Gamer Interrupted: Making MMOs safe for your children

Each week, Robin Torres contributes Gamer Interrupted, a column about balancing real life with MMOs.

I have a lot of hopes for my two year old daughter. I hope that she will be more athletic than I am (which, frankly, won't be that hard). I hope that she will continue to be sociable and friendly and not the introvert that I was. And I hope that she will play video games with me because, well, it will be nice to have something in common with her if my other hopes come true.

Of course, I also have a lot of fears for her. There are a whole lot of scary people out there who have internet access. But, even if this were a crime-free world, there are still topics and language that I would prefer that she not be exposed to until she's mature enough to be able to handle them. And there is a lot to be said for letting our children keep their innocence for as long as possible. Not that I want to coddle her too much or keep her in a bubble, but she doesn't need to be reading R rated guildchat, either.

I really do believe that there are a lot of benefits for children playing MMOs with their parents and that there are also benefits from allowing them to play MMOs solo. The problem is that there are also a lot of dangers. I'm talking here about children who can read but are not yet teenagers. Teens are a whole separate issue. I can't wait for those years (sarcasm intended).

Before you let your children on the internet at all, you need to discuss the facts of internet life with them. Just as you don't want them taking candy from strangers at the grocery store, they need to understand that there are people with evil intentions on the internet, as well. Children aren't careful in their innocence and can do very scary things without realizing it. I read a blog recently detailing the story of a little girl who left all of her personal information and her evening schedule on an answering machine, thinking it was her friend's: name, address, directions to her house, exact meeting location for that evening, etc. For a parent, it is a terrifying story. You can try to prevent something similar from happening online with a few simple steps:
  • Work together to create their anonymous online identities: Make sure their usernames contain no personal information and that they aren't nicknames they use at school or anywhere in real life. Explain the point of why you are doing it -- it's not only fun to have an online-only persona, but it is safe. No one can physically hurt you if they don't know who and where you are.
  • Make sure they never give out personal info online: Don't make exceptions for your online friends and family. Some usernames look alike and you don't want your child to get confused. Name, phone number, address, school name, names of friends and family -- this is all information nobody needs. Make it perfectly clear that there are no exceptions to this rule.
  • Keep their passwords safe: I see no reason to even let your child know his or her password at first. After your children have shown that they can be responsible online, you may want to allow them to create a password (with your help and knowledge), but this is one way to limit their access online. They really shouldn't be playing without your knowledge and permission anyway. However, at some point your child should learn how to keep passwords safe. Of course, never share account information -- not even with a best friend. Never write it down. Never use something that can be guessed.
The best way to keep them safe is to play with them. You are the one who can make sure their experience is E for Everyone. And you can also spend the time to bond with them and even teach them your values. But if you want them to play by themselves, here are some suggestions and caveats.

WoW is a fun, easy game that will most likely be around for a long time. But you kill stuff and then rummage through the carcass which is not necessarily something you want an 8 year old to be doing. It also has very active public chat channels and most people use adult language. You can make the game safer by doing the following:
  • Turn on the chatlog for your child's character: Your children are not always going to tell the truth and may hide something that feels wrong or uncomfortable. If you are not able to look over their shoulders all of the time, the chat log will allow you to make sure there's nothing inappropriate happening.
  • Turn off all of the global chats: It's not just Barrens chat and Trade Channel that have issues. Newbie areas in particular are fraught with some pretty questionable stuff. Your child should be learning to figure out where things are and how to complete quests -- it's not hard. If she needs help, be there for her instead of having her shout it out.
  • Solo play FTW: A hunter or warlock or other easily soloable character is a great idea for your budding Azerothian. Groups with strangers can be an issue because they may befriend your child and coax info out of her because she feels safe. Of course, issuing a ban on grouping must be strictly enforced. My sister was clear with her daughter not to group and came back half an hour later to find that she not only was grouped but was leading it. Children don't always follow the rules and don't always tell the truth, so you really need to keep a close eye on them.
  • Profanity Filter should be on: Captain Obvious says that having your child repeat what he read online can be pretty embarrassing and possibly make people think lightly of your parenting skills.
City of Heroes is a bit better for kids. I think the same precautions as above apply, but the overall gameplay experience is a bit more child friendly. You don't kill your opponents, you defeat them. And you don't die and get resurrected, you get hurt and go to the hospital.

If you really want your child to play a true MMO alone and not have to worry at all, then I highly recommend ToonTown Online. Your child can learn all of the basic MMO skills with an emphasis on teamwork and strategy without any of the hazards of online play. I still recommend playing with your child (and TT is fun for adults as well), but you can feel confident that nothing scary is happening behind your back if it is played alone. Here's why:
  • Only True Friends can keyboard chat: If a Toon who is not a True Friend types something in local chat, all you can read is animal sounds. You can turn off the ability for your child to make True Friends in Member Preferences.
  • You can set a Parent Password: The account can belong to your child, but you can setup all of the account info and preferences with a parental password, including restricting the creation of True Friends.
  • There is no global chat: Your child can only see local chat and whispers.
  • Speed Chat is safe and effective: The only way to communicate with non-True Friends is by using the in-game canned chat pictured above. It has everything you need to coordinate attacks, be polite and even to insult a little bit. The insults are all more benign than what you would hear on the playground. Everything you need to interact safely with other players is included in the Speed Chat.
  • Names must be approved: You can choose a combination of canned names for your Toon name without approval, but if you want to name your Toon something you type in on the keyboard, it must be approved by ToonTown employees before it will be displayed in-game. That means that no inappropriate names will be in-game. (It also wouldn't let me make a character named Mankrik's Wife, in case that was something you wanted to try.)
I know I'm repeating myself, but playing games with your kids is really the best way to make sure they are getting all of the benefits of gaming without having to worry about their safety. It's also a great way to combine your play time with your family time. And playing an MMO with them in the evening or on a rainy day is a great reward for doing chores or homework. Of course, your children should get plenty of exercise, get their homework done, have a wide variety of interests, nurture real-life friendships, etc. -- but you know this. Now, if you'll excuse me, I have to get some fishing done.

Robin Torres juggles multiple characters across multiple MMOs, two cats, one preschooler, one loot-addicted husband and a yarn dependency. After years of attempting to balance MMOs with real life, Robin lightheartedly shares the wisdom gleaned from her experiences. If you would like to ask Robin's advice or if you have a story you wish to share, please email Robin.Torres AT weblogsinc DOT com for a possible future column.

This article was originally published on Massively.