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SALT LAKE CITY — When life seems too hard at school, 11 year-old Keenan Davis can't wait to start another video game.
"I just look forward to going home," he said. "Finally, I can connect with some people that won't make fun of me."
Just like life, a game creates relationships and experiences but with millions of people around the globe.
According to the US Games Market 2012 Summary Report, the U.S. online gaming population has reached 157 million people. Ten million of those players participate in The World of Warcraft - a massively multiplayer online role playing game - or MMORPG. Since its release, Blizzard Entertainment has become a billion dollar company.
Gamers say the online component helps some people socialize by breaking down barriers.
"You're not based on your color, your ethnicity. It's just like you are a person playing this game," said K.T. Nguyen, an avid gamer. "I don't know if he's a guy, he's a girl, how old he is, how young he is. I don't know whether he lives in Australia or China or Europe. You never know who you're going to meet."
And that's exactly what concerns the Utah Internet Crimes Against Children Task Force. Field Commander Patty Reed said ICAC occasionally sees child predators target victims through online games with chat and web-cam features.
"Sexual predators use on-line games that children commonly play," she said in a statement. "A sexual predator can easily create a false minor profile to lure a child."
One of the most important questions a parent can ask is "who is my child playing with?"
Professor Roger Altizer, director of game design and production at the University of Utah said parents need to be concerned about their children interacting with other adults online.
"We know that it's a place where adults and children can mix and there's nothing to stop them from doing that," Altizer said, "Usually you don't see adults and children mixing in the real world in an unsupervised area."
ICAC says these incidents are becoming less frequent due to combined enforcement and education strategies in homes and programs, but it says parents should still continue to monitor their child's online interaction. It advises parents:
- to teach kids how to keep personal information private,
- to caution them about the dangers of posting personal pictures,
- and to know what accounts and games a child is involved with.
Gamers who spoke with KSL said they've never run across a predator in an online game. They say it's more common to hear people bad mouthing each other, generally in reference to game play.