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Virtual Worlds and Youth: Accessing Explicit Content

December 10, 2009 2 comments

FTC Report Finds Sexually and Violently Explicit Content in Online Virtual Worlds Accessed by Minors

Recommends Best Practices to Shield Children and Teens

The Federal Trade Commission today issued a report that examines the incidence of
sexually and violently explicit content in online virtual worlds. The congressionally mandated report, “Virtual Worlds and Kids: Mapping the Risks,” urges operators of virtual worlds to take a number of steps to keep explicit content away from children and teens, and recommends that parents familiarize themselves with the virtual worlds their kids visit.

The report analyzes how easily minors can access explicit content in virtual worlds, and the measures virtual world operators take to prevent minors from viewing it. According to the findings, although little explicit content appeared in child-oriented virtual worlds, a moderate to heavy amount appeared in virtual worlds that are designed for teens and adults.

Virtual worlds are popular with children and adults because they blend 3-D environments with online social networking, allowing users to interact in and shape their own online content. Through avatars – digital representations controlled by humans in real time – virtual world users socialize, network, play, or even conduct business in graphics-intensive landscapes using text or voice chat, sounds, gestures, and video. Despite the educational, social, and creative opportunities virtual worlds offer, the FTC’s report found that explicit content exists, free of charge, in online virtual worlds that minors are able to access. In fact, some virtual worlds designed for teens and adults allow – or even encourage – younger children to get around the worlds’ minimum age requirements.

“It is far too easy for children and young teens to access explicit content in some of these virtual worlds,” said FTC Chairman Jon Leibowitz. “The time is ripe for these companies to grow up and implement better practices to protect kids.”

The FTC surveyed 27 online virtual worlds – including those specifically intended for young children, worlds that appealed to teens, and worlds intended only for adults. The FTC found at least one instance of either sexually or violently explicit content in 19 of the 27 worlds. The FTC observed a heavy amount of explicit content in five of the virtual worlds studied, a moderate amount in four worlds, and only a low amount in the remaining 10 worlds in which explicit content was found.

Of the 14 virtual worlds in the FTC’s study that were, by design, open to children under age 13, seven contained no explicit content, six contained a low amount of such content, and one contained a moderate amount. Almost all of the explicit content found in the child-oriented virtual worlds appeared in the form of text posted in chat rooms, on message boards, or in discussion forums.

FTC Report Finds Sexually and Violently Explicit Content in Online Virtual Worlds Accessed by Minors

HEEEEEEEEEEEEEERRRRRRRREEEEEEEEEEEEE WE GOOOOOOOOOOOOO!

Okay, for as much as I would love (and you know I would) to ramble ramble ramble about my opinions on this piece, I am going to stay MUM.

Why, you ask? Well, because according to engageexpo.com, I am (and very happily so) speaking on this VERY topic with Phyllis Marcus, who was commissioned by the FTC to research and report on youth and virtual worlds.

Safety in Online Worlds: How the Federal Trade Commission Sees It
In March of 2009, Congress mandated that the Federal Trade Commission study the types of content available in online virtual worlds — paying close attention to explicit sexual and violent content — and the mechanisms those worlds use to manage access by minors. In this unique session, the Commission’s senior most attorney assigned to the 2009 Virtual Worlds Report to Congress will present results and discuss the agency’s recommendations for strengthening access controls to virtual worlds while allowing free expression to flourish online. This first-ever analysis of virtual worlds by the FTC will be discussed by senior attorney Phyllis H. Marcus who heads the Commission’s children’s privacy program and is responsible for enforcing the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA). Marcus expects this session to be the first detailed public reveal of her division’s nine-month study of virtual world content. She will present data, offer recommendations, and participate in a lively one-on-one interview with virtual world child safety advocate and online community activist Izzy Neis.
Phyllis H. Marcus, senior attorney, Div of Advertising Practices, FTC’s COPPA lead
Izzy Neis, Senior Community Safety Lead, Gazillion Entertainment

http://www.engageexpo.com/ny2010/schedule/track2.html

Score, right? Right. Couldn’t have asked for a better opportunity 🙂

I’m looking forward to this, especially after reading the article on the FTC page, and subsequently skimming through the document while printing (it’s a relatively good sized print, fyi).

I’ve never been shy to discuss the social (and sometimes sexual) exploration of youth in free, identity-less (or identity-filled) web environments – from Language play in phrases to bumping to sexting to warplay.  Playgrounds can be a very confusing/odd place for those who do not understand or are not a part of the intricate socialization patterns and learning curve.  And even for those of us who DO understand these same things, it’s still nerve-wrecking and frightening to behold (don’t even get me started on my 13 year old cousin’s behavior on facebook).  But, we react that way because we MUST.  It’s the elder’s duty to help guide and educate the young.  But, that’s not always enough (this doesn’t mean stop, it just means, more is needed).

We cannot expect kids to just inherently know NOT to behave certain ways – especially if that behavior or action can illicit some sort of euphoria or adrenaline rush.  They don’t learn “No, don’t do that” through osmosis.  Fire = bright & warm & pretty & powerful, but you don’t know it hurts until you touch it… you could listen to your folks who say “don’t touch the fire, it burns”, but the curiosity will always be there because you don’t precisely understand the magnitude of “it burns”.

Naturally, someone has to say it – NO, don’t do that.  And when youth refuse to listen (and when they decide to touch the fire), we have to be there to guide, educate, and then PICK THEM UP once they learn their lessons, or after they suffer the consequences… and then, encourage them to share their lessons with others – peer mentorship.

Also, as businesses we need to EMPLOY WELL EQUIPPED, HIGHLY CAPABLE, HIGHLY TRAINED MODERATORS & COMMUNITY MANAGEMENT STAFF… and give them time to DO THE JOB RIGHT.

Moderation is expensive. It just is… Before you even contemplate the idea of “moderation” and how to lower the cost for a teen & younger site – companies really, truly need to accept it.  Say it out loud. Do a little jig. Throw a party. Make a badge and wear it everyone “YOUTH MODERATION AND ONLINE COMMUNITIES ARE EXPENSIVE”, and then swallow that pain.  NO amount of cheating  or pinching the system is going to replace the expense without putting your audience or your brand at risk, UNLESS you employ full restrictions. Full. Restrictions. As in, no UGC – this includes user created avatarnames/usernames, open or filtered or dictionary chat, no pictures, or uploads, no fan fiction, no forums, no blog posts, videos, podcasts, art, nothing. Kinda takes the community out of community, doesn’t it? Yep – remember that jig you did and that badge you wore… there’s your reason.

If a user can type or upload and submit – that’s UGC, and it needs moderation before it ever appears on any live site.

User Generated Content is a privilege for your audience, but also a privilege for your site/brand/ip/experience as a company.  With privilege comes someone else’s responsibility, and that lies with the company to offer opportunity.  Think about it 😉

Anyway… take a look at the FTC article (link above) and follow the white link rabbit to the pdf itself.  Happy reading!!

Annnnnnnnnd, if you’re going to be in attendance for Engage Expo on February 16th & 17th in New York City, please bring some of your lovely and oh-so-brazilliant questions to the 3:30-4:30 chat on Weds the 17th.  I would love to see your smiling faces and bask in your question-filled glory. 😀

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VW Folks: You Should Go To This Too

October 14, 2008 Leave a comment

If you haven’t signed up for the Kids Online unconference, you should as soon as you can.  We are trying to get a good idea of head count.

It’s extremely affordable (especially as conferences go) and should give us a whole day to talk about all the topics we usually only get a session or two to discuss.  Plus it’s an unconference, so everyone can participate and anyone can suggest a topic.

Let me know if you have any questions.  There are still a couple sponsorship opportunities available too. 

Sign up now for the Kids Online unconference « Joi Podgorny

Here’s the thing… we all have particular opinions about our chosen market, and there are MANY new strategies & innovative ideas coming down the line that you MAY OR MAY NOT be overly thrilled about (or perhaps too thrilled for)…

These community UNconferences are perfect for getting a “feel” of what others in our market are thinking, hoping, aiming to accomplish for the youth demographic. 

I know MANY of you fine folks have these wonderful goals/objectives for your audience & the content of your virtual world, this is your time to step forward and talk to fellow VW folks and let your self be known!!  Or, if you are unhappy with the current trend of youth virtual worlds, don’t sit back and let others say THEIR piece – you go for it too!  EMPOWERMENT OF EMPOWERMENTS, FOLKS!

We all know how much I love to ramble, and this VERY NICELY PRICED virtual world UNconference for the tater tots will be a grand, grand, grand time for let your voice ring too.

So… BRING IT, PEEPS.  Let’s get this show boat on the row boat! 

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Cartoon Networks LUVS UGC Multiplayer Action!

August 19, 2008 Leave a comment

Cartoon Network Debuts Eight-Person Multiplayer Gaming

with Ben 10: Alien Force Bounty Hunters

 

First CartoonNetwork.com Game to Allow Four-Player Team Battles or up to Eight-Person Free-for-All

 

Cartoon Network New Media today launches Ben 10 Alien Force: Bounty  Hunters, a free real-time multiplayer battle game that lets online Ben 10 fans square off as rival alien bounty hunters seeking to be the first to grab the ultimate weapon in the universe: the Omnitrix.

Available for play at www.cartoonnetwork.com, Ben 10: Alien Force Bounty Hunters features three different battle settings, nine weapons and four power-ups.  Players suit up in an online lobby system then fire up their virtual jetpacks and match up with thousands of other online gamers for one of two selected game play modes.  “Free-for-All” lets players battle individually in matches of up to eight players.  “Team Battle” mode lets two teams of up to four players take part in each battle, racking up collective points for the win.  Players earn experience points (XP) from playing that will eventually let them advance ranks in the gaming environment.

Bounty Hunters gives our audience a real-time multi-player gaming experience in a kid-friendly setting,” said Art Roche, creative director for Cartoon Network New Media.  “We are very proud of the game and it’s great to be able to offer our fans an opportunity to safely communicate and play-all within an immersive and sophisticated action-based gaming environment that meets their high expectations.” 

Bounty Hunters provides multiplayer action and interaction in a safe environment.  Kids can safely play against each other and interact with teammates and combatants using controlled chat functionality.  Players can also chat with each other as they wait in a game room for other players to join, using only pre-scripted chat phrases.  Players are identified only by the screen name they select at registration, which also allows them to keep track of battle stats and earn points.

Bounty Hunters offers a rich multiplayer experience with high-quality graphics and environments, which requires a small one-time download to the computer, available on PC only.  Later this year, Bounty Hunters players will be able to earn Mini Match points redeemable in the Mini Match virtual world Cartoon Network New Media launched last month.

Ben 10 games currently dominate the top 10 most popular games at CartoonNetwork.com, holding six of the top 10 spots, including Ben 10 Battle Ready at No. 1; Ben 10: Alien Force Forever Defense at No. 2; and Ben 10: Savage Pursuit at No. 3.

Cartoon Network New Media’s May launch of its first game to harness user-generated content Ben 10: Alien Force Game Creator brought fans online in droves, and they built more than a million unique Ben 10 games in the first month alone, resulting in more than 70 million game plays during the same time period.

Ben 10: Alien Force’s April 2008 debut was the most-watched original series premiere in Cartoon Network history.  Ben 10: Alien Force began the next chapter in the continuing Ben 10 saga five years later when 15-year-old Ben Tennyson chose to once again put on the Omnitrix and discover that it had reconfigured his DNA and could transform him into 10 brand new aliens.

Cartoon Network Press Release

I’m telling ya… Cartoon Network rocks.

A) They know who their audience is, and what they want… while still releasing “hot” “buzzworthy” games.

B) I’m obsessed with Total Drama Island & The Misadventures of Flap Jack & Chowder > although all of them have slightly “interesting” themes/bits occasionally (but then again, so did Nickelodeon circa 90’s, and I loved them for it).  It’s a parents decision thing. 

C) Their “wedgies” are hilarious (the facial hair/beard grower for ‘Chowder’ is brilliant).

I don’t know WHAT’S in the water over there, but I like it! 

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Interesting Strategy, Wisenhimer

August 12, 2008 3 comments

WiseHealth today announced the launch of Wisenhimer, a virtual world aimed at teaching kids aged 5-12 about eating and living well to fight childhood obesity and Type II diabetes. The site features an array of casual games, activities and lessons as well as the virtual world, all based around healthy living and life lessons. The site itself is free and users can play all the games and create their own avatars, but WiseWorld proper is available to premium subscribers only.

With subscriptions beginning at $5/month, users get access to the moderated world, customizable treehouses, and extra games. Without even a trial period, that’s a different approach from the current trend of virtual worlds, especially for kids, of making it as easy possible to try out a virtual world or even play forever at a limited level.

Virtual Worlds News: WiseHealth Launches Anti-Obesity-Themed Kids World, Wisenhimer

Wow. Aggressive. Take no prisoners. Bold.

A virtual world on ‘healthy play’ that kids can’t even get into without subscription?

That puts a lot of pressure on two things:
1. The games on the free site (better wet that appetite)
2. The parents & their ability to push kids towards parent-education-friendly sites.

Loads of parents out there are looking for alternative play, right? The kind of play where they know the kid is safe, educated, non-marketed-to…

That’s apparent, and part of the reason Club Penguin (even WITH it’s Disney guardian) does so well. Parents are happy with what they expect to get. Sure, CP is young looking (I used to be uber-baffled at the # of boys playing in such a cutesy-pie world, and have since retracted that thought due to their event-planning and customizations, among other things), but Club Penguin has an advantage to say – everyone else: Time. They’ve been around for AGES. Like Neopets, which is – well – a juggernaut but not necessarily the best example of a virtual experience. Neopets has HUGE numbers because they’ve been around for roughly 10 years (and don’t forget the continued support of Nick.com and Nickelodeon, it’s 1/2 siblings under the Viacom umbrella).

Most of the parents I talk to send their kid to a virtual world based on this knowledge:

First – A site their child tells them about… the ‘buzz’ web locale. “Mommola, I want to play here.’

Second – Is it parent/safety friendly? Do I feel comfortable leaving my kid playing in this virtual playground?

Third – What content is being shared with them? Marketing? Education? Hmm….

This knowledge (for as great a thought-progression as it is) tends to also act like barriers to entry. Some are lucky to even have the second thought occur to them (and that usually happens when the parent happens to be passing by or sitting with the child at the time… like during purchase of subscriptions, unless that purchase happens by pay-as-you-go cards from Target). I mean, look at Youtube! Parents often brag about the things their child has discovered on youtube… and that’s like sending your kid alone through the streets of Time Square in New York at 10 pm. Kids often have the say about what they interact with – and when it comes to tech, the majority of parents (forgive me all you mommolas & poppolas) just hang on tight for the ride.

So… for a world to gain some sort of traction, it needs to have strong footing within the tween age demo. That THANG that makes kids spread the love like chicken pox (re: editorial note, I originally spelled this ‘pockets’ to which i laughed for like an hour… awesome).

I wish a virtual world like this ALL THE BEST. They’ve got great intentions and could do a massive amount of good for kids. I just hope they have some plan in the works. Some support from say… schools, etc, who wish to get kids involved with anti-obesity game play, and therefore make the kids feel LUCKY for playing an educationish game pre-judgment.

Back in the day of MathBlaster – I HATED it when Mom made me play it at the old IBM. Ugh. Even Where In The World Is Carmen Sandiego and Oregon Trail held little interest for me at home (and yet – i would have played the uber-slow, not as fun Wheel of Fortune game for ages – it was a tv show! Not educational 😉 ). But at school? DUDE. I would have been on CLOUD NINE to play anything like that – in fact, we’d fight over the computer in class to play various educational games. When I went to Montessori in 3rd grade (yep, i was one of THOSE kids), we would cluster around the old Apple and watch, as if it were some championship game, and not little green flashing dots shooting at other green flashing dots with multiplication numbers flashing across the screen.

Now, all of this caution-based-education-VW rambling might just be moot, as the virtual world itself hasn’t even been given the chance to succeed (and I’m not saying it won’t). I’m just worried that by cutting out the free kids 1st, you’re severely removing your target demo – who might just go play on miniclip instead. Then again, there may be some amazing marketing plan coming up for such a world…

Like Target tie-ins & gift cards & television program support… all building up to some tent-pole event of awesomeness, where kids are so thirsty for the “goodness” and “heroism” of the product that they’ll rush to join, despite the fact they don’t have any real taste of the virtual world.

I’m totally psyched to see how this goes… I’d really like to see such a thing succeed – especially with such a bold change in strategy. Might make a wee twist in the way virtual worlds are presented to the market, yeah?

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Sears Unleashes A Flood for Sears

July 16, 2008 Leave a comment

Wow. Sears is heading into 7 different youth-oriented virtual worlds and avatar sites to promote its back-to-school message: A “fashion forward” event and a virtual store in Zwinky‘s Zwinchester Mall, a competition and B-T-S boutique with clothes, backgrounds and animations in Meez (both via Alloy), a store and runway contest on Cartoon Doll Emporium, WeeWorld  assets and contest (both from GoFish), custom boutique and free virtual goods for The-N.com avatars, a custom building in Poptropica, and exclusive content in NeoPets‘ Summer Faire environment.

That’s 7 out of a total of 13 social media sites, including Sears’ own Arrive Lounge, that are aimed specifically at virtual worlds and avatars.

Obviously, the proof will be in the pudding once school starts and traffic can be added up, but just looking at the distribution of content, I find it impressive that avatars and virtual worlds are outpacing traditional social networks for reaching the tween and teen demographic.  MySpace is still in the mix, as are Seventeen and CosmoGIRL! magazines, but the pure wealth of Sears content showing up in virtual worlds is still an impressive indication of where marketers are tracking teens.

Virtual Worlds News: Sears Heads Across the Youth Metaverse for Back-to-School Special

Wowza.  Wooooooooowza.  Sears just took a page out of Hello Kitty’s “multi-virtual-world” attack pattern and went web-crazy. 

I’m 1/2 impressed by Sears full blown attack as well as their understanding of the market (and not opening their own crazy Sears-based virtual world).  The other half is slightly freaked.  Like – whoa, Nelly, and other such cautionary cliches.  This might just stir the parental bees nest. 

Most of these teen-based virtual domains are kinda no-brainers – weeworld, Cartoon Doll Emporium (well done, CDE), Zwinky… but POPTROPICA?  That one threw me for a loop.  I thought Poptropica was meant to be an entertainment-educational virtual world.  I mean, sure, everyone’s got to pay the bills (my age old complaint) – but for some reason I thought Pop Tropica was kinda, I dunno, above licensing and branding.  I never got the vibe on the site that you would run into anything like that… Well, like I said – bills gotta get paid, these web atmospheres can’t thrive one unique visitors alone.

You really should hit the link and go to Virtual World News for the remainder of their announcement.  Why?  Because Sears has thumbs in the buckets of many other sites, such as Nick.com, Addictinggames (game aggregater site), GoFish (platform for safe destinations), Neopets, etc.  Sears must be BFF with Viacom for this back-to-school project. 

Clearly Sears has set their eager Eye Of Mordor on youth.  But then again… (slight shudder) who hasn’t these days?  The most successful businesses these days are the ones that cater to children.  Strange world, strange world indeed.

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Parent tools and Imagination: Club Penguin style

May 16, 2008 3 comments

Club Penguin is launching new tools to help parents manage their children’s online play experience. With the update, parents will be able to view account histories, change the password for the account and chat freedom levels, and, in the future, set time limits for play. More virtual worlds, like BarbieGirls.com, are beginning to promote parents’ areas as a unique feature of the game, and some are even charging for the safety tools. With the near-glut of youth-oriented worlds out there, it looks like developers are marketing as much to parents (the ones with the wallets) as kids (the ones with the demands).

While Club Penguin offers children a world of opportunity to play and use their imaginations online, as parents ourselves we understand the value of making sure kids also spend time away from the computer playing sports and being with their friends,” Lane Merrifield, general manager and co-founder of Club Penguin, said in a statement.

Virtual Worlds News: Club Penguin Launches Parenting Tools

HAHAHA. I laugh simply because – no GREAT IDEA is thought of once, by one person. Great ideas seriously POP into the heads of at LEAST 7 (that’s my estimate) people. The first one to act on that idea gets the glory. I shake my fist at the gods for timing.

Of course, webkinz and Pirates of the Caribbean Online both already have “parent account” areas, but as progression… well… progresses, as do tools, tech, and ease of use. (Besides, Webkinz parent area sucks. Sorry, but it does).

Oh, le sigh. Soon, soon parental controls of tween and younger sites will be customary. Virtual World 101. Expected, typical, demanded. And ya know what? Good. Put some of the control & responsibility back into the hands of the parents. Nice.

I highlighted Lane Merrifield’s statement because I wanted to share something else with ya. Club Penguin & their imagination offerings. I’m telling you, these people have got the magic. Seriously. I used to be freaked (back in the pre-VW youth boom) that the interweb was going to steal the soul of free imaginative play from youth. I was worried that storylines and structured play patterns were going to hinder any freedom. And then I drank the punch and became a VW advocate. And lately, Club Penguin’s population has calmed any spec o fears lying in the back of my brain from those old days of worry. Why? Because I found TWO events going on of free imaginative play:

The top image is a backyard barbecue with family-styled badminton. Badminton? Yes. Badminton. Notice the fence line (net), tennis rackets (badminton rackets), two separate teams broken into two colors. There isn’t a “badminton” animation for the penguins (let alone a tennis animation), but no worries. The kids mind modeled it. How? They throw snowballs, and it looks like they’re serving. One throws it to a kid, the kid then throws a snowball to another, and the game goes on. No winning or losing it seems. Just playing.

The second image is a SPA. Yes. A spa, complete with tanning beds, mani-pedi chairs, A BATHROOM, a pool/hot tub, a healthy kitchen, and a yoga studio. Crazy, right? Okay, okay – I’ll admin. The spa seems a bit complex and there COULD have been adult interaction (parent, staff, etc). I don’t care. Why? Because while I was in the spa, nearly 30 kids went through. That’s thirty sets of eyes and brains that see the possibility and take it as a role model experience. More spas have been popping up too. Imagination, my friends, is addictive to those willing to let go of rules and accept the possibility. Too freakin’ cool. 😉

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Club Penguin’s Ways…

I think one of the biggest challenges is the irresponsible nature with which our industry has taken care of kids for a long time – so there’s a great cynicism out there, and understandably so,” Merrifield told GamesIndustry.biz.

“I’m a parent myself, and part of why we created Club Penguin was my own frustration with what was out there.”

Merrifield also thinks that there is an over-reliance on technology that ignores the human element, which is why they’ve decided to devote two-thirds of the company’s staff to positions such as safety moderators and customer service.

“We know the limits of technology, even though I would put our filtering software up against anybody’s, especially because of that human element – we’re adding 500 to 1000 words every day to the filters, simply because of slang that works its way into the language.

“And every new pop song that comes out is inevitably going to reference something that was innocent the week before, but isn’t so much now,” Merrifield said.

The company faced a challenge trying to explain the concept to people who would try to compare it to Facebook or MySpace – the antithesis of Club Penguin, which encourages kids not to reveal any personal identifiable information.

MMO Week: Industry has been irresponsible with kids // News // GamesIndustry.biz

WOOT.  This is a solid, compact report from CP (thanks co-worker Brian, for passing this along). 

The #’s for their filters does NOT surprise me.  They have extensive chat choices in CP, and it almost feels at times that you can say just about anything.  They have a HUGE staff in their fortified HQ, all of whom spend their days just thriving with the site, rolling continuously with the punches, etc.  Rock stolid team. 

And the great thing about VW’s like CP is that it’s about identity exploration.  You are expected NOT to be you-as an identifiable individual- but you as you want to play.  It’s the imaginary you-as-a-penguin-blob.  All visual judgments are based on how you present yourself (which is usually as wacky as possible – I am in a squid suit at all times, some times with a tie, some times with a tennis racket…).  

Anyway, I thought the content of this article (namely the word to filter #’s) were impressive and great to share.

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