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February 4, 2005

Dear Subscribers:

It has been a busy week for kid-tech news. Here's the lineup for these first days of Feb:

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A mom writes: Trash talk in online games

To some (probably young, hard-core players), the trash talk and profanity of game chat are no doubt part of the online multiplayer game experience. To others (probably a lot of parents), it's shocking and inappropriate. Mary, a reader in Missouri, heard what game opponents were saying to her 15-year-old Xbox player, then - to her credit - got into the game herself to see what it was all about. Here's what she emailed me, saying she felt other parents might like to know about the chatter surrounding these multiplayer games....

"I was sitting in the room with my teenage son while he was playing a video game on Xbox Live. I was absolutely horrified to hear the language that was being used over a voice communicator by other players. When I told my son to leave that particular game, the game punished him for leaving by lowering his game ranking. When I contacted Microsoft about the matter, they told me that there was a feedback option that reports these acts. So, I played the games and used the feedback option myself. After playing many of the same people after leaving the feedback, nothing changed. Microsoft seemingly has no plans to stop verbal abuse from one player to another while they continue to market the service to youth.

"My concern is that many parents have this service in their household and don't even know what is being said to their children because the Xbox Live Communicator that is used has an earpiece so that only the player can hear what is being said. I will admit that I might expect an occasional vulgarity, but what I heard was enough to make a fleet of sailors blush. I had no idea and I am certain that many of your readers don't either. As for our household, the service is being discontinued. Even though I am just one customer, I think that it is time for services like this to know that people are paying attention to what goes on with their services."

The game Mary's referring to is called "Top Spin," but that's almost irrelevant because the communications feature she's talking about is not unique to the game or even to Xbox - it's an integral part of the massively multiplayer gaming experience. Sony PlayStation 2 also has live game chat. Mary mentioned an earpiece; here's what the headsets look like that go with Xbox Live (note the reference to "talking trash with your opponents") and PS2 (the pitch being, "Talknet Online Voice Communicator allows you to talk, challenge, strategize, and taunt in real time during online PS2 Playstation gameplay").]

Xbox Live's reply

Here's Xbox Customer Support's response to the feedback Mary sent them when she played the game (note players' options to "mute" opponents or set up private game sessions with hand-picked opponents):

"Thank you for writing to Xbox regarding the experience you had on xbox live.... We apologize for the inconvenience this issue has brought you. We will submit your concern to the proper department.

"However, if we may inform you that you can also mute the players you think are too loud or vulgar.

"Xbox Live uses an automated complaint system. This means that you submit complaints online not over the phone. This insures fairness because the online complaint system keeps track of the players who have participated in game sessions with one another and restricts complaints to those members who have participated together in games.

"Note: Actions that Xbox Live takes for complaints are based on the frequency and severity of complaints that are logged against a player. If another player continues to bother you while you are playing online, you can use the mute feature to prevent that player from talking to you, or you can create a private game session and invite only the gamers you want to play with....

"In case you have other Xbox Live concerns, feel free to write back. We take feedback on Xbox Live and our Customer Service very seriously and review customer comments daily."

Back at Mary's house

"My son has taken the X-Box Live ban in stride. At home, he doesn't turn the X-Box on as much. I have heard that there is a lot of peer pressure to get back online. I have even had the mother of one of his friends call to ask why I had put a stop to it. When I told her, she said that I was being too harsh and informed me that she would allow my son to compete on X-Box Live at her house. That is where the real problems have occurred, because I no longer allow my son to go over there. However, this is something that I feel strongly about so that is the way things will be for now."

Talking with strangers

One other thing to note about online gaming is that your kid is playing with people s/he doesn't know. Not a huge deal (in all the kid-tech news I see everyday, I've never seen a single report about gamers approached by ill-intentioned adults in game chat), but it is something to be aware of and maybe alert your kids to. It wouldn't hurt to ask them if they've ever gotten any strange, out-of-context message from a fellow player and tell them to let you know if they do. Or ask them to show you all aspects of game communications (in Web sites, during play, etc.) and ask them about strange or off-topic chat comments in the context of that show-and-tell session.

I would love to hear what you and your kids think about game chat - whether they engage in or mute it, how they feel about it, and if you feel it's inappropriate. Do email me via

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Latest gaming news

  1. Profanity at school. I'm adding this April '05 Washington Post retroactively because of its relevance here: "More and More, Kids Say the Foulest Things: Anti-Swearing Efforts Falling on Deaf Ears"

  2. More moves against violent games. This week measures were introduced in Georgia's state Senate and in the District of Columbia. In Georgia, two bills were introduced that would make it a crime to sell or rent violent video games to minors, the Associated Press reports, and in DC, religious, community, and political leaders called for a ban on sales of violent and sexually explicit video games to minors, the Washington Post reports. Similar bans have been considered in Michigan and Illinois, and "Tennessee lawsuit blames Grand Theft Auto for the death of a man killed by teenagers," according to the Post. The legal prospects for bans are uncertain, though. "Federal appeals courts have rejected as unconstitutional efforts by St. Louis County and Indianapolis to regulate video games."

  3. Xbox 2 "could be unveiled in May," the BBC reports. Sony, Microsoft, and Nintendo are all expected to start selling their next-gen machines in the next 18 months and Microsoft by the end of the year. "Gamers are looking forward to the next generation of machines because they will have much more processing and graphical power" and are expected to serve more as entertainment and communications hubs than mere game players. The good news is, that makes gaming more immersive and players more accessible to each other; the downside is, as the player universe grows, kids are that much more accessible to people they don't know who might not only have gaming in mind (as mentioned above). Here's an earlier BBC piece on what gamers expect of PS 3, Xbox 2, and the next version of GameCube.

  4. Xbox: very versatile little machine. Its most tech-fluent fans think of it as much more than a game player, a sign of where Microsoft's headed with it. "A $30 remote-control kit turns it into a DVD player, and the recent $80 Media Center Extender kit enables a networked Xbox to play music, photos and video stored on a PC running Windows XP Media Center Edition," the Washington Post reports.

  5. So is Sony's PlayStation Portable (PSP), due out late next month, CNET reports. Watch out, this little number will be desirable, to say the least! It's sort of Sony's answer to the Nintendo DS (here's USATODAY on the PSP and a description of the DS at Amazon) - both connect to the Net wirelessly for multiplayer gaming. Parents just need to know that kids will be able to be just as connected to anyone in cyberspace from anywhere with the PSP as they are at home on the family PC. Parents who buy kids these gadgets have less and less control over whom their kids "talk" to.

  6. 18-year-old gamer Rocco's amazing success story: According to the Washington Post, he was bored one day over winter break, so he designed a "primitive game" and got his friends and then their friends to play, then he made it better until it turned into "King of Chaos," a massively multiplayer online role-playing game, or MMORPG (catchy, huh?). Now one of the Top 50 game sites on the Web, KoC gets 5 million page views a day, with 136,488 active users and more than 90,000 hits on Google, complete with fan sites.

  7. More and more members of the Hollywood elite are as interested in video game making as in film making, the Post reports. Why? Video games are interactive - players help write the very non-linear story line. Here's the Post's games page.

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Web News Briefs

  1. Anti-P2P tool for parents

    Hollywood has an interest in keeping kids' file-sharing under control, and now they've delivered on it. The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) is providing free software called "Parent File Scan" that scans your computer for P2P programs and movie and music files. Here's a review and explanation of how the software works at Freedom to Tinker, personal blog of Princeton University computer science Prof. Edward Felten. He and other experts recommend care in deleting files because the software makes no distinction between legal and illegal ones. If anything, this software is best used as a tool for discussion with our kids about what they're downloading and sharing. Here's advice on teen file-sharing from a tech-literate dad and my feature, "File-sharing realities for families." On the MPAA's software, here's coverage from CNET and the BBC. In addition, the MPAA just filed its second round of lawsuits against film file-sharers, CNET reports, and the RIAA just sued 717 more tune-swappers.

    Meanwhile, downloading TV shows (without the expense of TiVo or a cable box) is becoming quite the phenomenon, the New York Times reports. The Times cites research showing that, in one week last month, The Simpsons, the No. 1 "Most Shared Show," was shared 924,143 times. Then there's high-minded file-sharing (e.g., P2P communities built around Japanese anime), which also is technically illegal. An example is Anime-Faith, which uses BitTorrent P2P technology. CNET reports insightfully and in depth.

  2. Watch out for 2 new worms!

    With these two new worms, your family PC is fine if nobody opens any email attachments. Both involve faces. The funny-face worm, named Wurmark-F, " displays a photo of a man 'gurning' - a British tradition of pulling silly faces," CNET reports. The second one, called Bobax.H, targets news junkies with a photo of Saddam Hussein's face (the email says he's dead), CNET reports in another alert. Both carry attachments that, if opened, launch trojan software that takes control of the computer (turns it into one of those zombie machines that send out zillions of spam messages). For more on this, see my feature, "What if our PC's a zombie?".

  3. Teens not so Web-savvy: Study

    Are we parents techno-peasants compared to our teenagers? A just-released study by market researchers Nielsen Norman Group found the answer to be yes and no. USATODAY and CNN handled the findings a little differently, but both said the findings challenge the widely held stereotype of the teen "technowizard." "The study [conducted in California, Colorado, and Australia] showed that teens quickly succumb to Internet ennui and, unlike their parents, give up quickly on sites that are difficult to navigate," according to CNN. But both CNN's headline and USATODAY's article says that means parents are more Web-savvy. It could also mean we're more patient and read instructions more - it just might be more about maturity. "The Nielsen study asked 38 teens between the ages of 13 and 17 to perform tasks on 23 specific Web sites. The study measured a success rate of 55% for teenage users" and 66% for adult users. "The success indicates a proportion of time the users were able to complete a task on a target site. Teens were found to have poor reading skills, unsophisticated research strategies and a 'dramatically' lower patience level," CNN reports.

    This doesn't deter me from believing that teenagers as a whole are more tech- and Net-savvy than parents as a whole. But there's a distinction that these articles fail to make between "media literacy" and "Web literacy." I think adults are generally more media-literate, more critical about the media they consume, on and off the Web, and maturity is part of the reason. Youth, on the other hand, are much more fluent (and adventurous) with the technology itself - plenty critical about how easily they can move around in a Web site and not so much about its content. What do you think? Email me (at! Here's NNGroup's press release. For more on critical thinking online, see my 5/30/03 issue.

  4. Mobiles not good for driving: Study

    Whether the phone is handheld or hands-free, a teenager talking on it while driving has the reactions of a 70-year-old, "increasing their risk of accidents," the Associated Press reports. That's according to a University of Utah study of 18-to-25-year-old drivers. " In fact, motorists who talk on cell phones are more impaired than drunken drivers with blood-alcohol levels exceeding 0.08," the AP adds. Drivers on phones are 18% slower in braking and take 17% longer to regain speed after braking, the study found. The findings are a challenge to laws that only address driving while talking on a handheld cell phone.

  5. MSN Search launched

    MSN's been beta-testing its new search service for several months. Now, after taking "suggestions from people who used the test version to improve some functions," its own home-grown search engine is officially launched," E-Commerce Times reports. You'll find it right at the top of and on its own page. Improvements include 50% faster results and better answers to questions using Microsoft's Encarta encyclopedia, according to E-Commerce Times, though MSN says it still needs to work on the "search near me" (local yellow pages-like) feature. The company's main goal is to respond to queries with actual answers, not just Web-pages, ZDNET reports. Here's my first look at MSN Search.

    Lots of search news these days. Just in: Yahoo's new search-on-the-fly feature, whereby you click on a word or phrase like "Iraq" in a news story and turns up links to related Web pages, CNET reports. Here's last week's search news: "New search perks" and "Answers, pls" .

  6. AOL's new tool for parents & a Q 4 U

    It will be part of America Online's Moviefone and CityGuide services, CNET reports. And it's designed to help parents decide what movies, DVDs, local events, and eventually music, games, and books are appropriate for their children. Editors at Moviefone and CityGuide will highlight events and media with the help of ratings (the MPAA's for films) and kids' media watchdog Common Sense Media. What's interesting to me is the absence of the Web in this equation. This development seems to be more about traditional media, and I wonder if that's because parents are not as concerned (yet?) about where their kids go online. Do you think the Net is less important to parents? Would you be interested in having experts rate or highlight Web sites, technologies, and online services targeting kids and teens? I would love to get your view on this.

  7. Mini's ins and outs

    If you're thinking about a Mac Mini for future family computing, read Sunday's "Fast Forward" by Washington Post tech writer Rob Pegoraro. Are you familiar with "the spinning beachball of death" (as Mac aficionados call the system-busy cursor)? If you want to copy a DVD's worth of photos to the hard drive and you don't want to spend a lot of time watching the beachball spin, you'll need twice the memory the basic Mini comes with. You'll need 512 megabytes installed at purchase (for an extra $75), since there's only one memory card slot in the Mini's mini box, Rob says (you're unlikely to want to go in and swap memory cards later on your own). The basic 256 megs do "suffice for browsing the Web while listening to an iTunes playlist," he adds. Also, to plug any mouse and keyboard (besides Apple's) into the Mini, you'll need a special $12 cable (plugging in any monitor is no problem). Read Rob's piece for more on the peripherals issues and to get a great workaround for the Mini's dearth of USB ports. He also does a little price-comparing: "There's still a difference between the start-up costs of Windows and Mac computing, but with the Mac Mini, Apple has shrunk them to the size of an ATM withdrawal, not a car payment," he says, pointing out that PC-security peace of mind might be worth the extra $15-50. Of course, that's only about viruses and spyware, not child-online-safety issues. That's another ball of wax.

  8. NBC's 'kids' secret lives' series

    NBC's Today Show zoomed in on kids and media this week in "The Secret Lives of Children." The show did a great job of illustrating the problem of growing up (and parenting) in what pediatrician and author Meg Meeker refers to as "a toxic sexual culture." But I feel there was a little too much fear-mongering in NBC's treatment of the Internet - note the headlines, "What you don't know can hurt kids" and "For kids, danger lurks a click away." NBC's Dateline actually joined Internet vigilante group Perverted Justice on a sting that caught some pedophiles visiting what they thought were a teenage girl's house. But the Today Show pieces are worth reading. They make some tried-and-true points - stressing the value of engaged parenting and tech literacy and suggesting that parents should be more concerned about contacts (pedophiles) than content (porn) where online kids are concerned. However, NBC doesn't mention that Net-initiated sex crimes against kids represent a fraction of overall sexual exploitation of children in the US - in 2000 (latest figures available), there were 500 arrests for Net-related crimes vs. 65,000 overall (see "Rethinking 'stranger danger'" and a study done for the American Psychological Association). Here are the parts of Today's series on what kids are exposed to on TV and on the radio.

  9. 13-year-old 'Linux guru'

    Most of us don't even know what Linux is, much less speak with authority on it at conferences. Plus, in an era when researchers are trying to figure out why there aren't enough girls in math and science, this little Linux guru is a girl. [Linux is the open-source computer operating system started by Linus Torvalds and called "open source" because it's continuously evolving as it's contributed to and improved upon by software writers worldwide.] Elizabeth Garbee "may not know as much about Linux as her father Bdale Garbee, Linux CTO for HP and former Debian Project Leader [he helped Elizabeth install her first Debian server when she was 9], but that won't stop her from presenting at 2005," ZDNET UK reports. Elizabeth will be speaking on "Extending Tuxracer - Learning by Playing," a seminar about making modifications to the popular open-source game, Tuxracer (featuring the fat little penguin who is the Linux mascot), to make it more fun, ZDNET UK adds. The conference will be held at Australian National University in late April.

  10. Teen worm writer to be jailed

    His parents were partly to blame in this case, according to the judge. Jeffrey Lee Parson, arrested in 2003 for writing a variant of the Blaster worm that infected some 48,000 computers, has been sentenced to 18 months in prison, Wired News reports. He also will have to perform community service, be supervised for three years, and pay restitution (a hearing for the amount to paid to Microsoft and other affected will be held later this month). "US District Judge Marsha Pechman, however, did not give the Minnesota teen the maximum 37-month sentence, saying Parson [then a high school student] wrote malicious software and used it to attack other computers partly because of neglectful upbringing and supervision." The original Blaster worm's writer has yet to be caught according to ZDNET UK.

  11. More on mommy blogs

    "The world's most thankless occupation, parenthood, has never inspired so much copy," reported the New York Times in last Sunday's Style section, not painting a wholly pretty picture of parents chronicling their family life in the some 8,500 blogs of this nature. "For the generation that begat reality television it seems that there is not a tale from the crib (no matter how mundane or scatological) that is unworthy of narration." Actually, writer David Hochman says, these blogs are not so much online baby scrapbooks as "online shrines to parental self-absorption." And he cites a psychologist's view that this is one way we overcome that feeling of being invisible that comes over newcomers to the parenting experience. One mom said her blog, and all the emails responding to it, helped her get past postpartum depression faster. Hochman links to plenty of examples of daddy and mommy blogs, including one or two that have spawned books. Here's a great group blog called DotMoms - nothing like a little mommy and daddy solidarity! And a previous item I ran on baby blogs and a reader/daddy blogger's response.

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That does it for this week. Have a great weekend!


Anne Collier, Editor

Net Family News

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