What are the dangers of online games?

When we think of dangers on the Internet, online games do not come into our focus immediately. Unfortunately, the games on the smartphone or tablet are not as protected a space for children as we would like them to be.

Interview with cyber criminologist 

Many online games – especially game apps – appear cute, colorful, harmless at first glance. Let children play around on their smartphones or tablet? No problem! After all, many of the games are from USK 0/6. Then nothing can happen, can it? “But,” says Thomas Gabriel Rüdiger and warns against Hate Speech, cyberbullying, or cyber grooming. We wanted to know more about that, so we caught Germany’s most famous cyber criminologist and asked him a few questions.  

What are the dangers of online games now, Thomas?

Thomas: Everything that arises in the way of interactions between people can also arise in online games. For example, children sometimes have their first cyberbullying experiences in online games. In contrast to other social media, online games often do not have an upload function for images and videos, but in return have something that all other social media do not have: the trust-building processes resulting from playful action. This makes online games interesting for many groups of perpetrators because they can establish contact and trust with the children much more easily.

Why were we and apparently many parents not so aware of the dangers until now?

Thomas: It is always astonishing for me that we think about it when an adult approaches our children on the playground, but in every game, this is normal every day and we as a society say nothing about it. For me, this is first because many people always associate something like Super Mario with games. There were two people sitting in front of Nintendo, and there was something trusting about that. Today, however, the online component is often added.

Second, society and politics have failed to address these dangers. Here the focus was on killer game issues or gambling addiction. That other player is a problem could be that, for example, adults come together with children, that was never discussed and had no impact on the protection of minors in the media. Because this was not discussed, we mostly do not find it in the press, so that the parents were not made aware of it. I believe that there has not yet been a great deal of interest – neither from politics nor from the games industry – in addressing these dangers. Even in the so-called game studies, in the scientific examination of games, this topic has so far played almost no role.

What can we do without deleting all games from the smartphone?

Thomas: Play it yourself! But I think it’s a less favorable approach if parents let their children show them how the game works. When children are in control of information, they only show their parents the positive aspects of the games. It’s like this: if all of your classmates are playing a certain game and you want to play that too, then you won’t show your parents the critical content. You don’t want them to stop you playing.

I know one case where a mother had her son show her Clash of Clans for half an hour and was then absolutely thrilled with how safe the game is. She did not see the dangers because in this short time the possibilities were not even given. That means there is no getting around it: Parents need to have more or at least as much knowledge as their children. This doesn’t just apply to games, it applies to all social media. This of course means dealing with the games and investing time. Unfortunately, you can’t take that away.

So is there only a strenuous tour for parents? Just download a game for a moment, it probably won’t work either?

Thomas: Exactly! But I also think that many parents feel like gambling themselves once they have learned it. And there is no longer the time excuse from the past that there is no time for games. No! You can play with your smartphone in every subway – even in every toilet! No matter where.

Game consoles are still up-to-date, but among young people, gaming behavior is increasingly shifting to smartphones. This is an advantage for parents! They can understand and understand much better what their children are playing. And that doesn’t just apply to gaming, but also to Instagram, Snapchat, etc.

You also say that parents cannot really orientate themselves to the age information and seals in the online games?

Thomas: The task of youth media protection in Germany is in fact not to protect children and young people from crime in the digital space. The youth protection looks instead to have what alleged influence media on children. Care is taken to ensure that children do not see a naked woman’s breast, blood, or a sprayed swastika. But what happens between the players is not of interest to the young media protection. That is why many games, especially those in which the graphic design creates a downplaying visual environment, are given age ratings for children from 0, 6, or 12 years of age.

But that doesn’t mean that a child isn’t confronted with a sex offender or an extremist in such a game. Then the game industry typically also comments that this can happen on all social media. That may be true and it also shows that our entire security structure on the Internet for children does not work. My wish would be that if an age rating is given for children, the operator is obliged in return to prove effective protective mechanisms to protect the child from criminal offenses. When you consider that games are a trust-building process through playful interaction, then online games take on a special role. At this point, the state is also called upon to adapt youth media protection to these challenges.

Many parents remember that their children are victims. But you also often point out that children can also become perpetrators. Can you tell us something else?

Thomas: Usually it is like this: we teach children morals, values ​​, and norms. For example, in traffic we say to them: “I’ll take you by the hand. We don’t go through the red light.” On the one hand, this serves to ensure that the child is not a victim, i.e. is run over, and on the other hand, we also convey to the child that there are rules that they must adhere to. And we need exactly the same thing for digital space.

We have an increasing number of child and juvenile crimes online – whether it is grooming, bullying or the possession or distribution of child and youth pornography. Not only do we have to tell our children that they can be victims, but we also have to teach them that they can be perpetrators. They need to know what they can and cannot do online. That means we have to convey some kind of digital ethic. But that can’t just be the parents’ job. Then we come to the point: What about the parents who don’t care? That is why the state is also in demand – whether through education in schools or through something like virtual police patrols. But since there has so far been a lack of such an honest social debate about how we can create a digital space for children – one that knows no physical boundaries – parents are currently in demand.

Thank you, Thomas, for the informative interview. Is there anything else you would like to share with our readings?

Gamble! Only when you play the games yourself can you acquire the skills to recognize the dangers. And parents need to talk openly about it with their children. Children will listen to you when they sense that you have an idea and know what you are talking about.