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

Friday, July 18, 2008

Top 8 workarounds of kid virtual-world users

It stands to reason that bullying happens in kids' virtual worlds (e.g., Club Penguin, Webkinz, Neopets, Nicktropolis, etc.), because, well, it happens in school, instant messaging, and social-networking sites. But I hadn't learned how it happened until Sharon Duke Estroff called me about it. The Atlanta-based parenting columnist, former elementary school teacher, kids' pop culture expert, author, and mother of four spent a couple of weeks in Club Penguin to learn what her eight-year-old son might experience there. She didn't like everything she saw.

Having occasionally watched my own son waddle around and play games in Club Penguin and thought it was pretty cute, I asked her why. Sharon - who will tell you that she's definitely not an overreactor where parenting's concerned - proceeded to tell me what she learned about digital pre-adolescent behavior in CP (and I have no doubt similar experiences are to be had in every other virtual playground on the Web).

Not that her CP time was all bad, of course, but there were some "Lord of the Flies moments" just like in real-life elementary school, and I thought you'd like to know what the virtual versions look like - techniques kids have developed for beating the system so they can move all that social behavior at school, good and bad, online. Simply put, they're "workarounds"- some but not all about meanness or bullying. So I boiled the behavioral parts of what Sharon told me down to a list of eight (note how sophisticated these workarounds' young creators are):

1. Beating the language filter. Putting consecutive words in separate message "bubbles," spaces between letters, creative capitalization and punctuation, etc. - whatever it takes to say what they like, including mean stuff and invitations to "visit me alone in my igloo."

2. Code lingo. Not just POS ("parent over shoulder") or ROTFL ("rolling on the floor laughing"), but text-formatting tricks that get around safe-language rules: e.g., if language filters don't allow numbers, kids share their ages by expressing them in dots. For example, they ask, "How many dots are you?" and get back: "I'm ........."

3. ID theft, kid-style. One of the cardinal rules of online safety is never to share your password because best friends sometimes become non-friends and can impersonate and embarrass you. Password-sharing, however, is rampant in kid virtual worlds - a popular way of offering and accepting best-friend status. It becomes a problem when your "best friend" logs on as your avatar and makes it break the rules so you get kicked out.

4. Stealing virtual possessions. Kids also use peers' passwords to steal their virtual clothes, furniture, and other in-world possessions so the victims have to start over or walk around as naked avatars and so the thief, succumbing to some sort of pre-adolescent digital version of "keeping up with the Joneses," can add to his/her in-world prestige (as well as the real-world kind - because, Sharon said, a lot of penguins know each other as humans at school too).

5. Abusing abuse reporting. The digital version of tattling: being mean by reporting avatars just so they get privileges taken away. "Kids can report other kids for all kinds of vague reasons, but they don't have to give a reason - all they have to do is press a button on the player card and the complaint goes straight to the monitor," Sharon said.

6. Using safety features to bully. Using blocking, ghosting, ignoring, and other in-world user-security tools to ostracize a kid or make it clear he's not a member of "the club" - whatever the club-of-the-moment is.

7. Digital "Spin the Bottle." Those pre-teen games for exploring dating and sexuality have moved into cyberspace. Kids manipulate their avatars and a virtual world's systems to create opportunities to explore virtual sexuality too. An example in Club Penguin: "Spin the Fish," only the fish doesn't spin; "you have to pretend it does," according to young CP lifestyles blogger Imatweetybrd, whose blog Sharon found. "You either say 'I'll spin!' or someone will tell you to spin. Then, most likely, you are just going to say 'spin,' then 'it landed on [the penguin's name that you like most]. At that point, you go up the person and say 'mwah.' Then your turn's over. Your penguin might like you back and ask you out or maybe you want to ask him out, then you guys can leave the game or whatever."

8. Kid avatars have cheats too. Just because the person behind the avatar is only nine years old certainly does not mean s/he's any less savvy about how to find cheats to beat the game and make coins or points a lot faster in order to have a bigger place of residence and more clothes, puffles, and furniture. The kid just types the name of an in-world game into a Web search engine and turns up hundreds of tips, or "cheats," as they're called - situation normal in the world of videogames (clearly also for people of younger and younger age, we now see).

My takeaways

First it should be acknowledged that there are plenty of positive and just plain fun things about Club Penguin too (check out its kid philanthropy feature). It's possible the average child user (probably 7-10 - not teen hackers like Mike 92 in Related links below) could experience or use one or two of the above workarounds, but not likely all, unless he or she is looking for trouble, feeling mean, or really into power in a social sort of way. Putting all the workarounds together here is designed only to help parents ask intelligent questions.

My 11-year-old was an avid CP user for a few weeks last year, but he never noticed any of the above except a few cheats (penguins a little too good at some games) and occasional meanness - trigger-happy abuse reporters or safety-feature abusers - and none of it ruined his fun in CP, but CP also wasn't the all of his entertainment or social life (balanced lives do help us not take certain things too seriously). The workarounds only confirm for me that, wherever kids are online, alertness and critical thinking are needed on the part of children as well as parents. Club Penguin and other kid virtual worlds are not babysitters! But they are great social-networking training for both participants and parents. They offer many teachable moments for learning all kinds of things: e.g., how to treat others online as well as offline, how to be a good citizen and friend, how to detect social and commercial manipulation, how to deal with peer pressure and group think, and even how to be a leader.

Readers, we'd love to hear about your children's virtual-world experiences in the forum. Email's ok too, via

Related links

  • Visual aids: "Club Penguin Robbery" video at YouTube in which director/producer/penguin Mike 92 robs Club Penguin's bank and gets his just desserts (here's his cheats site). I'm guessing Mike is a teenager who uses CP as a hacking and video-producing creative outlet (hacking isn't necessarily illegal or malicious). Another, more bird's-eye view of cheating the systems is "How to move peoples stuff on Club Penguin."
  • Numbers: "As of last month [4/08], more than 100 new virtual worlds had started up or were in development," the New York Times reports. "Many sites such as Empire of Sports, Planet Cazmo and Xivio are aimed at so-called tweens, ages 8 to 12.... This year, more than 12 million children nationwide under the age of 18 will visit at least one of these sites, and that number will grow to 20 million by 2011," the Times adds, citing eMarketer research.
  • For some nearly original digital kid anthropology research, surf around the Club Penguin Coolers blog.
  • Sharon Duke Estroff's bio Web site
  • Good for dinnertable discussion: "How social influencing works"
  •'s Safety Tips & Advice page

    Labels: , , ,

  • Thursday, July 17, 2008

    Griefers: Gamer worlds' bullies

    Griefers aren't new to gaming communities, but they're apparently becoming a fixture in multiplayer online games too - games such as World of Warcraft, RuneScape and Everquest, Reuters reports. "Unlike traditional Internet bullies who work through instant messages and cell phones, griefers lurk on online multi-player videogames, harassing their victim by bullying, tormenting or thwarting other players in the game," according to Reuters. For help on how to deal with this, see "10 Tips for Dealing with Griefers" at, "Dealing with Griefers in Second Life" at, and in a World of Warcraft forum, "Nazsh's Guide to Dealing with Griefers." See also "Support for young videogamers."

    Labels: , , ,

    Xbox Live with avatars

    It really seems as if all gaming community is going the way of online virtual worlds now. The new Xbox Live, just announced by Microsoft this week, will be more like virtual life than ever. The gaming community for the Xbox console will soon be more three-dimensional - a suitable "space" for the avatars, or animated characters, gamers will create for it," the Financial Times reports. "The avatars demonstrated by Microsoft appeared more sophisticated than the popular Wii Miis of Nintendo's console but less ambitious than the characters possible in the much delayed Home virtual world planned for Sony's PlayStation3." The FT added that Xbox Live's new look and feel will simply happen with a free software update that'll be available in the fall. For more Xbox news, see the San Jose Mercury News.

    Labels: , , ,

    Videogames: Less predictable, more fun

    Ah, the growing challenge of being a videogamer. Not only are there more and more real people behind game characters (in multiplayer online games), but the game characters in console games are getting smarter. "Recent advancements in video game design - and new game consoles with dazzling computing power - have endowed computer-controlled characters with a sense of self-preservation and unpredictability not seen even a year ago," the Associated Press reports. The AP gives the example of the soon-to-be-released Star Wars: The Force Unleashed, in which stormtroopers don't just sit there when you throw something at them. "They may toss a grenade back. Or they might just put their hands up." Increasingly, reactions are not predictable. The latest Grand Theft Auto game was the first to use this technology that creates animation "on the fly," as the gamer plays - probably part of the explanation for GTA4's April sales having surpassed those of a blockbuster movie opening (and may have an impact on holiday wish lists, since only the latest consoles can support this new technology). The moment-by-moment decisions of other people are what create the unpredictability of multiplayer online games.

    Labels: ,

    Wednesday, July 16, 2008

    'Soon we'll all be gamers'

    It's not an exaggeration. I'll start with sales figures, but they're not the only indicator: In the first five months of this year retail sales of videogame software alone (not consoles) "grew 45% over the same period last year to $3.42 billion." Overall videogame industry growth was 32%," the San Jose Mercury News reports. In the UK, sales were up 28% the first half of this year to 33 million+ pounds (about $66 million), the Times of London reports. Other interesting indicators from the Times that this is not merely a phase. "Nintendo is now Japan's second most valuable company - trailing the car maker Toyota but ahead of giants such as Canon and Panasonic." High valuation of game makers in general is "an expression of the market's belief that this industry still has an enormous amount of room to grow," according to the Times, pointing to the explosive growth "that comes when everyone is converted to playing videogames" (with the first generation of child gamers becoming parents themselves and "whole families now gathering around a game console"). Female gamers are certainly in there, representing 38-40% of all gamers, CNET reports, citing two organizations' figures, and "the average female gamer plays games 7.4 hours per week," according to the Entertainment Software Association's figures. Meanwhile, the premier gaming industry conference "E3" is in process in L.A. this week (see the New York Times's scenesetter), thus all the videogame news.

    Labels: , , ,

    Supreme Court justice's P2P security breach

    No, Justice Breyer wasn't using a file-sharing network himself. But a guy at his investment firm was on LimeWire and inadvertently shared "the names, dates of birth and Social Security numbers of about 2,000 of the firm's clients, including a number of high-powered lawyers and Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer," the Washington Post reports. This isn't just about file-sharing in the workplace. It's about how private family records and information can be made public on P2P networks if file-sharers and music fans at home aren't configuring the software correctly. It's only one key topic for family discussion about file-sharing, others being the ethics of file-sharing and the potential for parents being sued by the RIAA for pirated music shared on family computers (at least go into the software with your kid and see how Preferences, Options, or Sharing is set up).

    Labels: , , ,

    Googles deals with sex chat on Lively

    Last week I wrote about Google's launch of Lively avatar chat, ending with a caveat that seems to apply to so much of the social Web: that there were sex-related chat rooms in the Popular Rooms list. This week CNET reports the same: "Despite some injunctions to the contrary, sexual overtones are creeping into" Lively, with the qualification that "a little snooping around revealed some evidence of borderline rooms, but nothing as risque as shows in the more permissive realm of Second Life" (which does have ratings so those who want to can avoid sex-related virtual locations). Google told CNET it's taking complaints about these seriously and is "working to remove them." I think this is an example of one of the points Oxford University professor Jonathan Zittrain makes in his book The Future of the Internet - And How to Stop It - that users' abuses of user-driven services make them less attractive to mainstream users and could have the effect of stigmatizing them or sending the mainstream increasingly to "safer," more controlled services ultimately to the detriment of what's good and constructive on the participatory Web (that may not be his main point, but it was one of my takeaways from a talk he gave).

    Labels: , , , ,

    Monday, July 14, 2008

    The costs of communicative families

    For a reality check on the cost of being highly communicative families, check out a column by Larry Magid, my co-director at, in the San Jose Mercury News. It's so great that Apple lowered the cost of an iPhone by $200 (to $199), but then AT&T "raised the price of the data plan for the new iPhone by $10 a month, which more than wipes out the savings" from the hardware, Larry points out. And that's the point exactly: Look at the cost of service for all our household communication devices and technologies all told, and try not to choke. Just talking on the phone costs the highly communicative Magid family "$3,720 a year," not including "extras like international calls or when we go over our allotted cell phone minutes." Then there's Internet service, PC security services, cable TV, TiVo or Netflix, Xbox Live, etc., etc. Larry and I were just talking about what this must look like in other parts of the world - wondering if anybody has calculated how many families in third-world countries could be fed for the amount of money racked up by Net-literate, highly connected US families.

    Labels: , ,

    A case for critical thinking

    This didn't come up when we were in school! Which is why it's important for us parents to know about it: Photoshopped news photos for propaganda and many other purposes. Nikki Leon at the Harvard Berkman Center's Digital Natives site recently blogged about a photo of missiles in Iran having been altered apparently for political purposes. "The picture, a view of three test missiles launching, was altered to include four (hiding one that failed)," she writes. After mentioning that the photo was used by prominent news outlets (e.g., the BBC, L.A. Times, etc.), she asked the good question of what this means for young Net users. She concludes that "incidents like this week’s explosive photoshoppery are a reminder that students need to be taught how to evaluate online material just as they are encouraged to assess historical print sources [because] ... it is likely that propaganda of this variety will be produced with greater skill and distributed with greater frequency. It is up to teachers, parents, and Digital Natives themselves to ensure that young people will be critical enough to demand the truth." In fact, a friend and teacher in Los Angeles recently told me, "our job is no longer to put information into kids' heads, since they already know more than we do. Our job is more to help them filter and manage it all."

    Labels: , ,