It’s a summer afternoon, and Brian Ostrander looks very calm for someone fighting for his life. Facing down a giant scorpion in a foreign city, the 12-year-old shows no fear as he raises his weapon and swiftly dispatches the beast.
“Actually, these guys are pretty easy to defeat,” says Brian. And, thankfully, the mega-bugs don’t actually exist. Brian is playing RuneScape, a computer game that steeps players in a world of fantasy, quests and magic. Super Mario Bros. RuneScape is one of the newest generation of computer games – a Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game or MMORPG. And if you think mastering Nintendo’s “The Legend of Zelda” has prepared you for this kind of game, think again.
Because when you play an MMORPG, the whole world is playing with you.
By now, even parents of elementary school-age kids have heard of MySpace and the potential dangers these kinds of social networking sites pose. But there is another place where kids may be getting to know people they’ve never met face to face. And you might never recognize the danger, because it looks just like another computer game.
“Here, I’ll ask this guy a question,” Brian says. A few keystrokes and Brian starts up a conversation with another player – not a computer-generated character, but a real person who could be across town or across the globe. With close to 10 million free and fee-paying members in the RuneScape world, there’s no telling who or where a new “friend” might be.
“People say like, ‘Hey, how’s it going?’ and we’ll start talking about the game. We’ll hang out in the game,” explains Brian as he continues chatting.
In fact, for games like “World of Warcraft,” “Everquest” or “RuneScape,” chatting and interacting with other “real” characters in the game is a huge part of play. In some MMORPGs, in order to advance, players have to hook up with other people and work as a team. Kids love the freedom of the games, creating characters and immersing themselves into a fantasy world. And MMORPGs also can serve as a social meeting place, where friendships are formed and carried on offline through e-mail and phone calls.
“I probably have about 40 people on my friends list,” Brian says as he shows off the set-up page that lets him keep track of where his buddies are. “Most of the people on the list go to my school. But I’d say about 10 of them I met in the game.”
For many parents, the thought of their child having online-only “friends” is a huge cause for concern. It seems not a day goes by without another news story about the dangers kids face on the Internet. While it’s difficult to find exact numbers, some studies suggest as many as one in five children will be approached by a pedophile while online. While sites like MySpace.com and Internet chat rooms get the most attention, predators look for any opportunity to connect with a potential victim. And that includes chatting in an MMORPG.
“We have had cases that started out in online games … the predators find children and then move to another branch of communication like a chat room or phone calls,” says Doris Gardner, the Supervising Special Agent for the North Carolina FBI’s Cyber Crimes unit. She says pedophiles will look for any opportunity to engage a child, and then look for ways to take the conversation to another level.
“Once they’ve started chatting, some pedophiles will give the child a 1-800 number or set up a new e-mail account for the child so they can talk without the parents knowing,” says Gardner.
It’s enough to make a parent want to toss the computer out of the nearest window. But in reality, officers who deal with Internet criminals – and many parents – agree the solution isn’t that simple.
Keeping Kids Safe
Experts say predators pick out kids who are vulnerable. They pick up on kids who have a need and then they try to meet those needs.
The best way to keep kids safe is lots of supervision. Talk to kids, educate them, monitor them and discuss from time to time what they’re doing online. Children should be aware of what can happen online. While, the dangers may seem obvious to adults, they are not always obvious to children, and kids need to be told people aren’t always who they say they are online.
Gardner advises parents to be hyperaware of their kids’ online activities. Last year, she hosted an Internet safety seminar for a school PTA group. She says smart parents not only supervise what their kids are doing online, but they make sure they understand it, too.
“Parents need to know what the dangers are,” she says. “If they want to protect their children, then first they have to learn the technology. … The bad guys have it, and if the parents don’t, they’re at a huge disadvantage.”
Gardner says parents need to follow basic cyber safety tips, like teaching kids to never share personal information online, choosing good passwords (like random letters, not a family member’s name) and making sure the computer is in a public place in the home (not in a child’s bedroom).
There is a wealth of other resources for parents available at the public library and online such as fbi.gov and netsmartz.org.
Gardner also says one of the best resources of all could be your own children.
“Sit down with your children at the computer and get them to show you what they’re doing,” she says. “Say, ‘Show me how this works,’ or ask, ‘Who do you play this game with?’ Get your children to show off what they know.”
It’s that kind of communication that keeps Sue Ostrander, Brian’s mother, comfortable with his game playing online.
“I think you have to be somewhat relaxed,” she says. “Look at what they’re doing, but don’t freak out. Just let them tell you what they’re doing online.”
In fact, Ostrander says staying calm and taking an interest in her kids’ activities really helped maintain an open relationship. “With his older brother, if I would sit there and play a system game, that’s when (we would) do all of the talking. You’re on their level. That’s when I’d hear about what’s going on in his life.”
While Ostrander says RuneScape isn’t her idea of a good time, she has made a point to sit down with Brian and have him show her around the game. Ostrander also follows many of the other cyber safety guidelines touted by the experts, including making sure the computer is in a public place and making sure to continually talk to her kids about online safety.
“I go over the rules with them. I’m sure they think I’m nagging … but if I’ve watched a show about safety, I’ll make a point to say, ‘Make sure you don’t do that!'”
But his mother’s “nagging” seems to have rubbed off. When asked about his conversations with strange characters in the game, Brian explains he never gets personal, keeping the chat to game play and nothing more.
“You don’t talk about where you’re from, that’s one of the rules,” he says. “You have to read a bunch of rules before you start playing. They say never give out addresses or phone numbers or anything. But I wouldn’t give out personal information, anyway. That’s just common sense.”
Maila Rible is a freelance journalist and Internet reporter, who recently moved to Pennsylvania from Greensboro. Listen to her radio show at waitiknowthis.com or contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.