Guide to developing safe gaming and online communities for children and teens

Introduction

The increase in Internet access globally has provided numerous opportunities to learn, share and communicate, and even more so with the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, which has driven many commercial and social activities online.

The Internet has increased access to information, offering children and young people the ability to research almost any subject of interest and access worldwide media and platforms. However, there have been growing concerns of a spike in online child abuse and exploitation, particularly on gaming sites and online communities. Because data can be hacked, that data can be used to reveal children who struggle with bad habits or who are otherwise vulnerable. In fact, from the moment a child opens an app or loads a website, their data is collected. This data is then used to target specific advertising messages, which in most cases, are not suitable for many children and teens.

We have provided this guide to help you to develop safe gaming and online communities for children and teenagers.

How to develop games that are safe to use for children and teens

Although many children and teens play video games in moderation, others become obsessed with gaming. Therein lies many ethical considerations for game developers, particularly whether this obsession actually improves a child’s learning in any meaningful way.

To minimize the risk of a child being affected by any adverse consequences from gaming, developers should ask themselves before and during the gaming design and development the following questions:

  1. Is this game appropriate for your target audience?
  2. Are sufficient means to measure whether the product actually influenced learning?
  3. Can the design’s variables be adequately controlled to minimize social, psychological, and learning risks to users?

By asking these questions, a developer can maximize the educational benefits and minimize the risks for its users.

In addition to those ethical considerations, game developers must also think practically and review the following:

  • Gaming content, including links, that contain illegal, offensive, racist, degrading, corrupting, threatening, obscene, or otherwise described as undesirable, should be removed.
  • Advertising material found in games must be created with a sense of responsibility towards the public. This means that advertisements should aim to avoid content that is likely to cause serious or widespread offense to the average consumer-targeted, particularly towards children and teens for whom the product is not rated as appropriate.
  • There must be appropriate reporting mechanisms in place to allow players to alert or notify game developers of the existence of any unsuitable content on the gaming platform.
  • There must be safeguards in place to ensure children and teens are protected from accessing inappropriate content that other users may introduce.
  • Game developers should implement safety warnings, especially encouraging their users to take occasional breaks from gameplay.
  • Gaming content must be rated appropriately.
  • Game developers should have a set of community standards. These guidelines may contain prohibitions against users who introduce content or indulge in online behavior which is inappropriate, publication of warnings about the supply or display online of private email addresses, or promoting responsible purchasing practices.
  • Game developers should ensure that they maintain effective privacy policies that are in keeping with the applicable data protection laws. This includes the responsible collection, distribution, correction, and security of the personal details of its users. Its users must be allowed to review and comment on the developer’s policy before confirming any subscription to gaming.

How to create and manage safe online gaming communities for children and teenage gamers

Research has found that in order to create and manage a safe online gaming environment, there are several considerations that come into play.

  • Use appropriate technical measures such as parental control tools, block/allow lists, purchase/time controls, opt-out functions, and filtering and moderating to prevent underage access and exposure to inappropriate content or services.
  • Another useful way is to implement a notice and takedown reporting process. This would allow users to report child sexual abuse material or inappropriate contact and the specific profile/location where it was discovered.
  • Apart from the terms and conditions usually found on gaming and online sites, communicate clear rules that emphasize what behavior is and is not acceptable on the platform. Also, be sure to state the consequences of breaking any of these rules.
  • Use age verification to limit access to content or material that, either by law or policy, is intended only for persons above a certain age.
  • Educate consumers on how to manage and report concerns relating to their Internet usage including spam, data theft, and inappropriate contact such as bullying and grooming as well as what actions they can take.
  • Establish internal procedures to ensure compliance under local and international laws on combating child sexual abuse material. When national regulations do not provide sufficient protection, companies should seek to use their leverage to lobby for legislative changes to enable the industry to take steps to combat child sexual abuse material. In countries like the UK, the Age Appropriate Design Code was enacted in 2020 to target companies that made money from children using their digital gaming services and to ensure that those companies were complying with the relevant data protection laws.
  • Additionally, developers should encourage a collaboration between the government and educators to build parents’ abilities to support and speak with their children about being responsible digital users as well as provide parents with the ability to review their child’s privacy settings and encourage them to:
    • Make sure that their child uses a different name than their own and that they do not give away their address, photos or other information to the game.
    • Install a VPN service on their child’s computer or mobile devices, and for gaming consoles, install the VPN on the router.
    • Change location regularly, so that the game cannot collect their child’s real location data. If the game is played through a browser, use a privacy-oriented browser, such as Firefox, to ensure that the settings block third-party cookies.
  • Talk to their child about the game. It may be useful to play the game yourself by spending time alongside your child to learn about the game and its contents.
  • Keep an eye on what is written about the game online, as there are often warnings against illegal and unethical games.
  • Talk to their child about what it means to be a public person, which means that everything they do in the game is publicly available.
  • Be aware of voice masking technology and consider whether to enable or disable this feature. While masking can be a safety feature, predators can use it to pretend to be someone they are not.
  • Beware of strangers and cyberbullies and encourage your child to come to you when they are being bullied or engaged in conversations they do not feel comfortable talking about.
  • Determine if your child is mature enough for voice chat, if not, turn it off. Be aware your child may hear profanity or other unwanted languages via voice chats features.
  • Be aware that numerous blogs, especially on YouTube and Twitch, show kids how to disable parental controls.
  • Keep up with new gaming functions introduced by the game as they often change and can put your child at risk. Gaming developers like Microsoft and Epic often have features on their websites whereby a parent can receive updated changes to gaming functions.

How to work with user-generated content (UGC) in a safe way for children and teenage gamers.

User-generated content (UGC) is an excellent marketing tool to expand and generate more sales for games as it shows the product from a consumer’s perspective, which can be more validating and trustworthy to the public. However, UGC has received negative criticism pertaining to its safety, particularly for children and teens.

Due to the massive amount of UGC created daily, game developers have a responsibility to ensure that they find effective ways to search and filter out bad content, while at the same time, integrating it seamlessly into a game.

·         Establish a community. Games based on UGC are unlikely to succeed without a strong community. This includes building a feedback system that focuses on positive rather than negative comments as well as being prepared to act quickly on that feedback. It is key to listen to what is being said in the public domain and to act on it.

·         Allow players to be creators. Have a gaming platform that really helps players to become creators by finding interesting and simple ways to play. However, all this should be done in a safe space. There should be no offensive content. If this happens then there must be tools in place for players to report and communicate those concerns.

Martin Fritzen

Gaming and esport project manager, keynote speaker and adviser. I develop and implement esport activities with grassroots sport organisations. Bringing new members, new sponsors, new activities and media coverage for grassroots sports clubs.

Contacts

Phone: +45 51931107
Email: esport@martinfritzen.com


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