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Playing safe when gaming online

By Mat Hasker on 20 Oct, 2017

When I was 7 years old, my Dad bought me my first console - a Super Nintendo. Back in those days, life was simple - you bought a cartridge that slotted into the console, turned it on, and you could play your game. If your game supported two players, you could invite a friend over and you could play the game together. A friend and I used to spend many a sleepover, playing Goldeneye split screen until 1, maybe 2 o'clock (although we always told our parents it was midnight).

Fast forward to 2017, and the gaming industry has grown massively since those early home console days. The industry is now worth billions, and it will continue to grow, largely helped by the availability of a thing called the Internet.

The Internet has allowed gamers to play with thousands of other gamers around the world. It has also changed the distribution of games too - rather than buying a cartridge or a CD that you slot into your console or PC, you can now download the game directly from the distributor. Sony and Microsoft have their own online stores that you can access via their consoles, while PC users commonly use an online store called Steam, made by a company called Valve.

I still play PC games on a regular basis, and as a parent myself now, I sometimes play them with my son. Watching him being introduced to this wide world of digital distribution not only makes me smile, but it also raises questions. I work on the internet every day, it’s my job. I know what is out there, and therefore I understand the risks. So how do I know my son will enjoy all the great things that the digital age has presented us, while not being exposed to harmful material?

Here are some rules and guidelines that I follow when I play games online, when my son is playing games, and why I follow them:

Purchasing games and content

While you can still buy games on a DVD from a high street store, games today are commonly distributed digitally. This means you purchase the game on the internet, and then download them straight onto your console or PC. While this is convenient and sometimes means you can buy games cheaper than you can in store, it does carry risks. Some simple rules to stay safe include:

        -  Buy only from trusted sources - for consoles, this means buying from either Sony’s official Playstation Store and Microsoft's official XBox Store. The stores are accessible via your console. For PCs, this means buying from Steam, Origin or Good Old Games. Some other trusted retailers exist for PC, including Humble Bundle, Green Man Gaming and Amazon.

        -  Be very wary of “Marketplaces” - Marketplaces are where anyone can trade unused game activation keys, sometimes for rock bottom prices. While it is legal, it is a very shady business. Stories have emerged of the keys being resold being acquired by using stolen credit cards, or keys stolen from the game developers and publishers themselves. The bottom line is, if a price seems too good to be true, and it’s not from an official store, then it probably is and is best to avoid it.

        -  Some games have “in-app purchases”, where you can easily purchase additional content for your game via an in-game store. This is especially true for mobile games, where a lot of games are free, but they make most of their money with “in-app purchases”. If you are a parent and you are allowing your child to play a game with “in-app purchases”, understand the game yourself first and see how easy it is for your child to make purchases. See if there is a parental lock of some kind to prevent accidental purchases being made.

Communication

Over the years I’ve met people online through games we enjoy playing together, and have joined communities of other friendly players. In fact, a lot of games fully encourage communication between players as part of the fun. It has never been easier to communicate with others - voice and text communication is built into all modern consoles and PC platforms. There are also a range of Instant Messaging clients, including Skype and Discord. But always remember that whoever you meet online, you have never met them in real life, and so not only do you not know what they look like, but you don’t know who they are, what they do, or their past. Following some simple rules though will keep you safe:

        -  Never give out personal information - When you create an online profile for gaming, you create a username, or ‘Gamer Tag’. This is how other people on the internet know you. Avoid using your real name. Also, don’t give other people your real name, even if they appear to be someone you would trust, and never, ever give out your address, phone number, or any sensitive information. Be wary giving out your email address too - especially if your email system uses your real name.

        -  Be wary of ‘trolls’ - trolls are people who purposely type offensive, argumentative, and sometimes irrelevant statements, designed to wind up one or more individuals in the same game’. The best course of action is to ignore anyone who appears to be purposely winding up other players, including yourself. Most games have a ‘Report’ feature that allows you to report users who are offensive or acting suspiciously

        -  Offensive language - the majority of the gaming industry strives for a clean environment for all to be able to participate in. Unfortunately, no matter how much game servers are policed and monitored by the game developers, offensive language will always be online. Bear that in mind when playing online, or allowing your child to play online with others.

        -  Exposure to graphic or illegal material - while it is easier to communicate with others, it also means that it easier for others to share graphic or even illegal material. If you should ever be exposed to such material, you should always report such material to the company that on who’s platform the content was shared on. In the most extreme cases, report it to the police. Again, bear this in mind when deciding whether to allow your child online.

        -  In the most extreme cases - any threats to your life or anyone close to you, friends or family, can be reported to the police who can take the matter up further.

Parents - understand your children’s games

It is tempting to just let your child play a game on your tablet or PC while you go and cook dinner, but before you do so, understand what your child is playing first. Take the time to sit with them, let them show you what they are doing, and try to understand the game yourself. Look for any way of your child being able to communicate with other players, or being able to make in game purchases with real money. Try playing it with them too, you never know - you may even enjoy playing the game yourself!

Following these simple rules should help you stay safe gaming online.

Mat Hasker is a web designer and developer, musician and keen online gamer