Whitelist Chat as a Strategy to Protect Children Online

The ability to interact with other players is one of the most compelling aspects of online multiplayer games. However, in games for young children, there are obvious privacy and safety concerns in allowing unrestricted chatting. The state of the art solution, implemented in practically every online community for kids is “whitelist” chat (on some websites, combined with live monitoring). Whitelist chat means that only real dictionary words are allowed (bonus: helps spelling!) and certain real words (e.g., names of place and numbers) are excluded from this list. As an enthusiast of children’s online communities, I’ve been fascinated by the many ways that children have found to get around these restriction. In this blog post, I will use the children’s online game Petpet Park as an example, though honestly it could be one of any number of communities (Roblox, Club Penguin, etc.).

In Petpet Park, children play a creature who does quests around town, plays mini games, buys clothes and toys, and decorates their own little corner of the world. The website combines a strict set of whitelist restrictions and live monitoring to ensure safe chat. However, kids always find a way!

Petpet Park

A screenshot from Petpet Park. Children create creatures that can do quests, play games, and chat with each other.

petpet park taboo

Creative combination of real words and referring to cultural landmarks as a way of conveying real locations — a taboo topic on children’s websites.

Consider the public chat to the right (username removed for privacy). This person has found a creative way of combining real words (“train i dad” = Trinidad) and references to cultural landmarks (“cowboys” = USA, “place with that arch” = St. Louis) to discuss places of residence (a taboo topic on a children’s website). I want to be clear that I am not criticizing Petpet Park. In fact, I was impressed that this discussion was almost immediately shut down by a live monitor (booting the over-sharing child off the server), but this behavior is quite common and the damage could be done before a monitor steps in. Here are some common ways that I’ve seen children getting around the rules:

  • Typing a single letter on each chat line to spell out a forbidden word. (Not possible on all websites — Petpet Park does not allow this, for example)
  • Using the letter “i” to convey numbers. (e.g., “I am i i i i i i i years old”)
  • Spelling out a non-whitelisted word using first letters of allowed words. (e.g., “Read only first letters. My name is Like Amazing Nutty Almonds.”)
  • Using the meanings of allowed words to convey forbidden information. (e.g., “I go to the school that’s named after the guy that flew the kite.”)

The point that I want to make is that no online community is going to be 100% safe. In particular, the state of the art whitelist strategy is only effective when augmented with live monitoring (and even then, it may be too little too late). Safe chat is not a replacement for parental engagement and keeping open lines of communication about online rules. The other thing to remember is that no online filter will ever be able to enforce empathy and kind interaction online or be able to protect the child from being excluded or hurt by others. Both conversations should be an important part of raising digital citizens.

Cat Got Your App

Oh hai, I’m Chewie!

I have been thinking about starting a series of posts called “N of One,” where I observe or interview one person about doing something interesting and report the results here. However, today is my blogging day and I find myself alone with my cat, so it seems like my first “N of One” is going to be about Animal-Computer Interaction. In this episode, Chewie (actually, Chui, but no need to be formal here) experiments with several different cat games for the iPad.

So, here we go. (1) We started out with the free version of the GameForCats laser game. I already knew that this is a game she would enjoy and indeed, she gleefully scored several points in the game. Rating: 10/10!

(2) I upgraded ($1.99) to the full version which unlocked the mouse and the butterfly games, but Chewie was freaked out by the loud noises both animals made when caught and chose to observe the movement from afar instead. Rating: 4/10.

(3) Chewie got bored with watching the iPad and found that my wallet was more fun to bat around.

(4) To get her attention back, we downloaded the app Cat Games for $0.99 ($0.25 to Humane Society). Unfortunately, all the games in this app failed to get Chewie engaged in interacting. The laser and tarantula games didn’t give any feedback when you caught them. Some of the other games actually made dog sounds, which spooked her. The only part that she liked was the cat meow that was the chime whenever I interacted with the interface. Rating: 5/10.

(5) Next, we downloaded Cat Toys Lite (free). This did get Chewie’s attention again. The mouse made funny sounds, that weren’t too loud. Rating: 8/10.

(6) Chewie kept nudging the iPad up with her nose. I think she thought that the mouse was actually underneath.

(7) Okay, so the first app seemed to be the clear winner, but I wanted to make sure that this wasn’t just Chewie getting bored with video games. So, at the end we returned to the GamesForCats laser game … and it still really got her attention and really got her engaged with it!

In conclusion, my cat seems to prefer free apps. Anybody else torture amuse their cat with iPad games? How did it go?

Addiction to Games: Is It Serious?

Breaking rules and lying to play more is a sign of addiction.

Addiction to games like Everquest and World of Warcraft has serious consequences for some young people. More recently, serious consequences of addiction has been noted even among players of casual online games such as FarmVille. Though behavioral addiction (e.g., pathological gambling) are being included in the DSM, online addiction and addiction to games are not formally included yet.

I was curious about this and since I’ve been looking at the players of one casual gaming website for kids, Neopets, I just went ahead and asked some questions. I want to emphasize that this is just me being curious, not publishable research, because I did not have any sort of IRB here. I made a single post on the public Neopets forums asking: “I’ve been seeing a few people talking about being ‘addicted’ to Neopets. How do you know if you’re addicted?” I’ll highlight some of the responses here clustered using the Internet Safety Project questions for Online Game Addiction:

  • Do you play compulsively?

I always have neopets open in a tab when I’m online_ I can spend hours playing. I’ve also tried to quit and never been successful. I also tend to spend a lot on money for neocash or plushies for keyquest. :/

  • Do you play for long periods of time (often longer than you had planned)?

Signs of Addiction: You want to go to sleep but your laptop is right beside you with the neopets main page. YOu go on it for another “10 minutes”(What I’m doing right now XD) You go on neopets for 5 hours a day or more(Hmm…. might be me XD)

  • Once online, do you have difficulty stopping?

Lol I’ve tried quitting and cutting down. I spend nearly half my day on neopets everyday. I haven’t missed a day since….. Uh….. oh! Two days in June because I was on vacation and didn’t have net access. And before that.. er.. I can’t remember lol.

  • Do you play as often as you can?

I am on here every day. Sometimes I am on here for sixteen plus hours and other times I am only on here for a couple of hours.

  • Do you sneak or violate family rules in order to play?

Im not “addicted” I just spend at least 4 hours a day on Neo if I can, usually more. Im very involved in the site however I have taken very very long hiatus which was horrible since I missed so much! I told my family the other day that I would have to run away if they ever “compromised” my account.

  • Do you sacrifice real-world things for your online world?

I would wake up and tune out my family and just exist on Neopets. Neopets was negatively affecting my life. My family and I had a small hitch in our lives because of my time spent on Neopets.  At some point though, I changed. Probably when I got iced a few years ago and never could get my account back. I avoided Neopets for awhile, because it upset me so much. But I had taken things too far. I finally came back, and got caught up in the NC stuff there for awhile, and I seriously wasted a LOT of money. I can’t say at some point I won’t go through this same thing again, but I hope now that I’ve been through it, I will recognize it if it begins to happen and pull myself away.

  • Is your school or work suffering because of the time and energy you spend gaming?

Now the problem is that when I can’t handle the pressure of real life (like day before an exam), I rather escape it instead of trying to fix things.

  • Have your sleep patterns changed since you became involved with online gaming? Are you staying up extremely late or getting up in the middle of the night to play?

When you need a 5 hour energy shot the next day because you stayed up all night playing neopets and only got a couple hours of sleep. *drinks 5 hour energy shot*

If you’d like to read more, more anonymized answers are available here. Again, these are all folks who are currently playing the game, none of these people have managed to quit yet. The tendency in these situations is to blame the player for lacking willpower to stop or just being silly. Nobody ever talks about the game designer bearing any responsibility (e.g., this). Yet, games are getting more and more sophisticated at leveraging psychology and the chemistry of addiction to get people to play more. Are we expecting too much of kids and young people to be able to avoid these pitfalls? What can we do to help people find a way out if they become trapped in the cycle of addiction? Who should be responsible for providing these services?

One last thing, I hate to end on a hopeless note. If you or a loved one are facing online or gaming addiction, there are some resources available here. You do not have to be alone!