Post in our forum for parents, teens - You! - at

Friday, June 20, 2008

Here comes social gaming

There's hearts, checkers, chess, Texas hold 'em, Dolphin Olympics, a form of Scrabble, and on and on. Which - if you're a game aficionado - can make the social Web a 24/7 party (it can also give young gamers 24/7 access to communities of players of all ages, but more on that in a moment).

"Online social gaming has been around for years, available on Yahoo and other sites. But its popularity is surging, piggybacking on the success of Facebook, MySpace, Bebo, and other social networks," the San Jose Mercury News reports. There are now business conferences gathering the corporate players and advertisers in the social gaming space. alone has more then 4,500 games, the Merc adds, and "more than $30 million in venture funding has been invested in Silicon Valley start-ups that specialize in social games." This is distinct from the multibillion-dollar digital gaming industry dominated by Electronic Arts, Sony, Nintendo, and Microsoft, it adds. The difference between social gaming and the "old" kind is that you're interacting with people, not software (multiplayer online games such as World of Warcraft-type worlds and the real-time chat of Xbox Live always did involve real-people contact). Interacting with people adds mostly fun and unpredictability but also an element of risk that gamers need to be alert to, if a game is associated with chat and other means of non-game communication with other players.

Social gaming, kid-style

Virtual worlds are social-gaming environments for kids, and they're multiplying like rabbits. The BBC calls this "boom time for virtual playgrounds." "Worlds" such as,, and and services such as are "places where your children can interact with other children, and they are becoming a central part of the business plans of the people who make TV programs, toys and cereal," the New York Times reports.

Disney's newest world is "Dgamer," part virtual world and part social-networking site for kids, accessible via computer or Nintendo DS, the Washington Post reports. The Post says Dgamer gives parents a lot of control by allowing them to sign up for various levels: "At the most basic level, they can only message one another with preselected words and phrases. On higher levels, they are allowed more freedom, but there are filters for profanity." But the service is free, so it's not clear how parents could control kid workarounds. Dgamer joins Disney's Pirates of the Caribbean, Cars, and recently acquired ClubPenguin. "According to research firm eMarketer, 12 million kids between ages 3 and 17 will regularly access virtual worlds this year. The firm expects that figure to rise to 20 million by 2011."

Worlds to watch for

Coming in the next six months or so, according to the New York Times piece: Spore (which will be playable via computer, phone, or NintendoDS),, World of Neopia (Neopets' world), LegoUniverse, and (to go with Disney's soon to be released animated film Tinker Bell).

Downsides & how to deal with them

There are many positives involved in online gaming, we see in the research: e.g., the collaborative action in World of Warcraft guilds, individual and collective strategic thinking, thinking under pressure, and the informal learning associated with group activity involving multiple ages.

But there are downsides too, usually associated with the real-time chat around online gaming. For example,, a brand-new UK-based social-gaming site. Have its creators thought about what parents might think about their kids participating when they read this heading on its About page: "Connect with Friends and Strangers," under which is listed Doof's "Private Messages" feature?

With household rules or in family discussion, parents might consider advising their gamers to make sure that...

  • Chat sticks strictly to game-related topics, nothing personal
  • No private one-on-one chat with people unless about it's just about the game and they tell a parent about it
  • They turn off their headphones or stop chatting if the trash talk gets to be too much
  • They come talk to you if anyone starts getting too abusive or tries to get uncomfortably close or overly friendly.

    Kids need to know that getting lots of compliments can potentially be worse than trash talk and other abusive online behavior. Flattery can be one form of online grooming (see "How to recognize grooming," "Police on gaming community risks," and "How social influencing works."

    Virtual worlds are by definition highly immersive. So parents may also want to be alert to signs of obsessive play. Besides the risk factors involved in real-time communication, there are concerns about something called "videogame addiction." Here's the US News & World Report's focus on younger gamers in this area (see also "'SIGNS' of Internet addiction."

    Related links

  • "Are ads on children's social networking sites harmless child's play or virtual insanity?" in The Independent

  • "Fair game? Assessing commercial activity on children’s
    favourite websites and online environments"
    from Childnet International and the UK's National Consumer Counsel

  • "Building social currency in online games" at

  • "Notable fresh videogame findings" at NetFamilyNews

    Labels: , , ,

  • US's high court on virtual child porn

    The Supreme Court has upheld criminal penalties for promoting, or pandering, child pornography, the Associated Press reports. "The court upheld part of a 2003 law that also prohibits possession of child porn.... The law sets a five-year mandatory prison term for promoting, or pandering, child porn. It does not require that someone actually possess child pornography" and it replaced an earlier law that - according to Fox TV law columnist Lis Wiehl - required prosecutors to prove that the images were of "real" children, not digitally altered or morphed images, when "the 'real' children (aka victims) involved in child porn are almost impossible to find, let alone produce as witnesses at trial." In related news, New York State Attorney General announced that major US Internet service providers would block sources of child porn, the Washington Post reports, but the announcement created confusion as the ISPs later clarified that they weren't blocking anything (when free-speech advocates spoke out) - just "enforcing their own longstanding terms of service by agreeing not to host sites and newsgroups known to contain child porn," reports co-director Larry Magid in his column on this at the San Jose Mercury News. Meanwhile, France "is joining at least five other countries where Internet service providers block access to child pornography," the Associated Press reports.

    Labels: , ,

    Thursday, June 19, 2008

    MySpace, Facebook: Basic differences

    MySpace is a lot about self-expression and Facebook more about exchanging personal news and information among friends, according to a thoughtful analysis in, though somewhat biased toward Facebook. The distinction goes back to the two sites' origins. Back in 2005, MySpace was likened to a mashup of an alternate-reality game, online nightclub, music community, and teenager's bedroom that could be redecorated whenever the spirit moved (see "MySpace the new MTV"). VentureBeat blogger Eric Eldon says that, unlike Facebook, MySpace is "a place for people to live out their fantasy lives online," which he acknowledges is quite a generalization but works where it concerns teens using the site to explore identity, as well as online media-producing and graphic design (see "Teens rule the Web" and "Social media gender gap"). Facebook's origins are well known and quite different: It was a college social utility defined by students' need to know more about a roommate, potential date, etc., where people were quickly busted if they fictionalized info about themselves. "If they provided fake information, their friends from across the hall would simply leave comments saying so on their profile pages," Eldon writes. Both can certainly be useful in many countries - one can see the value of a social utility in other countries, within local circles of friends and to keep in touch with friends who've emigrated or to stay in touch with people they've met from other countries. Eldon's analysis describes this well (and my own experience overseas in recent months bore this out). Here, for example, is the view of social networking from Kenya.

    Labels: , , ,

    Wednesday, June 18, 2008

    Using the Net at home: International data

    Internet use certainly isn't growing the way it used to! "The UK held steady in active home Internet users in the month of April," reports, citing research from Nielsen Online. But in many other countries active Internet use from home was down, including in Australia, Brazil, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Spain, Switzerland, and the US. By percent of population, Italy (7.29), France (3.40), and Spain (2.29) saw the greatest losses. Active household use in the US was down 0.78% in April.

    Labels: ,

    Dealing with cellphone spam

    Are your children getting text-message spam on their cellphones (or are you) - those annoying messages that you can't delete without opening them and that you, not the sender, pay for? Well, there's hope, or help, rather, David Pogue at the New York Times reports. AT&T and Verizon Wireless let you block spam messages. Sprint and T-Mobile "don't go quite as far," Pogue writes, "but they do offer some text-spam filtering options." In his Circuits column, he explains how cellphone spamming works and where to find each cellphone company's spam controls. See also Forbes on "Cellphone Addiction" (more about grownups, though).

    Labels: , , ,

    Tuesday, June 17, 2008

    Videogame sales growth

    Sales of videogame software and hardware reached $1.12 billion last month, up 37% from a year earlier, Reuters reports. Grand Theft Auto 4 was the best-selling title for the month, according to market researcher NPD, and is the year's top-selling game so far. Meanwhile, an Australian research found that "playing videogames for hours on end may be bad for your health, but ... it doesn't mean you are a lonely nerd and won't damage your social skills," Reuters reports. In his coverage of the study, CNET blogger Don Reisinger reports that 15% of gamers surveyed "were identified as 'problem gamers' who spend more than 50 hours a week playing games ... but only 1% of those respondents had poor social skills and shyness." [See also "Grand Theft Auto 4's realism all bad?" and "Grand Theft Childhood?".]

    Labels: , ,

    Monday, June 16, 2008

    MySpace's redesign

    It's a lot more than a facelift, USATODAY reports - more like a major overhaul. The US's biggest social network site this week unveils "a spanking-new interface, heightened security, availability on mobile and instant-messaging services - and the ability to create categories of friends at work, school and family, among dozens of other new features," according to USATODAY. Calling it a "global redesign," Reuters says "MySpace will change its home page, navigation, profile editing, search, and MySpaceTV player facilities," with more changes coming later in the summer. The aim is simplicity, so this development probably doesn't change much for parents. Teens already figured out MySpace long ago; this is for the holdouts - probably, too, for people who preferred Facebook's more utilitarian look and feel (though the irony is that's changing a little with all the mini applications Facebook people are adding to their profiles). Here's Business Week on what it describes as MySpace's ultimate plan: "to be a gateway to the Internet—and go head-to-head with Yahoo and Google."

    Labels: ,

    Facebook, MySpace neck and neck globally

    MySpace is still No. 1 in the US, but Facebook caught up to MySpace's monthly traffic worldwide in April with 115 million visitors, PCWorld reports, citing research by comScore (the International Herald Tribune reports that MySpace has reached 118 million registered users). "Myspace has maintained similar traffic numbers for the past year, but Facebook has grown from less than 40,000 unique monthly visitors in April 2007" to the 115 million" a year later. In the US, MySpace's unique visitor figure for April was 72 million, compared to Facebook's 36 million. Here's TechCrunch's coverage too. Meanwhile, the social-networking concept is quite the juggernaut: The European Parliament is developing its own social-networking site, The Telegraph reports, and the UK's House of Lords is on, the Associated Press reports.

    Labels: , , ,