Barbarians At the Game

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Nick Yee had an unenviable task last week.

The Stanford research assistant and massively multiplayer online gaming expert was flown in to Denver to explain online gaming to a room full of criminal investigators, educators and internet safety experts from area district attorney offices, police departments and the U.S. Department of Justice.

Yee, whose landmark Daedalus Project continues to study behaviour in MMOs, hoped to present to these members of Qwest Colorado Coalition for Online Safety a take on online gaming that they may not have heard before: That it can actually be good for you. "I've had opportunities like this before to give talks like this to non-gamers," he told me last week. "My message isn't that it's all good, what I prefer to say is that there is so much that is missed when the media picks up on it, that there's also the positive side."

"It's not Qwest trying to be an alarmist, I'm not an alarmist," he said. "We're trying to put the full spectrum in front of people."

Yee told the group many things that gamers might already know, that the average age of gamers is 26 to 30, that many online games have robust parental controls to limit both chat access and time playing. But he also went into some interesting discoveries he made over his years in researching the behavioral characteristics of online gamers and the boundary between the virtual and real worlds.

"These online spaces provided unique opportunities," he said. "Teenagers can lead a guild that consists mostly of adults and I don't think people realise how serious and complicated that is. It involves a lot of leadership, a lot of charisma."

"Parents who play these games with their children are given an opportunity to see their kids in a social setting they don't usually have access to. It's also a place where they can let their kids make mistakes in a safer environment."

Some of Yee's other beliefs include that:

• The demographics in typical MMOGs provide unique and potentially valuable social experiences for teenagers. • It's better to interact with people around the world via MMOGs than to sit in the living room not talking to your family because everyone is watching TV. • It's important to set reasonable guidelines and time limits regarding MMOGs. • MMOG environments are a safer and more forgiving social space for making mistakes and learning social dynamics. • It's possible to develop real-world leadership abilities as a result of playing MMOGs. • Virtual environments such as "Second Life," are distinct from MMOGs in that they are not games because they do not pose an objective or end goal. Currently, online virtual worlds are unpopular with kids and, thus, not a risk to youth. • MMOGs show how people respond to tense situations. • Relationships may form that wouldn't have taken place if initiated face to face in real life. • Certain demographics and people with existing stressors are more likely to develop problems via the game. • People in a vulnerable state of mind may latch onto behaviours that provide a temporary sense of control or power. • It's not about the amount of time people spend playing, but how gaming affects other facets of their life.

After he walked me through his presentation I pointed out to Yee that the crowd, this particularly law-enforcement heavy crowd, would likely have lots of questions about possible links between game playing and increased violence tendencies.

Yee said that while there haven't been a ton of studies done on that for MMO games, the ones that were conducted showed that the belief about crime, violence and games didn't pan out. He added that it is an issue that is quite hard to prove or disprove.

Yee said that last week's Denver talk could be the beginning of an initiative that spreads to the rest of the country. It was too early to tell what it could blossom into, he said, but they were talking about future plans with Qwest.

Sonny Jackson, Denver police spokesman, said the department has two people on the task force because they understand that "knowledge is power."

"It's beneficial to know how gaming works, how it can effect people, how it can effect our society and whether there are any potential dangers we should know about," he said. "And it's important for our crime analysis."


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