways to balance family life and play. She also shares her impressions of MMO titles to highlight which ones are child-friendly and which ones offer great gaming experiences for young and old alike. You are welcome to send feedback or Wonka Bars to firstname.lastname@example.org.