There are plenty of reasons for parents to be concerned about online gaming when it comes to kids. The media, after all, is a fan of scare tactics, and will happily let parents know of any bad piece of news that even remotely involves video games. There's the campaign against video games and how they're ruining the lives of children, turning them into violent sociopaths or anti-social idiots. Throw the horrible online predator in the mix, and you've turned parents into terrified mother hens, desperately trying to protect their children from foxes and wolves.
Many of the concerns parents have about their children playing games online are completely valid. Privacy is a major concern, as the identity of children through their actual names, addresses, school names, or more can be incredibly harmful in the wrong hands. So are chat channels, which, without proper moderation, can expose kids to violations of privacy and to undesired words, phrases, and other knowledge. What kind of content and advertising kids are exposed to are yet other concerns. Despite all the fears and laundry list of “what ifs,” parents have it good when it comes to online gaming for kids, and here's why.
The Children's Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) is a simple and efficient way to protect the privacy of children under the age of 13 online. The act simply states that any online service or website must not share the information of any of its users under the age of thirteen. Information protected under the act includes first and last name, e-mail address, telephone number, home address, and any identifiers which would allow for any specific contact of the underage individual either online or in the real world. Sites must also notify parents of what information they do collect from children, and how they plan to share or use that information internally and with third parties.
For parents, this means almost complete transparency in privacy policies when it comes to what their children are doing online – something adults sometimes even lack from providers. It also means legal recourse if the online game or website manages to share that private information beyond its legal bounds to do so. Online games and services are essentially prevented by COPPA from doing something like RealID, or trying to market or advertise to kids without express permission, meaning that there's one tighter cinch of control on a child's gaming habits that a parent doesn't have to watch themselves.
Online chat can leave less than to be desired in games for teens and adults. There are plenty of complaints that the chat rooms and channels in online games offer the best cesspool available on the internet. The commonsense ruling is that people are foul-mouthed and rude on the Internet where they gain a veil of anonymity; virtual worlds and games offer just that. Even a profanity filter won't protect kids from the gross underbelly of online gaming.
So why should parents be OK with online gaming when it comes to chat? Simply put, chat filters have gotten smart. Most kids’ games offer a filter that blocks even the use of numbers, preventing phone number and address sharing, as well as avoiding the use of real place names or real names, in addition to blocking profanity. Some have moderators who not only watch live chat, but peruse chat history and chat logs to find and punish all players who violate the chat rules. Almost all of these games, in addition, offer a secondary “safe chat” mode which only allows players to select pre-written phrases, and only see phrases written the same way, for the ultimate in chat protection.
Edutainment on the Rise
When I was growing up, online games meant one of two things: flash games or MMOs. Casual social games and virtual worlds were still a glimmer in the Internet's eye – existent off in the tiny corners where they hadn't yet been discovered. There were a few educational games and activities online, but it was still mostly an adult's world.
These days, there are plenty of games cropping up for kids. Many are certainly based around popular entertainment franchises, from movies, like Planet 51 and Kung Fu Panda, to cartoons, like the high-blending of Cartoon Network's Fusion Fall. More incredibly, a great deal of edutainment games (games that blend education with fun activities in such a way to better sharpen children's minds) are appearing across the Internet, and they're doing well, too. Among the edutainment online games for kids are Fantage, which has recently announced its expansion to Europe; Franktown Rocks!, a game that incorporates music education; SecretBuilders, which teaches subjects including history; and CarrotSticks, an online math game.
Don't let the media mislead you to think that parents hate gaming, either. According to the Entertainment Software Association, 64% of parents feel that video games have a positive effect on their children, and 93% of parents who play video games have their kids play with them. Not only that, the majority of games sold each year are rated for early childhood or for everyone, meaning that kids ten and younger are being highly encouraged in their gaming habits.
Unlike the cost of MMOs designed for teens and adults, where costs of $15 or more per month is typically expected in both subscription-based and free-to-play games, online games for kids are a lot more cost sensitive. To start with, most are free-to-play with optional subscriptions, meaning that kids don't even have to beg their parents for a credit card to get into play, and many are generous with the amount of content they offer for free.
When payment does come into play, the prices are modest; many kids' online games range from three to seven dollars per month. Game developers also show they have the budget of families in mind by offering long-term subscriptions, yearly deals, and in some cases, family accounts that allow multiple children, and their parents, to play under a single price.
What about the teens?
All of this is great for children ages thirteen and under, but what about teens? While there are certainly some new virtual worlds popping up for teens, they're not held to the same rigorous standards that children's games are. Add in the mix that a great deal of MMOs on the market are rated T for Teen, and marketed to a younger generation of nerds, and you make a volatile mix of what teens want and what some parents want to avoid. Let's face it: protective parents have to step up their game once their children hit the teenage years. Parents who want positive gaming experiences for their teenagers are going to have to make them happen, not just sit back and assume that things will be fine.
Overall, there are dozens of virtual world options available offering safe places for children to play and learn online. Increasing levels of safety and security for children in these online environments produce a new form of social and educational entertainment – games that can be fun for children and parents alike. While nothing beats the watchful eye of a parent, parents can also rest assured that many places have their child's best interests for safety, privacy, and learning in mind.