Out of all the conversations I had with developers, press, volunteers, exhibitors and fans at PAX Australia a few weeks ago, one that kept cropping up was of almost universal concern. It wasn’t for Gamergate, the online drama that had engulfed gaming over the last couple of months, but a fear for children growing up with the internet.
The information children could be exposed to was a concern, but also how exposed children themselves can be.
It’s something that particularly bothers Lance McDonald, creator of the stealth-focused action-adventure Black Annex, because his three-year-old, Penny, is more accessible to the world than most for her age.
She’s the star behind a series of Let’s Play videos, where she delights viewers as she works her way through games like Portal 2.
As you’d expect from a three-year-old with the co-ordination to beat Portal 2, the videos are incredibly charming. The presence of her father hasn’t proved a hit with the internet, but the Let’s Plays featuring just Penny have been watched just over 90,000 times.
Mark Serrels, the editor of Kotaku, said the videos made him “seriously clucky” for a second child.
Cuteness aside, there are plenty of concerns. The premise of having access to the internet as it is frightens most parents; it opens up the door to a range of conversations and material that parents often don’t want to have at the best of times. But once you realise the potential for information and knowledge the internet holds, it’s something no one – even a small child – would give up easily.
“It’s worrying, at what point do you let her – if she can read, if you can use the internet – at what point do you not have to watch her all the time?” McDonald asked me.
“When is she just going to be constantly dealing with garbage and how is she going to know how to process that? I think any parent is just terrified of the day their kid is like, ‘I want to use the internet now, I want to look this up on the internet.’”
His concerns are almost universal across families in the western world; children are now growing up with a level of exposure that adults often find hard to comprehend, let alone the kids at the centre of it all. But Penny’s exposure is more problematic than your average kid wanting to Google their Skylanders or Disney Infinity toys. She has a persona, an identity that in all likelihood will be stored online for the rest of her life.
One of the problems stemming from this is the notoriety of the virtual sewer of comments on YouTube and forums, something McDonald is acutely concerned about.
“Especially the gaming community is a pretty poisonous place to be in sometimes, so with Penny, who plays games on YouTube and a lot of people see it, we have to moderate that,” he said.
“But when something ends up on Kotaku or any site like that I usually talk to the person who put it up and go, ‘Can you please be very strong in moderating the comments because I don’t want to see people saying disgusting things about my children.’
“And I have an awesome support network of people who do that, because people do say disgusting things like Kotaku in the comments section.”
Having a good support network is undoubtedly vital, but the nature of the internet means the glass walls will only hold for so long. The school playground is typically where most of the damage will occur, and even in the din of the PAX Australia show floor, I could already envision a heated conversation in 10 or 15 years when Penny rebels from her gamer parents and wants to forge a new identity of her own.
Even before then, what happens when Penny starts to realise how accessible that camera makes her to the world?
“She’s gonna grow up with it, and it’s always going to be normal, everyone has these videos on the internet of themselves, some people are more popular than others,” McDonald explained. “There might be a day when she suddenly realises people like her videos or something, but I really think she’s going to be very slowly eased into it. So it’s not going to be jarring for her, it’s not going to be like, ‘Wow, I didn’t know you uploaded these videos of me when I was little.’
“It would be something she would become uncomfortable with slowly and she’ll be like, ‘OK, I want to change this, I don’t want this anymore.’ But the idea that they are already out there is something she’s going to grow up with, it’s not something that’s going to be difficult to deal with. It’ll be unfortunate if she does become unhappy with it over time, but we’ll just have to deal with it.”
In a way, the internet has now made it possible for everyday sons and daughters to have a little bit of the life you see splashed across gossip magazines. What people say and do is now recorded for eternity and perhaps one small byproduct of this exposure is that Penny, much more so than her parents or their generation, will be a little more conscientious of her speech and her behaviour thanks to her 15 minutes of YouTube fame.
With over 90,000 views, there’s one other benefit too: Penny has already been able to earn a small amount of pocket change courtesy of Google. But that doesn’t wash away any of the concern the internet poses to children.
I asked McDonald if he thinks kids understand, now that they’re growing up with it, they’re essentially going to be held accountable for the rest of their lives?
McDonald was emphatic: no.
“They don’t understand what kind of job they want in the future. I didn’t understand, I thought I’d want to be a musician when I was younger,” he said.
“Her growing up with [the internet] might work out better that way, constantly being conscious of what she writes on the internet because she knows people are looking. But who knows what she’s going to be like when she’s 15?”
But no parent wants to wait 10 or 15 years to find out what that moment looks like. And that, coupled with everything that could happen in between, is what’s so frightening.