"Actual game experience may change during online play."

If you're playing videogames on Microsoft's Xbox Live online gaming service, you should be quite familiar with the caveat that comes with every game rating. I signed on for a multiplayer game of Halo 2 recently. While waiting in the lobby, someone said, "I hope that fucker isn't playing again." I don't think he was talking about me, since I only scored one kill in the previous game. But that's the language I've come to expect in Halo 2. After all, it's a mature-rated single-player game, and it's even more mature - or shall we say, immature - in multiplayer mode.

Profanity, racism and sexism are just a few of the things you and your kids can run into as a matter of routine in online bouts of Halo 2 or Ghost Recon 3: Advanced Warfighter. As Microsoft hopes to break Xbox Live's six-million-subscriber mark by June 2007, the biggest obstacle they face may be the bad behavior of other online players who can ruin the experience for the rest of us.

Josh Smith, a blogger, decided to conduct his own survey last December. He played for 33.9 hours on Xbox Live with the original Xbox. He recorded 641 instances of profanity during that time. The most common curse was "fuck." The word accounted for 43 percent of the instances and occurred about eight times an hour. That was followed by "shit," at 19 percent of the time, and something he dubbed "racial" at nine percent. The study confirmed what many people observe when they sign on to the online service for the first time.

"The days the skies turn black on Live have to be when the kids are on it," said Josh Sattler, a 29-year-old student at the Full Sail videogame school in Winter Park, Fla. "The most foul-mouthed and out of control group of individuals on Live has to be unsupervised children."

That doesn't stop Sattler from spending hours at a time playing Ghost Recon. But it does diminish his joy for the game. Of course, with the ability to disguise voices on Xbox Live, there is no guarantee that it's kids doing the dirty talk. Should he accept dealing with profanity as a cost of entry into the virtual life? Would it take a crackdown worthy of the Chinese government to clear the air for everyone?

Bad behavior on the internet is part of modern life. The angst of the modern videogame age isn't so much about a game that doesn't work. It's about suffering a dropped internet connection or hearing 12-year-olds using profanity-laced "trash talk." Gloating is a tradition in competition. But due to the anonymity the internet provides, the online environment can devolve into a Lord of the Flies-type environment. The etiquette that prevails with in-person conversations no longer applies because there are no more consequences for bad behavior. Kids can experiment with the freedom of saying anything they'd like out of earshot of their parents.

As if the barrage of profanity isn't enough, it's even more jarring when you find someone cheating. In Halo 2, common examples include "standby cheats" that interfere with a network connection to disrupt game play, using hacked maps or game files, and manipulating matchmaking to boost a player's rank on the leaderboards.

But Microsoft contends that it can keep law and order in its online world. From the very start of the service in 2002, the company was able to use its authentication procedures to eject about two percent of the Xbox Live players who used "modded" Xboxes. Microsoft also stated that the use of a common identity, or "gamertag," meant that users weren't truly anonymous.

And with the launch of the Xbox 360 in November, the company was able to take more steps toward policing behavior. It created four "gamer zones," or subsets of the online world governed under different rules. Under the "family" zone, there is no tolerance for cursing. The top dogs can't spend their time whipping the "recreational" zone players; instead, they fight it out among their peers in the "professional" zone. And the "underground" zone is where the rules are more lax.

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