The inspiration for this piece came from this article in The Times: A man who hacked into accounts to steal virtual characters and their possessions on one of the world’s biggest multi-player online game has been arrested…..Police believe that password details were obtained through a so-called phishing scam where a fake internet page tricks people into handing over their personal information……. “Our first and only concern is protecting our player community as we know the high value players place on their unique accounts,” said Mark Gerhard, chief executive of Jagex Games, the Cambridge-based company that launched RuneScape in 2001.
This is so sad to see. In the 30 years that it has been going the commercial video game industry has lived in a world of innocence. Developers and publishers were legitimate businesses that sought only to entertain their customers. And game players bought games to be entertained. But now, sadly, this has changed. Three trends have brought a lot of unsavoury people and behaviour to gaming and there are three reasons. Firstly it is now big business, there is a lot of money around so a scam that takes just a small percentage can be very lucrative. Secondly the industry is now global, criminals can be in completely different countries to where they commit their crimes. And thirdly we are all online, everyone has access to everyone.
So what are the dangers:
- People who are after your money. This can take lots of forms. From phishing, as in the above example, to people set up gold farming scams. You now really need to have your guard up all the time and be very vigilant about what you do and what information you give people.
- Unacceptable online behaviour. Cyber bullying is an very real fact of life and it happens a lot in online games. In fact bullying is a lot more common online than in the real world and it can be very nasty indeed. This is because the online environment is de-humanised, people behave as if they are not relating to other humans, the veneer of civilisation can very quickly disappear.
- Paedophiles and other deviants looking for victims. Where better to find kids and build relationships with them than a video game? There have been quite a few reported instances of this sort of grooming but I am sure that it is just the tip of the iceberg. Our criminal justice system is well behind the curve here, technology has left them flat footed.
- In game thieves. So you do a lot of work and/or pay a lot of money and you build up considerable in game assets. As in the real world there is envy and there are thieves. They look for any weakness in the game or any weakness in another player and they swoop. And this is not trivial, a player’s in game assets can be worth many thousands of dollars.
- The game itself acting maliciously with your computer and what is on it. Virtually all online games put some software on your computer. It can be anything from a simple cookie to a huge proportion of the game. Mostly you (perhaps without realising it) download a client which manages the game within your machine. The problem is that these clients have access to everything else that is in your machine and everything that your machine does. And they do this, mainly to stop cheating and check for the use of bots. But they could just as easily take your credit card details, your email contacts, your Facebook login and all your other passwords etc. If you are using a work computer they could steal sensitive commercial information.
- The game publisher doing unethical marketing. They could offer you in game rewards in return for your friends’ contact details then spam your friends. They could run a competition, once again in return for in game rewards, for the best online “review” resulting in praise spam for the game popping up in thousands of places all over the internet. This marketing costs the game publisher nothing but is an abuse of people’s trust and honesty.
- Lack of an age policy and child protection. Buy a boxed game and it has an age rating. Go online and it can be the jungle. Games can expose people to all sorts of unsavoury antisocial behaviour. From profanity to discussions of all sorts of sexual perversions and the use of illegal drugs. This is OK for most adults but a developing child’s mind needs some protection. Yet many online games have, effectively, zero child protection.
- Then there is behaviour that is unacceptable even to adults. Rabid racism, sexism and homophobia are rampant on the internet. There is no IQ test for logging on, so there is a huge amount of ignorant nastiness out there. Some of which, inevitably, finds its way into video games.
- Malicious government online activity and cyberwarfare. We have seen the internet in two countries just about closed down by organised government attacks. Estonia in 2007 and Georgia in 2008. There is an ongoing cyber war between China and the USA known as Titan Rain. Online video games are the perfect mechanism for a government to gain access and control of literally millions of computers around the world.
- Finally there are some people who take delight in acting maliciously. Even if it is only one in ten thousand it becomes a lot of people if you have millions of players. We see these malicious sociopaths at work with the creation of computer viruses. Inside a game they can and do wreak all sorts of havok.
When it comes to protecting yourself, your family and your computer from all of this there are some things you can do and some things the game publisher can do.
- Be vigilant at all times. A game may be fun but that doesn’t mean that it is safe. Never take anything at face value unless you are very, very sure.
- Investigate very thoroughly who you are letting onto your computer before you even look at a game. You are very vulnerable once you start playing so don’t even get into that situation until you have done the research. Google can tell you a lot. Typing in the name of the game followed with key words such as scam and spam can tell you a fair bit.
- Total transparency. Don’t deal with anyone who doesn’t tell you about themselves. Their address, their key staff, their ownership. Electronic Arts and Activision tell you this stuff. Don’t go near anyone who doesn’t.
- A clear child protection policy. If they haven’t got one then problems are inevitable, for adults as well as children.
- 24/7 moderation of the game with a simple mechanism for reporting bad behaviour and a response to complaints that is very rapid. This takes dozens of staff so is expensive to do. But you are paying for the game (even with “Free” games) and this is part of what the publisher should provide for your money.
- An online security team. They will be looking for gold farmers and bots and they will also be looking for scammers. Done properly this costs millions every year. But it is necessary for your protection.
- Open, uncensored discussion. All these games have forums which should enable a full and frank exchange of all the issues relating to the game. If the game owners are censoring discussions or banning legitimate topics it can only be because they have something to hide.