One of the most profound shifts in terms of childhood in a digital age, is the rise of online gaming. Once the preserve of teenage and tween geeks and nerds in darkened LAN rooms, now it is a common pastime for younger children, certainly many of our Junior School children regularly engage in these pursuits as a regular pastime. This is not a post about whether or not this kind of activity is one we should encourage, (I think we should) that is a subject I have written about elsewhere, and present a parent workshop about gaming every year. No, this is about providing some advice for the many parents who, for whatever reason, have kids who like to play online.
There is a growing collection of video games that fall into the category of multiplayer online game, from Clash of Clans to Club Penguin, to Minecraft, Roblox and Overwatch, and many more.
21st Century PlaygroundsAs is often the case these days/this century, parents and teachers often find themselves faced with trying to relate to a child, whose normative childhood experience bears little resemblance to their own, but let me reassure you—while the medium has changed—the message and the meaning, and the opportunities and obstacles that surround group play have not.
The main place and space you are likely to encounter this is at home, as playing video games in class is generally not something kids will have time to do. There may be exceptions, eg possibly as a one off iTime project, but even then, the objective of creating something that they are accountable for in terms of achievement would need to be paramount. This is the stance we take with these kinds of gaming experiences, like Minecraft and Roblox. That said of course, there may be teachers who find this to be a useful strategy as a reward for hard work for example. If so they will take the necessary precautions, just as they would if sending kids to play on the playground.
Safe PlayWhen it comes to games for kids, Roblox is a great game, just like its progenitor Minecraft, however—as with all making, creating, playing, social experiences there is always the potential for inappropriate use, and experiences, whether the playground is virtual or actual. The solution, much as we would advocate for any 'multi-player' 'off screen' play—from playing tag or handball, to playing football, to swimming or having a sleepover, is to make sure there are clear parameters, and appropriate supervision, to ensure that we are minimising the likelihood of potentially harmful or unpleasant encounters.
Online maker spaces like Roblox and Minecraft are unique in terms of the sheer potential they offer in terms of unbridled creativity, and are also very familiar in terms of their potentials and pitfalls.
With all of these kinds of games the same safeguards we would have applied to playgrounds as children apply, ie be aware of the other people who are playing in this online arena or space, and the extent to which this space is effectively supervised, or moderated. If, as kids, we had been permitted to play unsupervised at nearby playground (I was, in London in the 70s, that seemed to be quite normal). We would have taken appropriate action if, for example, there were bullies in the playground, making life miserable for everyone. The same is true of these online spaces, which are very much similar to playgrounds, only on a screen, instead of in a park.
SafeguardsThe developers behind games like Roblox and Minecraft are very aware of this, and design in safeguards for children, but this only works if the child has been honest about their age when creating the account, whether it's a Roblox account, or an Instagram account. Whenever a child creates an online account, like any other internet account, it's important that they set these up with the parent, or with the parents permission, otherwise they can 'accidentally' end up effectively creating an account for adults which could result in their being exposed to content that is inappropriate. Ideally a teacher or parent should be involved in the account setup and in ensuring that the child plays/uses the account responsibly—this is a skill that will serve them well for the rest of their lives, in all sorts of online environments.
Roblox, for example, have a very clear commitment to safeguarding children; but it can be all too easy for children to create adult accounts, thereby effectively bypass any and all safeguards that would automatically be applied in the case of younger children. This usually happens if a child 'accidentally' enters the 'wrong' year of birth when registering their account, then the system assumes that are older than 13. In the event that this happens, my advice is for the parent to have a close look at the child's account settings, if Roblox or Minecraft knows that a user is under 13 there are a slew of safeguards that will be applied to the account to ensure the child's welfare, eg:
"For users age 12 and under, however, we take extra precaution to ensure their safety and privacy by automatically enforcing more restricted settings so they can only directly message other users that are accepted as friends on Roblox."
"Players age 12 and younger have locked privacy settings to prevent contact from people they don't know. These players must first become friends with another user before certain activities are allowed, such as messaging, following into game, and playing in private servers."
Have Fun!There are advocates in some quarters who encourage parents to join their child and play with them, to be honest, I think you'll find that most kids are less than enthusiastic about this idea.... Would you play tag, or have a sleepover with your kids and their friends? Probably not, so why would online play be any different?
Last but not least, the best thing you can do as a parent is be consistent; online and offline play are rich experiences that are enjoyable and highly beneficial provided some basic precautions are followed; for more on the potential benefits of gaming, see the following on video games as 'sandboxes'.