The Shifted Librarian -

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* Thursday, December 30, 2004

Internet Use at Our House Goes Social

There have been some interesting things happening with the internet at our house during the past few months. The first started back in August when all of Brent’s neighborhood friends discovered Runescape, an online RPG (“role playing game”). Basically, you walk around and talk to people, collect things, trade things, work a little, and sometimes fight. Amazingly, basic play is free, although you can subscribe to an enhanced membership for $5 per month. Since the game is free, the software blocks out swear words (although the kids know how to get around that to a certain extent), and the violence is minimal (cartoonish when someone is killed), we parents have been letting them play it.

At the time Brent started playing, I didn’t think it was going to last. He was much more of a console player, focusing on his PlayStation 2. He didn’t like the social aspect of games much, either - he just wanted to play, play, play. But he surprised me. Five months later, Runescape has completely overtaken console gaming, only fading for a few moments this past week when Santa bought him Jak III for the PS2. Once he beats that game, though, we fully expect him to go back to being obsessed with Runescape. And obsessed is the accurate term here. It’s all he can talk about. He’s always reporting what level he is on, what armor he’s trying to acquire, who he met that day, and which of his friends swore while he was talking to them. When you meet somebody in the game, you can type messages to talk to them, a feature that has definitely improved Brent’s typing. He’s also reading faster because the messages scroll up the screen.

It’s been fascinating to watch him embrace the social aspects of the game, and it’s given us excellent avenues for discussion about online identity, particularly fraud. The first time he went out in “the wild” and someone killed him, he was devastated. He was crying harder than at any of the times he was hit with a pitch in a baseball game. But you get to start over again right away, and he proceeded to con a stranger into giving him a sword by claiming he was a little girl who needed help. Now Brent is at a much higher level in the game, and he likes to trade for swords and armor so he can fight other players. Runescape is usually the first thing he thinks about doing when he wakes up and the last thing he talks about before falling asleep, even though we do limit his play. In the morning and evening, he and his neighborhood friends are often playing the game, talking to each other where before they never ever used the telephone to talk. This one game has definitely gotten to him more than any console game.

But as fascinating as all of this is, it’s been just as interesting to watch how the girls’ reaction to the game. After the boys became obsessed with it, the girls had to try it. They’ve all got their own files (accounts), but they do completely different things in the game. They’re also not as obsessed, asking to play far less frequently. When Kailee plays, it’s usually to walk around and meet people or to accomplish a specific goal. Today, she met King Arthur and Lancelot, and she’s trying to save Merlin. She’s not interested in armor or fighting, but rather she likes solving puzzles, exploring, and talking with others. Whereas the boys talk in the game in order to accomplish something, boast, or trade insults, Kailee will talk to someone just to meet them (which was a whole other parental discussion we had with both kids). While it’s a generalization within a game that has thousands and thousands of players, the girls definitely aren’t in it to fight.

So the shift in gaming has been very interesting to watch, but this past week has also seen the kids dive into instant messaging. I was sitting at work a couple of days ago, while Sheree was home with the kids. She was AIMing me some questions and as so often happens these days, Kailee saw her and wanted to do it, too. Kailee immediately loved messaging, and we traded messages back and forth for the next half hour. When I got home, we had to set up her own screen name, which Brent saw. He then wanted a screen name, and the rest is history. At no time did they ask why someone would want to use IM, and they’re both asking their friends if they have screen names so they can add them as buddies. Kailee and I have even been messaging across the room (me on my laptop) because she’s so enamored with it. They’ve started teaching her how to type at school, so again this is excellent practice for her.

In fact, the only problem so far is that when they’ve wanted to go on AIM, it’s been at times when no one else is online so they’ve been disappointed. They’re constantly asking, “Can I go on that thingy to see if anyone is online?” Just wait until they realize they can IM from our cell phones….

So, I’ve officially noted that the kids shifted to online gaming and instant messaging at the ages of nine and ten. How were you communicating with your friends when you were nine and ten?

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