Will was eager to play a massively multiplayer online game ever since he could grasp the concept, so when he finally got the opportunity, he wanted to do it right. He meticulously tweaked the features of his avatar to his exacting specifications before journeying into the game world for the first time. He flew through the starting zone and led his fledgling fighter out into the next area – a zone where player versus player combat was permitted – confident the real fun was just beginning.
He enjoyed himself … for about three minutes, until a fireball from a much higher-level character struck him. Naturally, he was dead before he even knew what was happening. What’s more, the aggressor wasn’t alone. He and his four coconspirators “ganked” Will’s helpless character five times – once each – for no obvious reason other than that they could.
Some of us might react to this obstacle with gritty determination, vowing to build up enough strength to exact vengeance. Not Will, who was 9 years old at the time. He chose not to respawn. Instead, he logged out – and didn’t play an MMOG again for six years.
Many kids Will’s age play MMOGs, but these worlds aren’t always hospitable to children. Fortunately, more enlightened attitudes now prevail, both across the industry and especially among companies seeking to attract precisely this younger audience. They comprise a growing list that includes a number of very prominent names, including Disney, the creators of Toontown Online and Pirates of the Caribbean Online, aimed at children and teens respectively.(Disney also purchased Club Penguin in August 2007) Likewise, Mattel’s Barbie Girls and Nickelodeon’s Nicktropolis each attempt to provide a safe online environment for kids to interact – both with each other and each company’s respective brands.
Currently in development at NetDevil, LEGO Universe will bring another major global toy brand into the MMOG space. Producer Ryan Seabury is cognizant that that for any title aimed at non-adult users to succeed, experiences like Will’s can’t be allowed to happen. “When talking about kids and online experiences, of course safety is paramount,” he states. He points out the U.S. Federal Trade Commission’s Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA), which applies to websites that collect information from children under the age of 13. However, he readily acknowledges that mere compliance falls short of an acceptable safety strategy, and that the gaming industry has to set a higher standard. “Many modern kids will get their first multi-user online experience through MMOGs,” he says. “It’s our responsibility as developers not only to provide safe harbors for them to set sail from in their modern connected lives, but also to foster the fundamentals of being good online citizens.”
Ken Locker is Senior Vice President of Digital Media at Cookie Jar Entertainment. Working with developers Tribal Nova and Frima Studio, his company has just released Magi-Nation: Battle for the Moonlands. Based on a property that includes a collectible card game and an animated TV series, it primarily targets “tweens” age 8 to 12. He places “the safety of our fans at the top of our priority list,” noting that Cookie Jar voluntarily complies with the Better Business Bureau’s Children’s Advertising Review Unit (CARU), which reviews advertising and promotional material directed at children across all media, including the internet.
Cartoon Network Universe: FusionFall‘s Executive Producer Chris Waldron agrees. “It’s essential to provide a safe online environment for children.” he says. “When designing an MMOG for children, it is crucial to protect them from any form of harassment and potential online predators.”
“Ganking” is one obvious form of online predation that has to be prevented. “It’s no different for kids or adults,” says Seabury. “It’s just not a fun experience for those who end up on the losing side.” He does, however, support consensual PvP as a form of good-spirited competitive play that participants who opt in will enjoy. To encourage it, he believes in rewarding both the winners and the losers, although the latter to a far lesser extent.
Magi-Nation goes a step further. It has consensual PvP, but according to Locker, the avatars don’t engage each other directly. Instead, their Dream Creatures do battle. Success depends on how effectively the players imbue these summoned proxies with the strategic use of inventory items. “Battles are more like competitions. Dream Creatures don’t die when defeated; they may lie dormant for a while, but they always return. Since the game is fantasy-based, we’re able to accomplish competitive battles by incorporating elements like spells, curses and magic objects without outright representations of graphic violence.”
Waldron and his team have also designed their combat system differently to fit younger users and to reflect the underlying franchise. “Like the cartoons that have inspired us, we expect FusionFall to be fun for kids of all ages. There’s no death, blood or gore. Combat is lighthearted, rather than violent. We also believe this will make the game more enjoyable and accessible to a wider, casual audience.”
Inappropriate language is another major concern. “Some of the chat features would be very different if we were targeting FusionFall toward adults,” he states. “Because we’re dealing with a younger audience, we provide more restricted chat mechanisms and put the control in parents’ hands as to what level of chat access they want their children to have.”
LEGO Universe‘s Seabury adds that “if people are in your house saying things you’d rather your kids didn’t hear, you have every right to kick them out; fundamentally, it’s no different in an MMOG. You don’t often see political protests at theme parks, because they – the good ones at least – are run like mini-fascist utopias where no one is allowed to disturb the peace. It’s simply the wrong forum.”
Cookie Jar restricts open chat and monitors Magi-Nation for inappropriate behavior in order to provide an environment that’s compelling, fun and rewarding for players. Ken Locker is unequivocal that “in order to make the game fun and safe for anyone who wants to play, regardless of age, those who don’t want to be part of this type of environment will be prohibited from playing.”
All three companies agree that providing a safe environment for kids and teens involves protecting them from a range of other undesirable behaviors, from following, stalking and harassment to scams intended to obtain items, in-game currency, account passwords or personal information. “Anything that creates a negative experience for a visitor to our world would be something we’d consider protecting against in our safety strategies,” says Seabury.
These strategies encompass both design and enforcement elements. For example, Waldron says FusionFall will have both trained support staff and built-in algorithms that set off alarms when they detect potentially unsafe circumstances such as possible harassment situations. “At that point, someone from Cartoon Network will get involved and either ban the harasser or take another appropriate course of action. Our online support staff is already well-versed in online child safety.”
Coming from a background of creating and operating online games for adults, Ryan Seabury may consider his team’s situation to be slightly lower on the learning curve. “It’s a constant but welcome challenge to find safety solutions that don’t hinder fun and gameplay,” he declares. “Every game will have its own unique conditions and threat landscape to deal with, and of course, specific mechanics and features that may be hazardous in different ways. If you’re making a title for kids, it’s a safe assumption that customer service will be more significant than if you had targeted a more mature audience.”
When Will had his disagreeable experience that put him off MMOGs for six years, it occurred in a game that wasn’t designed for his age group. The reason was simple: such games didn’t exist. But that’s no longer the case. Children, tweens, and teens now have multiple choices geared specifically to their demographic, with more on the way. In addition, developers and publishers have had several years to learn about the core problems that can hurt a player’s experience, how to help prevent them from coming up and how to deal with them more rapidly and effectively when they do. As a result, we can now safely say that MMOGs – at least, some MMOGs – are for kids.
Richard Aihoshi has been writing about games for over a decade, particularly the massively multiplayer and RPG categories. He has been known to play MMOGs and other games that are ostensibly for kids.