December 6, 2012

How To Stop Online Gaming From Being a Hellish Pit of Vicious Verbiage

This article about a video game called League of Legends (which I’ve never played or even heard of) intrigued me because the game maker, Riot Games, is attempting to address what is apparently a serious problem within the Legends community.

Apparently many of the players are dickheads.

Ork

And as lead game producer Travis George puts it in his interview with Gamasutra, “Nobody wants to play a game with somebody who’s mean.”

Amen to that.

Of course, mean people playing games online is not limited to League of Legends. Which is a problem once your kids want to get involved.

As a parent who grew up playing video games, I’m highly conflicted about the current “social” state of gaming. What used to be a niche element of the gaming world — online play with strangers — has become as ubiquitous as broadband Internet connections.

Back in my day, if one wanted to upgrade to a better class of gaming, it was all about the console. When I was a lad, the Atari 2600 was the top of the heap. Then came newer and better ways to play like Intellivision, Colecovision (so much vision!), and eventually Nintendo took over the living room. Your relationship with the games was simple. You bought a cartridge, you played your game, and that was it. Social gaming meant inviting a friend over. There was an Internet, but it wasn’t used by the public at large. I knew about modems; one was available for my Radio Shack TRS-80 Color Computer. But it was too expensive and I didn’t know what I’d do with it anyway.

Fast forward to now. Children are expected to use the Web for school. This can start at a very young age. Which makes sense, since we’re all about the network, the global economy, the big-ass pipeline, constant streams of information. If you have a kid who’s a gamer, they will eventually want to play bigger and better and cooler games, just like you did. That means playing online.

Exhibit A: Minecraft, which seems to have captured the imagination of every manchild on the planet, can be played offline. But it also allows players to host their own Minecraft servers. The game is set up so that even a novice can easily virtually leap into a variety of different flavors of Minecraft games at any hour of the day or night. Capture The Flag, Hunger Games, whatever. (Note: I am unable to comprehend Minecraft so this information is what I’ve gleaned from listening to my son and his friends talk about it. A lot.)

As far as I can tell, Minecraft has fewer of the issues that I associate with online gaming. For example, the interaction is limited to your time on the server. Unlike World of Warcraft or Everquest, you aren’t building a character and interacting with other players on a daily basis. There is no, “Hey, Coxcomber, let us hit yon local Inn for a pint of virtual mead.” There is no built-in voice chat, which means no Leroy Jenkins. (Video NSFW, a little cursing. Also it’s really annoying. Try to hang on until about 1:24 to hear what has become a meme, “Leeeroy Jenkins!” If you can’t, I don’t blame you. My eyes glazed over after roughly four seconds.)

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For those who couldn’t stand to watch the above video (which I can totally understand), Leroy Jenkins ignores the plan and charges into battle, causing the team to lose. (At least I think that’s what happens.) The other players then start insulting Leroy. It doesn’t get TOO mean. But it certainly isn’t nice.

As parents, you want to protect your kids from a variety of things. Some, like schoolwork and skinned knees, are unavoidable. Verbal barbs from anonymous buttwads aren’t. If you don’t play online, you don’t have to deal with the unpredictable nature of other gamers.

However.

Online gaming is where it’s at. Every title seems to be connected to the network. Subway Surfer, an addictive little diversion for iOS and Android, wants you to compete against your Facebook friends. And every new iPhone and iPad app wants you to use Game Center. With these games it’s easy to avoid the outside world; just don’t do it. (And pretend that you don’t know that the apps are collecting personal data about your kids. Denial isn’t just a river in Egypt, it’s a gaming strategy.)

When Minecraft first invaded my home, I didn’t allow server play. Now I do. Why? Because I talked to other parents and they seemed to think it was OK. I do my best to keep up, and while I appear to be incapable of actually playing Minecraft (I tried, I failed, I’m sorry), I can stand over my kids as they play, keeping an eye on their interactions. I don’t literally watch every minute of every game. But I do insist that the playing happen in a room that I am occupying as well, even if that means I have to listen to the sounds of Minecraft and would greatly prefer the sounds of silence.

Minecraft seems to be a gateway to the more objectionable online games, such as Call of Duty (now with zombies!) and MMOs. MMO stands for Massively Multiplayer Online; you may also see MMOG or MMORPG which are Massively Multiplayer Online Game and Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game, respectively. World of Warcraft is a popular one that just released a version where you play as a panda. (Really.) I read about a Lord of the Rings MMO that sounded fun. I almost wanted to actually play it. I won’t though, because I don’t have time.

Your children, however, do have time. Lots of it. And they want to use it to play video games online with other people.

There are some options. Audrey Drake wrote a terrific article at IGN discussing why she prefers the more limited interactions available in the Wii U online community. Wii U is Nintendo’s new console and the company that made a superstar out of an Italian plumber has beefed up their online world, but with a heavy dose of supervision. For parents who want to protect their kids a little bit longer, and for gamers who mislike being insulted by anonymous buttnuts, this is a good thing.

So what’s our DaddyTip for online gaming? I would love to say that you should simply tell your child “no” when they want to get involved with this bizarre world. And I support you doing that. Still, try to remember what it was like to be a kid. If your friends are all playing video games and you aren’t allowed to, how long will you be able to keep those friends? I’m not talking about kids who say “dude, you’re not cool enough to hang with us because you don’t play Call of Duty.” I’m saying that an arbitrary “no” isn’t actually fair. Look into the game they want to play. Ask other parents. Most of all, monitor monitor monitor. Pay attention to what they play and who they are playing with. Lay down the law of the land. Have consequences if the rules are broken. If your kids go all Leroy Jenkins on you, then you can implement the punishment. As with all discipline, be clear and consistent.

Hopefully more companies will follow the lead of Riot Games and Nintendo and attempt to create gaming environments that encourage positive interactions as opposed to unpleasant ones. Even if that happens, it will always be up to us parents to stay on our toes and know what our children are up to.

Bonus Video: Here is Howard Stern discussing World of Warcraft and Leroy Jenkins.

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Gamasutra – News – League of Legends: Changing bad player behavior with neuroscience (via Kotaku)

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