Online Games and Privacy

Image of a child playing online games

Since first appearing in the 1970s, video games have evolved with computer technology, and as a $135 billion per-year industry, are more popular than ever. Multiplayer games are now more popular than solo play, and with the ability to play over the Internet, people from all over the world can play and communicate together in real-time.

As with other uses for the Internet, online games have inherent risks that come with the connectivity that makes them so fun. All of them have chat functions that allow communication between players, which can expose kids to harassment and vulgarities, and many games depict very realistic violence.

If you are a parent and have kids interested in online gaming, it can be tempting (if you’re not a gaming enthusiast yourself) to simply ban your child from using the Internet or games in general, but there are ways you can limit and regulate your child’s exposure to possibly unsavory content. That way, your kids can enjoy and benefit from the team-building and problem-solving aspects of gaming without being drawn into anything you wouldn’t wish them to see.

 

Some Online Gaming FAQs:

 

Are Online Games Safe?

So many games exist today that there is a wide spectrum of content subjects and audiences that particular games tend to target. While there are hundreds of safe, kid-friendly games out there, there are also incredibly violent, explicit, and controversial games, too. The best way to know if a particular game is appropriate for your child is to research it. Games also tend to rise and fall in popularity with time, so games you may have heard of secondhand or through media outlets may not actually reflect the latest trend. Communicate with your child and find out what they and their friends are interested in so that you’ll know what to research.

Keep in mind that while a game’s content itself may not be explicit or violent, it may have uncensored chat between players. If you do not want your child to be exposed to vulgar language, check to see if the game they are interested in has parental controls or automatic censor options built-in.

Are There Parental Controls?

Some games have built-in parental controls, but it is by no means universal. It is best to use the parental controls that are built into gaming devices, instead—on platforms such as Playstation 4 (PS4), Xbox One, and Nintendo Switch, these are integrated into the device and allow you to regulate what your kids can see and do. On Windows computers, many games go through a software platform called “Steam,” which also has parental controls.

What Data Can be Shared Over Games?

Games typically only transfer data between players and an encrypted server, not between players directly, so there is little risk of getting a virus or other malware through a game. However, in nearly every multiplayer game, players are able to communicate with one another using text, voice, or both. Since games are typically not age or location-restricted, you will see different kinds of people from all over the world, of all different ages, within a single match.

What is Fortnite?

An action game for multiple platforms including Windows, Mac, game consoles, and mobile, Fortnite is a wildly popular, “E-Sports” game title that features highly competitive multiplayer. This multiplayer is called “Battle Royale” and involves a free-for-all melee survival scenario. While its premise does involve violence, it is “cartoon” violence, on about the same level as “Loony Toons.”

In Battle Royale, up to 100 players face one another on a large game map, while building structures, collecting equipment, and exploring the landscape. In an average match, which lasts for about 20 minutes, the ultimate goal is to be the last character alive through the elimination of all other players.

The bottom line:

  • Fortnite is an online first-person shooting game with 100 players in each game.
  • The goal is to kill other players, but the violence is like a cartoon (no blood, gore, or realism).
  • Players are allowed to type and say anything they want to each other. Bad language is common.
  • This game involves in-app purchases, which are designed to be ongoing and addictive.
  • On gaming platforms such as PS4, Xbox One, Nintendo Switch, and iOS, there are built-in parental controls that allow you to regulate playtime and in-app purchases.

Is Fortnite Kid-Friendly?

The game is, on its surface, kid-friendly, but the players themselves are not necessarily kids, and bad language through chat is extremely common. Thus it is recommended to only allow children to play this game with voice chat disabled. You can adjust the voice chat settings from within the game. With the right parental controls in place, Fortnite can be a tween/teen-friendly game.

Protecting Data and Privacy Online

Online games that use a central login system (like Fortnite) are and have been compromised in data breaches. Hackers have been able to steal login credentials and user data—which may be harmless in most cases, and in other cases, not so much. It all depends on what information you allow the game service to have about you. The most important question to ask yourself about what you may be vulnerable to is: what am I sharing? Because whatever you share is what can be stolen.

When signing up for any online gaming account, carefully examine what information it asks you for. Usually, if payment is involved, credit card details will be shared, which includes your name, email, country, and often, billing address. While payment details are usually stored with extra protection, hackers can and do get a hold of those details on occasion, so if you or any family members are online gamers, pay attention to your payment history on any credit cards used on these services (this is a good habit to have regardless). Also, talk to your children about what they can and cannot say online. It may seem like common sense to you, but to an innocent kid, someone asking about their real name and where they’re from might just seem friendly. Treat your kid going online as if they were going out in public; be frank about the dangers and pitfalls that exist, so that they themselves can recognize when someone is speaking inappropriately to them.

 

Common Sense Protections

  • Age Ratings: Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) rates every game that goes to market, and their standards are strict. Their ratings are EC (Early Childhood; appropriate for a preschool audience), E (Everyone; appropriate for any age), E10+ (Everyone 10 and up; usually for games that have slightly more violence or social content than one specifically geared toward children. Think “tween” games), T (Teen; mild language, violence, and more mature humor), M (Mature; generally meant for anyone 17 and older. These games may include blood, gore, mutilation, depictions of death, nudity, language, and more. Think “R-rated”). You can find specific game ratings on org.
  • Parental Controls: Parental controls are available on every console, handheld gaming device, computer, phone, and tablet. These control how much time kids can play games for, how much money they can spend, with whom they can play, which applications are allowed or off-limits, and much more. The ESRB website includes step-by-step guides on how to enable controls on nearly any device. There are also third-party applications for Windows and Mac that can help you control the device and content your children have access to.
  • Account Security: It might be longer than Hamlet, but reading a game’s privacy policy will tell you exactly what kind of security they use and what information they capture from players. Two-factor verification is currently the best type of account security method, and is used by platforms such as Steam and uPlay.
  • Blocking/Reporting: Many game companies allow you to report other users for inappropriate behavior. They do their best to take reports seriously, and this self-policing by players is often effective. Many games with voice chat and text chat also allow you to block certain (or all) users from communicating with you.
  • Hands-On Research: The best way to know if a game is appropriate for your family members is to play it yourself. In most cases, it will be clear within a few minutes what kind of content a player is exposed to.
  • Avoid URLs: A good policy to have is to never click on any URL given to you by another player. URLs can lead to instant downloads of malware, inappropriate websites, pop-ups, or webcams. They can also be used to record keystrokes or steal data.
  • Antivirus: If on Windows, use antivirus and keep it updated. There are many free and effective antivirus solutions out there, such as AviraMalwarebytes, and AVG.
  • Passwords: Create strong passwords for gaming accounts, and write it down. A strong password is typically at least 12 characters long and includes letters, numbers, and at least one symbol.
  • Do Not Reveal Personal Data: Tell children that they must never, ever, agree to meet anyone online. Games can be a great social outlet and a way to make new friends, but the anonymity of the Internet means that anyone can claim to be anybody; thus, the safest policy is to never reveal your location, real name, or other details about yourself.

 

Talk to Your Kids

The Internet can be a fascinating, fun, educational place for kids to interact with one another and to learn about the world. It also contains many dangers, of which awareness is key. If your kids understand what is out there and what information they should or should not share about themselves, they will be able to recognize dangers themselves, and avoid them accordingly. Video games can also be a great family activity—if your kids love games, you might want to try getting involved yourself. With the huge variety of games available, there’s content for almost anyone’s preference, and there are a number of games that teach real-world concepts, such as Kerbal Space Program (a rocket-building game for Windows that uses real-world physics and propulsion science), Minecraft (a voxel-based world-building game), Cities: Skylines (a 3D city-planning game), Tabletop Simulator (a way to play board games remotely) and Microsoft Flight Simulator (for the aspiring pilot in your family).

Esrb.org is a great resource to check anytime you have questions about a game’s appropriateness for your family, and every online game has a publicly available privacy policy you should read if your child is interested in the game.

As always, if you have legal questions about fraud or identity theft, you can call Robinson & Henry at (303) 688-0944 for a free legal consultation.