The following editorial contains views that are the opinion of the author and not necessarily the views of Allakhazam.com
Due to the relatively anonymous nature of the internet, the safety of children is paramount in the eyes of most parents, law enforcement officials and other concerned people and organizations. Whether it’s through online games, social networking sites, blogs, forums or chat rooms, youngsters can interact with strangers at a rapid pace. And in the world of Hello Kitty Online, all of these communication tools have been combined to make a player's life accessible at the click of a button if they so choose.
The focus on social interaction in Hello Kitty Online, a new massively multiplayer online game developed by Sanrio Digital and Typhoon Games, is not necessarily a negative aspect of the game. It can actually grant players the opportunity to work together as a team rather than against each other in combat or competition. However, it does draw attention to the necessity of a safe playing environment for the game’s target audience, which tends to be younger Hello Kitty fans.
Kitty White, also known as Hello Kitty, was introduced in 1974 by creator Yuko Shimizu. The fictional character turned 34 on Nov. 1, which demonstrates why the popular franchise appeals to fans of all ages, including adults. Players of Hello Kitty Online will certainly span all age groups, but children will easily be drawn to the virtual world of Kitty White and her friends.
The Hello Kitty Online Founder's Beta, an event that allows players to test the game before it is released, ended in November. Throughout the beta, players were able to level their characters, acquire equipment and travel from town to town while trying out the social tools. Basically, you can click on a player's character to view his or her profile, blog and videos. The profile can contain information such as the player’s birthday, age, gender, phone number, location, blood type, e-mail address, hobbies and favorite things. In Japanese culture, a person's blood type is similar to an astrological sign in Western culture.
Players can keep on online diary in the form of a blog or create videos on SanrioTown.com. These items can be viewed both in-game or on the Web site. It is completely up to the player to decide how much information to publish using these tools, which is why it is imperative for parents or guardians to keep a watchful eye on their children as they play or teach them to be wary of the information they give out.
In addition to the profile, blog and videos, players can chat with each other in the Sanrio Town forums on the Web site. For example, there is a specific forum focused completely on friendship where players generally post their e-mail addresses or instant messenger names. One particular thread elicited a response from a concerned male gamer with the username Buey who questioned the Sanrio Town staff on what safeguards are in place to protect younger players from online predators.
The thread in question began with this message: “Hiiii im Leen lol im lookin 4 sm grrls under 16 2 be ma friends so is any 1 interested????<333 Add me im 13 n i ony talk 2 girls cuz im 2 young 4 guyz.” The poster’s forum signature also contained her e-mail address. Buey was concerned that “the original poster could really be anyone.” He then questioned the safeguards that are in place to protect children in the game: “If this game is marketed/publicized well enough, you would have a large population of children in direct contact with a large untested population of adults with little to no moderation in the communication between players.”
Hello Kitty Online Game Master Calealen quickly responded to outline how children are protected both in-game and on SanrioTown.com and mentioned that younger players will have more restricted features, such as “canned chat,” in the game once it is launched:
“Please be assured that child security and privacy are our most important concerns. Hello Kitty Online will launch with various child protection systems in place, as described below. Sanriotown.com and Hello Kitty Online comply with the Children's Advertising Review Unit (CARU). Caru's self-regulatory program sets high standards to assure that advertising directed to children is not deceptive, unfair or inappropriate for its intended audience. For more information on CARU, visit http://www.caru.org. Sanriotown.com (and Hello Kitty Online, once it launches) is under moderator supervision 24 hours a day. Video and Photo content needs to be approved by a moderator before it can be viewed by players, and in the rare event that unacceptable content should slip by the moderators, the players themselves can report inappropriate content with just a click of a button. For text-based content, both in-game and on Sanriotown.com, we have word-filters in place to screen out unacceptable language.”
Site administrator Tohomiko_K also noted the constant presence of moderators and said, “One great thing about Sanriotown is the community aspect of it, because members who have spotted something off on the site also report it immediately, making it also easier for us to respond to the problems at hand.”
Other posters in the thread went on to question whether a player's profile should contain a space for their phone number, e-mail address and location. They also asked that warnings regarding internet safety be made more prevalent both in-game and on SanrioTown.com, and suggested that a program be implemented to encourage players to report suspicious activity. Tohomiko_K started another thread reminding players not to give out information such as your real name and address.
Other Games Face Similar Issues
While many Hello Kitty Online players will be younger than are normally found in an MMO, it is not the only online game that could be a target for sexual predators. Due to its vast amount of players, it should come as no surprise that World of Warcraft has sadly had some trouble with pedophiles. For example, according to articles on GamePolitics.com and the Sacramento Bee, David Faboo “was arrested in February after he allegedly abducted a mentally-challenged 16-year-old girl. According to FBI documents, Faboo and his intended victim met while playing World of Warcraft, where Faboo's avatar was named Avelys.” Luckily, the girl was quickly found five hours later because she texted her friend for help.
According to the Journal Live, Lynn Walls, a 42-year-old teacher, pleaded guilty to “inciting a child to engage in sexual activity in November last year.” She sent sexually explicit text messages to a 14-year-old boy she met in World of Warcraft.
Anthony Taylor, 31, was convicted of child stealing this year for sending sexual text messages to a 15-year-old girl he met in World of Warcraft. He tried to convince her to fly to Melbourne to meet him and even sent her money and a plane ticket. He was arrested while waiting for her at the airport, news.au.com reported.
According to the Times Online, Rachata Burasite, 22, “groomed a 13-year-old girl for sex” after he met her when she was 11 in Gaia Online. He spent two years talking to her before flying to Canada to meet her. He was sentenced to six months in jail for “child luring.”
There was even a report last year by FOX News of a virtual playground dubbed “Wonderland” in Second Life where avatars who looked about 10 years old offered a variety of sex acts.
There are laws and organizations in place to help protect children from internet predators. One such organization, the Crimes Against Children Research Center (CCRC) at the University of New Hampshire offers a wealth of helpful information for parents, guardians and educators. The organization provides a list of things to say and not say when discussing internet safety. For example, don't say “never give out personal information online” since it’s too broad. Instead, say “be careful about who you give personal information to and what kinds of things you share.” Advice such as this could easily be utilized in Hello Kitty Online.
Also, according to a CCRC study, “1 in 25 youth in one year received an online sexual solicitation where the solicitor tried to make offline contact. These are the online encounters most likely to lead to an offline sex crime.”
While these numbers can be terrifying to any parent, with proper supervision the social interaction tools in Hello Kitty Online can help lead to a strong sense of community. For example, Sanrio Digital donated $12,000 split between UNICEF and the Asian Youth Orchestra because players created and submitted 344,965 in-game food items during the Food for Friends event. Various other events like this were held during the Founder’s Beta.
While playing Hello Kitty Online and any other game, players need to take the CCRC's first safety tip to heart: “Be smart about what you post on the Web and what you say to others. The Web is a lot more public and permanent than it seems.”
Darryl "Togikagi" Gangloff