Note: This isn’t what you’re used to expecting from my columns. If there’s a racial gap in video gaming among kids, I don’t know of it. And the education I’m talking about here isn’t directed at children, and doesn’t take place in an institutional setting. But, just as media literacy is crucial to enable kids to understand the subtext of the messages they are bombarded with every day, gaming literacy is essential for parents so they will know how to protect their children from online predators — and schools should teach it. Pre-adolescents, and even younger children, are being targeted. If we don’t know what they’re doing online, we can’t have the conversations we need to have with them. This column is about the conversation I had with my child. While the conversations are real, they may be disturbing to some readers.
“Show me how to play Fortnite,” I asked my 9-year-old son Roby. He was already playing the massively popular interactive video game from the comfort of his bedroom. Surprised by my request, he lifted his head and turned toward me; his eyes lit up. He has been playing video games since he stopped taking naps in school; I can just about log in without help to play and purchase games on his Xbox. My interest in video games ended in the early nineties with Ms. Pacman and the demise of the classic Atari 2600 system. So, Roby’s surprise came with a great deal of excitement about the possibility of me playing with him. “Sure, I’ll show you,” he said.
The generation gap was immediately apparent. Roby tried to explain the functions of the many tabs, icons, maps and menus on the screen, but everything confused me. Fortnite is a far cry from the simple, intuitive games I grew up with. When I asked him to hand me the joystick, Roby laughed. “It’s a controller, Daddy,” he said.
He tried his best to show me how to attack other players, impatiently reaching over to show me what buttons I was supposed to press. Roby explained that we were in battle royal mode in which the person (and their digital squad) left standing wins. Basically, the point of Fortnite is to fight 100 other players, using weapons purchased with gaming currency. (I had bought Roby the currency online.) The team of the person who survives takes credit for the victory.
Roby pointed out our other team members.
“Who are they?” I asked.
“They’re members of my squad.”
“But who are they? Do you know them?”
“No, they’re just random people who are playing the game,” Roby explained.
“Nothing is random. Who are they?”
One of them could be a sexual predator. This is not just parental paranoia. Last week The New York Times published an investigation into the ways sexual predators use video games and social media platforms to target potential victims. “Reports of abuse are emerging with unprecedented frequency around the country, with some perpetrators grooming hundreds and even thousands of victims,” the Times’ exposé found.
After reading it, I wanted to know more about the games that predators use to find and groom their victims. So I asked Roby to show me.
Reading the Times piece made both of us uncomfortable. Embarrassed by the explicit content in the article, he put his hands over his face when he read that predators deceive children into sharing photos and videos of their genitalia. They then use those photos to extort children into generating even more explicit photos. Pointed and poignant, the messages exchanged between children and predators made him more uncomfortable than I felt hearing the profanity others spew while playing Fortnite.
I was firm in the face of his discomfort: “If you’re old enough to play these games, then you’re grown enough to read about their risks,” I told my son as I questioned my own judgment in allowing him to play games that are rated for teens.
Roby’s brother, who is 14 years older and has special needs, was innocently instrumental in introducing him to gaming. The two live thousands of miles apart, but are always connected by Fortnite and other popular games such as Apex Legends, Minecraft and Roblox. They have very different intellectual capacities, but the siblings can operate on the same plane in their video game worlds. If you didn’t know them, you’d question why they play together. But the game is filled with people from different walks of life, brought together by love of the interactive gaming experience.
“It’s not right for predators to try to force kids to do something that’s not right,” Roby said, when we discussed the Times story.
“How do you know when someone is trying to trick you into doing something inappropriate?” I ask.
“I know the difference between good and not good.”
Roby sounded sure of his judgment, but in an anonymized environment replete with avatars, no one can know for sure who is who. Many predators pose as other children. They build trust by being a good teammate on the games, then increase their communications through affiliated apps and social media platforms like Instagram and Kik Messenger. The rise in popularity of multiplayer video games has enabled more criminal activity. Six years ago, about 50 cases of “sextortion” were reported to a federally designated clearinghouse. Last year, that number increased to 1,500.
“Has anyone ever asked you for photos of any kind?”
“I don’t give out any pictures, and I use a fake name.” (My kid is smarter than I gave him credit for.)
“Has anyone ever asked for your address?”
“Have you ever asked for photos?
“No, Dad.” (This, with a note of impatience in his voice.)
Roby showed me how he can use Xbox app to talk verbally to people (mostly men and boys) online. I asked to listen. The voices conveyed a wide range of ages. Team members shouted out strategy and game dynamics with some gratuitous swear words mixed in. Players sometimes slipped into casual conversation about their personal lives. Kids talked about homework, football games and their families. The few people I perceived to be adults talked about music, food and gaming competitions.
“What do you do if someone offers you money?” I wasn’t about to let it go.
“I’ll tell you or Mommy.”
“What if you want the money really bad?
“I’ll ask you or Mommy for it?”
I didn’t like the question mark at the end of his reply, but it was the right response.
But how many parents are having these conversations with their kids? One of the stories chronicled by the Times investigation centered on a 6-year-old. What parent could imagine a first-grader needs to be warned about sextortion?
It’s a different world today than the one I grew up in; understanding gaming is a crucial way families can protect their kids. Parents need to take advantage of resources that will help them learn more. Roby’s school frequently addresses online bullying and harassment.
Parents can also take concrete steps to reduce a child’s exposure to online gaming. My wife and I try to limit his gaming to certain times of the day. We place him in after-school activities to limit the amount of time he can actually be online. However, the older he gets, the more he must go online to do homework, check in on his relatives and read books.
As he taught me how to play Fortnite, Roby said, “Now you can play with me all the time.” I immediately sensed that he wanted to include me in his gaming domain. While I don’t think I will ever play with the same frequency and enthusiasm as my son, I know that being present — even if it’s online — is the best protection.