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Are Parents Getting the Message On Online Gaming?

A misleading hatchet job in the tabloid press shouldn't distract us from genuine risks to children who play online, says Johnny Minkley

"Xbox paedophile predators 'move in on prey within two minutes of contact'", screamed the Metro last Wednesday, the story making the front page of its dead-tree edition.

The morning commuter-bothering freesheet has form here, as the games industry well knows. A stable mate of the Daily Mail, it is after all the same publication that brought us the shocking news: "Video gaming lead to surge in rickets". Which proved as fair a reflection of the facts as one might have expected.

Signaling its intent to treat the latest games-related research it had no intention of reading properly with its customary bulletproof standards of accuracy, the paper illustrated the piece with an image of an original Xbox.

Given the seriousness of the issue it shouldn't be allowed to distract from an examination of the source

Gamers and the games press reacted to it not with self-righteous anger, but wearied resignation. Conditioned as the industry is to hysterical tabloid scapegoating, our Pavlovian response is to sigh then sneer.

But even if we feel we have good reason to resist taking the Metro's account at face value, given the seriousness of the issue it shouldn't be allowed to distract from an examination of the source.

The European Online Grooming Project Report was produced by a team of researchers at London's Kingston University. It seems the Metro based its piece solely on the press release that accompanied last week's publication - which features the word "paedophile" in the headline and "Xbox" and "PlayStation" in the body - jackpot, in other words, for hacks desperately scanning the wires for something to cut and paste.

In the release, one of the authors of the report, Professor Julia Davidson, explained that predatory online chat can "become sexualised within two minutes". The release added that "the report highlights how gaming platforms, such as Xbox Live and PlayStation Network are also used to target children, particularly boys."

Kingston Uni's press office told me last week that the Metro's "headline was very misleading", but added: "The report focuses on all online gaming, not just Xbox Live, as well as social networking."

Indeed, the authors of the research revealed that they found evidence of online gaming services being used for grooming. Here's the key relevant findings taken from the full 152-page document:

"Online game platforms were used by some men that were attempting to groom young boys. Grooming via game platforms helped to reinforce the fantasy aspect of offending behaviour and gave the men credibility in the eyes of the young men being approached."

"In some respect, this approach represents a 'rational choice' for men sexually interested in boys, as the evidence suggests that young men tend to be online playing games more than young females."

"There are two dimensions of online gaming that made this method an attractive place to target young people. The first was that playing a game, such as online role- play, helped to reinforce the fantasy, or 'unreal' aspect of what is clearly offending behavior."

"The second dimension relates to online gaming performance reinforcing the credibility of the offender as somebody worth talking to. That is, being competent at online games and 'leveling up' by gaining experience points means a great deal to some online players. Consequently, some offenders talked about how they could use their considerable online scores as a way to 'attract' and open up conversations with some young boys."

Horrible stuff. And while none of us is likely to be surprised that gaming - as with any other connected service - is being exploited by sexual predators, these details stand out: that would-be groomers are somehow able to delude themselves into believing what they're doing is harmless because of the "fantasy" aspect of gaming; and that having good game stats facilitates contact.

Grooming via game platforms helped to reinforce the fantasy aspect of offending behaviour and gave the men credibility in the eyes of the young men being approached

The European Online Grooming Project Report

The games industry has been ahead of the tech curve in taking measures to protect children. All modern gaming systems feature parental controls as standard - sensible, well-designed means with which to prevent kids from accessing content inappropriate for their age and from engaging in online contact.

And there's good practical advice and information out there, from organisations including the Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre, The UK Council For Child Internet Safety (formed in the wake of the Byron Review), and UKIE - if you know where to look for it.

But, as I wrote here recently in relation to age ratings, the real problem remains that too many parents either don't know parental controls are there or don't bother to use them, and see video games as inherently harmless virtual babysitters.

It's all too easy to be knee-jerk dismissive of the sensationalist anti-gaming agenda that persists in the tabloid press, which usually has little interest in the facts of the story itself beyond a trolling headline. But that doesn't mean there's no story.

Rapidly evolving technologies, playgrounds full of smartphones and a preponderance of confusing social networks give parents plenty to worry about. Meanwhile, the sheer number of children allowed to play 18-rated games highlights how interactive entertainment is viewed and treated differently to other media.

And so the disturbing details of Kingston University's research send out a strong signal to the UK games industry as it prepares its awareness campaign to support the legal switch to PEGI, now due this summer: it must also be used to raise awareness of the potential risks of online gaming. That's the responsibility not just of the games industry, but also bodies such as UKCCIS. The advice needs to be clear, the message visible.

Because if mature-rated content alone isn't enough reason for parents to pay closer attention to what their kids are doing on games consoles, this snapshot of an interview with a paedophile, quoted in Kingston's research, ought to give pause:

"I spent a lot of time playing (name of online war game) with boys. I was good, it was a 'shoot em up' (UK participant, male victims age 5-12)."

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Johnny Minkley

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Johnny Minkley is a veteran games writer and broadcaster, former editor of Eurogamer TV, VP of gaming charity SpecialEffect, and hopeless social media addict.

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