(Copyright @Alex pixabay CCO)
Online games as risk generators for
children and adolescents –
Analysing risk factors in gaming environments
Diana Selck and Thomas- Gabriel Rüdiger
Table of content
1 INTRODUCTION 3
2 RISK FACTORS IN ONLINE GAMES 5
2.1 FORMS OF ONLINE GAMES 5
2.2 HOW ONLINE GAMES NEED TO BE CONSIDERED AS POSSIBLE RISK GENERATORS 7
2.3 GAMECRIME 9
2.3.1 SEXUAL PERPETRATION IN ONLINE GAMES 10
2.3.2 FINANCIAL LOSS 12
3 METHODOLOGY 15
3.1 INVESTIGATION PERIOD 16
3.2 CHOOSING THE RESEARCH SUBJECTS 17
4 AGE RECOMMENDATION 18
4.1 BACKGROUND 18
4.2 METHODOLOGICAL APPROACH AND RESULTS 19
4.3 ANALYSIS 21
5 PAYMENT OPTIONS 22
5.1 BACKGROUND 22
5.2 METHODOLOGICAL APPROACH AND RESULTS 22
5.3 ANALYSIS 24
6 CHAT FUNCTION 24
6.1 BACKGROUND 24
6.2 METHODOLOGICAL APPROACH AND RESULTS 25
6.3 ANALYSIS 26
7 CONCLUSION 26
8 APPENDIX 36
Breck Bednar, a 14-year old boy became victim of a cybergroomer1 on the Internet.
He met his perpetrator in a secretive online game forum in which he was invited due
to his talent. Breck was an average adolescent, with a good relationship to both of
his parents, good grades, overall a smart kid interested in technology. He enjoyed
playing online games, meeting and making new friends online. And this is how he
met Lewis Daynes, a boy supposedly 17-years old, running a well off computer engineer
firm. Breck spend increasingly time with Daynes online. After awhile this became
evident by the way Breck started behaving, not willing to finish school homework
or do chores or accept parental measures in order to limit his Internet consume,
and thus separate him from the voice that came constantly out of his headphones.
His mother became worried, approached other parents and teacher in order
to receive some advice. At the end, she called the police, describing the new online
friendship of her son and expressing her concern that she had towards the stranger,
whom her son talked to on a daily basis. She was worried that her son might be
groomed online. The police, teachers and other parents tried to convince Breck’s
mother that this is a normal behaviour of a 14-year-old boy, which would pass, eventually.
At the end Breck’s father suggested to meet with Lewis Daynes in the real
world in order to make sure that he is who he claims to be. The meeting never took
place. Instead Daynes claimed to be very sick and therefore would soon need
someone to take over his company. At the end, Breck pretends to hang out with one
of his real friends but instead drives to Daynes’ apartment to finally meet his online
friend. In the night of the 17th of February in 2014, Breck was stabbed to death, the
court later ruled that the actions were sexually or sadistically motivated and conducted
by the 19-year-old unemployed Lewis Daynes (Elgot, 2016; Moore, 2016).
The Internet and the usage of platforms to communicate, exchange information,
meet people online as well as play online games are ubiquitous. Especially children2
of today grow up with information and communication technologies (ICTs), using
1 Online grooming or cyber grooming can be understood as sexual harassment of children through online-based
programs as well as the establishing contact with a child through the Internet with the intention of sexual misconduct.
This phenomenon is called cyber grooming, the person assaulting is most often termed as an online predator
2 Children in this study will be considered within the legal term of a child under the German penal law, which defines
children until the age of 14.
them in a wide range of activities. Online gaming claims one great part of leisure
activities of children and adolescents. Online games can be defined as a “[…] digital
game that needs a live network connection in order to be played. This includes not
only games played on the Internet, but also those played online through consoles3,
across mobile phones or via peer-to-peer networks.” (www.pegionline.eu).
In Germany, 56 per cent of the 6 and 7-years old children play online games occasionally
(Kempf, 2014). According to the “Bundesverband Interaktiver Unterhaltungsmedien”
(BIU), already 26.4 million of the German population plays online games
Consequently, children and adolescent have been introduced to online gaming and
the interactive nature of virtual worlds. Nevertheless, online games also produce
risks for this specific user group. In media, several cases regarding high amounts of
telephone invoices and the billing of surprised parents by telephone provider have
been published. In these cases, children often did not realise that the proclaimed
free-of-charge-games had a billing function (e.g. in-game purchases) within the applications
of the games and thus spent hundreds or thousands of euros with virtual
Research regarding the risk of sexual online perpetration as well as financial losses
in online games for children and adolescent are especially in the German-speaking
areas almost non-existent (Rüdiger, 2016). Existing studies barely considered online
games as platforms to interact and communicate with strangers. Consequently, an
analysis of possible risks is imperative.
In this study4, data from thirty-two online games of mostly German online game providers
was conducted5. Nevertheless, due to the nature of the Internet, German
online gaming providers are accessible from all over the world, only restricted by
Internet access and regulations of IP inspections.
The purpose of analysing online games underlines three important implications.
First of all, the age restriction regulations of each online game. Here, the first obstacle
to overcome was that no universal age regulations as well as age recommenda-
3 Consoles are generally considered when talking about online risks in online games. This study has only focused
on browser games accessible via browser and mobile app games accessible via phone and tablet devices. Consoles
are generally accommodating the same online risks considered in this study.
4 The current study concentrated on Germany or a German-speaking field as the examination field. This is important
when considering legal frameworks and definitions, e.g. in the area of child and youth media protection and age
5 This does not imply that game provider and servers are located in Germany
tion could be found6. Online games are provided on different platforms, for the analysis
the focus was on downloads such as mobile games from the Google Play store
(Android), iTunes (Apple) or games accessible through the browser such as free-toplay
(F2P) browser games. This was also one reason why different actors were involved
for age recommendations of games and thus irregularities in age regulations
could be found.
Secondly, it was focused on payment options within online games to find out how
many verification or locks would be faced before one would be allowed to spent real
money. And at last, the possibility of communication within the games were analysed.
Here, the focus lay on the accessibility to children and adolescent. How easy
would it be to talk to any stranger within an online game?
From a criminological perspective, these questions are important in order to identify
the risks of online offences such as (sexual) online perpetration of children and adolescents
in online games as well as enable prevention measurements to prevent
tragically endings such as the Breck Bednar’s case provided. In the future, security
agencies should be able to identify online grooming and act accordingly in order to
prevent crimes against children and adolescents.
2 Risk factors in online games
2.1 Forms of online games
Many different forms of online gaming exist, which to a certain degree depend on a
functional Internet connection in order to play with other players. In this paper it will
be focused especially on online games in which players are able to meet people,
join gaming groups and other forms of alliances in order to communicate with each
other. Games, for example massively multiplayer online role- playing games
(MMORPGs) and massively multiplayer games (MMOGs) are widespread and two
of the most popular types (Yu-Wei-Chang, 2015; Williams & Skoric, 2005) of games
6 Generally, Germany provides two legal frameworks when considering age regulations and recommendations.
First, the youth protection legislation (in German: Jugendschutzgesetz), which regulates age recommendations
regarding disk-based programs, e.g. computer games that can be purchased on a physical disk. In this case, the
USK (in German: Unterhaltungssoftware Selbstkontrolle) implements the age classifications. Regarding online
games that do not need a physical disk but are accessible through the web browsers and mobile Apps and thus
only need an Internet connection, no comparable standard exists. Online games are held under the Interstate
Treaty on the protection of minors (in German: Jugendmedienschutz Staatsvertrag – JMStV), which does not prescribe
age recommendation for online products towards the youth protection legislation (also see Rüdiger, 2016).
played online with genres as casual, strategic, first-person-shooter (FPS), sport and
MMORPGs are characterised by predominant medieval or future-oriented fantasy
worlds in which gamers act through avatars. Avatars are faced by challenges and
gain strength with each mastered task. Managing game stages and levels is highly
interactive and involves other game members as well as group mechanisms. As
Ballard and Welch (2015) state, most online games allow for social interaction, leading
to organised alliances or groupings known as guilds, clans and tribes, which
collaborates with a small but still unknown group of people (ibid.; Ducheneaut et al.,
2006). Ducheneaut et al. (2006) characterise guilds as places in which most of a
player’s relationships are formed. Guilds, clans, tribes and other forms of alliances
play an important role and show how easy it is to meet strangers online and form
relationships on the basis of the provided information given by players themselves.
Both, adolescents and adults are equally engaged in these forms. Until today,
MMORPGs are very popular games in the digital games market, offering a platform
for virtual communities and a basis for social interaction (ibid.: 472f).
Some games involve group mechanisms that are depending on the length of a
game provide incentives for users to join groups instead of playing individually. Alliances
are characterised by clear work distribution and hierarchies, which can have
an advantageous effect. Participants of these groupings are in a constant development
of their avatars and virtual realms.
Generally, online games can then be differentiated in their utilised business models.
Pay to play (P2P) games such as World of Warcraft, which has to be purchased for
a certain amount of money before it can be played. In many cases, the user has to
agree similar to a form of monthly paid subscription. In opposite of this model,
stands the business model of free to play (F2P) games, which suggests that the
game is not bound to any costs and is free to purchase and download. The F2P
games finance themselves through so-called in-game purchases or in-app purchases.
In-game purchases are purchases for virtual items or gain of game advantages.
In many cases, virtual items will be purchased with an in-game currency, which often
inherits a playful title such as coins, elixir, gems, sunflowers, etc. These virtual
currencies can either be acquired by rather lengthy game operations or with real
money. If one individual gamer is not able to participate for a certain amount of time,
disadvantages will show expeditious. In order to be not left behind and remain in the
lowest hierarchy, the user must push his or her developments. One appealing way
of upgrading to stages that others might have reached during a time of the users
absence could be with real money and thus in-game purchases. One of the most
well known online games – Clash of Clans from Supercell – generates up to 5 million
Dollars per day for purchasing virtual items (Diaz, 2015).
2.2 How online games need to be considered as possible risk
Online games have become a big part of children and adolescents leisure time and
thus can put their users at risk to become victim of harmful behaviour, criminal activities,
immense financial losses and gamecrime (Krebs & Rüdiger, 2010; Rüdiger &
Pfeiffer 2015). Gamecrime will be elaborated more deeply in the following section
2.3. The amount of time children and adolescents spend in online games is also
underpinned by several studies. A German study called “Jugend, Information und
Multimedia” (JIM) conducts every year a study documenting the usage of information
and communication technologies (ICTs) and media competence of 12 to 19-
year-old adolescents. According to the study, 25 per cent (n= 1,200) play online
games on a daily basis (Medienpädagogischer Forschungsverbund Südwest (mpfs),
2015: 11). Twenty-two per cent of the interviewed adolescents are playing online
games several times a week (ibid.). A similar finding provides the report of EU kids
online from 2014. According to the report, 28 per cent of 11 to 16-year-olds play
online games with other people on the Internet. Back in 2010, only 16 per cent of the
questioned adolescents were playing games online (EU kids online, 2014: 11). Another
study, namely getsafeonline (2015), analysed parents perspectives (n= 2,000)
about their 5 to 18 years old children and adolescents and their online behaviour.
They found out that one third of parents feel that they do not really know about their
kid’s online gaming activities. Sixteen per cent of the parents are aware that gaming
platforms can increase the risk of being bullied or verbally abused (getsafeonline,
2015). Even though, the study is right at the point of asking parents how much they
know about their children’s gaming activity; the study does not consider risks of
online perpetration and cyber grooming or the risk of financial losses.
In the majority of these studies, it is not clear how online games are understood and
considered in their analyses. The JIM study (2015) found out that every second adolescent
plays ‘digital games’ in their leisure time on a regular basis (Jim, 2015: 12).
JIM understands digital games as games on the computer, consoles or games in the
Internet (ibid.). It seems that mobile games via applications (app) are not considered
at all, even though online games are increasingly played on mobile devices. According
to statista (2015a) the weekly time spent by children between the ages two and
17 playing mobile games has increased from 5 hours weekly in 2011 to 7 hours in
2013. In December 2015, the most popular App store category by share of available
apps was gaming with 22.49 per cent (statista, 2015b). Gaming apps are the most
popular app category based on availability and top-grossing iOS gaming apps that
generate more than 1 million U.S. dollars per day (ibid.). According to getsafeonline,
the most popular devices to play games online are tablets, 62 per cent of the children
use this device to play online games. This is followed with 47 per cent of children
and adolescent using their parent’s mobile phone to play games
It is significantly important to consider all forms of online games and clearly distinguish
between them in order to understand the risks they can pose. For example,
there are online games that can be considered as games, which are offered on
online platforms such as Steam7, which can be played online, but include no possibilities
for communication and interaction with other gamers. These forms of online
games do not face the same online risks that can be experienced with games that
provide an anonymous way of communication and interaction with strangers. It is
noteworthy, that other risks exist, which will not be considered in this paper. Among
others risks such as violence, exposure to pornography and extremism can occur in
online games (Krebs & Rüdiger, 2010; Rüdiger & Pfeiffer 2015).
Another issue that will be considered is the integration of various paying methods in
online games. Therefore, this study will focus on games with communication and
interaction possibilities as well as payment options in online games. It will be particularly
focused on F2P browser games, which can be played through the browser or
mobile application (App) and client.
In general, F2P browser games can be easily accessed with a functional Internet
connection and the fitting hardware such as laptop or computer. App games are
accessible through mobile phones and tablets devices and can be downloaded on
specific platforms such as Google Play store, Windows store and iTunes. Another
7 Steam is an online platform that can be installed to play pay-to-play computer games and free-to-play online
form of an online game can be operated through a client. By downloading a client,
the gaming experience can be better than playing a game in the browser due to
faster processing and a stable connection.
Characteristically, crime arises from interaction between two individuals. Participants
of this interaction do not always have to be aware of their participation, but it takes
place nevertheless. Consequently, a child or any other game member is often unaware
of interacting with an offender and thus does not report the interaction or files a
complaint. On the other hand, criminal activity can evolve out of an aggressive confrontation
between two individuals in which both participants are aware of the situation.
Consequently, whenever two individuals interact, actions and decisions take
place. Why would this be different in virtual worlds such as online games? Appropriately,
criminal actions in online games are called gamecrime (Krebs & Rüdiger,
2010; Rüdiger & Pfeiffer 2015). Gamecrime can be understood as forms of crime
that erupt in online games or gaming environments such as online game platforms
as Steam, PSN or Xbox- Live (ibid.). It inherits various forms of crimes depending if
criminal offences are in-world (within the game) or out-world (outside of the game).
Out-world offenses are crime forms that aim to interfere from outside into game
mechanisms, e.g. gaining access to login data or attempts to hack game accounts.
In-world crimes are offences, which result from communication and interaction of the
players within the game. This area of gamecrime is particularly of concern in this
study, questioning the issues of ubiquitous and anonymous interplay of adults with
children in online games.
This issue is described more thoroughly in a blog thread written by Rüdiger (Rüdiger
2015a). In his article he compares the online gaming environments with an offline
playground. It is scrutinised how the presence of online groomers in gaming environments
seem rather ordinary and are not sufficiently questioned. In comparison,
the presence of a stranger and possible perpetrator on a public playground would
lead to some sort of action. The article argues further: “Imagine a playground where
your 10-year old son or daughter is playing and a 35-year old man walks up and
begins playing with your child.” The reaction to this situation would be vigilant if not
aggressive-protective. Parents would want to know who this stranger is and which
intentions he or she has of approaching their child, pretending to be a like-minded
10-year-old. Such meet-ups of children or adolescents with adults are nowadays
ubiquitous in the online gaming landscape (Rüdiger, 2015b).
Consequently, one immensely prevalent risk for children and adolescent is the danger
of meeting an online perpetrator. Breck Bednar’s case is only one of many in
which the victims are not aware of the risk their so-called online friends could pose.
Breck became victim of an online (sexual) perpetrator, leading to an offline face-toface
meeting. In their study, Cheong et al. (2015) analysed predatory behaviour in
game chats and thus defined sexual predation with the characterisation of age disparity,
and hence an adult who chats with a minor in an inappropriate intimacy
Another risk that is until now under-researched is the risk of financial losses. Especially
children, who play online games on mobile devices, have in the past spent
unknowingly great amounts of money with in-app purchases. In-App purchases are
purchases made from within a mobile application (www.webopedia.com). In some
cases Apple has decided to refund parents of great financial losses (Lipka, 2014). At
the presence, there exist no regulation for unwillingly purchased virtual items made
by children and adolescents. In Germany, the legal situation regarding similar cases
has not found a legal consent yet. In the past, German courts have ruled differently
in cases like this, for example the regional court of Saarbrücken commented on a
case in which parents had to pay a bill of 2.800 Euro. In this case the 12-year-old
son spent 2.800 Euro for virtual items in an online game. As e result, the court expressed
that the whole system of these games enabling children to play (and pay),
is close to a violation of moral principles (Schulzki-Haddouti, 2014; Sevriens, 2011).
Consequently, parents cannot rely on the current legal situation or court ruling,
which is far from clear and thus can only hope for the goodwill of platforms, which
provide games such as iTunes by Apple or Google play store.
2.3.1 Sexual perpetration in online games
One of the main risks analysed in this paper is online sexual perpetration in games
through Cyber Groomer8. In the study of possible chat room regulations, Joint
(2003) reasons that paedophiles using chat rooms to increasingly target victims and
lure children into potentially dangerous situations. He further argues that children
8 In the German-speaking area, one general term has been established when speaking of sexual harassment of
children through online-based programs as well as the establishing contact with a child through the Internet with
the intention of sexual misconduct. The phenomenon is called cyber grooming, the person assaulting is most often
termed as an online predator (Rüdiger, 2015a).
enjoy the exciting opportunity to flirt and chat to others in their own age. This becomes
problematic due to the anonymity of the Internet, children and adolescents
cannot be sure of the proclaimed age of their fellow players.
“By creating a false identity, lying about their age, ‘grooming’ their potential victims
and then arranging to meet them in person, children easily become sitting ducks for
child abusers.” (Joint, 2003: 44). While admitting to the possibilities of grooming
children in chat rooms, Joint does not consider online games as potential platforms
for these criminal activities. This might be due to the date of the year in which the
article was published. In 2003, online games might not have been recognised of an
equally used platform by children and adolescents as well as child abusers than the
more common place such as social media platforms. This is also evident in the research
of Sylvia Kierkegaard from 2008. Even though, she considers the Internet as
a place for positive and negative opportunities and thus recognises online grooming
and sexual perpetration as a growing issue, Kierkegaard does not consider online
games as such. In her analysis, Kierkegaard (2008) states that among privacy issues
and exposure to harmful content such as pornography, grooming and encouragement
of harmful behaviour, these issues have become problems of an international
wide-ranged nature. She identifies chat rooms, blogs, email exchanges, mobiles
and other social network sites as places in which deliberate grooming exploitation
of a child by an adult takes place (ibid.) and thus covers various meeting points
for victims and offender but not online games specifically. Nevertheless, Kierkegaard
(2008) considers the virtual world and the Metaversum of Second Life and
age play. Second Life is the largest virtual world created entirely by its users
(www.secondlife.com). Children age play is an in-world sexual activity between a
child avatar and an adult avatar that engage in simulated sex (Dirry & Rüdiger,
2015). With the issue of age play, a whole new discussion emerges of rather simulated
sex and online rape should be considered as criminal activity and thus illegal
(Kierkegaard, 2008: 44). Once again, the reason why Kierkegaard is not considering
other online games could be that in 2008, online games in general were not (yet)
viewed as possible grooming places. Even though, according to Rüdiger (2015)
online games have established in the past 15 years, research might take some time
to recognise the issues at stake. While Joint considers the rather technical and legal
issue of criminal reliability of the Internet service provider (ISP) itself, Kierkegaard
focuses on a national as well as international legal ground in order to combat cyber
crime against children. Nevertheless, both argue that nearly everywhere legislation
is still playing catch-up to the advanced and sophisticated techniques of child abus12
ers (Joint, 2003: 47; Kierkegaard, 2008). Joint (2003) follows this and states: “After
all, in real life, there are places where parents can leave their children quite happily
and they would be safe to play unsupervised, and there are others where they would
never dream of leaving children on their own. The same rule should apply in cyberspace.”
(ibid.: 48). Kierkegaard agrees that technology develops faster than law, and
thus law need to be strengthened to address challenges like this (Kierkegaard,
2008: 55), and therefore catch up with technological advances.
The risk of meeting online perpetrators also becomes evident when looking at the
recently published data from the United Kingdom. English Police noticed between
2013 and 2016 that 400 children were either abused or became victim of cyber
grooming over the Internet, more specifically through social media platforms. Interestingly,
one of the main platforms that provided a meeting point between children
and offender were online games. Police stated one game in particular, Clash of
Clans, which has already received law enforcements attention lately. The game provider
of Clash of Clans namely Supercell has as a reaction of the statement of the
police announced that the game’s terms and condition exclusively recommend the
game only for the age 13 and older (Supercell, terms and service) and thus only
children and adolescents should download it (Scheerhout, 2016).
In fact, if one takes a closer look, the game provider Supercell recommends the
game for the age 13 and older, while Google play store classifies the game for age
0, iTunes for the age 9 and Google search results as well as computer-related blogs
recommend the age 6. This underlines the issue of the irregularities of age recommendations.
2.3.2 Financial loss
Financial loss for children and adolescents is one of the considered risks of this paper.
Due to the absence academically research, media reports will be considered
regarding cases of financial losses. Financial losses in this case, will be understood
as unintentionally high expenditure of money within online games. In all of the cases,
neither children nor parents were aware of spending real money while purchasing
game money such as coins, jewels, weapons, lives or other virtual items. The
cases here presented are from different countries, underpinning once again the borderless
and international nature of this issue and the lack of an international legislation.
Until today, cases that will be stated below were only handled by the gaming
companies on the basis of goodwill, and thus make it evident that regulations are
Case 1: United Kingdom
In the UK, three children have summed up their parents credit card bill to 350 pound
by playing two games, which were free to download (Clash of Clans and DragonVale).
The children purchased “virtual gems”. The mother argues: “They think it is virtual
money in a fantasy land […]” (Martinson, 2013). Jane Martinson is pointing her
finger to Apple, who in the past has refused to cancel the thousands of pounds
spent by other kids, citing parental responsibility and pointing out the fact that its
products all contain password locks to prevent unwanted or accidental purchase.
Martinson wonders if these in-game purchases for free games are just another way
of exploiting their children (ibid.).
Case 2: Belgium
A 15-year-old boy spent approximately 37,000 Euros on gold in the free-to-play
game called Game of War: Fire Age. The boy from Belgium bought in-game gold
with his grandfather’s credit card. He was only able to use the credit card information
because he helped his mom purchasing an e-Book. Both, the mother and the
grandfather were not aware that the boy linked the credit card information to his own
iTunes account (http://www.nieuwsblad.be, 2014). In the article it is not stated
whether the boy knew what he was doing or not, still the mother and grandparents
are left with a great amount of debts.
Case 3: Sweden
In Sweden a free-to-play online game cost a family 60,000 SEK. The 9-year-old son
played in a time period of two weeks the free to download game Clash of Clans. The
boy spent two weeks at his grandparents place asking his parents for permission to
play a free game during that time. When the first bill of 21,000 SEK arrived, the parents
tried to investigate why such a great amount was charged from their credit
card. Only one day after, the bill mounted up to 49,000 SEK. When the parents contacted
Apple for help, the total credit card bill was 60,000 SEK. The parents still
await answer from Apple and hope for a refund (Svahn, 2015).
All of the three cases have shown that proclaimed free-to-play games or free to
download games are not as free of costs as they seem to be at first glance. Google
Play store or Apple iTunes, which are providing platforms for Android or Apple devices
to download games, have responded to these issues by introducing password
locks and providing safeguard options. However, Apple still requires the linkage of a
credit card to any created iTunes account, especially after using the iTunes store or
App store for the first time (Apple support, https://support.apple.com/dede/
HT203905). Without an iTunes account and thus an Apple-ID, Apple devices are
not able to purchase any items. Consequently, every functioning iPhone or iPad or
other Apple-driven device is linked to a credit card or other payment options. Furthermore,
in-app purchases are only one of many options to pay for virtual items.
Free-to-play browser games, which are played on a computer or laptop, have a wide
range of payment options.
Case 4: Germany
According to the law firm Hollweck, a mother of a minor (under the age of 14) received
a shocking high telephone bill of the total amount of 4,700 Euro. Google Play
store and a provider called BOKU charged her due to purchases made in online
games. Online games such as Clash of Clan, Rayman Jungle Run, The Sims were
listed on the telephone bill. Clash of Clan was one of the games that the under-aged
son has spent the most in. All of the games were free to download but offered ingame
purchases, e.g. through telephone and text messaging or provided credit card
As the last case shows, other payment methods than paying by credit card are possible
in online games.
One of a rather easily accessed method is the payment method by phone. In the
case of paying by phone, children and adolescents only can dial a 0900 – number,
which charges the individual telephone provider within the next monthly bill. In case
4, the telecommunication provider Telekom was charged by the third parties Google
Play store and BOKU. Telekom in turn, charged the mother with the total amount of
purchased virtual items (Holloweck, 2014).
This study was conducted by means of a multiple approach of qualitative methods in
order to analyse certain levels of risk factors for children and adolescent in online
games. Qualitative research was more fitting due to the insights qualitative methods
can provide of the research subject (Flick, 2000). In this case, the research was
conducted in the Internet in which the Internet is considered as a) a medium of
communication and b) as a context of social construction (Markham, 2004; Hine,
2005). The Internet as medium for communication provides new channels of communication
with other individuals or groups. On behalf of the Internet as a context of
social construction, Markham (2004) states that the Internet is a unique discursive
milieu in which the researcher can witness and analyse structure of talk, development
of relationships and communities (ibid.: 97). Therefore, the Internet offers the
qualitative researcher many ways of observing and/or for interaction with participants
(ibid.). Hine (2005) agrees and names the online world a fruitful field for researchers
and thus suggests that the online context can be claimed as ethnographic
field (ibid.: 8). A consistent discussion can be found of whether new research methods
are required for new online settings in the virtual ethnographic field site (Emmison,
2004; Hine, 2005; Williams, 2007).
Mann and Stewart (2000) found out that the main tools for data collection in the Internet
favoured by qualitative researchers are still the conventional ones such as
interviewing, observation and document analysis (ibid.: 65). Even though, ethnographic
fields can be found in new online settings, existing methods can still be applied
to the field.
The qualitative method chosen in this study was participant observation. According
to DeWalt and DeWalt (2011) the goal of participant observation is to establish an
understanding of the nature of phenomena. Other advantages in participant observation
are that this method provides a lower level of interaction with the researcher
and a stronger emphasis on documentary analysis (Man & Street, 2000: 84). According
to Foster (1996), observational techniques can also have advantages over
interviews. First of all, information can be recorded without relying on others; observers
may see the familiar as strange, noting features of environments or behaviour
that participants may not be able to see (Man & Street, 2000: 84). Additional
advantages are that the observation can take place over a longer period of time and
therefore observations allow access to information about people who are otherwise
too busy, deviant or hostile to take part in research (ibid.). Also, collected data and
its interpretation might have an enhanced quality; making this method both data
collection and an analytical tool (DeWalt & DeWalt, 2011: 10).
In this study, risk factors for children and adolescent in online games were the primary
research subject. In order to identify different levels on risk factors, participant
observation was used for only one purpose: to observe activities and interactions,
people and thus gamers as well as gaming mechanisms. According to Spradley
(1980) participant observation has generally two purposes: 1) engagement and 2)
observation. He argues further and states that the participant observer will experience
both insider and outsider simultaneously (ibid.: 57). Back in 1980, Spradley
used the example of a poker game, while participating in poker games and thus
identifying the observer as insider. But at the same time experiencing him and the
other players as objects from an outsider perspective (ibid.). The same dual participant
observation method was applied to this study. Even though, at first glance engagement
and therefore a dual participant observation were not intended at first. In
order to become an insider of online games and obtain data, a registration and creation
of an avatar was necessary. Therefore, engagement in this case was not to
make contact with other players and thus leading to interviews but engagement was
mandatory in order to identify game mechanisms such as registration processes,
observation of chat functionality and means of various payment methods.
As participant observers, avatars were created, villages set up, clans, guilds and
other association were joined and it was participated in group-activities, e.g. clan
wars and communication with group members. Simultaneously slipping into the insider
and outsider role as a participant observer.
3.1 Investigation period
The research was conducted between December 2014 and March 2015 and last
checked of its validity between September 2015 and November 2015. The total of
32 online games were tested, most games chosen from well-known online gaming
companies from Germany. Approximately 70 hours of game time, including systematic
observation of game mechanisms such as registration processes, age recommendation,
enablement of chat functionalities, interaction between players and
3.2 Choosing the research subjects
Free-to-play games were chosen due to the low cost expenses. Not only research is
limited with the need of maintaining costs low but also children and adolescents
have in general a low budget and thus might use these games more frequent.
The games tested were all free to download and mainly browser games and hence
played in the browser without any further steps to install or download applications.
Yet, some of the games were also available in mobile app versions, which were
tested on smartphone or tablet devices. Others had to download a client first, which
the game provider offered to download from the games website. That is why four
classifications of the tested games were made. Noteworthy, all of the tested games
classified themselves through their enablement of an Internet connection and provision
of interaction and communication ability within the games. The first type of the
tested games was browser games. Secondly, games that could only played via applications,
namely mobile games. Third, games that were offered as a browser
game and could be played on a mobile device via an App, namely browser game
and mobile games. And last, games that were played via clients, and thus called
client games. In summary, the amount of games that were tested within their classification
was browser games (20), mobile games (4), browser games & App (5) and
client games (3). All tested games and the associated game companies were anonymised
so that no disadvantages will result from the study’s findings. Due to the time
consuming task of testing online games, the authors were not able to test every
free-to-play online game that is on the market. It is noteworthy to point out that the
selected games only provide a temporarily insight. Each year, new online games are
released on the market that might replace old games or illustrate a completely new
set of online gaming with different challenges and risks.
A total of four online gaming companies were tested and four individual games,
which have their origin in Finland, Denmark and Germany. Game company 1 (GC1)
provided eight games (game 1-8) with reliable data that was comparable to the other
companies. Game company 2 (GC2) supplied this study with eight games (game 9-
14). Six games (game 15 – 20) could be tested from game company 3 (GC3) and
eight games (game 21- 28) gave enough information to include in this study from
game company 4 (GC4). Additionally, four individual games chosen by their popularity
were tested as well. Each was chosen from a different game company and thus
is named the GC5, GC6, GC7 and GC8. The four individual games are therefore
according to their company continuing with the game number game 29, game 30,
game 31 and game 32. Some of the individual games were already known to have
had experienced cyber grooming cases. Noteworthy, games that enable online
communication always inherit the risk of sexual harassment (Rüdiger, 2016; Sauerbrey,
In order to identify possible risks for children and adolescents in online games, three
main focuses were set, namely age recommendation, payment options and chat
4 Age recommendation
Age recommendation9 is one important aspect in managing the risk for children and
adolescents in online games. Age recommendation can guide parents, legal guardians
and children themselves of whether the games are classified for their age or
not. Until today, there is no verification regarding registration processes in online
games. A valid email address and a password are sufficient and are the only requirements
needed to fulfil registration conditions of the tested online games.
One obstacle to overcome was the difficulty in finding one clear age recommendation
for each game. Interestingly, many of the tested games were classified for the
age of 12 and under by the official institution of USK (see also diagram 1). Since
2015, USK is also responsible to classify age recommendations for games on an
international level within the framework of the international age rating coalition
(IARC) for all forms of game providing platforms including the App store and Google
Play store as well as Windows store (http://www.usk.de/iarc/). Nevertheless, this still
remains only an age recommendation that can be voluntarily followed or not. Until
today, there is no legal regulation or age recommendation that is either embedded in
the youth protection legislation or in the Interstate Treaty on the protection of minors.
Among the tested gaming companies only one game provider stated in its terms and
conditions that players must be 18 years old regardless of age recommendations
9 This study focused within the framework of official age recommendations defined by USK. An similar analysis
regarding age recommendation in an European (Pan European Gaming Systems (PEGI)) or international context
would be fruitful and interesting to compare with national results.
from others such as USK, computer related blogs or other search results (see also
appendix p. 35ff).
Diagram 1: Age recommendation of game provider and online game platforms
4.2 Methodological approach and results
The first issue was to find out, if one of the tested online games recommends or
even restricts the access to the game. Consequently, each game was thoroughly
browsed through regarding age recommendation. In order to do so, legal terms and
conditions were read (in German: AGBs) and each game website (if existing) was
searched for signs such as the German USK would provide. If the game website
itself did not provide any recommendations, it was checked on the homepage of
USK (usk.de) and the search function was used to find the games individually. If still
no result was visible, the search engine Google was utilised to find age recommendation
for a specific game. When results were shown from an unknown computerrelated
blog page, it was double checked with other search results in order to conclude
which age recommendation for the desired game was applicable. Out of the
total of 32 tested online games, age recommendation were drawn from either the
game itself, the USK website, Google search or the websites of the games, and thus
often three different age classification were provided. Other than that, identifying a
recommended age group for each corresponding online game was next to impossible.
Resulting from there, eight games were recommended for the age 0 (USK0).
Four games were classified for the age of six and older (USK6). And five out of 32
games were recommended to play at the age of 12 and older (USK12). For fifteen of
the tested games, finding a reliable age recommendation was not possible (see also
The non-existence of a universal age recommendation makes it rather difficult to
move through the jungle of gaming blogs, official age recommendation sites as well
as websites of gaming companies. In four cases, age differences between each
recommendation were so great, that a sufficient conclusion of which age restriction
should be applied was not possible.
Similar results can be found for another online game. In this case, the game provider
does not recommend any age on the game’s website, while iTunes recommends
the age 12 and Google search produces the age recommendation of the age 6 (see
also diagram 2).
Diagram 2: Age classification by different sources
The tested online games were then compared by the source of age recommendation.
The average age of the official source such as the USK in the German case,
were compared to the average age recommendation classified by the individual
game provider. In the cases of the online games game3 and game4, USK recommended
age 6, while the game provider GC1 stated in their legal terms and condition
that the recommend age is 18. Game4 was published from the same game provider
and therefore also has the age recommendation of 18 years. But at the same
time, the game provider published on the game’s website the age recommendation
of 12 years (see also diagram 3).
Diagram 3: Average age recommendation by USK and individual game provider
The focus of age recommendation has taken a great part of this analysis. Age recommendation
is the first step for parents to take in order to make sure that this specific
game is applicable for their children and adolescents. Testing these online
games has shown how difficult and unreliable age recommendation can be, and
hence confuse or even mislead parents or other guardians, who try to act in their
parental or guardian responsibility. Almost half of the here considered online games
did not provide any age recommendations. Not only did the game provider fail to
implement such important information but also official institutions such as the USK
were not able to present age recommendation of the here chosen games. Noteworthy,
the online games selected for this analysis were all well known and mainly published
by German gaming companies.
Additionally, age recommendations found, varied to such a great extend that reasonable
conclusions by parents, guardians or children and adolescents could not be
drawn. One interesting result presented by the data is the average age difference
between the official site of USK and the game provider itself. Over half of the average
age recommendations were not consistent, and thus inquiries need to be made
whether the game providers should lower their age recommendation or USK should
raise theirs. The latter seems more adequate considering the risks children and adolescents
face in online games.
5 Payment Options
After registering and downloading the adequate application for each online game,
payment options were tested. Most of the online games contained tutorials, which
provided insights of the games’ interface and functionality. These tutorials were
necessary to enable functions within the game while levelling up during the first
steps provided in the tutorial. Functions enabled were for example access to wider
geographical areas, a finding-friends-option and the chat functionality, which concerns
the third issue considered in this paper. After finishing first tours and tutorials,
payment fields could be clicked on in order to purchase virtual items such as coins,
jewels, gems, elixir, weapons and thus upgrading ones character or kingdom. Payment
options varied from game to game.
5.2 Methodological approach and results
Every game offered a minimum of eight different payment options or more. Even
though, the focus of the payment method issue was to find out if they were any restrictions
and in which way would they be available, the one most of interest was the
telephone payment option. By clicking on the option “paying by telephone”, two
payment options were offered by the game. After choosing the desired item or
amount, the user was asked to choose text messaging or dial a 0900- number.
All free-to-play online games inherited in-game purchase functions. Besides payment
options such as debit card, credit card, transaction, PayPal and others (see
Table Part 2, p.37f.), payment by phone was available in the majority of the tested
games (see diagram 4).
Diagram 4: Number of games that offered payment options
Of all 32 tested games, no game had any further verification requirements in order
to continue the payment procedure. The only restriction that was evident was the
amount of money that could be spent during 0900 calls or text messaging. Some
games only allowed amounts of the total sum of 10,00€ per call or text message.
Noteworthy, some game provider advertised the simplicity of the purchase while
purchasing a total amount of 49,99€, no registration was needed.
From all tested games only three online games did not provide telephone as a payment
option. Twenty-nine of the tested games offered 0900 numbers to call or pay
via text messaging (see also diagram 5). Noteworthy, the three games that did not
offer payment option by phone are App games; purchases could only be made
through in-App purchase. All other games provided the payment option paying via
phone, e.g. payment through text messaging or fee-based hotlines. Other payment
option that could be found were pay methods such as SponsorPay, which “rewards”
the user with virtual items by signing up for online subscriptions.
Diagram 5: Number of games that offered payment option via phone
Online game companies have changed the types of online games by offering freeto-
play games in forms of browser or mobile games. At first glance, parents or children
assume that the downloaded games are without further expenses. In-game
purchases allow users to upgrade their characters, purchase virtual items such as
coins, jewels, gems, weapons and other. Especially the payment option via phone
was of interest in this analysis, but other payment methods should raise concerns.
First of all, twenty-nine online games offered payments by telephone. Only a minority
implemented restrictions such as a limited amount per phone call or text messages.
However, the limitation of 10,00€ per call can easily be bypassed by calling
anew the hotline such as the 0900 hotline10. This specific payment option does not
face any “natural enemies” such as not possessing a credit card as a minor or facing
a password lock in a mobile game. Children can easily access landline telephones
as well as mobile phones, not being aware of high costs for purchasing magic coins.
Another payment option that drew our attention was the payment method SponsorPay,
which rewards the user with desired virtual currency by “only” clicking on
subscriptions or surveys or other purchases. If children or adolescent play a free-toplay
game on a family-owned mobile device such as an iPad, Apple-ID and thus the
iTunes account is set up with an payment method, purchasing unintentionally online
subscriptions, which will be done most likely as unaware as the high telephone bills
produced during the cases described above. Consequently, the payment method
SponsorPay needs to be equally of concern as the payment option by telephone.
6 Chat Function
Additionally, the possibility of communication and interaction within the games were
analysed. Similar steps as for analysing payment options were taken. After registration
and first steps within the game, it was searched for chat functions and messaging
possibilities. In some games, a great amount of time had to be spent due to limitations
within the games. Limitations were for example the necessity to play and
10 There is a possibility for parents and supervisors in Germany to block phone numbers such as 0900. Therefore,
game providers do not consider themselves to bear liability. What makes this argument critical is the question of
how many parents and supervisors have the knowledge of this payment option and the possibility to block it in the
first place (Schulzki-Haddouti, 2014).
upgrade to a specific level before functions are enabled. Concluding into rather long
involvement before amongst others chat functions were enabled. Other games provided
chat functions from the start. Online games, which provided accessibility to
other gamers only in higher levels, were consequently more time consuming to analyse.
Chat options in the online games were called differently (guild chat, clan chat,
global chat, buddy chat, etc.) but functionality was the same. The provision of opportunities
to communicate with other gamers was usually shown in an open or global
group chat. But other forms of communication and interaction between users were
visible. Some online games also offered private communication possibilities between
only two users. This could be similar to emailing or private messaging, without
other players being able to follow up on messages and thus is considered more
problematic when it comes to communication between adults and children.
The purpose of this analysis was to find out whether the game supplies chat channels,
if yes, in which formats. Can any stranger contact anyone? Is there a private
chat available, in which online perpetrators could gain a rather secure access to
6.2 Methodological approach and results
Twenty-six online games that were tested made communication channels for user to
other users available. The forms of communication were different in each game,
nevertheless, the overall chat function, which means adding and exchanging information
with others was enabled by the game. Twenty-six games provided either one
form or several forms of communication opportunities. Forms of communication that
were found were global chat, private chat, guild and clan chat (see also diagram 6).
Diagram 6: Total amount of enablement of chat functions within online games
Only one of the tested games differentiated communication channels by the categories
“buddies”; “alliances” and “strangers”.
Nearly 81% of all tested online games grant strangers access to other gamers. Children
and adolescents have many opportunities to communicate with other online
gamers, not knowing whether the opponent is the person he or she claims to be.
Twenty-six online games provide a global chat, a private chat or alliance-like chats
such as clans and guilds. Related to the age issue, other gamers can claim any age,
knowing that approximately 28% of 11 to 16 years old play online games in within
European countries (EU kids online report, 2014). Furthermore, chats provide the
opportunity to exchange personal information and thus privacy for children and adolescents
can be endangered. This is especially questionable because a discussion
about an ageless interaction and interplay of children and adults within an academic,
economic or security discourse is (nearly) non-existent.
Risks factors considered in this analysis for children and adolescents were online
sexual perpetration and financial losses as well as an inconsistent age recommendation.
Moreover, other risks such as hate speech, cybermobbing and gamecrime
are evident in online games. These risks are faced by children and adolescent in
game environments and should not be underestimated and thus need recognition
(Krebs & Rüdiger, 2010). As various studies show, online games are in many cases
not (yet) considered as platforms that enable access to children and adolescents.
Online Perpetrators can anonymously interact and communicate with children and
adolescent without identifying themselves as adults. Online games create an increasingly
entertaining and attractive virtual world in which children and adolescent
enjoy being part of. Surprisingly then, that research regarding online games and the
accessibility which online games provide between children and online perpetrator is
nearly non-existent. Additionally, online games can vary in their types, F2P and P2P
as well as on which device games are played. Only one study identified mobile gaming
and thus app gaming as an increasing way of playing online games
(getsafeonline, 2015). Still, this study did not include risks such as online perpetration
and financial losses.
One consideration that should be more than problematic is the fact that in normal
life, adults adapt their behaviour to children. For example, if a father plays football
with his 6-year-old son, he will simply lighten his charges against the goal when his
son is the goalkeeper. In order to do so, each game participant would need to know
the (real) age of one another. None of the tested games or online games in general
provides such an age labelling/marking/identification of the gamer. Hence, children
and adolescents are exposed to risks considered in this paper, but also to risks such
as bullying, pornography and extremism (Rüdiger & Pfeiffer, 2015; Rüdiger, 2016)
On the other hand, a visible age proclamation can also be counter-productive and
thus, generating an even greater risk. Marking children as a child will make them
more visible to online sexual perpetrators. Still, societal debates seem necessary in
order to explain why we forbid games for children under the age of 18 in some cases,
but allow adults to play and interact anonymously with children in other cases.
Additionally, all tested games in this study were recommended either for the age 12
or under or age recommendation was unknown.
This is an issue that can only be addressed by society and an active process of negotiations
in which the meaning of protecting children and youth in the virtual world
has to be clarified and risk generators identified. The question that needs to be answered
is: Should the Protection of Minors in the media (in German: Kinder- und
Jugendmedienschutz) only inherit the task of stopping and preventing negative influences
for children such as they do now by recommending and thus suggesting a
certain age group for specific games? Or should they also be responsible for preventing
crimes such as cyber grooming, sexual online perpetration and misused
payment options and thus restricting certain age groups to access the game?
Considering all the risks, it is essential to understand that current research and legal
regulations for online games and chat rooms still play “catch-up” with the rapidity of
technological development such as MMORPGs and MMOGs provide. Therefore,
considerations of widening responsibilities in order to protect children and adolescents
accordingly can only be made when this particular issues are being identified
Until now, game companies are insufficient regarding parental and guardian guiding
as well as taking responsibility in order to protect children and adolescent from risks.
As the research is scarce, so might be the knowledge of criminal activities in gaming
environments. Even though, some research has focused on social media sites and
their chat rooms such as Facebook, MySpace and others, online games have
scarcely been considered. In fact, except a blog entrance and the getsafeonline
study cited earlier, online games seem to not play a significant role when considering
online risks for children and adolescents.
By testing these 32 online games, it became clear, how strongly research in this
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About the authors
Diana Selck is a German criminologist student at the University
of Hamburg. Her focus in criminological research is in crime
and aggressive behaviour online. She is mostly interested in
interpersonal relationships that develop through communication
and interaction on online platforms and establish opportunities
to meet strangers whom take on identities, which do
not correspondent to their real selves. The focus of her current research project is to
analyse victimisation processes through online romance scam and webcam blackmail.
Both of these online crimes correlate with research in scam and fraud, online
grooming, dating scam and sextortion. In 2015, she began managing a Facebook
page called researching cyberaggressions – online romance scam, sextortion, which
aims to inform and educate individuals about new forms of online crimes such as
webcam blackmail (often called sextortion), online romance scam and other aggressive
behaviour online. Connect with Diana on Twitter.
Thomas-Gabriel Rüdiger is a German criminologist,
researcher and lecturer at the Institute for Police Science
at the University of Applied Science of the Brandenburg
Police. He is an expert in criminological research
regarding digital policing – especially the usage
of social media for digital community policing; the
development of norms as well as their judicial review
in digital space and its online crimes. His focus is with emphasis on
youth violence and sexual delinquency, hatespeech, cyber crime, and risks in web
social communities and virtual worlds (in particular, online gaming). In this particular
space, he consults political and juridical instances as well as NGOs and is often
asked for interviews focusing on digital risks and regulation and control possibilities
in leading German media. In 2013, Thomas-Gabriel was awarded the first European
Future Award for Policework for his publication “Gamecrime” about crime in virtual
worlds. Connect with Thomas-Gabriel on Twitter.