Toontown
One of the toughest issues that game developers have to treat when it comes to kid-friendly MMOs is chat. I touched on this in a past column, but it's worth further discussion. If you're making a game where lots of players are interacting and doing stuff together, you need to allow them to communicate, otherwise you're pretty much making a single-player game with the other players as background scenery.

On the other hand, when it comes to kids MMOs, having open communication means other players can use it to harass each other. Worse is the scenario of the deranged adult abusing it to exploit young people. As a result, virtually every kid-friendly MMO has some sort of filter in place that restricts what players can say to each other. But are these chat filters really that effective? Are kids better off without them? Let's take a look in today's MMO Family.

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MMOs tend to use one of several different types of chat filters, and they vary greatly in how much they allow to be displayed. Some stick with pre-set, drop-down menus that allow children to select small phrases or even piece together a message from several choices. Other games choose to gate off chat, which can only be unlocked through special actions, like purchasing membership or exchanging a secret code with a friend. Still others construct a blacklist of words and phrases that are not allowed, and some will temper that with a whitelist as well. The idea is that a word can be completely innocuous in one context but inappropriate or abusive in another.

The Scunthorpe problem

One problem with filters, and with lists in particular, is that they make communication frustratingly difficult at times. Words that contain a string of letters forming a blacklisted word end up being filtered -- the Scunthorpe problem. Meanwhile, games have gone global, and a chat filter might end up filtering certain words in other languages that are not at all offensive. In Wizard101, I had a player ask me about a unique wand I was holding. When I tried to explain that it was a promotional code from a game magazine, nearly all of my message was blocked from the filter, and despite my repeated attempts to pick different words to get the message across, it didn't work, and the player stomped off in a huff. Language is a living, growing, changing entity, and filters often can't keep up with it. You can build a filter that blocks all the profanities in the urban dictionary, for instance, but by next week it will already be out of date.

Free Realms
Kids find a way

On top of that, filters don't actually accomplish what they set out to do because kids are smart and can find a way around them. In Free Realms, kids aren't allowed to type numbers, yet they carry out auctions all day long by finding creative ways to spell numbers that get through the filter. ToonTown has a feature called True Friends, which allows players to exchange secret codes and unlock open chat. In theory, it would make it nearly impossible for a stranger to become a true friend, since you couldn't type the codes out in game. But of course, players quickly found ways around that and used other methods of communication to exchange codes.

Meanwhile, in Disney's HercWorld, the designers ran into a problem when they were originally building their pre-set chat menu. They carefully put together phrases that were safe yet gave players the chance to talk about game-relevant topics. But just minutes after they gave it to a 14-year-old boy to test, they watched him piece together the sentence "I want to stick my long-necked giraffe up your fluffy white bunny," and they realized all their hard work was for naught. They eventually scrapped the game completely when they noticed the potential for abuse with movable columns and blocks, which they felt could be moved around to spell out inappropriate words.

Absolutes don't work

The main problem with filters is that they can't completely prevent swearing, inappropriate language, and verbal harassment. They also can't completely prevent a stranger from being a friend. But then again, not all strangers are equal, and it's important for kids to know that, both in game and in real life. If a young child is separated from his mother in a store, and he's been raised on the notion that you can't talk to strangers, he's really in a bind because to him, the ladies behind the customer service counter are just as much strangers as that creepy guy prowling around the store. Ideally, you want that child to put things in context and know whom to seek out who is most likely to help him, rather than have him frozen in fear and leave to chance which adult reaches him first.

Similarly, while it's important for parents to stay on top of what children are doing online, we can't be sitting next to them forever. MMOs are, by nature, social environments, and kids need to have the opportunity to collaborate and coordinate with other players in game. But at some point, they will be on their own, and if they understand how to put things in context and how to react to potential harassment, they'll be able to do an even better job of filtering than the game can.

It's not as bad as we think it is

It's almost a shame that HercWorld never came to fruition, and it's too bad that chat safety has prematurely spelled the end of other kid-friendly MMOs in production. Developers have to assume the worst, but it's impossible to filter everything, and at some point, there has to be an acceptance that it comes with the territory. Ironically, there are dozens of kid-friendly MMOs out there with movable objects, and yet the players haven't abused that feature. Stop by a player's house and you're much more likely to find amazing creations and impressive designs, not offensive words and images. Perhaps games should reconsider some of the more heavy-handed chat limitations in order to allow better-quality conversations and a more social atmosphere. Either way, it's important that children learn on their own just how to deal with, and steer clear of, players using inappropriate language because even the best filter can't stop everything.

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 karen@massively.com.

This article was originally published on Massively.