Kids and MMOs

I've been working with Qwest lately as part of their online safety program ( They brought me on board to talk to parents, teachers, high-school students, government officials, and law-enforcement officials in local communities about online games--both the potential benefits and the risks. So this has gotten me to think a lot more about key messages to tell people who want to know more about kids and MMOs. As a part of this, I created a survey targeted at MMO players who were themselves parents.

I thought that this would be an interesting group to survey because they have to balance their own understanding of online gaming with their roles as parents and guardians. It's easy for non-gaming parents to overstate the downside of games just as it is easy for gamers without children to understate it. So parents who themselves play online games offer a unique perspective on the issue of potential benefits and risks. And their own strategies in terms of online gaming access for their children would certainly be interesting to explore.

Altogether, 314 online gamers who were also parents (specifically those that had at least one child under the age of 18) responded to the survey. There are three parts to this article. We'll first look at the main risks that respondents associated with online games and their assessment of the amount of risk. Then we'll look at the main benefits respondents associated with online games and their assessment of the amount of benefit. Finally, we'll turn to a collection of advice that these parents gave in terms of managing their children's online gaming access.



Respondents were asked to describe what they thought were the main risks associated with allowing their kids to play online games. Their responses were coded by category. If a respondent described multiple risks, each was coded separately. Thus, the following percentages add up to more than 100%. We'll go through these risks in order of descending frequency. For each, I'll provide some typical responses.

Exposure to Inappropriate Language and Themes (42%)

Exposure to ideas and behavior that they are not ready for -- e.g. inappropriate language or subjects in OOC chat (porn, aggressive or unfounded political or religious attacks, etc.). [M, 38]

Online Predators (32%)

A serious (but not very likely) danger would be for an internet perv to attempt to contact my kids. Still, it's something I'm on the lookout about. [F, 50]

The sharing of personal information such as addresses, phone numbers and such by people preying on the gullible and inexperienced. [M, 29]

Spending Too Much Time Playing (25%)

I would also be slightly worried about them becoming addicted to playing on the computer, and ignoring their real life commitments, like school work, or playing outside/exercising. [M, 32]

Abusive Behavior (13%)

There are very rude and hurtful people in every MMO, and children can be very sensitive to personal attacks. [M, 32]

Social Immaturity (10%)

The concern about this risk was its impact on other players (rather a direct impact on the child).

My primary concern is that he is not perceived as rude or annoying to players that don't realize his age. [F, 38]

Also concerned about the adults not being able to enjoy being adults because of the presence of the child. [M, 34]

Being Taken Advantage of (6%)

Mostly players that persuade the kids to sell something for way too cheap, i.e. they are susceptible to con men. [M, 37]

The remaining risks were described by 5% or fewer of the respondents and I will list them briefly here:

Thinking of Violence as a Solution (5%)
Lack of Social Skills (4%)
Lack of Exercise (3%)
Inability to Distinguish Reality from Fantasy (3%)
Learning Incorrect Grammar / Spelling (1%)
Developing Inappropriate Online Relationships (1%)


When asked to rate the overall amount of risk they felt was associated with allowing their kids to play online games, the majority of respondents felt that there was a small to moderate amount of risk involved.

Parents were also asked to compare the risks associated with online games with other activities their teenage children are engaging in (or might engage in) and rate the relative risk of online games. Here, the majority of respondents felt that MMOs had lower risks than other activities their children were engaged in.



The responses regarding potential benefits to playing online games were coded in a similar way to the responses regarding risks. Below are the benefits that respondents brought up and example responses.

Working in a Diverse Group (53%)

Children learn to interact and work as a team with others from all over the world. [F, 39]

The biggest benefit is learning what other people with very different world views are like and how to work with them. [M, 45]

Problem Solving Skills (25%)

It's more mentally challenging than sitting in front of the TV. [M, 40]

He has to think and follow through with the quest and turn it in. I believe that this helps him with problem-solving and critical thinking skills. [M, 34]

Reading / Writing / Typing (23%)

My son, now 23, learned to touch type thanks to playing Everquest at 15. [M, 50]

My son is learning disabled, I allowed him to play and his reading levels went up and his thought processes increased. [F, 50]

Social / Communication Skills (20%)

Learning to be comfortable not only using computers but also communicating through computers - something I suspect the world will continue to do. [M, 39]

Computer / Internet Literacy (9%)

My children are growing up in a true digital age. They need to be conversant in the online world or risk being left behind as they grow older. [M, 36]

Hand-Eye Coordination (9%)

Skills picked up through playing - hand-eye co-ordination etc. Reflexes. [M, 31]

Understanding of Systems (8%)

It gives him a small sense of economy as he is starting to figure out supply and demand. He will check the auction hall for items and see if he can sell his items at a competitive price. [F, 34]

Learning how to organize and describe simple social and economic systems. How to operate in simple value systems (auction house, resource scarcity, etc) [M, 50]

Leadership Opportunities (7%)

Where else in the entire world can a teenager lead a group of people including adults into accomplishing a common goal? [F, 33]

My youngest at 17 has been the raid leader for most of the guilds he has been associated with in WoW demonstrating his logic and leadership skills nightly. [M, 47]

The remaining benefits were described by 5% or fewer of the respondents and I will list them briefly here:

Math Skills (5%)
Family Time (5%)
Setting Long Term Goals / Deferred Gratification (5%)
Building Imagination and Creativity (4%)
Learning English (from an ESL Standpoint) (3%)
Safe Space for Learning from Mistakes (2%)
Spatial / Map Skills (2%)


When asked to rate the overall amount of benefit they associated with allowing with their kids to play online games, about half of respondents felt that there was a moderate amount of benefit involved, with the other responses falling in a fairly normal distribution around the midpoint. In comparing this chart with the earlier one on perceived risks, it seems that respondents rated the perceived benefits to be slightly higher than the perceived risks.


Advice from Parents

When asked what advice they might give other parents in terms of managing the risks involved in playing online games, a fairly consistent set of guidelines emerged.

Set Limits and Expectations

Many parents talked about setting expectations early and sticking to them. And whether these are limits to time use, who they can chat with online, or who they can group with, it helps to figure out what tools the game provides that can help maintain these expectations (e.g., WoW's time control tools, or turning off general chat).

Starting children with limits from the very first time they play is going to be a lot easier to maintain than waiting until you perceive a problem and then suddenly trying to cut back on their playing. And don't think that just because your children like something, or all their friends do it, means you have to let them do it! [F, 37]

Make it very matter of fact. After a preset amount of time the MMO goes off and the real world goes on. Period. And enforce it, even though it may get unpleasant. [F, 27]

Keep an Eye on Them

Equally important was keeping tabs on their experiences and social interactions in these environments.

Talk to you child about the game, with a special emphasis on their social interaction. In short, know what is going on. [M, 29]

Be adamant about being able to read their screens, or loose the priviledge to be on the computer at all. [M, 33]


Learn About the Game

Given that there are many online games currently on the market and the game mechanics in these environments differ, many parents suggested learning about the game (even if only a basic understanding) before allowing kids to play it.

Learn about it yourself, including any outside sites involved or related that the kids might want to access. [F, 44]

Parents should not only 'sit down and try' the game, but learn what the basic unit of time is where something can be accomplished. [F, 33]

While it may seem daunting to non-gaming parents to have to learn about video games, many websites provide this information specifically using a parental perspective. For example, see or

Keep Computers in Public Area

Related to being able to keep an eye on what kids are doing online, many parents keep computers in public areas so that kids can't play alone in their bedrooms.

Computers should be in 'public' spaces in the house. If someone is doing something on the computer that they wouldn't want everyone else to know about, then odds are it isn't a good thing to do. [M, 38]

Put the computers in the room where your family spends most of it's time - NOT IN A PRIVATE BEDROOM. This will help with many issues, not only MMO's. It DOES inconvenience you some, however that is what being a parent means to me - I sacrifice some of my conveniences for the protection of my children. [M, 47]


Maintain a Balance of Activities

Some parents stressed the importance of balancing a variety of activities in a kid's life. Spending time online and in online games is appropriate as part of a mix of activities the kid is engaged in.

For every hour that they play the game, they have to spend and hour doing some other activity that is physically active (little league, walking the dog, going to the park, etc...) [M, 42]

Be Involved and Stay Involved

Above all, many of the advice parents gave revolved around being involved and staying involved with their kids. And along with this was showing genuine interest in the activities a child is engaged in to maintain an open channel of communication.

Parents need to be involved, engaged and aware of what their teen is doing online just as they need to offline. [F, 39]

Always try to maintain an interest in your child's life, really. Learn about their friends, who they think is cute at school, what happened to them in 3rd period today. If you keep the lines of communication open for the mundane things, they'll feel more comfortable coming to you when a real problem arises. [M, 36]


While it may seem surprising that more parents were concerned with exposure to inappropriate themes rather than time spent playing, it must be remembered that the sample of respondents had children spanning a large age range. Thus, while time spent online is probably the main risk for college students, parents of younger children are often more concerned with exposure to adult themes.

Overall, the respondents felt that there were more benefits than risks associated with online games, although the risks are clearly not negligible. On the whole, many respondents noted that being involved with kids mitigated risks while boosting the benefits. And as we've seen before, parents can play with kids productively.

In talking to parents and teenagers during my Qwest trips, involvement and setting up expectations are the two themes I stress. We've done informal surveys at high schools and it's often surprising how many young teenagers have internet-enabled computers in their own room without any clear rules or limits about internet use. Whether it's spending too much time online or misunderstanding the nature of online relationships, parental involvement is the key to mitigating many of the risks present when kids play online games.