Safeguarding the future generation of gamers from crimes in the virtual world

From risks of online gaming to the rising crime rate in the metaverse: What does the future hold for the new generations?

From board games of the bygone era to the virtual worlds of today, games have always played a significant part in our lives and their impact on contemporary culture and society is stronger than ever before.

Starting with the spread of internet usage in the 1990s and the rise of digital distribution of video games a decade later, online gaming has exploded in popularity to become one of the most booming businesses on the planet.

It lets players escape from the troubles of the real world and relax but it also gives them a chance to connect with other like-minded individuals and become a part of online communities.

However, like everything in life, online gaming has two sides to it. While it can bring a bunch of benefits to your life such as improving memory, cognition, and creativity, it also carries a whole scope of security risks including malware infection, identity theft, and phishing attacks — and the trouble doesn’t stop at cybersecurity concerns.

Without the proper guidance on what games to play and when to do it, young gamers can easily become targets of in-game bullying, online grooming, or having their brain altered in mind-blowing ways due to severe gaming addiction.

While some efforts have been made by the gaming industry and the government to get to grips with such risks and prepare for future ones, the virtual world remains a far cry from a safe place.

With this in mind, we’re going to look at the current state of crimes in the gaming world, explore rising gaming risks, and search for possible solutions to this ever-evolving problem of the real and virtual worlds we found ourselves in.

What are online gaming risks?

One of the best things about gaming today is that it has the capacity to connect the whole world while empowering gamers to communicate with each other in a variety of ways.

However, they can’t do this without setting up accounts on game platforms, surrendering their personal information, and getting in touch with people they don’t know — and all of this comes with certain risks.

Data from 2015 Pew Research on the role of video games in finding friends showed that 72% of teens (84% of that being boys) play video games on a computer, game console, tablet, or smartphone — and this gaming is seldom a solitary activity. While most of the time these teens play with others in person, 54% of them play with friends they know only online and this trend has been growing since.

Spending so much time gaming online and sharing information with strangers comes with certain risks we’re going to cover straight away.

1. Cybersecurity risks

Getting caught in the trap set by cybercriminals is something that can happen to anyone and it can happen in a variety of ways. For instance, searching for a cheaper or free version of the game you’d like to play will likely take you to sites swarming with viruses and malware. And even if you’ve purchased your game legally, a cyber security gap could place you at risk of your personal information being stolen.

Also, with massively multiplayer online (MMO) games, cybercriminals could use the chat function to collect your sensitive data and take over your account — they can also do this by using brute force attacks.

In addition to all this, gamers have to worry about different forms of online harassment (such as swatting and doxing), phishing scams, spyware, cross-site scripting, distributed denial-of-service (DDoS) attacks, and let’s not forget data breaches.

2. Social risks

An online gamer is also at constant risk of cyberbullying and this is something that almost all gamers have experienced at some point in their lives — it also raises the question of whether video games stimulate violent behavior in players.

A 2018 Pew Research study found that 59% of US teens have been subjected to cyberbullying and a similar share claims it’s become a major problem for most of their peers. In most cases, gamers are bullied by other players, but sometimes it’s done by cybercriminals trying to get them to share their personal information they’ll later use against them. So, cybersecurity risks and social risks often come hand-in-hand.

3. Changing our brains and behavior

Last but not least are the effects online gaming (particularly too much gaming) is having on your brain. While there are some superb benefits to online gaming for most people (such as boosting visual attention, improving memory, and slowing down brain aging), there are serious risks as well and they can have a significant impact on your emotional, social and physical well-being.

According to one study conducted in 2019, video gaming doesn’t only affect the brain at the surface level but can trigger changes in various brain regions altering brain structure and its functions. While that study found that professional gamers have increased brain activity associated with attention in comparison to non-professionals, another one showed that young gamers have an impaired short-term focus which can turn into a long-term problem.

On top of this, according to the 2014 study of the relationship between gaming and depression in preadolescent youth, playing video games has been linked with depression and anxiety and younger players proved to be more prone to developing symptoms of depression.

And if these weren’t enough, some studies are showing that gaming can cause addiction, as well as motivate adolescents to become more aggressive — however, this was linked to first-person shooters (FPS’) and games that simulate the use of firearms in general.

Why are violent video games so popular?

While we’re still trying to figure out whether the violence in video games makes gamers more violent in the real world, one thing is completely clear — violence sells games.

Today, the best-selling video games in the West include titles from the “Grand Theft Auto”, “Call of Duty”, and “Mortal Kombat” series and all of them have one thing in common — they make murder a central concept of the game.

According to an Australian study, we find ourselves attracted to violent video games because they offer opportunities for us to fulfill our psychological needs. These include becoming a better version of ourselves, simulating the social hierarchies we find ourselves in, competing with others in a safe environment, expressing our emotions, gaining control we don’t have in real life, and facing our fears from the comfort of our home.

The study says, we play violent video games for similar reasons we play sports, but now we don’t have to go outside to play with others — it’s all done in the virtual world. However, while gaming isn’t problematic by itself, losing yourself in the game and letting it overtake your life can turn into a serious problem.

What’s more, a brain imaging study has proved that violent video games can make teens desensitized to painful images which suggests diminished empathy for the pain of others. When compared with non-habitual players, the habitual players showed a neural response to painful images which suggests they might have down-regulated their emotional intelligence and empathic response for the sake of better performance in the game.

So, are violent video games so popular because they respond to our hidden psychological needs or because they‘re pushed by publishers for being particularly profitable? The truth probably lies somewhere in between.

What are in-game crimes?

Also called virtual crimes, in-game crimes are criminal acts that are carried out inside MMO games or within a metaverse.

For instance, torturing the prisoners of war for the sake of it or carrying out calculated attacks on civilians in a war game can come to pass without a proper punishment or any consequences, unlike in the real life.

So, this gives rise to a concern that games that don’t sanction in-game crimes in any way can encourage gamers to carry out such crimes in the real world.

What’s the current state of crimes in the virtual world?

With the power to blur the line between the real and the virtual world, virtual reality (VR) promises to bring about brand new worlds, new ways of thinking, and never-before-seen experiences. Unfortunately, it’ll give rise to new risks as well — primarily, the risks to our privacy and security.

Research conducted by the Center for Countering Digital Hate (CCDH) found that a VR Chat, a top-rated app in Meta’s VR metaverse, is “rife with abuse, harassment, racism, and pornographic content”.

The numbers reveal that online abuse in the metaverse has seen a steady increase as users, including minors, are exposed to abuse and harassment every seven minutes — and this includes exposure to explicit sexual content, grooming of minors, bullying and sexual harassment, hate speech, as well as threats of violence.

On top of all these and the common cybersecurity concerns we’ve covered in the previous chapters, visitors to the VR will have to worry about the usual “real-world” crimes such as money laundering, intellectual property theft, sharing of child abuse images, and signs of suspected terrorist activities.

What’s more, as play-to-earn (PTE) blockchain gaming continues to grow bigger with time, so does the risk of scams, money laundering, and other financial crime — and PTE gaming ecosystems seem to be particularly vulnerable to all sorts of cybercrimes.

According to a former Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) analyst, the fact that PTE games often prompt players to make purchases of non-fungible tokens (NFTs) or cryptocurrency from others by using unregulated, anonymized crypto-wallets should be a cause for concern as it makes it hard to trace the path of stolen funds or otherwise Illicit financial flows. Nevertheless, this anonymity is the principal part of crypto markets.

So, considering the current state of cybercrimes in online gaming, we must either learn from the pitfalls of the past and prepare for the changes ahead or let our world turn into a digital dystopia — but, how do we combat these crimes?

How can we combat crime in the metaverse?

While there are tons of things gamers can do to shield themselves from virtual criminals, the most significant changes can’t be made by individuals but by the committed community. So, let’s go through some of the steps we as a society can do to help combat crime in the metaverse.

1. Call for stricter rules and regulations

If there’s something the metaverse is short on, it is rules and regulation — and those that do exist aren’t strict enough. Since the metaverse is much like the real world but set in virtual reality, its visitors are interacting with each other, enjoying social events, and trading digital assets such as NFTs.

So, like in the real world, these types of activities require the right set of shared rules and regulations that would make sure everything is conducted safely and securely for individual users and organizations alike.

2. User privacy and protection

Protecting its users should be a priority for any online platform, metaverses included. While such protection comes in different shapes and sizes, providing a proper level of privacy and security to its users must be the main focus of any respectable company within a metaverse.

For instance, if a user falls victim to cyberbullying, they must be able to report this and shield themselves with a suitable safety feature — something in line with Meta’s Personal Boundary tool.

3. Educating users about risks and prevention

Besides making the metaverse a better place, we shouldn’t play down the power of education in recognizing risks and stopping cyberbullying and cyber crimes before they happen.

Both metaverse companies and the gaming industry could play a critical role in this and they can do it by creating educational programs or even developing educational games. If not, with the right support from the government, schools could add the subject of online safety into the curriculum and help their students stay on the safe side of the internet.

So, what does the future hold for the new generations of gamers?

While diving into the digital world can be an excellent way to relax, engage with your friends, and have some fun, most online games are made to get you hooked — and that’s the least of your worries.

From cybersecurity concerns and social risks of online gaming to rising crime rates in the metaverse, a lot has to change before we can consider any virtual world a safe, secure, and sustainable place.

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