Online gaming is now more accessible and social than ever. With the rise of multiplayer games alongside social networking in gaming, children can speak to friends and people they may not know while they’re gaming.
To help them stay safe it is important to understand what these social gaming platforms are and help them to understand how to chat safely online without putting themselves at risk.
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There are many games-specific chat rooms and ways to make friends online through consoles and other internet sites.
As well as large communities online, through internet forums and messaging websites like Reddit, each gaming platform has its own way of allowing users to communicate.
Here are some of the most popular social gaming platforms:
For PC and Apple Mac computers, one of the most popular platforms that you can buy and play games is Steam. It needs to be installed on a computer, be that desktop or laptop, and gives access thousands of games. There is a game store and a way to load and play games that you’ve bought, but there is also a large community and social side.
As well as forums, players can ask to be friends and potentially play against or with each other in games. Forums are moderated regularly by Steam staff and the minimum age to sign up for a Steam account is 13. It is essential to check the privacy controls in settings to restrict who can talk to.
This can be completely blocked or set to receive communications from “Only Friends”. That means, someone has to be be “friended” before they can send messages to your child.
Age restrictions can also be set so a child cannot access games on Steam that are certified for an older audience.
Microsoft’s online service for its consoles is called Xbox Live and when you’re signed into the service you can chat to other Xbox Live members and befriend them.
Party Chat rooms can be created between players either before or during a game, so players can discuss the action over a voice connection. Players who have accepted each other as friends can also send each other messages.
However, for Xbox One and Xbox 360 games consoles you set up an Xbox Live profile when the console is first powered up and the details entered determine which default options are available. A child’s age, for example, will automatically restrict and block them from certain actions, such as accepting friend requests.
This is determined by the date of birth entered when setting up the console. You can choose whether to accept friend requests and vet those trying to contact your child.
Teenagers do have the ability to chat online and accept their own friend requests, but you can also block that access by changing the privacy settings of both consoles.
All PlayStation systems can be set up to have master accounts run by a parent and sub accounts for children. Like with the Xbox consoles, a child’s profile will automatically restrict certain actions depending on the date of birth set for that child.
You can block chat and messaging features by changing the privacy settings of a PS4, PS3 or PlayStation Vita. That means voice chat, text chat and messaging can all be switched off on a user by user basis.
You can also prevent the use of the internet browser on the PS4 system.
Nintendo’s consoles are more family friendly than most and therefore its chat functionality is a lot more geared to safe interaction for younger players. The Miiverse, for example, is a central hub where users can share pictures they have drawn and quick messages – think a fun and friendly, family safe Twitter.
Although there may not be anything rude or unsavoury in the messages, you should still keep an eye on things.
If you are particularly concerned or have much younger children, there are parental controls on all Nintendo consoles that can restrict all online use, such as Miiverse on the Wii U, internet browsing or any other kind of interaction.
Twitch / YouTube
Most modern gaming machines and some mobile devices have access to livestreaming services such as Twitch or YouTube. These help players to broadcast their gameplay footage live over the internet to watch either through the console or in an internet browser on a dedicated website.
Often, this live gameplay footage also has voice over commentary or even picture-in-picture video of the gamer, who talks through his or her progress.
The services are professionally run (YouTube is owned by Google and Twitch by Amazon) and have strict guidelines on what can and cannot be broadcast, but language can be adult in tone at times. There are also live text chat options with every stream, so there can be some offensive comments posted.
The type of game streamed determines the type of viewer it attracts and therefore the level of interaction. Pokemon, for example, would be safer than a shoot-em-up like Call of Duty.
One of the biggest concerns for parents is not the interaction players are having with their approved online friends, but those with others they are playing with or against in multiplayer, online games.
Many online games have multiplayer options that give players the chance to talk to each other in-game. This is often through a headset with a microphone, although they can also use the mic built into a peripheral such as the Kinect for the Xbox or PlayStation Camera for the PS4.
These can be especially worrying for parents as it is tricky to monitor what players are saying to each other. Also, the interaction is often not limited to those in a friends list but complete strangers of all different ages can communicate while playing. A gamer can ask your child to add them as a friend, for example, during a game even if they have never met before.
One way to prevent this is to block the child’s ability to add a friend without your permission. That way, even though they might talk to someone online during a gameplay session, the interaction cannot be followed up.
You also need to explain the danger to your child of discussing or disclosing any private information, such as real name, phone number or address. There is no way to block this manually.
Another sure-fire way to prevent this kind of interaction is limit the type of game available to your child. Large, online multiplayer titles with voice interaction tend to be rated “mature” or over anyway. It is always advisable to check out reviews of games online before you buy them for your children (See: There is a site where parents rate games for children). That way, any multiplayer aspects can be well researched beforehand.
That’s not to say all multiplayer games should be banned full stop. Many, such as Splatoon for the Nintendo Wii U, offer fun and friendly ways to interact with others, but without the ability to talk verbally to each other. Instead, funny motions and animated gestures might be built into the game to communicate in a safe, age appropriate way.
Very few, if any, games aimed at younger children have online capabilities.
Social networking is naturally a concern for most parents and gaming is no different. However, if you take the time to discuss the dangers of communicating with strangers online, in the same way you would if they met them in the street, there is a good chance your child will be safe.
Children naturally want to play with each other, and the same is true in videogames, but if you carefully vet friends and restrict gaming sessions to child-friendly hours, you can reduce the risk that they might encounter offensive or inappropriate behaviour.