Background: Children and adolescent spend a great amount of their leisure time on the Internet and in virtual worlds such as online game landscapes. Online games are a significant meeting point for communication and interaction with strangers. In Germany, approx. 26.4 million of the German population plays online games (BIU, 2014). Especially one case, the tragic case of Breck Bednar, a 14-year old boy that became victim of an online perpetrator and was found dead at his perpetrators home; shows how children and adolescents are at risk. The online gaming environment has changed over recent years, enabling players to communicate and interact with each other and thus open the possibility for strangers to easily approach children and adolescents. Online games are introducing not only different payment models such as F2P (free-to-play) and P2P (pay-to-play) but also making it increasingly hard for supervisors to understand mechanisms of online communication, interaction with other gamers and thus leading to a nearly unprotected accessibility to children and adolescents as well as great financial losses.
Purpose: The aim of this study is to recognise risk generators for children and adolescents in online gaming environments. In order to do so, registration processes regarding age recommendations were analysed as well as the enablement of payment options in free-to-play games. Additionally, game mechanisms such as chat functionality and thus the enablement to communicate and interact with strangers were tested. Strangers in this case can be adults, pretending to be of the same age group in order to lure children into dangerous situation namely online predation, grooming and exploitation. Underlining the lack of age restriction that could hinder either too young players or adult players through a verification procedure1.
Method: Thirty-two online games, which were retrievable from Germany and were offered in the German language,2 were tested in a time period of four months (December 2014 to March 2015). The study was conducted with a qualitative approach, considering free-to-play online games as a place for new ways of communication and participating in online communities such as online games. The method chosen was participant observation enabling the researcher to become an insider and gain valuable information to understand the phenomenon as well as observe over a longer time period.
Results: The finding of this study shows that firstly age recommendations are difficult to follow due to their inconsistency. Varied actors such as USK (in German: Unterhaltungssoftware Selbstkontrolle), game providers and Google search results provide none (in the case of 15 games) or very different age recommendations. This irregularity makes it difficult for parents, guardians and children and adolescents themselves to recognise an appropriate age limitation for each tested game. Secondly, payment options were evident in all declared free-to-play online games in form of in-game purchases. As results show, almost all games did not require additional verification in order to place a purchase within the game and continue to pay the required amount. Payment by phone (e.g. a hotline beginning with the dialing code 0900) was available in 29 of 32 tested online games, enabling the possibility to pay through text messaging or calling. And last, 81% of all tested games provided the opportunity to communicate with other gamers and thus providing access for strangers to approach children and adolescents.
Keywords: online games, online perpetration, cyber grooming, gamecrime
The current study concentrated on Germany or a German-speaking field as the examination field. This is important when considering legal frameworks and definitions, e.g. in the area of child and youth media protection and age recommendations. ↩
This does not imply that game provider and servers are located in Germany. ↩