When does being protective become restrictive? It's a question many parents struggle with. In SOE's new smash hit MMO Free Realms the chat filter is pretty strict, which makes a lot of sense as the game is rated E10+ and is advertised on “tweener” television like Nickelodeon and the Disney Channel. Player chat freedoms are also restricted by age: registrants under a certain age can't chat at all, but only use pre-set communications.
In this day of Chris Hansen busting internet predators and kids who are often more knowledgeable than their parents about the internet and gaming, such built in protections are necessary. Maybe every other player isn't trying to make your kid take your credit card and meet them in Tallahassee, but I wouldn't let my 6 year old hang out in some chat channels in EverQuest II or WoW. Having designed a public, free MMO for kids where 75% of registrants are under the age of 17, SOE has to tread on the side of caution. As an over-protective Mom, I approve.
The chat filter catches some odd things. At the Beta wrap party I discovered that "Smedley" is filtered; John Smedley is the CEO of SOE. "Bitte", which is German for "please", gets caught. "Engine" comes through as "#####e". "AIDS" is filtered, but not "gay".
This last week numbers were added to the filter. Not just numerals, but their written equivalents. Apparently someone was seen soliciting a phone number in game. Not only does this prevent you from saying "everyone" and "someone", but it has caused some game play issues because of ingame items with numbers in their names. And many Free Realms players posting on the official forums are a bit upset about it. Jason "Pex" Ryan, SOE Free Realms Community Manager, has posted on their forums: "We will look at advanced options, but for now this a change we made to prevent the sharing of personal information. We've already seen people trying to elicit phone numbers from other players and that just isn't something we're willing to risk at this point. Yes, yes, there are always ways around it. We can only do what we can do and improve the tool over time."
Interestingly the discussion among adult Free Realms players seems to land more on the game play issue than on censorship or freedom of speech. They've come into the game knowing it was designed as an E10+ game, and have been tolerant of the filter's idiosyncrasies until it interrupted their play.
Our wikibase administrator Bludwyng and I disagree on the filter being used to "protect" children. "I do not expect SOE or anyone but ME to teach my child the difference between right and wrong," he told me. I agree with that, but also think that any thing or place designed for children should be safe for kids. I expect playgrounds to have 12 inches of soft gravel fill and Nickelodeon to not run Law and Order. Free Realms, being designed for the younger set, should have some inherent protections from the nastier side of the internet.
One can only hope they do find a better solution than filtering all occurrences of numbers. MMOs, by definition, are social games, and it's hard to be social when you can't make a coherent sentence. SOE has tasked itself with finding the fine line between baby-sitting the world's children and making a fun safe place for them to play.