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May 10, 2007



My understanding, admittedly not deep, of the film and vidgame industry ratings 'guidelines' was that they were created within the industry to preempt the imposition of governmental regulation. If that is the intent here, well fine, and it isn't necessarily a dumb idea in that regard.

IMHO, a lot of this safety frenzy is the result of a growing tension in America between its culture of fear and its culture of explicit sexuality and violence. When I see paradoxes that don't seem to be working toward resolution, I wonder who benefits from the maintenance of tension. One might argue here that the ruling political group has the most to gain from the perception of a dangerous industry requiring regulation. Regulation creates the opportunity to control the flow of revenue. It's always about the money, isn't it.

...and yeah, I'm a parent, and my 13yo kid plays in virtual worlds (Neopets, Kingdom of Loathing, WoW).

...and yeah, I guess I'm a conspiracy theorist.


Okay, COPPA is a US specific law, and mostly concerns itself with the data you gather. In truth, most of it is pointless, and no government agency is making any effort to enforce it right now as far as I know. Nonetheless, it's the law we (Orbis) have to operate under. In essence, it requires that if you're gathering *any* personal identifying information, including email addresses, you cannot do so from those under 13 without a paper copy of a form signed by a guardian.

The way that most comply with it is that if you don't click on something saying you're 13 or older, you can't access the sites. Some go as far as "Sesame Street" age verification, you have to put in a birthdate (can you subtract 13 from 2007? Come back when you have the answer, kids).

The other widely used approach is to not gather any such information, no names, locations, email addresses, or anything else.

The third, most rarely used approach, is to actually gather faxed-in COPPA compliance forms. Although theoretically it's almost as easily faked as a school absence excuse, it has the virtue of being in affirmative compliance with the law.

Orbis uses a combination of the second and third, we don't gather any personal information except an optional email address (for password resets, it's not part of the default signup), and we file COPPA sheets on anyone under 13 and wants to register an email address.

Beyond that, for VHR we have a short "Net Safety Quiz" you have to fill out before you can set up an account. The very top of the main page on VHR we have the following policy statement:

We will be reviewing any reports of indecent private messages on both sides. You must report these, We will be banning players who are not following proper internet safety guidelines (more information at netsmartz.org). In order to unban your account you will need a parent to call Orbis Games and discuss proper internet safety guidelines. Do not respond to any personal or perverse messages, you must report these to Orbis Games including ones asking for personal information. We take all proper procedures in reporting potential online predators Here and to their internet service provider. Please help us keep our site safe and our record good!

We do engage in active policing of this, if someone is reported as sending innapropriate messages to other players, we not only investigate and ban that player if justified, but we'll suspend the accounts of any players who received inapropriate messages and didn't report them. Those accounts can only be re-activated by a phone call from a parent (unless the actual user is an adult).

We also report all such cases to the National Center for Missing and Exploited Children, which is the closest thing currently existing to a clearinghouse for such reports, and depending on circumstances it may also get reported to local authorities. We also might involve the FBI. Since our definition of "innappropriate" is fairly broad, there are cases that don't involve any actual violation of law and don't get sent to the cops.

We've already made the decision that no matter how much we grow, we're going to keep to these standards. We're in the position of having created games that attract large numbers of under-age girls, and in addition to the legal issues, we feel a responsibility to take every feasible step to safeguard those users from harm.

If I sound smug and self-congratulatory, it's partly because I am proud of our commitment to this, and partly bravado. I've got a teenage daughter, I know from conversations with her how easy it is for them to convince themselves that they can spot a pervert or someone who is faking their age. I have nightmares where I'm trying to explain to a parent why their little girl was taken by someone they met through our games.



If, as a result of this mess, we managed to get some kind of industry body to represent the interests of all developers of virtual worlds, that would at least be some small comfort for the future.



Richard Bartle wrote:

If, as a result of this mess, we managed to get some kind of industry body to represent the interests of all developers of virtual worlds, that would at least be some small comfort for the future.

That's not really possible. What you'd get would be a body to represent the large corporate interests. Just like with the MPAA, which is arguably more damaging to the industry's creativity than government regulation would have been.



The problem is, the little guys can't afford to have people on the payroll to represent them at such an organization, or the kinds of dues that would ensure they were being protected. If SOE, NCSoft, EA, and Vivendi got together to come up with a set of standards that had a minimum $250K/year compliance cost and got those enforced by law, it wouldn't break their heart that drove all the little guys out of business.


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