Changing the gaming culture #2: Habbo; and could gamification clean up virtual worlds?

I guess you could see this post as thematically related to yesterday’s, where I was talking about sexism in gaming. Last night Channel 4 News (which is a reasonably well respected outlet here) aired a piece about sexual harassment in Habbo Hotel. If you haven’t heard of Habbo it’s probably because you aren’t a teenager or don’t have a child that age.

It’s a huge F2P virtual world aimed at teens that claims 10 million unique visitors monthly, according to the devs.

I missed the report but essentially one of their reporters posed as an 11 year old girl while playing Habbo for a couple of months  and was inundated with cyber sex, porny chat, and cartoon boys following her to her room and emoting that they were having sex with her. I suspect strongly that this mostly involves teens harassing each other. It reminded me a bit of a report I read recently about teen sexting in schools, where they focussed on how teen girls in particular are subjected to a barrage of requests over social media to send pictures of themselves naked, perform sex acts, etc etc.

So this is likely more of a wider cultural issue than gaming culture per se.  Still, a game aimed at minors which sells itself on being a safe environment has to go a bit further than saying “Hey, it’s what they do at school too.”

Habbo actually have some fairly solid guides available, as well as assuring parents:

Providing a safe social environment for all players is a top priority in Habbo Hotel which is why all Habbo Hotels are staffed by trained, adult moderators who take action against wrongdoers and assist users with any questions they may have.

They also suggest parents keep an eye on what their children are doing online and make sure they keep lines of communication open so that their kids feel comfortable telling them if anything that made them feel bad happened. Which is all great advice.

I’ve also no reason to doubt that they have a process in place where players can complain of  harassment and have a moderator step in to help them either. (We don’t know if the reporter tried reporting anyone.) None of this will save them when their main investor pulls out due to bad publicity and the main retailers decide to stop stocking Habbo Hotel gift cards. Although they do also operate in a ton of other countries so there is that.

What’s more worrying for MMO operators in the teen/child space is that this starts a rush panic. Parents or investors who may have assumed that virtual worlds were more policed THAN IS FEASIBLY EVER POSSIBLE might just pull the plug.

For example, the C4 report had them playing with “a leading expert on child safety” (pro tip: any competent parent could probably also double as a leading expert on child safety) who felt that a moderator should somehow be jumping in as soon as the player received their first dodgy private message.

Asking to have every single message moderated isn’t practical. It’s barely viable to ask for every channel to be moderated.  And they do claim to do this:

"Habbo’s moderation and safeguarding procedures includes employing more than 225 moderators, tracking some 70m lines of conversation globally every day on a 24/7 basis. These moderators cover all time-zones and the multiple languages in which Habbo users converse."

That’s vastly more moderated than WoW, for example. And yet, you can log into Warcraft and the only unwanted texts you might get would be about gold selling. I think there is room to wonder about their moderation, if there really are chat rooms called ‘sexy stripclub’.

I don’t really have an answer for this one other than either watch your kids like hawks online, get them to stick to games which don’t allow free text chat, find a game that allows private servers where they can play with people they know or parents/ schools have vetted, or have them play games which aren’t dominated by teens.

It is definitely going to be worrying for Habbo though that parental expectations might be for totally impossible levels of safety.

So why are AAA MMOs not as bad as virtual worlds with respect to sex chat

The only game I can think of that was as  sex dominated as this sounds was Second Life, and even there it sounded relatively easy to get away from the cybering. So maybe there’s something about ungamified virtual worlds that just descends to the lowest common denominator.

Sad but true. I think any future ventures along these lines will have to require real names or allow private servers where the groups running the game can impose their own gatekeeping.

Or maybe there is something about gamers and gaming MMOs that focusses interactions in other directions. Maybe gamers are generally more interested in progression than what’s in your pants iRL. I also suspect that having a mix of ages in a gaming demographic tends to make a space safer rather than riskier – while there is the possibility of paedophiles, there is also the (larger)  possibility of adults who will keep an eye out for more vulnerable members of the community, plus parents who will tend to play with their kids in the game (which I think would require more fortitude than I possess for Habbo).

This won’t be the last we hear of this story, I suspect. It’s been bubbling under for a long time, and this may be the start of a very different turn for MMOs.

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14 thoughts on “Changing the gaming culture #2: Habbo; and could gamification clean up virtual worlds?

  1. Great post. I think there is definitely something in the idea that a mix of age ranges makes for a safer space, especially when you start thinking in terms of smaller communities. I think gaming worlds are also analogous to an activity club, where habbo can be scene as a night club. One thing is purely social, the other includes a shared activity and shared interests.

  2. Take something like Minecraft, that has over 6 million sales (okay, not all of them will be playing survival Multiplayer), but it’s very much a virtual world with very little actual ‘Game’ in it. No goal, no guide, just a sandbox. Players have to make their own fun in it, through the use of the in-game tools at their disposal, and it matches the ‘safe’ model you described. Private servers with their own gatekeeping. Granted, most servers have a hard limit of about 8-20 people, but there are some that host over a hundred at a time, many of which are open to the public.

    I play on quite a busy server, and the closest I’ve come to cybering in Minecraft was when someone threatened to shove their pickaxe up my arse.

  3. I was always under the impression that Habbo, like Second Life, was more of a sandbox chat-space with “stuff to do” as opposed to a game with institutionalized and personal goals. I could see that difference leading to Habbo being the equivalent of a “small town”, there there’s little entertainment provided so the listless kids gather at the Wal Mart parking lot at 10 PM to just hang out.

    • It is. I made a toon there many years ago for about 5 minutes lol. it’s basically IRC chat with clothes and decorating rooms and stuff…

  4. As a father to two girls, the prevelance of social media for young teenagers is something that I find deeply worrying.

    It’s something that wasn’t around when I was a kid and must be hugely stressful for those going through adolescence these days.

    Children (and I include teenagers here) do not usually understand what is important and what is not – they do not have the sense of perspective that comes with age. To be connected to social media as a child is to be constantly under the scrutiny of your peers. You are always concerned about what is happening in the online sphere and I see children getting very stressed and upset when things happen on Facebook or wherever.

    I have friends who have 13 year old girls who have been pressured into having cyber sex, or posting photos of themselves online. This has led in one case I know to a 12 year old girl having sex with her older boyfriend – it’s shocking to me. What is more upsetting even than that is the response of the girls in question – they don’t think it’s a big deal.

    • I’m with you, it is scary. And when I was a kid, my social interactions with other kids were fairly visible. They tended to happen at school, or maybe on the phone, where if I put the phone down and was upset, someone would see. Social media is an invisible, private method of networking (well, private if mobile phones are involved.) There’s pressure on the boys too, but somehow it seems to translate into masses of pressure on girls in particular.

  5. Well… I won’t exactly say that Triple A MMOs are safe from all this sex chat as well. You don’t have to look very far in WOW, just a short trip to Goldshire or perhaps Silvermoon city.

    Perhaps it could be the fact that the reporter posed as a 11 year old girl. It’s really classic troll bait which will incite other players into such sexual harassment. Such a response is actually quite common on 4chan.

    Or it might be like what Scopique says as well, just bored players with nothing better to do than to harass another player. :)

  6. MMOs have a theme and purpose above being a chatroom. that’s more or less the answer. all type of pure sim games without developer created content and game mechanics end up being social networking and chat tools rather than ‘games’. they attract their own crowd and obviously also people looking to date online or have cybersex. you don’t play WoW if that’s what you’re looking for.

    As an educator it always infuriates me when parents are more than happy to let their kids occupy themselves online for hours, and then go all hysteric because some game company did not erase all types of possible threat to their child. which is not humanly possible, as you pointed out too. hello parents: Habbo is not the guardian of your child; you are. they can establish some ground rules and controls, but that does not mean the internet is 100% safe. ever.

    • I don’t think it’s quite as simple as setting ground rules for your child.

      It’s possible to be a victim of cyber bullying on social networking sites without ever visiting those sites. If something is posted about your child on Facebook and all their classmates can see it, then that’s going to affect your child even if they don’t use Facebook at all.

    • I think the difference with a game is that there’s something to do there rather than just hang around and chat, so a lot of the chat tends to be at least tangentially related to the game. The focus is on the shared activity, while a glorified chatroom doesn’t really HAVE a shared activity other than chatting to start with. The difference in teenage behaviour is between being at a youth club and just hanging out at the mall.

      The other factor is going ot be demographics. Habbo is teenagers hanging out with teenagers (plus potntially unsavoury characters who pretend to be teenagers) so they tend to act like a mob of teenagers. My experience in MMOs, and especially in decent guilds, is that most of the players are adults and the handful of teenage players find themselves trying to conform to that peer group instead, which (usually) results in more mature behaviour.

      As for Second Life and its reputation as a den of unbridled online debauchery – most of it actually isn’t, as far as I can tell. It’s just that some rather specialised communities have come together in Second Life and they tend to get the most attention.

    • I think you have a point in the thematic nature of MMOs in comparison to the virtual chat room theme of Habbos.

      I do always wonder where these parents are and what kind of relationship they have with these kids. It’s not that parents can watch every breath the kid takes. But I hope my children (when they’re much older) will have the presence of mind, the trust, the desire to at least talk about what’s going on with them. Kids do things in secret, that’s to be expected. I definitely did. But it’s the nature of the secrets that one hopes their kids are able to discern. To know when they are in a bad spot and to talk to *someone* about help.

      This makes me nervous for my little ones and they oldest is only 3.

  7. I think a lot of the reason this kind of thing (seems to be) more common in “virtual worlds” like Second Life or Habbo Hotel boils down to one thing: they rely entirely on user creativity, and most people just aren’t that creative. In a more gamified setting, you’re immediately presented with Stuff To Do, whether it be slaying Internet dragons in a themepark game or trying to run away from the ganktards in a sandbox. In a pure “world” there isn’t the outside direction, so 13 year old boys (of all ages and genders) revert to the primal activity of “draw penises on everything in sight”.

  8. It always puzzled me why people treat the highway differently from the information highway: one has (a.o.t.) age requirements for its use because of safety precautions that +/- nobody disputes, but the other one should for some reason be accessible by toddlers

    (okay, kindergarteners if we’re going to be precise, but I just like the word ‘toddler’, it has a nice ‘hobbity’ sound)

    Add to this what Pardoz said, and we both get the problem with social media and one with current MMO’s (because of lack of imagination, Devs have to spell out ‘what to do’ instead of players making their own game with the tools given by Devs)

  9. Well this made me so curious I went to check it out myself.

    >.> As of Saturday there isn’t any chatting anymore. Lol. I might have it wrong but apparently they have turned off ALL chatting for now while they try desperately to fix things – so it’s at least a good sign that they’re serious.

    Of course, now people spam ‘friend’ at you instead but hey… At least that’s not all that… graphic?

    Oh and this was even though I said I was born on 1st January 1900.

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