This is something parents of young Xbox Live users and Internet gamers should be aware of – that kids and teens can experience considerable verbal and text abuse in online-gaming environments and that there are grownup gamers out there supporting them. For example, there's the GR8 Clan gaming group, founded four years ago by Terra and Jen in Illinois. It represents the kind of community self-policing, or online "neighborhood watch" activity that is increasingly important on the social Web, wherever there's social networking – virtual worlds, instant messaging, and phone texting, as well as online videogames.
"Every day I find myself hosting a room [on the Xbox Live online service] while entertaining the kids," writes multitasking Terra about leading a typical gaming + chat session of GR8 Clan gamers, "answering their questions, asking if their homework is finished [if they're playing] during the school year, asking how their day was, commenting on their increased gaming skills and teamwork, as well as being attentive to what is being said in the room, accepting and sending private chats while searching for a suitable clan for us to battle, which requires online searches, private chats, IMs in 3 different services, getting agreements from opposing clan leaders that their members will not use trash-talk or use improper language during the battle (since I will have children as young as 8 years old in there) – all of this while I must move my own character in the game. A lot of the offenders are clever enough to bypass me and send foul messages to my kids. This is infuriating."
The clan got its start back in 2003, when Terra and co-founder Jen migrated over from the Playstation online community to that of Xbox Live and bought five Xbox 360s and five Xbox Live Gold Memberships, one each for the two of them and a few more for kids "whose parents couldn't afford such a purchase," Terra wrote. When she was between careers, she played videogames in her free time and noticed that "young children were entering public rooms where headset communication among adults and teenagers assaulted the ears with [the stuff of] X-rated or XXX-rated films." She "took control of the situation, steering the speech back to G-rated … and established a zero-tolerance-policy for foul, abusive language" in that room. "All violators were promptly booted out." She soon became "the lady who takes care of the kids.”
GR8 Clan – which now has 22 members throughout the US, more than half of them under 18 – recently got its share of flak, though, after a writeup at WomenGamers.com (quoting much of an article by Terra verbatim). The flak was about GR8 Clan allowing its kid members to play M-rated games ("M" is the "Mature" rating of the Entertainment Software Ratings Board, ESRB.org). Terra's response makes some sense, I think: "I contend that allowing children to play Mature games under responsible adult supervision is perfectly acceptable – analogous to accompanying a child to a PG-13- or R-rated film." More than the content of the film or game, what she said she believes is unethical, or even illegal, in the online gaming context is the abuse coming from other gamers. "Online abuse over the headsets directed toward children is the exact same criminal offense as a supervised child in a public theatre watching a PG-13 movie, while a predator in the row behind the child leans over and whispers, or shouts, sexually explicit expletives or directives into that child's ear….
"I don’t have control over what games the kids play," Terra continued. "I only offer a safe environment for them if they happen to be playing the same game online as I am playing." She and other Clan members are currently playing Tom Clancy’s Rainbow Six Vegas (rated "M"), Ghost Recon ("T" for Teen); Ghost Recon Advanced Warfighter (M), Battlefield II Modern Combat (T), and Gears of War (M). "Only the eldest kids play the Gears of War game, and their parents purchased the game for them, not The GR8 Clan," Terra wrote.
She says there are some positive outcomes for youth playing these games in a supervised online environment: Along with strategy and hand-eye coordination, she says, kids learn such things as teamwork, taking responsibility, "a healthy sense of competition, communication skills, and good sportsmanship, as well as how to recognize poor sportsmanship."
* "The Gamer and the Tinkerer Plan out a Future with Computers" at the Digital Youth Project on the University of California, Berkeley, site
* Tips for parents of gamers from Xbox Dad at Microsoft
* GR8 Clan's MySpace profile and Web site
*"For female gamers," about support for women and girls "who tread into the testosterone-steeped world of console gaming," as the Los Angeles Times put it.