Online Gaming - Muddying the boundaries between the virtual and real worlds

A few weeks ago an article appeared within my Facebook timeline from an online newspaper I follow. It reported on a young man in Colorado, USA , who was wanted on a drugs charge. He had been chased by the police at high speed and had managed to crash into dozens of other vehicles. He also evaded the police by car-jacking, no less than three other vehicles, one of which was a mother, who was stopped and dragged out of her car whilst the man sped away with her terrified four year old son in the back seat (he was later retrieved frightened and distraught but unharmed when the felon abandoned that car for another).

As I looked down the many, many comments attached to the posting, I was shocked to read postings such as:

“Ha, its just like GTA…” or,

“He’s been playing too much Grand Theft Auto lol!”

What struck me was the casual nature in which people acknowledged an incident that must have been unbelievably traumatic for the mother of the four year-old and the other victims for that matter, even to the point of thinking that it was something to have a bit of a giggle about.

As I read further comments of a similar vein, I started to reflect on whether our now daily engagement with technology is impacting our capacity to differentiate between the real and virtual worlds and whether it is encouraging a worrying trend, with some people, towards insensitive voyeurism; an acceptance that everything on the web is provided for entertainment and an inability to sympathise with a victim.

I then began to consider what impact this phenomena maybe having on young people and this made me think about some experiences I have had in my role as a supply teacher in both primary and secondary schools. Recently, I have noticed how the words ‘rape’ and ‘porn’ appear to have crept into the everyday conversations of young people, even to the point of modifying them with a view to include them in youth culture, as in the word ‘frape’.

Surely, the ‘normalisation’ of these words into our youth vocabulary is not healthy and is contrary to the nurturing environments that adults should be ensuring exist within school and at home. So, how does this happen?

This blurring of the boundaries between reality and cyberspace can manifest itself in much more sinister and darker ways too. A year or so back, I was teaching a Y11 resistant materials class who had a double lesson that spanned over dinner time. A couple of the boys returned to school after spending their dinner at a house of one of the group. As they entered the workshop they were laughing and I overheard one them saying “… it was just like on ‘Fallout’ ”. Thinking that they had been playing video games I asked them about it; however, I was shocked to discover that what they had been watching was a real beheading that had been posted on the internet by a terrorist group. What was equally distressing was how they had viewed this horrific scene, coldly disconnecting the fact that this was a real person from the voyeuristic and trivial ‘entertainment’ the video provided for them. They even likened the event to computer games that they had played to the point of interpreting and reconciling the video as just another scene from a computer game.

As a consequence of the ubiquitous nature of the worldwide web and the type of material that can be accessed, do you think that the real worlds of young people are being dangerously impacted by their cyber worlds? Do you believe that the way in which content is presented such that the difference between the real and the fictional is distinctly vague and blurred, encourages young people to becoming desensitised and numb to real events and situations that, prior to the technological age, would have been genuinely seen as horrific, upsetting or gruesome?

Or do you believe that the impact of the web is no different to the influence on youth culture of radio and television in the post-war 20th century and it is inevitable that media will affect the language and behaviour of young people?

To let us know your opinion is on this important topic, please use the comments section below. There are also a number of related lesson plans and assembly plans available from E-safety Support

Written by Steve Gresty on April 29, 2014 09:15

Online Games: A Few Considerations

Game Based LearningType ‘online games for children’ into a search engine and a staggering amount of results are returned. Quite literally, hours and hours could be spent playing the array of online games. Some online games may have an educational value, developing knowledge and understanding of content in the school curriculum for English, Mathematics or other subjects. Others may benefit wider cognitive development, encouraging reasoning and problem-solving abilities. There are, however, recreational online games that need to be evaluated for their suitability for children and it is important to know what to look for to ensure online safety.

Arcade-type games are prolific on the internet and many of those in search results for ‘online games for children’ (or similar keyword searches) contain inappropriate content. A ‘shoot ‘em up’ game is very different in nature when children are blasting the answer to a number sentence than when zombies, people and everyday objects are the objects of destruction… FunBrain, although an American site, offers arcade-style games that have educational value and some are simply there for the purpose of having fun. As part of Pearson Education, the appropriateness of the content can be trusted.

Online games hosted in the USA that comply with the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) limits marketing and prevents online collection of personal information from children younger than thirteen years old. It is worthwhile knowing about COPPA in the context of the UK because it can provide some assurances to teachers, parents and carers that the online gaming environment has been subject to regulations intended to protect children. Remember, searching for online games using Google or other search engines can provide links to websites hosted anywhere in the world.

Poptropica is a virtual world for children, a multi-player online role-playing game. It has controls to ensure online chat is restricted. Children can communicate with other players and compete with them when travelling through different islands to complete quests and challenges. This website involves scripted chat. It is not possible for a child to type their own questions and answers therefore what is communicated is limited. Personal details cannot be shared. In the event of an adult using the website, they are unable to engage in any conversations other than those determined by the scripted chat facility provided by the website. Avatars are randomly generated and provide anonymity. Poptropica can be considered a safe online role-playing game for children and preferable to console games or other online virtual worlds where multi-player chat is not necessarily subject to such strict constraints. This website is an example of an online environment adhering to the COPPA.

For domains in the UK or elsewhere, it is wise to find parent or teacher information links. In preparing this piece, it was found that this is not always straightforward. It is, however, quite informative. Several websites offering online games for children place the responsibility on those supervising children’s use of the games to decide on whether it is safe and appropriate. Any such notice on an online gaming site should alert an adult to a possible lack of control in the materials available and the extent to which personal information could be shared within games.

So, for teachers, parents and carers concerned about online games that are appropriate for younger children, the following points need to be considered.

If the game is a virtual world where role-playing is featured, thoroughly check the nature of the chat facility. It should generally involve controls in how usernames for avatars are generated and ensure avatar pictures cannot be uploaded therefore the risk of children identifying themselves online is limited. Scripted chat rather than free typing facilities are a feature that should be evident before allowing a child to interact with others in an online virtual environment role-playing game.

It is important to examine what a gaming website says about its own view of how it is or is not actively aiming to support the safeguarding of children. Perhaps a general rule of thumb is to only allow access to reputable websites from trusted organisations, such as the BBC, Disney or other major organisations that produce online games for educational or entertainment purposes.

You can teach your students more about the risks associated with online communication and gaming using a selection of lesson plans and assembly plans available to E-safety Support Premium and Premium Plus members.

Written by Jazz Williams on February 06, 2014 12:39

Freemium - Tricks of the trade or legitimate practice?

It may seem somewhat ironic but the Internet has disrupted the traditional business models of the computer games industry just as it has many other industries.

The ability to distribute data electronically as opposed to on a physical disk has been an undoubted boon for many suppliers of digital or digitise-able content. It has also provided great benefits to the end consumer.

Not only does the Internet allow gamers located in different continents and time zones to communicate and play each other in real time, it also provides an efficient way of acquiring upgrades, expansions and even bug fixes to the original game software. Modern games consoles provide a platform which assumes a hybrid online/physical disk model.

These days of course gaming is big business not just on the traditional platforms and computers, but also on mobile devices such as tablets and smart phones - all of which have an Internet connection.

Playable game demos have always been important for the marketing of new computer games and magazines have been distributing demos on cover mounted cassette tapes, disks and later CDs and DVDs for almost as long as the industry has existed.

In is therefore no surprise that the playable demo has used the Internet as a means of distribution.

Combine the notion of online program upgrades and the idea of the playable demo and you get the 'Freemium' model as it applies to the computer games industry.

A player can acquire a basic form of a game for little or no money and have a play. If they enjoy the game and wish to experience more, they can expand the games parameters by paying for an upgrade from within the game's own interface (and 'in-game' or 'in-app' purchase).

The Freemium model for digital content is widely used in a number of industries. Many online newspapers for instance will provide a certain amount of information for free, but require an upgrade to read deeper.

There has however been much debate around the freemium model as applied to computer games, and especially those which appeal to younger children. Recently the Office of Fair Trading warned the games and online application industry of what it perceived as "potentially unfair and aggressive commercial practices" amid concerns that they could irresponsibly coerce children to pay to continue playing.

There is obvious concern over potential for children to spend or run up bills on in-game or in-app purchase.

It is yet one more area of online safety which parents and teachers will need to educate their children about. But like many aspects of e-safety, much of the learning is about ensuring that usual practice and knowledge is understood when contextualised within the online world. If a child has no concept of money or cost then what hope do they have of understanding a virtual purchase.

While it is undoubtedly possible to cite cases of some app and games providers applying a cynical approach to exploiting in-app purchases by bamboozling the end user into making purchases, the model when used responsibly is a legitimate mainstay of the software publishing sales strategy.

The freemium model is here to stay and is comparable to the way in which we pay for utilities per metered unit or cell phone call time through pay as you go.

One of the reasons that app and games producers use the freemium model is because it provides some kind of defence against the rampant piracy that the software, games, music and movie industry has suffered. Piracy is now so common place that many people simply expect all digital content to be free of charge and show little respect for the talent, energy, time and cost which goes in to producing it.

And yes, once again it is our responsibility to teach young people about piracy in the same way we would talk to them about theft of a physical item.

For teaching resources on gaming or online piracy, visit the E-safety Support Lesson Plans and E-safety Support Assembly Plans

Written by Safeguarding Essentials on October 10, 2013 18:48


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