In October of 2005, New Horizen Interactive launched Club Penguin, an online virtual world aimed at children ages six to 14. Since then, the website has become wildly popular, attracting millions of young users to take on a penguin persona and play online with other kids. And now it is just one of several virtual worlds for children, joined by others such as Neopets, Toontown, and Webkinz.
Inevitably, in communities where participants are communicating with each other only via the Internet, safety concerns arise. Especially for games aimed at children, combating potential sexual predators is a top priority. Club Penguin has preset responses for its users to ensure personal information cannot be divulged among players.
On Friday, Oct. 3, academic psychologists, economists, and lawyers will gather at Washington and Lee School of Law to address these issues related to the future of children's virtual worlds. The symposium will begin at 10:30 a.m. in the Millhiser Moot Court Room, Sydney Lewis Hall. It is open to the public.
A virtual world is an online community where users create profiles or characters and interact with other people around the globe while playing games or participating in chat rooms. Washington and Lee University law professor Josh Fairfield noted recent advancements that allow these gaming environments to thrive, most notably the popularity of social networks such as Facebook and MySpace.
"There have been two big advances in the past couple of years, social networks and 3-D," he said. "If you plug them together you have a virtual world in a 3-Dimensional context."
Fairfield said the legal side of regulating virtual worlds is especially sticky regarding children. Video games undergo a rating process by the Entertainment Software Rating Board (ESRB) that helps parents decide whether content is appropriate for their kids. But in virtual worlds, the threat comes from other people, not a content-controlled program. Thus the ultimate issue is regulating people, not content. The ESRB refuses to regulate online interactions, so the burden falls on online gaming websites to self-regulate.
Currently, the main form of online regulation that exists is End User License Agreements—terms that online users accept in order to participate in virtual worlds. Whether or not those agreements can be binding on a child in interactive communities is another debate.
"Private law ideas of consent fall apart when it comes to kids," said Fairfield.
A simplified set of guidelines appears when a player (assumed to be a child) creates a profile on Club Penguin. They advise, "Respect other penguins, never reveal your personal information, no inappropriate talk and no cheating."
"We are in a moment where people want do something," Fairfield said. "These are real problems where real enforcement is necessary."