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Saturday, 19 February, 2000, 00:30 GMT
Children warned against net predators

zack screenshot Game warns children not to reveal personal details

Canadian pupils are getting a computer game that teaches them how 'predators' use the internet to lure children away from home.

Net predators
It is estimated that some 800 children a year across North America fall victim to internet predators
The problem is growing as fast as the net itself
One of its goals is to get around the problem that children resent being given net safety rules by adults - and may even boast about breaking them, without realising the risks they run.

The game is part of a CD-ROM called Missing: A School Kit on Internet Safety. It takes a fictional scenario but is based on real life cases.

It has the backing of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) and the National Crime Prevention Centre, among others.

The game puts the player in the role of an agent with the police Missing Children's Bureau, assigned to the case of a 14-year-old boy named Zack, whose father is worried about files he has found on the boy's computer.

Girls think it's funny to engage in high risk behaviour ... because they are under the impression that they could never be tracked, that they are anonymous
Game developer Drew Ann Wake
Zack has been spending a lot of time on the net, building his own website and participating in a chat forum about online magazines - where he is befriended by a character called Fantasma.

Fantasma tells him how great life is in California, sends him gifts, and sympathises with his family troubles.

"So when Fantasma offers him a job, Zack jumps at the chance," says the script.

"Well, wouldn't you?"

Parents shocked

The player has to help detectives on both the Canadian and US sides of the border by collecting evidence and solving cryptograms to rescue Zack and catch the predator.

The kit was developed in collaboration with the BC Ministry of Education by LiveWires Design, a Vancouver-based multimedia company.

LiveWires found when developing the CD-ROM that parents who took part in forums about the issue were shocked to find that such things happened.

But one of the actual cases used involved a boy from Vancouver, said LiveWires Design's Drew Ann Wake.

The boy's mother happened to return home early from work to find her son with an airline ticket for New York, stuffing a laptop computer she did not know he had into an already-packed bag.

It turned out he had been communicating with a man in New York who had persuaded him to download child pornography off the net.

He had done this so well the man had "offered him a partnership" in his business and he was going to New York to take up the post - or so he believed.

Predator not traced

"In the ten minutes it took the mother to telephone the police the boy had wiped all the files from his laptop, so there was no way of tracing the man," Ms Wake said.

"He undoubtedly has been doing it again."

The game has been tested with a couple of hundred children. Typically, before they start, they are absolutely sure that no adult could fool them on the internet.

"They thoroughly believe that they would be able to spot an adult. They think it's funny to engage in high risk behaviour, girls going out and offering to meet men on the internet," she said.

"They think it's humorous because they are under the impression that they could never be tracked, that they could never be found, that they are anonymous.

"They believe that people can't hack into private chat, which is not true. They believe that people can't hack into their private e-mail.

"There's this myth of anonymity.

Writing their own rules

"The game draws them into this case very slowly. At the beginning they think the father is a real chump, over-reacting.

"They say things like: 'It's just pornography, it's just a sign of the times, what's the matter with this father? he's driving his son away'."

At the end when they are debriefed they clearly understand where the boy has gone wrong, how he has been fooled, what the predator's tactics are.

"So I think that the game does encourage kids to write their own guidelines, rather than just accepting them from adults who say 'Do this, don't do this'," Ms Wade said.

"They'll get around that - they boast about getting around that. But if they design their own guidelines, what we're finding is that they tend to follow them, because they have ownership of those rules."

The RCMP have bought 20,000 copies of the game to distribute to schools throughout Canada.

  • An international version is being developed to be launched at the United Nations conference on internet predators in Montreal in November.

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    See also:
    11 Oct 99 |  Education
    Net porn warning for pupils
    16 Jun 99 |  Sci/Tech
    Unesco steps up fight against Internet paedophiles

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