As the recent resolution of the case following Tyler Clementi's harassment and suicide illustrates, regulating online spaces is a difficult (if not impossible) task with potentially fatal consequences. Harder still is drawing the line between legitimate hate crimes and "cyber bullying," which has started to seem like the tabloid fear of the month for scared mothers and local news channels. A recent story asks if interactions in videogames can truly be separated from other forms of negative online interaction:
Not surprising, says Kevin Roberts, cyber addiction counselor and author of the book 'Cyber Junkie', considering the average gamer is 37 years old. He says when your child takes the game online, and players start interacting, all content ratings go out the window.
"Incredible levels of profanity. Racial epithets, homosexually oriented epithets. We're talking 8, 9, 10, 11 year old kids who are getting exposed to this regularly," Roberts says.
Internet safety expert Parry Aftab says this inappropriate language in online gaming is rampant, and she's concerned it's leading to dangerous cyberbullying.
"They may trash talking, they may be calling you names. They may steal their passwords. Or a lot of them may gang up on one online. Not because it's a good strategic win, but to hurt the other person," Aftab says.
Game companies attempt to combat these issues with on box warnings, parental controls, and special task squads.
Aftab adds, "They have an Xbox live enforcement squad that is one of the best enforcement groups looking for grooming activities and online sexual predators, as well as cyber bullying."
But parental involvement is still key. Roberts recommends you start by learning what you're up against.
"Play the games. Talk to your kids about the games, get involved in it," Aftab urges.
An important detail of online interactions negotiated by videogames is the virtual space and the fact that users are all assuming virtual identities removes the presumed urge to cluster within a certain community of preference that one forms in any other social networking site. Tyler Clementi visited sites catering to gay men, for example, while his roommate used Twitter to heckle him and joke with his group of friends. As much as videogame spaces flatten these sorts of social differences, it's clear that we don't leave everything behind when we step into a place like Azeroth.