Last week I read an article about sexual predators delaying the development of Starbound. If you’re unfamiliar with the game, Starbound is an indie game currently in beta that is similar to Terraria, or like a 2D Minecraft. But on his Twitter account, lead developer Finn “Tiy” Brice reported that the company had to temporarily halt production of the game in order to properly deal with a sexual predator who was targeting children in the game’s community.
Chucklefish Games, the developing studio, hasn’t given much information of the specific details — understandably so — but based on comments by others in the studio, it sounds like someone was sending sexually explicit or harassing messages to children through Starbound’s community forums. Thankfully someone reported the person responsible, who has been permanently banned from the game, & Chucklefish Games has gotten the police involved. Hopefully they’ll be able to track the person down & prosecute them. But as I’m sure most of us know, it can be notoriously difficult to track someone down over the internet.
The rise of online gaming has brought both good & bad things. It’s good because it allows gamers to connect with other people with similar interest outside of their own personal spheres. It can foster friendships with people from the opposite side of the globe. But at the same time, it provides easy access for predators. Sexual predators have always existed, but the availability & anonymity of being online make them more bold. Just ask any troll; it’s pretty easy to send a message to a random person versus having to approach someone face-to-face to harass them.
While the dangers of putting yourself out there on the internet is nothing new (because let’s face it, most of the time you’re dealing with complete strangers), I feel like a lot of people have forgotten this little fact. Maybe it’s just my age showing, but it continues to astound me how trusting some people are of the faceless people they meet on the internet. I blame social media for a lot of this. MySpace, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram… all of these sites encourage people to post all kinds of personal, revealing information about themselves to complete strangers from all over the world. Think about how many “Friends” you have on these sites & ask how many of them you’ve actually met.
Now, I don’t have kids. And none of my friends have kids old enough to have to worry about this just yet. So I can’t say with certainty just what parents are teaching their kids about internet safety. But based on some of the things I’ve seen on Facebook, I’d say the concept of privacy is severely lacking. It’s like even grown adults (ie. people who should know better) seem to forget that once you post something online, it’s fair game to anyone. Call me paranoid if you want, but I feel completely gobsmacked when I see people logging in at specific locations (telling all potential stalkers, “Hey, I’m here right now!”) or posting incriminating photos of themselves (nude, drunk, etc.).
So if you’re a parent who’s concerned about your child playing online games, or you’re an adult who maybe needs to update their privacy protocols, here are some common sense tips that have served me well over the years:
- Keep personal information secret. This includes your name, full date of birth, the city you live in & anything else that could be used to track you down. Adopt a nickname or moniker if you want to be recognized as the same person across different sites. I have two monikers I generally go by. If someone needs a real name to call me by, I use my middle name. The only place online I go by my real name is on Facebook, & I never link any of my other accounts to that.
- Use an avatar, not a real photo. I never post of photo of myself as my profile picture. Find something that expresses yourself. This is doubly helpful if you’re a female, as it helps prevent guys sending you lewd comments — of course then you get messages asking what you look like, as if it’s anyone’s business.
- Be aware & involved. This is primarily for parents who have kids who game online. Be aware of what your kids are playing. Play with them if you can. I would’ve loved for my parents to have played videogames with me when I was younger. Know how to monitor their accounts. But don’t try to be sneaky about it. Don’t create fake accounts to secretly play with them or test them by sending them harassing messages to see what they’ll do. That will destroy their trust in you. Be honest in your concern. If your kid’s know why you’re concerned & are gaming responsibly, they won’t mind your involvement.
- Never agree to meet anyone you only know from online. Period. I shouldn’t have to tell people this, but as a 911 dispatcher we still get calls related to this where so-&-so meets up with someone they met online & it turns out they’re a psychopath.
- Don’t be afraid to report people. If someone is making you uncomfortable, don’t be afraid to report that person. Don’t let people tell you that you shouldn’t be offended by something or that reporting it won’t do any good. No one has the right to tell you what should or shouldn’t bother you. At the very least, most sites let you block specific people from messaging you. I’ve had to do this one personally on XBox Live. There was a guy who, every time he saw me online would start messaging me, asking me really personal questions. And while there was nothing rude or anything, it was pretty obvious where the train of conversation was heading, so I blocked him from messaging me. (Here’s a tip to you guys: nothing shuts down a conversation with a woman online faster than asking if she’s single followed by what she looks like. Why is that any of your bloody business & what does that have to do with my ability to play games with someone? Do you ask your guy friends the same question upon introduction?)
If you’re a parent who’s concern about your children, there are lots of resources online to give you tips to keep them safe. But the biggest key is to talk to your kids about the hows & whys of being safe. Being involved in an online community can be a rewarding & enriching experience, but don’t be naive enough to think that everyone there is a nice person. Nothing brings out the jerk in people faster than anonymity. Another good resource I want to shoot parents’ way is to check out the Youtube channel Paulsoaresjr. Mr. Soares’s gaming channel is dedicated to family friendly videos. He also has several series dedicated to gaming with his kids. I think it’s a good example of how to be involved with your kids in online gaming while also keeping them safe.