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Law Professor Offers Advice to Parents on Connecting with Their Children in Virtual Worlds

The old model and perception is that children play video games by themselves.

But there is a new generation of virtual worlds where both children and parents are playing together on sites ranging from World of Warcraft to Club Penguin and Webkinz. “It’s becoming the modern version of scrabble night for families,” says law professor Josh Fairfield.

Fairfield, a well-known scholar on virtual worlds, is organizer of a symposium at Washington and Lee University on October 3, 2008 when, for the first time, leading experts in child psychology, e-commerce and law will discuss the challenges and opportunities presented by virtual worlds for children. One of those opportunities is for more parents to become educated about virtual worlds and to play them with their children, something Fairfield wants to encourage.

“The parents already playing with their children in virtual worlds tend to be younger, in their thirties,” says Fairfield. “Many of them have been playing online games for years, then they have children and those children want to play as well. Only most of them don’t want to play alone.”

Besides the ability to connect with your children, Fairfield says another advantage is that it allows you to protect them. For example, while Fairfield’s seven-year-old daughter Mary Kathryn is on World of Warcraft, he follows her around in the shape of a bear from a different computer. “She liked the idea of having a pet bear, and she can see me as I follow her, which makes her feel protected and allows her to explore more broadly.

“So this is a great opportunity for parents unfamiliar with virtual worlds to join their children. I think it’s a mistake for parents to see their kids playing video games and not join in. It’s like a kid being seriously into soccer and he’s kicking a ball in the backyard while you’re on the couch watching TV.”

As for safety issues, Fairfield’s list of Do’s and Don’ts for parents willing to try this new world provides a good guideline. “Although there are the traditional trust issues in virtual worlds,” says Fairfield, “people do know each other in virtual worlds just as they do in the real world and it’s more like going to a church picnic than walking down a dark alley.”

  • DO play with your child in the virtual world.
  • DO put all computers in public places in the home, not in private rooms.
  • DO know in real life the people your child is interacting with online, getting to know them over time.
  • DO learn to use the tools presented by the game manufacturers. Some games have the ability to set an amount of time spent, or limit what your child can say. For example, Club Penguin has an “ultimate safe chat” feature that limits your child to a pre-defined menu of greetings and statements.
  • DO talk with your kids about never meeting in real life with someone you as a parent don’t know.
  • DON’T share personal information with someone online.
  • DON’T reveal your password to anyone else.

Professor Joshua A.T. Fairfield, assistant professor of law at Washington and Lee University, is one of the nation’s most creative and insightful scholars in computing technologies and the law. He has published numerous papers on e-commerce, videogame regulation and virtual worlds.