Virtual Worlds News reports today that the a new Federal Trade Commission study finds “explicit sexual content” in virtual worlds for kids and teens. Like prudish moms scouring books in the elementary school library for cuss words so that they can kick up a book-burning bonfire, the FTC has gone searching for offensive content and lo, they’ve found some swears. The study drops a number of supposed bombshells, including this gem:
explicit sexual content exists “free of charge, in online virtual worlds that minors are able to access.”
i hate to break it to the FTC, but the Internet also happens to offer explicit sexual content that minors are able to access. And that content goes far beyond the mostly “low-level”, text-based content found in half of the kid-targeted virtual worlds that the FTC studied. i’ll dismiss out of hand the report’s revelation that there is “a greater amount of explicit content in worlds that were geared towards teens or adults.” Really? Pray tell, if the report is about protecting kids and youth, why did the FTC bother looking at worlds aimed at an older audience? It’s like saying “pornography was found to contain material that was unsuitable for minors.”
It’s For Kids
The implication must be that, like comic books and cartoons, some people associate virtual worlds primarily with children. When Ralph Bakshi released Fritz the Cat, an animated pornographic movie, in 1972 – or indeed, when Watership Down came out a few years later and the adorable bunnies drew blood from each other’s necks – parents raised a hue and cry because they did not expect the animated film medium to contain explicit material. After all, cartoons are for kids. Right? Ditto those parents who brought their kids to see Watchmen last summer because it was about superheroes, without bothering to check the rating to determine the intended audience.
Stay classy, Bakshi.
It looks as though the virtual worlds medium is suffering from the same poorly-informed people holding it to a standard it was never meant to meet. There’s nothing inherent in the concept of a virtual world that suggests it is a strictly kids’ medium, or that it will appeal expressly to children. The trouble here is that the most successful virtual worlds to date, including Neopets and Club Penguin, have been kid- and teen-targeted. Does that mean that all virtual worlds will appeal to all young people? Of course not. And does it mean that virtual worlds that serve the needs of teens and adults should beef up their security to keep kids out? Emphatically, no.
Forget one or two virtual worlds members typing “i want to touch you on your nay-nays” in open chat – the amount of full-colour, HD titties n’ schlongs available at the click of a button to any child on the Internet is staggering, and it’s all without benefit of a membership wall and registration process. It’s actually far more difficult to sign up, create an avatar, learn the virtual world’s navigation and go hunting for text-only “sexually explicit” material than it is to type “mouth on bum” in Google Image Search to call up a gallery of pics that’ll turn your hair white. Whatever Google serves up will be far more psychologically damaging to a child’s psyche than the “shocking” content the FTC discovered in any virtual world.
Pro Tip: never search “man hole” on Google Image Search.
An Unappealing Argument
The FTC’s excuse for profiling teen and adult virtual worlds is likely that these sites will appeal to younger players, perhaps due to their colourful graphics and similarity to Club Penguin, (the clueless adult might reason). You know what else appeals to young people? According to a survey by security firm Symantec, titties n’ schlongs. ReadWriteWeb reports that among the top ten most common search terms entered by children are “Sex” at number 4 and “Porn” at number 6, followed by “boobies” and an assortment of other interesting body parts in the ensuing slots.
i don’t buy the “appeal” excuse for a second. Children are sexual beings, and are just as entranced by All That Jiggles as we adults are. In its report, the FTC recommends more powerful age-screening mechanisms, enhanced age segragation techniques, stronger language filters and better training for moderators in virtual worlds. It all adds up to a completely imbalanced, unfair and unrealistic expectation of virtual worlds staff, an expectation that is not being levied against far worse “offendors” like Google. And sites like Google have far greater sex appeal than virtual worlds. Pictures speak louder than whatever naughty words the FTC uncovered.
Catcher in the Wry
You have to believe that i am all for protecting children from explicit content. In fact, i often go a step farther to point out that adults shouldn’t be viewing a lot of this content. The reason we don’t want kids to see it is often the same reason why grown-ups shouldn’t be looking. But having worked on a number of virtual worlds projects for kids under 13, i’ve seen the heavy-handed amount of legal hoops to jump through and protections you need to add to your product, and i assure you it’s excessive. As a parent, i only take exception to sites that claim absolute safety for young players and can’t deliver on that promise. This is why we sent Mr. McBadTouch into Green.com to see if he could find some new underage playmates.
Mr. McBadTouch can be reached for comment here, in his “portable playground.”
Cracking the Safe
i’m far more comfortable with the ESRB’s blanket admission that “Game Experience May Change During Online Play”. This covers any number of sins, from someone asking my daughter if he can put his mouth on her bum over Xbox Live, to being called the N-word by some drunk Southerner (on Xbox Live), to someone simulating touching his scrotum to my corpse’s forehead in a death match (… again, on Xbox Live). Chris Rock said that a father’s most important duty is “keeping his daughter off the pole”. i’d like to add that a responsible dad also keeps his daughter off Xbox Live.
The world, in short, is a dangerous place (not least of all over Xbox Live). i appreciate the steps that some people voluntarily take to help me raise my children in a safer environment. i even appreciate some of the precautions the government mandates to improve that safety, because Lord knows not all parents are responsible. But the Federal Trade Commission’s recommendations to tighten up virtual world security are over-reaching and unfair. Virtual worlds are not the sole territory of children and youth, and parents should take the same precaution with them that they should take with any medium, including comic books, cartoons and animated films.