We took some time yesterday to dip into Green.com, one of the many, many new kids’ virtual worlds in perpetual beta. The kids’ virtual world space is hot like a tamale these days, thanks in large part to the $700 million buyout by Disney of reigning champeen Club Penguin last year. Investors are flocking to the space in droves, hoping that they, too will … be bought by Disney for $700 million? i’m not sure. It’s a different space than the grown-up MMO racket, where World of Warcraft is proving very tough to dethrone. Kids tend to bounce around from place to place with far less loyalty. So it’s not a matter of a kids’ virtual world being the best – there’s room enough for money to be made by multiple parties; the world just has to meet the bar in a number of key areas.
One of those key areas is safety. Ask any nervous parent, and you’ll learn that the Internatz are packed with pedophiles desperate for their chance to lure underage netizens into real-life park bench trysts like digital pied pipers. It becomes a do-or-die mandate of kids’ virtual worlds to reasonably protect their inhabitants’ safety, or they could actually face fines, lawsuits, or – in the case of this article – bad press.
Green.com makes the standard claims of protection that have become rote in similar products. The safety blurb on their Parents’ website section proclaims:
Green.com is a unique online world where kids and their parents can safely gather, learn, and interact with each other. We know the challenges of keeping kids safe online. After all, we’re parents ourselves. Kids want to hang out in the cool places and look for stuff on the web. But you’ve heard the Internet scare stories, and you may think the Internet is just not safe, period. Not us. We believe it can be safe and still provide all the things kids can’t wait to try.
Alright – so far so good. As a parent who thinks the Internatz are a series of tubes, and whose favourite web browser is Google, i’m willing to take Green.com’s claims at face value and sign my kid up. But we at Untold Entertainment have a somewhat more rigorous test. We have Mr. McBadTouch.
The Advent Of Dr. FeelyFingers
We signed up for a Green.com account and, like any wise 8-year-old, lied about our age. We typed in some spare address in the “Parent’s email address” field, and off we went.
Meanwhile, we signed up for a second account, in which we would roleplay our Mr. McBadTouch character.
In this demonstration, the role of Mr. McBadTouch will be played by user WaterWaster. The role of the innocent preteen will be played by user markergreen.
We both chose one of the half-interesting, half-unsettling photo clipart avatars and met up in the desert area. Green.com’s visuals are definitely a point of difference, and it was refreshing to see someone trying a bold and different style. Even better, your character can instantly fly without having to grind up to level 70, as in other games. Insta-flying was very fun, and nearly distracted us from our child-luring mission. But never mind! On to the safety testing!
Our first task was to see if we could reveal personally-identifiable information like addresses and phone numbers. Best-in-class worlds like Club Penguin block access to numbers and address-related words like “street” and “avenue” to prevent this. Let’s see how Green.com fared:
(of note: having been part of a beta launch for a relatively unknown kids world, i am almost positive that EddieD is a Green.com staff member. “sweet moves dude” “your totaly radical!”)
So you can enter numbers into the chat. Hmm. Let’s try a phone number:
Uh-oh. That’s not good. Then Mr. McBadTouch and our victim decided to exchange IM addresses:
Double plus fail.
We’ve tried this exact same test in Club Penguin, and none of this stuff would have made it through their chat filter. i was beginning to wonder if the chat feature filtered anything, when the markerGreen avatar suddenly spat out “****”.
Ok – so the place has swear filtering, at least. i asked my cohort what he had typed. He said “i typed ‘nerd’”.
So Green.com’s priorities are lining up thusly:
- allow users to exchange personal information like email addresses, street addresses and phone numbers: CHECK
- allow one user to call another user a “nerd” : FORBIDDEN
Maybe it’s me? Maybe i have different priorities as a parent? i’d rather keep my child safe from indellible real-world physical abuse than inevitable virtual abuse.
In and through this conversation, user Sam, a Green.com moderator, chimed in with helpful warnings like “Please don’t share personal details.” The trouble is that he piped up after the fact, after the damage was done. In any truly safe kids’ virtual world, a moderator should have skewered my avatar through the heart and strung him up in town square to be made an example of, before i could squeeze out something like this:
i was a little relieved to see that there was a moderator in the room, but his presence raised two questions:
- Could the moderator “see” the conversation in a separate room log, or did his avatar have to be on the same screen as the other characters to monitor the conversation? Green.com uses very long, scrolling environments, and it’s easy to miss out on a lot of dialogue.
- If Green.com takes off, is a post-moderation strategy enough to police potentially hundreds or thousands of users simultaneously?
i decided to throw the Green.com moderators a bone and flag the fact that i should NOT be playing in their world, to see if they had any sort of killswitch or live kick/ban tool to boot my ass out:
IRL stands for “in real life”
IRL is a fairly standard web acronym by now, but i used it to underscore the importance of keeping your mods up to date on slang, acronyms, l337 speak, and filthy phrases. i remember one situation while i was working at a kids’ site where the player used a dirty Japanese word in his username. A lot of the kids knew what it meant, but the mods were clueless. They have to be like filth-busting ninjas, these mods – up on every trend.
But i digress. After revealing my nefarious plan, i thought for sure that the crack ace Green.com mods would boot me back to Timbuktu without so much as a parting gift basket, but no. All i got was another weak warning from user Sam to not share personal info.
Sam and EddieD look on in horror, apparently powerless to stop Mr. McBadTouch.
And now, the money shot:
Mr. McBadTouch moves in for the kill
Of course, this is all just to illustrate a point. i don’t even know if there IS a St. Patrick’s park in Brandon, Manitoba. But despite Green.com’s moderator presence, and due to their lack of chat filtering, Mr. McBadTouch successfully set up a real-life meeting with one of the game’s players.
Hours later, i received an email from Green.com (emphasis mine):
Thank you for signing up as a beta tester with Green.com. Unfortunately, there is a concern with communications associated with your account. As a result, we have temporarily suspended your access to Green.com.
We are committed to providing a safe, child-appropriate environment on Green.com. Obscene language, bullying and other inappropriate interactions are not tolerated on this site.
If you would like to have your account reopened, please respond to this email with your confirmation that you understand and will adhere to the expectations of conduct for the Green.com community.
The Green.com staff
It’s obvious that Green.com has taken steps to make good on their promise of a safe environment for kids. They have live moderators, chat filtering, and a kick/ban process. But they’re clearly not cutting it yet. Since it’s a beta, a certain amount of slack can be cut, but here are my early recommendations:
- The live moderator needs to be able to see chat logs for the whole screen area, rather than merely snippets of it (i’ll leave it to Green.com staff to confirm that this is in place).
- They need a good ratio of moderators to users so that things don’t slip through the cracks. The ratio we saw was good (there were only a few users in the world), but they have to be ready to ramp up in case the world takes off.
- The chat filtering needs to get waaay better. Blocking numbers is an obvious first step.
- The moderators need to be well-trained on slang and acronyms.
- The moderators need instant kick/ban tools to prevent shenanigans and the likes of Mr. McBadTouch.
Finally, since the world is in beta and the safey tools have some way to go, the website should say as much. i should not see a gleaming white Dudley Do-right credo proclaiming the site as a safe space when clearly, it isn’t. That’s tantamount to plunking a 40-fathom shark tank in a toddler’s playground and posting a “Caution” sign next to it.
A kids’ virtual world will never be completely safe. But with so many developers flocking to the space, we need to do more than simply pay lip service to the concept of online saftey. Club Penguin, before the $700 million, spent the time to turn their chat filter into a fortress, to the point where i’m amazed those penguins are able to say anything to each other (aside from “Hello”, and that might not even be allowed since it contains the word “Hell”). Virtual world creators should either go above and beyond the minimum requirements of acts like COPPA, or simply refrain from claiming that their worlds are safe.
As a parent, if i’m going to throw my kid into the water, i appreciate knowing ahead of time that it’s filled with sharks so that i can monitor my child and respond appropriately, rather than read the “No Sharks” sign outside a shark-filled tank, and walk away leaving my child to swim alone.
Of course, i’m more the type of parent to climb into that tank and punch every shark in the face. But with a mother who was a child protection case worker for fifteen years, i’m wise to the fact that until we mandate a baby-having license, we can’t rely on all parents to do their job properly either.