The following sections explore the types of games that young people are immersed in online and the issues that may be encountered, and provide guidelines for parents to help them manage gaming in the home.
Virtual worlds are online worlds that are inhabited by users who take the shape of avatars (cartoon characters that represent you, which you can choose characteristics for). Internet users who are online simultaneously meet in the virtual world and communicate through their avatar by chat – sometimes with audio or video options.
Virtual worlds are a relatively recent phenomenon and are very popular with youth, with three times as many young people than adults populating them.
There are two main types of virtual worlds:
Virtual worlds are particularly interesting to adolescents as they are real-time places in which they can experiment with all kinds of situations and identities. As their personalities develop, teens are attracted to the opportunity to test behaviours and identity anonymously in a relatively protected environment. For example, through their avatars, kids can:
Some psychologists believe that virtual worlds can help teenagers deal positively with changes that occur at puberty by letting them explore different personas and social situations. However, if their involvement becomes compulsive and dominates a teenager’s life at the expense of face-to-face socializing with peers, it can have the opposite effect.
When using these sites, children are learning valuable social skills for interacting in online communities. For example, Webkinz represents a simplified version of a social network where children interact through their Webkinz avatar. Two friends, each owning a Webkinz toy, can have their avatars play together on the Webkinz site. With this in mind, children need to learn proper social skills for virtual worlds and understand that there are people behind the avatars, so should be treated with respect.
As virtual worlds usually include some type of chat, children can learn communication skills. In Club Penguin, for instance, children can communicate with each other through two levels of chat: a secure mode where children use pre-programmed phrases to communicate and a second mode where children are free to type whatever they like. For children who are just learning to write, the free chat mode helps familiarize them with the keyboard and how to use writing for fun in real life communications.
The main difference between virtual world games and “traditional” video games that are not played online is that the former allows players to create and play within real online communities, with both their offline friends and players from all around the world. Popular examples are RuneScape and World of Warcraft.
The community aspect of these games provides players with valuable opportunities to learn and practise important social skills such as helping or guiding a newcomer and organizing groups or guilds, and learning how to make moral or ethical decisions about how a community, city or nation should be run.
When confronted with extreme situations that they are unlikely to encounter in the “real world”, youth can also learn the skills to manage the unexpected and deal with crisis situations.
According to a 2008 study, teens who have these civic gaming experiences report much higher levels of civic and political engagement than teens that have not had this kind of experience.
Massively multiplayer online role-playing games are intrinsically time-consuming. They are sometimes referred to as persistent worlds because they continue to evolve, whether or not the player is online. This can be very addictive for players, who feel the need to constantly check back into the game to see what’s happening. In some games, the avatar disappears if the player hasn’t clocked a certain number of hours per week.
Because the storyline is developed by interactions between players, it is difficult to estimate how much time a session or game will take. Knowing this, parents can better understand why their child may not be able to “disconnect” from the game come mealtime.
Adults have some concerns about kids and online gaming which are mainly related to multi-player games. These include the amount of time kids spend playing these games, problematic content such as violence and sexual stereotyping, and exposure to nasty behaviour from other players.
Over the past decade there has been considerable debate on violence in video games. Notwithstanding, during this period, video game popularity and real-world youth violence have been moving in opposite directions. Research shows that not all children are affected and for those who are, not necessarily in the same way.
When multi-player games contain violence, the most important aspect is how violence occurs within the game-playing scenario. Even though there is debate about the effects of video game violence generally, research is pretty conclusive that gratuitous and inexplicable violence is more psychologically damaging than violence that occurs as a response to a situation.
Some parents have found creative ways to help their kids think this through: for example, one father agreed to let his 13-year-old son purchase the war game Call of Duty, but only on the express condition that his son fight according to the rules of the Geneva Convention when he played.
Multi-player online games also present concerns in terms of violence and sexual content because players who do not necessarily know one another communicate through chat mode and represent their characters as they please. Unlike regular games, which have ratings to guide parents, players drive the storylines in multi-player online games, making it very difficult to gauge the amount of sexual content and violence a game will have.
Sexual stereotypes are another aspect of video games that can be worrying. The bad news is that physical appearance is often stereotyped for both male and female characters but the good news is that female characters are getting much more diverse. Presumably, this is the result of a demographic evolution in gamers. In Japan and the United States, the percentages of male and female players are virtually the same when it comes to multi-player online games (like World of Warcraft).
Online multi-player games such as World of Warcraft can become habit-forming, and excessive playing is an issue even with very young kids. The social aspect of these games is attractive to introverted children or teens because they can assume roles that are different from their offline personalities and interact with others in ways they can't offline. However, when playing becomes excessive, kids run the risk of becoming further isolated from friends and peers. These games can also have a serious impact on kids' health by depriving them of sleep and replacing more active, physical play. For more information see the Excessive Internet Use section.
It’s important that parents understand that virtual worlds are as much about commerce as socialization. From buying more Webkinz toys to purchasing land on Teen Second Life, most virtual worlds are commercial environments where kids are encouraged to buy products for their avatars, or real world products for themselves. Habbo Hotel, for example, describes itself as an online environment that provides companies and brands “with a completely new and exciting way of building their brand value among teenagers.” For information on the product-branded games kids play on commercial websites (also known as advergames), see the Online Marketing section.
There are a number of steps parents can take to offset potential problems with gaming.
While some online games such as EverQuest have an Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) rating, the ESRB notes that since game content is provided by users, it is difficult to evaluate. However, some publishers have agreed to moderate or filter shocking or illicit content that could be shared by the players. In Europe, this code of behaviour is symbolized by the PEGI Online Safety Code (POSC) distinction.
This video from the Entertainment Software Association of Canada offers a step-by-step guide for using parental controls features for online games.
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