Alfred Lo, left foreground, and Emmanuel Marcale, right, monitor children?s… (Annie Wells / Los Angeles…)
On the playground, kids pilfer lunch money and push each other around. But in the cyber clubhouses they're filling by the millions, kids rig elections, sell fake products and scam each other out of every virtual-worldly possession.
Sophia Stebbins recently joined one such online community, Webkinz, which lets its young members create avatars, play games and hang out. The 9-year-old from Irvine worked in a virtual hamburger shop, earned virtual cash and bought a virtual bed, couch and TV for her virtual house.
Then one day, she logged in to her account to discover that all of her gear and money were gone. She suspects that another kid swiped her password and sold her things.
"I was a little scared," she said. "Sometimes now, I hesitate to go online."
An estimated 12 million children and teens will visit virtual worlds this year, according to research firm EMarketer Inc. So it's no wonder that such sites have become big business.
In the last two years, Walt Disney Co. acquired Club Penguin in a deal worth as much as $700 million, and media giant Viacom Inc. bought Neopets for $160 million.
The sites get the parental stamp of approval by closely monitoring their users and trying to keep out grown-ups with bad intentions. They offer children a place to play online without fear of being approached by pedophiles and other preying adults.
But it's turned out to be hard work protecting the kids from one another.
To keep these worlds from turning into a virtual "Lord of the Flies," websites are monitoring every word children type, limiting them to only preapproved dialogue and patrolling the websites with employees undercover as kids. Some also are giving kids the equivalent of a 911 call, so they can holler for help.
"When you're at school, there's mostly good people, but there are a few people who try to bully and scam you and do nasty things," said Hazel Dixon, a 16-year-old from Reading, England. "It's the same in Whyville."
When she was 11, Hazel trusted the wrong person in the virtual world with her password (he promised her an avatar makeover) and had every dime of her in-game currency stolen.
Most sites emphasize that children should never give anyone their passwords. But many fall victim to a common scam: They're told that their avatars will look better or that their account will be stocked with virtual currency. Instead, their accounts are usually wiped out.
Jen Sun, president of Numedeon Inc., the Pasadena company that created and runs Whyville, said there is an upside when kids get scammed this way -- they learn a lesson about being careful on the Web in a safe environment.
"It's a learning experience for the victim not to be so gullible, not to be motivated by greed, because the scammers use greed against you," she said.
Two UCLA researchers who study virtual worlds were startled by the "seemingly innumerable" ways that kids cheat each other. They detailed several in a 2007 paper published in the proceedings of the third international conference of the Digital Games Research Assn.
According to the paper and Whyville staff, Whyville veterans often haze newcomers by demanding rent, even though apartments there are free. Other players have figured out a combination of keyboard commands that allows them to jump into the virtual cars of strangers, which is normally allowed only through invitation. Users have claimed that elections for the Whyville Senate were rigged through stuffing of virtual ballot boxes.
Some players took advantage of an outbreak of Whypox -- a virtual plague that causes avatars to sneeze and break out in boils -- by selling cures that turned out to be fake.
UCLA doctoral student Deborah Fields, who wrote the paper with professor Yasmin Kafai, said players were much more willing to engage in behavior that they wouldn't in the real world.
"I don't think they feel monitored," she said. "It's way less monitoring than they probably have in school from just the presence of a teacher."
Like adults, many kids feel that behaving badly online has fewer repercussions than behaving badly in real life, where face-to-face interaction drives home the consequences. Just as they can jump off a virtual building and not feel a thing, they can steal from each other with no consequences.
Virtual worlds are trying to change that. Webkinz and Club Penguin allow users to type only lines that are selected by the site's monitors.
Others, such as Whyville, screen chats through a filter that flags when kids swear, type their real names or exchange e-mail addresses, phone numbers or other personal information. Kids who violate the rules lose their privileges on the site or even are banned, and Whyville keeps a "rap sheet" on users to see who has had previous offenses.
About 10 accounts are banned each day, according to Timothy Lee, who supervises the group of employees whose job it is to monitor the filter and answer "911" reports -- filed by children to report the bad behavior of others.