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Video games with an online mode come with the warning indicating that the Entertainment Software Rating Board can rate the game, but it doesn't rate what happens when the game is being played online.
What happens in the online world stays in the online world, and this is frustrating for parents who are uncertain of what their teens and preteens are encountering and worried about inappropriate content.
The ESRB backs away from rating online interactions because it's very hard to rate the actions of people, and people are what makes online gaming both fun and dangerous.
Here are some pro and cons of online-gaming worlds that teens and preteens may encounter:
It seems like a simple defense, but the purpose of playing games is because it's an enjoyable activity. People tend to be social by nature and online gaming provides a place for interactive entertainment.
Spending time with family or distant friends
Online gaming opens up opportunities to meet new people and to keep in contact with friends and family who do not live close by. It can also be fun for families to play together while exploring the world and working together to win points or achieve goals.
Learning teamwork and getting along with others
Many online communities are built around guilds or other in game groups and games designed to allow larger groups to accomplish missions that a single player cannot. Through these interactions players learn how to work as part of a team and take turns being in the spotlight.
Presents a new challenge
The artificial intelligence of a video game is at times predictable and usually not as competitive as playing against another person.
These players may be aggressive in chat rooms or on channels as well as in the game and will participate in behaviors such as sitting near beginning areas and 'killing' new players in order to take their gear or earn easy points for victory over a weaker player.
As the ages and cultures of online players range drastically so too does the language they use. Some games that are designed for younger gamers will have filters to prevent inappropriate and derogatory language. However, there are limits to what the filters can do. Players are often rather clever about getting around the filters by using symbols and purposeful misspellings. When headphones are used to participate in talking to other players there are no filters save any agreed upon by the group or by using a mute function.
Explicit graphical content
Many games allow for user modifications where in gamers can change game objectives and visual aspects. This can lead to helpful new missions within a game, but it can also be used to create character nudity or other objectionable content.
Online predatorsIt's an unfortunate reality that anywhere children and teens gather to play there will be those willing to exploit and prey on those young minds.
In Utah, this problem has been identified, and as early as 2006 the Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force has dedicated officers to work with teen gamers and within online games to identify predators and protect young players.
Pulling away from the real world
When things in real life aren't going as well as a player would hope, it is easier to want to spend more and more time in the gaming world. This can be especially true for teens and preteens who struggle with social groups and empowerment at school. In the gaming world they can define their social status through achievements in the game. There is a great sense of accomplishment that comes through completing missions, levels and goals and that feeling can become very addictive if not properly directed and can lead to neglect of real-world relationships and responsibilities.
In summary, when it comes to online gaming parents should stay involved. It sounds simple, but the best thing a parent can do is remain aware and involved and talk with their children. Parents should also educate themseleves about system settings and their children. System settings can be used to help protect against the negatives of online video games. For example the ability to mute other players, automatically muting all non friends or flag other games that you want to avoid in the future. Even if children do not play in their home, they encounter these games other places and need to be empowered to keep themselves safe and happy.
Jana Brown is a freelance writer and editor, wife and mother. Catch her at http://cornabys.wordpress.com or tweet along @Cornabys.