Dossier on online games for children

Dossier on online games for children
Dossier on
online games
for children
next
level
Edited by Remco Pijpers and Justine Pardoen, January 2009
Colofon
Mijn Kind Online
Stichting Mijn Kind Online
P.O. Box 30000, 2500 GA The Hague
tel.: +31 (0)70 - 446 15 96
fax: +31 (0)70 - 446 58 21
Chamber of Commerce for Haaglanden 27169250
Postbank 7816696
e-mail: [email protected]
website: www.mijnkindonline.nl
Management team:
• Remco Pijpers (director and contact person. Tel. +31 (0)6 – 51 43 67 11)
• Justine Pardoen (editor-in-chief)
My Child Online Foundation [Dutch: Stichting Mijn Kind Online] is a centre for knowledge and advice in the
area of youth and (new) media, which aims to provide greater insight into the opportunities afforded by new
media, as well as to promote the responsible exploitation of these. The Foundation’s activities are aimed
principally at educators and children. The Foundation is an initiative by KPN and Parents Online [Dutch:
Ouders Online] and operates independently.
Contributors to this dossier
Research and text:
• Margreet van den Berg
• Menno Deen
• Edwin Feldmann
• Nathalie Korsman
• Justine Pardoen
• Remco Pijpers (editor-in-chief)
Research:
• Qrius (conducting research)
• Initial Concept (advice)
Consultants:
• Peter Nikken (NJi)
• Martijn Huigsloot (NICAM)
Cover:
• Carline Vrielink (De Ruimte Ontwerpers)
Copy editor:
• Henk Boeke
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Translation:
• original title: ‘Next Level’
• translation by Mark Baker (Wordsmiths)
Acknowledgements:
• KPN for sponsoring this dossier
• NICAM for making the translation possible
© 2009 Stichting Mijn Kind Online
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Contents
1.
Introduction..............................................................................................................................5
2.
2.1
2.2
Survey and group interviews....................................................................................................8
Survey ..........................................................................................................................................8
Group interviews ...................................................................................................................... 13
3.
3.1
3.2
Surfing behaviour and background information from developmental psychology .............. 16
Surfing behaviour..................................................................................................................... 16
Developmental psychology backgrounds ............................................................................... 18
4.
4.1
4.2
4.3
4.4
Casual games sites............................................................................................................... 20
The major sites......................................................................................................................... 20
Origin of the casual games...................................................................................................... 24
Intended target groups and actual visitors............................................................................. 25
Business models...................................................................................................................... 26
5.
5.1
5.2
5.3
Undesirable casual games ................................................................................................... 29
PEGI, Kijkwijzer for games....................................................................................................... 29
Examples of undesirable casual games for children ............................................................. 31
Alternatives to PEGI? ............................................................................................................... 38
6.
6.1
6.2
6.3
Good casual games .............................................................................................................. 39
General quality criteria for games........................................................................................... 39
Criteria for good casual games sites ...................................................................................... 42
Examples of good online casual games sites for children..................................................... 43
7.
7.1
7.2
7.3
7.4
Conclusions and recommendations ..................................................................................... 49
Conclusions .............................................................................................................................. 49
Recommendations for operators ............................................................................................ 49
What does this mean for parents?.......................................................................................... 50
Tips for parents ........................................................................................................................ 50
Literature .......................................................................................................................................... 53
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1.
Introduction
Many parents think they need not worry about letting their children play the casual games on a site such as
Spele.nl, the most popular casual games site in the Netherlands (10 million visitors a month). In practice,
this is not the case, however. Many of the casual games offered online are considerably less innocent than
old favourites such as Patience, Pinball or Minesweeper, which were delivered as standard with every
Windows PC. This period is most certainly over. We are at the Next Level.
What are we to make of casual games such as ‘Bash the Mice’ [Dutch: Muizen meppen], ‘Kick the Turtle’
[Trap de schildpad] or ‘Hit the Monkey’ [Sla het aapje]? Certainly not nice, but at least recognisable as in
bad taste. More problematic, because they are much more sneaky, are casual games such as ‘Slap the
Nerd’, which comes with the instruction “Help the cool children and bash the brainboxes (recognizable by
their glasses).”
Kijkwijzer for internet?
Some parents are concerned. The My Child Online Foundation receives mails that demonstrate this. For
example:
My son, who is almost 7 years old, regularly plays computer games on www.spele.nl. Every
day, he proudly shows me the new games he has learned and what he can do. The other
week he showed me a new game. It is called Powerfox and after Level 1, you have to shoot
Hitler to reach the third level. Our son is not yet familiar with Hitler, and I do not want to have
to explain to him why I find this in bad taste.
Or this:
My 10-year-old daughter was unsuspectingly using the site Spele.nl, when she suddenly
came over to me, totally upset, shaking, trembling and in a sweat. She had come across a
game that had given her a terrific shock. If you take a look yourself, it is easy to see how a
child can react. Especially if that child happens to have Gilles de la Tourette. She simply can’t
deal with this.
The game in question is one that contains a sudden, horrific shock effect. I consider it
scandalous that young children can be confronted by such things on games sites. I would be
very interested to hear your opinion. It took me an hour and a half to calm my child down and
put her to bed this evening. She no longer dares to even sit at the computer, and has become
extremely fearful.
Almost no games sites offer information telling parents which casual games are suitable for which ages.
This is a shame, as parents want to know. A survey performed for Parents Online [Dutch: Ouders Online]
(2006), showed that many parents would like a Kijkwijzer system for the internet, including games. Later in
this dossier, we will take a look at the various initiatives that have now arisen in this area, such as PEGI
Online.
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Survey questions
Of course, it is not all doom and gloom. There certainly are good casual games available. But exactly what
games are on offer? Who makes them, and where can you find them? What kinds of games are out there,
who plays them, and what do the experts think of them? What is good, what is not, and what criteria should
be applied? What is suitable for what ages, what should parents watch out for, and what changes should be
made?
All of these questions are answered by the dossier now in front of you. The answers are based on our own
research and analysis, a survey of the literature, and research carried out among children aged 6 to 12
years by the My Child Online Foundation, together with the Qrius research agency.
The research among the children consisted of two parts:
• a representative survey of 481 children aged 8 to 12 years (the lower limit of 8 years is required for
the skills needed to fill in a survey);
• group interviews at two primary schools, with children aged 6 to 12 years (the lower limit for these
was lower, as children aged 6 and 7 can be interviewed).
Terminology
This dossier deals with mini-games that are played online (via the internet). We will refer to these as ‘casual
games’. In other literature, terms such as ‘browser games’ or ‘small online games’ are also used for these.
In all cases, we are talking about games that are so simple they can also be played by children aged 5
and 6.
We will avoid the terms ‘game’ and ‘games’ as far as possible, in order prevent confusion with ‘real games’
such as Grand Theft Auto (GTA) and World of Warcraft (WoW). This dossier does not cover these games.
Note: some ‘real games’, such as Runescape, are sometimes offered on casual games sites in the form of
an advertisement, but these are still not covered by this dossier.
Java games are a special case. These are also mini-games, just like the online games discussed in this
dossier, but we will reserve the term Java games for games played on mobile telephones (even though
some online games may well be programmed using Java). Java games are not covered by this dossier.
The casual games we are looking at here, are available on ‘casual games sites’. This is the term we will use
as standard. In some cases, however, we will be talking partly or entirely about casual games portals. In
these cases, the games are not on the site itself, but are reached through links to games on other sites. A
casual games site such as Crazygames.nl is an example of such a semi-portal, whereby the first game in
each category is a (paid) link to another site.
Summary of contents
The rest of this dossier is structured as follows:
2. Survey and group interviews show that many, many children of primary school age play casual games.
The survey provides quantitative information about their preferences and opinions. The group interviews
provide more in-depth information on why it is fun to play casual games, how easy they are and their
problematic aspects.
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3. Surfing behaviour and developmental psychology backgrounds provides the background information
needed to understand what effects casual games have on children.
4. Casual games sites provides an overview of the major sites and states who runs them, where they get
their casual games from, how the target groups are approached, and how they earn money from them.
5. Undesirable casual games first states what is undesirable and why. Then examples are given of
undesirable games, classified in accordance with the PEGI rating, and alternatives to PEGI.
6. Good casual games gives information on what is good and why.
7. Conclusions and recommendations then conclude the dossier. The recommendations are divided into
recommendations for operators and recommendations for parents.
Literature gives a list of the sources consulted.
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2.
Survey and group interviews
Children like to visit casual games sites. They receive links to these from friends and classmates or search
under the key word ‘casual games’ in Google. The supply is large, navigation is usually simple, and within a
few mouse-clicks you can be playing a casual game. Little wonder then that children make use of these
sites in huge numbers. In this section, we will discuss their experiences.
The survey consisted of two parts:
• a representative survey of 481 children aged 8 to 12 years (the lower limit of 8 years is required for
the skills needed to fill in a survey);
• group interviews at two primary schools, with children aged 6 to 12 years (the lower limit for these
was lower, as children aged 6 and 7 can be interviewed).
2.1 Survey
In cooperation with the Qrius research agency, in October 2008 a representative survey was held among
481 primary school children aged 8 to 12 years, in which they were asked to answer questions about
casual games and casual games sites. In total, 241 boys and 240 girls completed the survey. The results
were sub-divided into three age groups:
• 8-9 years (192 respondents)
• 10-11 years (193 respondents)
• 12 years (96 respondents)
The aim of the survey was to obtain insight into what children come across when visiting casual games
sites, and what they think about this. Which sites do they visit, what do they play there and what negative
and positive experiences have they had? What do they like, what do they experience as unpleasant or even
frightening, and how do they communicate with their parents about this?
Casual games per medium
The survey gave the following picture:
• all children (100%) who took part in our survey play casual games;
• 62% play games using a game console such as Playstation, Wii or Xbox;
• 70% play games on handhelds such as Nintendo DS or Gameboy;
• 56% play games locally from CD-ROM or DVD-ROM (such as The Sims);
• 43% play online multiplayer games, such as World of Warcraft, Runescape or Habbo
• 14% sometimes play a game on their mobile telephone.
Popular casual games sites
By far the most popular casual games site is Spele.nl. Three quarters (74%) of all respondents (8-12 years)
visit this site, and of the 12-year-olds, 80% regularly play a casual game here.
Children do not restrict themselves to one or two of the big, well-known sites, however. Large numbers of
them also visit Zylom.com, Speeleiland.nl, Elkspel.nl and dozens of other – large and smaller – casual
games websites.
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The major casual games sites are, in order of popularity:
Spele.nl
80%
Zylom.com
41%
Casual games.nl
41%
Funnygames.nl
32%
Spellen.nl
31%
Speelzolder.nl
30%
Spelle.nl
24%
Speelplein.nl
14%
Spelletjesplein.nl
9%
Nuspelen.nl
9%
Types of casual games and their popularity (by gender and age)
As we may expect, there are typical boys’ casual games (racing, fighting, shooting, etc.) and typical girls’
casual games (dressing up, etc.). The distribution when it comes to ages was less predictable, however. The
results of the survey are given below.
•
•
•
•
•
•
•
•
•
Dressing up casual games are typically girls’ casual games: 68% of all girls said they play these
casual games, as opposed to only 5% of all boys. Interest in this type of casual game becomes less
as children get older.
Racing casual games are a particular favourite among boys (71%, as opposed to 29% of girls). Their
popularity is highest among 10 and 11-year-olds. With a score of 52% (total percentage boys and
girls), these scored on average a little higher than among 8 and 9-year-olds (50%). Among the eldest
respondents, this percentage dropped to 45%.
Action casual games are typically played by boys. They are played by 66% of boys and 31% of girls.
Their popularity increases with age, from 42% of 8 and 9-year-olds to 57% of 12-year-olds.
Adventures are also more popular among boys (43%, as opposed to 27% among girls). We saw no
clear increase or decrease in popularity of these casual games with age.
Card and board casual games are more popular among girls than boys (28% of girls as opposed to
17% of boys) and this category shows a clear peak with the 10 and 11-year-olds. Of these, some
28% spend time playing this type of casual game. In comparison: among 8 and 9-year-olds this is
20% and among 12-year-old boys and girls just 19%.
Puzzle and word games are also played more by girls than boys (53% of girls as opposed to 21% of
boys), and again there is a peak among 10 and 11-year-olds.
Shooting casual games (56.8% of boys, as opposed to 13% of girls) are played more by older
children. Whereas 28% of girls and boys aged 8 and 9 together choose shooting casual games,
among the 12-year-olds this rises to 41%.
Sports casual games are played by 49% of the boys and 25% of the girls. Looking at their popularity
by age group, we again see a peak among the ever-keen 10 and 11-year-olds: 43% as opposed to
33% of 8 and 9-year-olds and 37% of 12-year-olds.
Fighting casual games are not interesting for girls, of whom only 4% stated they play this type of
casual game. The figure among boys is 45%. As with the action and shooting casual games, their
popularity increases with age, from an average of 20% among 8 and 9-year-olds (boys and girls) to
28% of 12-year-olds.
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Finding new games
As online casual games are very simple, they do not stay interesting for very long. So a need naturally arises
for something new. How do children find new casual games? Principally by returning to their favourite
casual games site, where new casual games regularly appear. Or through tips from friends. In figures:
• for boys, friends are the most important source of new games (64%), followed by visiting familiar
casual games sites (60%);
• among girls, it is the other way around. For girls, the sites they already know are slightly more
important (58%) than friends (53%).
Among the youngest children (8 and 9 years), their parents’ contribution in presenting new casual games is
still relatively high (30%), but the parents’ role decreases rapidly as the children get older. Among 12-yearolds, this is just 7%. On average, 24% of the children sometimes got a good tip from their brothers and
sisters. This is more significant among girls than boys. Google accounts for 18% and is popular primarily
among the older children.
Children are fairly conservative in their selection of new casual games:
• 41% look for nice casual games that resemble those they already play;
• 44% look for both new challenges and variations on their existing favourites;
• only 6% look for casual games that are really different from those they already know.
Fear and shock experiences
To the question of whether they had ever played an online casual game that gave them a shock or
frightened them, 14% of children stated that they had experienced this. Of these, almost half (47%) said
that this was accidental, as they had clicked on the wrong link. This was more prevalent among boys (56%)
and older children. Of the 12-year-olds, 67% said they had accidentally clicked on the link themselves.
Among 8 and 9-year-olds, this figure is 42%.
It is striking that only 7% of this group stated that they had themselves made a conscious choice to click on
the scary shock casual game.
Frightening, bad experiences were principally the result of the assignments they had to fulfil during the
game, and then often in order to win: they described casual games in which they had to shoot and fight, in
which there were enormous quantities of blood on show, with assignments such as shooting cats or getting
dogs run over by cars.
A number of quotes from the survey:
• You start playing slowly and it gets more and more difficult. Then there was a nice face, and after
that a mad zombie clown face.
• If you did it wrong, scary things happened.
• You had to rescue someone and there was blood everywhere and dead bodies and knives with blood
and stuff. And at the end a scary man came out of a shed and gave you a shock.
• A casual game in which fingers are cut off. And it was with shooting people dead and running them
over and then there was lots and lots of blood and screaming.
• You had to go on a mission and shoot people’s heads off and it was very realistic.
• I had to shoot scary monsters. Sometimes I find Warcraft scary too.
• It was about a casual game with a dog. You had to take him for walks and you had to do it on a
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motorbike and then you could stop at the traffic lights. If you stopped, the dog crashed into the
motorbike and then he had blood and I didn’t like that.
The level of realism of the images contributes to the feeling of fear. It is mainly realistic and detailed images
that are seen as frightening. In addition, having to inflict damage yourself and sudden, scary images if you
have done something wrong, are seen as frightening. Shocking nudity was not referred to.
Other negative experiences
On average, 11% of the boys and girls stated that they had had negative or ‘irritating’ experiences on a
casual games site, such as annoying pop-ups or casual games that didn’t work properly.
There is little difference between boys and girls in the extent to which they reported negative experiences. A
clear increase can be seen as the children get older, however:
• 7% of 8 and 9-year-olds;
• 12% of 10 and 11-year-olds;
• 19% of 12-year-olds.
There are many possible explanations for this increase. Without further research, it is impossible to say
which may be true.
Negative experiences are often related to things not working as we expect. The most frequently cited
examples were:
• casual games that freeze up;
• software that you are then stuck with;
• irritating pop-ups;
• crashing computers;
• casual games with illogical or unfair rules.
The children also said that they often had trouble with ‘hackers’ and ‘viruses’, although it is doubtful
whether these are really what caused the problems. They know these terms, but do not yet really know what
they mean. A troublesome pop-up, for example, is then often referred to as ‘a virus’.
A number of quotes from the survey:
• When you are playing a casual game, you very often get a virus.
• You can be happily playing away and then suddenly you can’t carry on.
• Some of the casual games don’t work.
• With Bob the Builder, there were suddenly all these funny ugly words.
• Something came up on the screen that I didn’t want.
• I couldn’t win it.
• Screens that were in front of it with things I don’t like.
Nudity
Sex, porn, erotic images and erotic games can be found all over the internet, including on many of the sites
children visit. For example, Spel.nl has a category called ‘Cheeky Peeking’ [Dutch: ‘Stiekem spieken’] (Home
> Behendigheid >Meer spellen > Volgende pagina > Stiekem spieken) which features casual games such
as ‘Perry the Perv’, which rewards naughty behaviour.
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In total (boys and girls, 8-12 years), 9% of the children surveyed have played a casual game which showed
nudity. The number of girls who experienced this was a little higher (10%) than boys (8%). This could be
explained by the search terms used by girls (girls, pussy, etc.). Or perhaps they are simply more open about
it. This number was lowest among the youngest group (7%) and of 10 to 12-year-olds, 10% sometimes
came across nudity while playing a casual game.
Quote from the survey:
• I clicked on one of those pop-ups and then all these ladies in swimsuits appeared.
How did they end up playing such a sexy casual game?
• 26% think they accidentally followed a wrong link;
• 5% say they consciously clicked on the link;
• 14% think ‘the website made a mistake’;
• 42% think that it ‘happened by itself’;
• 28% have no idea how it happened.
Here too, it appears that the children often seem to have difficulty distinguishing good content from bad.
Advertising
For many casual games sites, advertising is the way of making money (or at least covering the costs).
Visitors see this advertising in many different forms: as buttons, banners and sponsored casual games.
Advertisements are not always recognizable as such, however. The survey included a number of questions
on the recognisability and desirability of advertising on websites. Later on in this dossier, we will discuss the
various forms of advertising on sites.
Is advertising clearly recognizable as such?
• 44% of children say that they believe this to be the case;
• 26% think the advertisements should be marked more clearly;
• the remaining 30% either didn’t know, or found the advertising to be clearly recognizable.
It is striking that, of the 8 and 9-year-olds, no less than 19% said they never saw advertisements on the
casual games sites they visit. This is demonstrably impossible. These children clearly do not recognize the
advertisements for what they are, or they simply do not see them. 72% of all children, on the other hand,
clearly recognized advertising messages appearing the moment they start to load a casual game. Among 8
and 9-year-olds, this figure is 67%, while among 12-year-olds, it rises to 84%.
The parents’ role
We asked the children about the arrangements they have with their parents concerning visiting casual
games sites, and in particular about the amount of time they are allowed to spend on this. This varied from
every day to less than once a month, although the most significant outcome of this question is that
approximately one third of all children (35%) were subject to no arrangements at all in this respect. There is
no difference in this between boys and girls, although age is a factor. As the children get older, they
increasingly state that no arrangements have been entered into.
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No arrangements entered into:
• 8-9 years
22%
• 10-11 years
38%
• 12 years
52%
Parents themselves also play casual games on casual games sites, whereby mothers (32%) are more active
than fathers (9%). 22% of children have parents who both play these games.
Do children talk to their parents about casual games sites, and do the parents know what casual games
their children are playing?
• of the children aged 8 and 9, 84% talk to their parents about the casual games sites. Among the
children aged 12, this figures falls to 57%. No difference was found between girls and boys in this
respect;
• 22% of the children say their parents know which games they play, but they don’t talk about it. This
figure rises to from 13% among the youngest children to 33% of the older children.
• 6% of the children say their parents don’t know what casual games they play. This figure increases
as the children get older.
35% of boys admit that they play casual they think their parents would consider violent. Generally speaking,
boys more often consciously expose themselves to scary experiences than girls, whereby they are more
frequently confronted by frightening things.
Should we then just give up and conclude that parents lose control of the internet use of their children,
somewhere between the ages of 8 and 12? No, this need not be the case. 27% of the children play a casual
game with one of their parents monthly (or more regularly). And most parents keep up with what their
children are doing online, even if they do not talk much about it.
2.2 Group interviews
We discussed the results of the survey with children at two primary schools: De Klimop in The Hague and
Maerten van den Velde in Stompwijk. We carried out group discussions with 13 boys and 9 girls, aged 8 to
12 years. In addition, we conducted duo interviews with 4 children from group three: two boys aged 6 years
and two boys aged 6 and 7 years. For privacy reasons, we have changed their names.
It appeared from the group interviews that all children play casual games from a very early age, usually from
around the age of 5.
At the De Klimop primary school too, we noticed that children were visiting casual games sites at an early
age. We asked the children in groups 3 and 4 (6 and 7 years of age) whether they ever sit at the computer
and go onto the internet (thereby clearly making a distinction with games consoles such as Wii, Playstation
and Xbox360). In group 3, 15 out of 25 answered in the affirmative. To the next question, whether they ever
play casual games on the internet, again 15 answered affirmatively. So we can conclude: all children who
make use of the internet, play casual games. The results were the same in group 4. Although this is not a
representative random sample, it does give a pretty good indication.
When they are young, they restrict themselves to the same starting point. This was, in any event, the
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conclusion we drew from talking to the 6-year-olds. They used Spele.nl and Funnygames.nl as the only sites
from which they would select casual games. As they get older, they tend to roam more widely. They then
tend to move on from Spele.nl to Elkspel.nl, and play on Zylom.com and Spelle.nl, but also start searching
for casual games using Google.
They know that the world wide web offers an endless supply of casual games. The older they get, the
quicker they become bored with a particular site. Spele.nl and Funnygames.nl are seen by some as ‘boring’.
“I have played all the casual games and they hardly ever update the sites”, one 12-year-old boy said.
Scary casual games
In the survey, 13% of the children (1 out of 8) answered ‘yes’ to the question of whether they had ever
played a scary casual game online. The group interviews initially produced the same response. However,
how the question is formulated makes a difference. If you ask: ‘Have you played a frightening casual game
in the past?’, they all raise their hands.
In all of the discussions, it turned out that the children found it particularly frightening if, when
concentrating hard on doing something, a frightening event unexpectedly occurs. For example, a ‘spot the
differences’ puzzle, whereby a screaming witch suddenly appears on the screen. Or getting onto a difficult
level, when scary things suddenly happen. Once again, the more realistic the images, the more easily they
have a frightening effect. Something that is not realistic, seems to be easier to put into perspective.
Two quotes:
• I was 3. When I was doing ‘Spot the three differences’, a witch appeared. Then I had nightmares
about it. (Farid, age 11). He dreamt that ten witches were after him. His older sister had shown it to
him, as a joke.
• Scary is when you see a lot of blood and your head comes off and you see the insides and you hear
a really realistic noise. (Jurgen, age 12)
Computers freezing up
Something often goes wrong when surfing on casual games sites. From what the children say, it seems that
most of the children always have a lot of screens and programs open, which greatly slows down the
computer. This means there is a greater risk of the computer freezing up when you are playing a game.
Which, according to the interviewees, regularly happens, often giving them the idea they have ‘got a virus’.
This freezing up is in fact sometimes used as a handy excuse.
Quote:
• If I accidentally click on a casual game with naked ladies in it and my parents come in, I hide it by
turning the computer off and back on again and then I say the computer had crashed. (Dennis,
age 10).
Children as games educators and advisors
We asked the children how they, when they are grown up, would educate their own children. What rules
would they give their children in relation to casual games? Children of 10, 11 and 12 years of age saw this
particularly clearly, and had clear ideas about it. These ideas corresponded to the boundaries they consider
important for themselves.
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Educational tips from the children themselves:
• Only allow your children, particularly when they are young, to play casual games under supervision. I
would tell them where the nice games can be found and I would warn them if they got too scary.
(Bart, age 10)
• Don’t let them play any casual games that are not for their age group. And definitely no 18-plus
games and no pistol games. And: fighting games are ok, but not shooting with pistols, because
otherwise they might do that later on for real. (Jamey, age 8)
• Tell them you can be hacked and that you can lose your virtual stuff.
The youngest children (6 and 7 years of age) cannot yet see themselves as fathers or mothers, supervising
the internet access of their own children. They are very protective towards their own younger brothers and
sisters, however. The 6 and 7-year-old boys all play casual fighting games; they do not find these scary at
all. But they do not consider these casual games suitable for ‘smaller children’. “Particularly ‘Swords and
Sandals’ [Dutch: Zwaarden en Sandalen]”, says Rick (7), as you have to kill in this casual game.
The casual games 6-year-olds find most annoying are those they find difficult. The casual game in which
you have to destroy houses, is annoying according to Job (6). Why? Because you very rarely manage it, and
points are deducted from your score very quickly. This could be an argument for the application of age
recommendations. Not only for harmfulness, but also for suitability.
The interviewees – in particular the children from the age of 9 up – also had some recommendations for
the operators of casual games:
• be clear about what you are offering. Make a website with just all games for girls, with no dirty
things on it (Rosanna, age 10)
• I wouldn’t put anything for age 18 and older on it. There’s no point. What 18-year-old would want to
play on the sites where mostly children come? (Farid, age 11)
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3.
Surfing behaviour and background information from developmental
psychology
In order to find out what casual games do to children, we first need to know how children surf (for example:
what do they click on? What do they see and what don’t they? How do they respond to instructions?) and
what is the impact of what they see and experience. This impact naturally depends on their age, but also on
personal factors. Some children are more sensitive than others, for example.
This section provides you with the necessary background information. The data on the surfing behaviour of
children comes from a dossier we published previously, under the title ‘Click and away you go – on usability
and the surfing behaviour of children’ [Dutch: Klik en klaar – over usability en surfgedrag van kinderen].
The developmental psychology background information has been drawn from research in the literature.
3.1 Surfing behaviour
In 2008, the My Child Online foundation and usabilitybureau 2C published the report ‘Click and away you go
– on usability and the surfing behaviour of children’. A total of 50 children aged between 8 and 12 years
were asked to carry out certain tasks on the internet. The aim was to test the user-friendliness (usability) of
children’s websites and find out what children do well and less well online.
It is a much-repeated myth that children are wizards with a computer, able to overcome all digital obstacles
and even show their parents the way online. They are the digital generation that is growing up with new
media, it is said. They are reputed to be digital omnivores, blessed with excellent information skills and
superbly equipped to multitask. The report demonstrated that this certainly does not hold true for children
aged between 8 and 12 years in relation to looking for information on the internet, however.
The most important findings of this research are given below.
•
•
•
•
•
•
•
Reading on the internet
Children do not read online. They don’t want to read – when searching, they expect to see what they
are looking for immediately. They want immediate success from a website.
They also cannot read and write well. After all, they are still learning to read and write.
As they are still in the middle of their linguistic development, they have a relative handicap.
Many search attempts are not successful or bring children to places where they do not belong. This
happens as a matter of course with young children particularly, but not exclusively. 11 and 12-yearolds spell domain names incorrectly, for example nikkelodeon.nl (with KK instead of CK). They then
end up at ‘typo domains’, or websites filled with advertisements presented as normal links. In this
way, they also end up on dubious casual games sites.
Searching on the internet
Children are not able to set out a sound search strategy.
They seldom pay attention to the relevance and reliability of information on the internet. In most
cases, they have also not yet learned what to look for in order to test such relevance and reliability.
Their impatience gets in the way. Many children do read the explanation of a casual game, but too
quickly. They click on too quickly, thereby missing important details. They can also completely miss
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the essence of a game, which is less fun or more scary than they expected.
•
•
•
•
•
•
•
•
•
Assessing information
Children are confronted by a profusion of unstructured information on the internet. Even if they are
just searching on one website, they are faced by a huge surplus of information. Most websites offer a
very wide range of choices, which are difficult for children to make. What information is important in
a targeted search? What terms should you look out for in the navigation structure? What is the
relationship between text and images? Children have yet to learn all of this.
Dealing with advertising
Children are very aware of advertising. They avoid it; for example, by considering all images on the
right-hand side of the screen to be advertisements and ignoring them. This in turn leads to content
sometimes wrongly being seen as advertising, and vice versa. Normal pictures on a page with a lot of
text are also often seen by children as advertisements.
They find internet advertisements ‘stupid’, although they understand that websites cannot do
without advertisements. Advertisements are unpopular because they ‘get in the way’. The frustration
is caused by children clicking on advertisement by mistake. This happens, for example, when they
think they are clicking on the link ‘go straight to the game’, but are actually clicking on the
advertisement immediately above it.
Children do not have the critical awareness to realize what is a commercial message and what is
not.
Giving away personal information
Children are careful about giving away their personal details. They seldom give out their Christian
name or surname and address. They will usually enter fake details.
If they are asked to leave their name and e-mail address before they can continue, they start to ask
questions. Why do they need this? they wonder. They don’t understand it.
Lack of understanding goes hand in hand with irritation about registration procedures whereby
personal data has to be filled in. Children aged 8 and 9 in particular are put off by this. They find it
too complicated.
Children who are subject to rules clearly behave differently (i.e.: more safely) than the rest. The
‘wiser’ children are principally those children who are told by their parents or school that some things
on the internet are not allowed. Such as: never give your private details. Children without rules will
leave their 06 (Dutch mobile) number in an advertisement for ‘free’ ringtones.
However hesitant children may be, sometimes they allow themselves to be tempted. They think it
can do no harm to give the e-mail address of their friends if it means they could win a prize.
“Sometimes, I give the mobile number of one of my girlfriends on a website for a free ringtone.”
The usability of casual games sites
Our usability survey shows that most children’s sites are not user-friendly enough. Most of the assignments
could not be completed well by children, owing partly to poor instructions, unclear navigation, etc.
Nevertheless, the casual games sites made a more positive impression than the rest. They came out of the
usability test well. The ease of use of Spele.nl was particularly appreciated by children. Within two clicks,
you have found a casual game, you do not need to spend a long time searching.
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3.2 Developmental psychology backgrounds
No consensus has yet been established among researchers on how significant the influence of games
violence is on children. Some experts say that film and TV have a greater influence than games, because a
game is – literally – just a game. Others argue that, in the case of television, children are nothing more than
passive viewers, whereas when playing games, they are actively training themselves.
As no research has yet been carried out into the influence of violence in casual games, although research
has been conducted into the influence of violent TV programmes and larger games, we must restrict
ourselves to the latter categories. Below, you will find a summary of what is known about the development
of children in relation to media. In particular, what effect violence and frightening scenes have on children.
The basis for these conclusions is Nikken (2007).
From 6 to 7 years of age: imaginative and abstract
Children are confronted with violence at an early age through television. Adults watching cartoons such as
Tom & Jerry, see horrendous acts. But, because the images are so imaginative and far from reality, children
do not see this as violence, but as entertainment and nonsense. This form of violence has proven not be
harmful to children aged 6 or 7 years. Whether this is also the case with younger children, is not known.
The essence of Tom & Jerry and comparable cartoons is that these contain ‘cartoon violence’. This is not
the case with a TV series such as The A-team, for example. This too is fantasy violence, but because the
actors look realistic, children do see this as violence (with all the potentially harmful consequences thereof).
Around the age of 9 or 10, a critical phase starts. This is when children learn that media productions are
thought up and made by directors and games designers, who have particular intentions with these. Children
under 9 years of age still have trouble understanding elements of parody in particular games, which can
lead to negative shock reactions.
Aged 10 up: recreated reality
In the case of TV programmes such as police series, children from around the age of 10 know that what
they are seeing is acting, although they see this as 'recreated reality'. The people on the screen are actors,
but for children, ‘real’ policemen would catch the bad guys in just the same way. These children do not yet
have enough knowledge of reality to be able to adequately assess the scenes they are seeing.
Although no real research has been carried out in this particular area, it is probable that this age limit is the
same for games as for television. If children are nevertheless exposed to violent games at such a young
age, this can lead to desensitization. The risk of the children recreating these violent scenes is also present,
but not very likely, as children cannot yet deal with extremely violent content.
Somewhere between the ages of 10 and 12, children begin to understand fantasy characters. They realize
that their actions are acted, that the people are actors and that the blood is not real. Even when confronted
by the harsher games, they remain able to distinguish between reality and ‘virtual reality'. They realize it is
only a game.
Risk groups
However, we still regularly see news reports of shootings, the perpetrators of which say they were inspired
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by games. They have trained themselves on these games and acquired a particular way of thinking,
although the environment in which they grew up plays a more important role. Communication between
young people who have gone off the rails and their parents was usually poor. In those cases in which things
go badly wrong, there is always a combination of factors involving upbringing, media and environment. In
other words: it is never the games alone that are to blame.
A range of research has revealed that certain children are at risk. These are children who:
• identify strongly with the games they play;
• are completely absorbed by these games;
• do not finally distance themselves from what they come across in such games;
• are less inclined to empathise with others;
• think violence is a normal means of resolving problems.
Aggressive behaviour prompted by games also occurs somewhat more frequently among boys than girls.
The level of realism of the images, the ease with which you can become immersed in the game world and
identify with these games, all have an influence on their potential effects on children. Being active with
these games yourself reinforces their interactive nature and thereby increases the likelihood of influence
taking place.
If all of these conditions are present, a situation in which someone is frustrated and worked up – especially
shortly after playing such a game – can be the trigger for an explosion.
Parental supervision
Generally speaking, parents still have a good overview of the ‘real’ (big) games their children play at home.
This is particularly true of children up to the age of 12, who do not yet have enough money to buy games
themselves. It is considerably more difficult to maintain this overview in relation to games played elsewhere
(at friends’ houses, etc.), and with casual games even more so. Particularly if the child in question has a
computer in his or her own room.
Parents who want to maintain supervision of the online gaming behaviour of their children should therefore
be extra alert regarding the casual games they play, and talk to them about what they think of particular
games. You can also see how your children respond to the casual games they play. After all, it is always a
good thing to show interest (sit with them, ask questions, stimulate them to make an effort, etc.) as well as
playing a casual game yourself every now and again. This will deepen your understanding of what you are
talking about. More on this topic can be found in Section 7 – Conclusions and Recommendations.
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4.
Casual games sites
In this section, we will take a look behind the scenes. What are the major sites and which companies are
behind them? We will also answer the question of where the casual games on these sites come from, who
makes them and for whom they are intended. Finally, we will discuss the ways in which money is earned
with casual games.
4.1 The major sites
Spele.nl
The largest of the Dutch casual games sites
is Spele.nl. This site is a product of the
internet company I-Med Internetdiensten [IMed Internet Services]. Spele.nl is visited by
some 10 million people every month.
Approx. 30% of visitors are between 6 and
12 years of age, according to the
information Spele.nl provides to advertisers.
That amounts to almost all the children in
the Netherlands. In our own survey, 76% of
8 to 12-year-olds said they play on Spele.nl. The youngest target audience is very interesting for Spele.nl
from a commercial point of view, as evidenced by the fact that toy manufacturer Lego is prepared to pay
€ 7,500 a day for a ‘site takeover’ – a form of advertising whereby the advertiser takes over the background
of the site (see illustration).
Children are attracted to this site. They don’t need to think hard about how the URL is spelt, it is a short
word to type, and there is a broad range of casual games on offer. All you have to do is click on the casual
game you want to play and you can play straight away. If the casual game chosen isn’t what they want, it is
very easy to return to the main menu and select and play another casual game.
I-Med is a small company with four employees. The founders were still in their teens when they started up
Spele.nl. Alongside Spele.nl, I-Med also owns Clipjes.nl and Banditi.nl, an online mafia game.
Funnygames.nl
Funnygames.nl has been operated since
2002 by Tibaco Internet Media of
Eindhoven. This company was founded by
Erik Banken and Tvan den Tillaart, who set
up Funnygames as a hobby while they were
still teenagers. The site has gained markedly
in popularity, now attracting some 3 million
visitors a month. Most visitors are aged 13
to 49 years, Tibaco says. Even so, according
to the My Child Online survey, 30% of
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children aged 8 to 12 years stated that they visit Funnygames.nl. Funnygames.nl is also described by
children as a pleasant, easy-to-use website. At least, this was the case in May 2008, when the My Child
Online foundation published the usability report ‘Click and away you go – a survey of usability and surfing
behaviour among children’. Funnygames.nl presents the casual games in columns and categories. This
makes it seem as if there is a limitless supply of casual games on offer. Over the years, Funnygames.nl has
indeed started offering more and more casual games that appeal to an older target age group. You can play
poker on the site, and there are casual games featuring violence that are not intended for children.
Alongside Funnygames.nl, Tibaco also operates other casual games sites, such as Jogo.nl for children aged
6 to 9 years, Playtime.nl, which is aimed at women aged 15 to 40 years, Kindertent and the video site
Vetja.nl. However, these sites are considerably less popular than Funnygames.
Spelle.nl
Another large casual games site is Spelle.nl
by Plox Internet Media. The colours blue and
orange give this site a cheerful look, which
appeals to children. The site is visited by
approx. 3 million people a month. According
to Plox, a third of these are aged under 13
years.
The site was originally set up as a hobby, to
earn some pocket money from
advertisements on the site. Rick Feijen was
17 years old at the time. Spelle.nl gained in popularity very rapidly, and in 2003 Feijen decided to set up the
company Plox Internet Media. Alongside Spelle.nl, Plox operates the site for casual football games,
Voetballe.nl, Leerspellen.nl for educational casual games and Gamegirl.nl aimed at girls aged 5 to 20 years.
The international site Gameitnow.com also belongs to Plox. The latter is geared to the American market.
Plox aims to expand further outside of the Netherlands this year, and has plans to launch casual games
sites in Italy and Portugal. The company also develops its own online casual games, including various racing
casual games.
Spelle.nl has a very young target group, but nevertheless there are casual games on the site that are
intended for an older target group, such as gambling casual games.
Spelletjes.nl
According to our survey, 43% of children
aged between 8 and 12 years visit the
website spelletjes.nl. The site is visited by
approx. 1.8 million people a month.
The fact that this site scores less well than
Spele.nl may be linked to the presence of
more images on the site. These are seen by
many children, as revealed by the usability
survey previously carried out by us ‘Klik en
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Klaar’, as advertisements, and children do not like advertisements.
The publisher of Spelletjes.nl is Spil Games. The company started small, but has since become a large
international player in the market for casual games. Spil Games supplies casual games for more than 50
sites in approx. 20 languages. It is said that, through its websites, the company reaches more than 100
million unique visitors worldwide. Spil Games expects to soon overtaken the number one in this area, Yahoo
Games. Its head office is in Hilversum, the Netherlands, with other offices in Poland and China. The
company currently employs more than 200 people.
Spil Games was set up in 2001 when the emphasis was still on online communities such as chatten.nl. The
company launched its first casual games site, Spelletjes.nl, in 2004. When this proved a success, the
company decided to focus its attention on the games industry.
Other popular casual games sites by Spil Games are:
• spel.nl
• girlsgogames.nl (for young girls)
• agame.com (for teenagers)
• onrpg.com (massive multiplayer online games)
Speeleiland.nl
The initiative for Speeleiland.nl came from
23-year-old Seth de Koning, who wanted to
create a site for his younger brothers and
sisters. He started the site when he was a
20-year-old dentistry student. De Koning: “I
had always played a lot of online casual
games myself. It often took me hours to play
my favourite games through various different
sites. So I thought it would be handy to make
a kind of start page for myself, with an
overview of all my favourite games, which I
could then play immediately.”
The design is the work of his mother. Some 80% of visitors to Speeleiland.nl are children. The site is visited
by approx. 2.5 million people a month.
Elkspel.nl
Elkspel.nl is an up-and-coming site. It is not
the best visited site among children, but that
is not to say it will not become so. Children
referred to this site reasonably often in our
survey.
The site has a child-friendly image, with apes
swinging happily through the trees. At the
same time, the site has a lot of casual
games that are neither intended nor suitable
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for children at all, such as zombie and war casual games. The number of unique visitors a month is
unknown (30,000 to 50,000 per day).
The company behind Elkspel.nl is Admeen, established in 2006. It has two employees, whose backgrounds
are in advertising. The owner of the site previously had an advertising agency, and advertised on casual
games sites. He noticed that there was a market there, although he found that he was having to hand over
a considerable portion of the turnover generated to the sites in question. So, together with a business
partner, he set up the casual games site Elkspel.nl. I Admeen now has casual games sites in ten other
European countries, including Germany, France, Spain, Italy, Sweden, Romania and Greece.
According to its own statement, Admeen tries to offer as many casual games as possible, without
submerging its visitors in a flood of advertisements. The company is currently looking at expansion into
China, although this is a challenging prospect owing to the language.
Other sites
In addition to the real casual games sites, the most important of which we have named above, the following
most definitely also deserve a mention:
• the casual games elements at Nickelodeon.nl and Jetix.nl (the sites of the TV stations of the same
names). Here, they offer exclusively their own casual games;
• Spelletjesplein.nl, which offers references to educational casual games.
How professional are the casual games sites?
All casual games sites started off small. Which means: with few visitors. Some have stayed small, and are
not of interest in this dossier as few children visit them. Sites which are visited by large numbers of children,
can be divided into two categories:
1. sites that have become both large and professional.
A professional site has a privacy policy and is easily accessible to people with questions – not only business
contacts (advertisers), but also parents and children. An example of this category is Spelletjes.nl by Spil
Games;
2. sites which have become large but which are (still) not professional in terms of their provision of service.
The majority of these sites were originally set up by teenagers, who managed to build a successful venture
from nothing: a site with a considerable reach, and correspondingly sizeable advertising revenue. These are
sites that provide their users with fun casual games, but which have not developed as an organisation, do
not have a clear commercial policy, and do not apply a privacy policy. The operators are often difficult to
contact, as no contact information is given on the site. It is almost as if they don’t want to be found.
Examples of the second category include Spele.nl, Elkspel.nl, Spelle.nl and Speeileiland.nl. These are the
most popular children’s sites in the Netherlands, yet they have no privacy policy. They therefore do not say
what they will do with the personal details they gather. This need not mean that their intentions are not
honourable. They are young entrepreneurs learning their trade – that of internet publisher. They have not
yet realized that this also involves a certain degree of responsibility.
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4.2 Origin of the casual games
Looking into the origin of the casual games explains why some of them are more violent and bloody than
others.
Online casual games are drawn from three sources:
• dev-games – professional casual games, developed by companies;
• indie games – casual games developed by independent (or ‘indie’ for short) developers. The makers
are often professionals who – without the financial backing of large companies – experiment with
their own casual games;
• user generated games (UG games) – casual games developed by amateurs.
Casual games sites that generate their income principally through advertisements, generally focus on
quantity (as many games as possible), whereby the quality of the games can suffer. Also, for financial
reasons, more indie games and user generated games than dev-games are placed. The latter category is of
course more expensive.
Indie games and UG games more often contain violence and bloodthirsty scenarios. We can explain why this
is by discussing the various starting points in the production of the different games.
Dev-games
In the case of dev-games (created by professional companies), a great deal of attention is devoted to a
good balance between challenge and routine. Not only is balance sought in the gameplay, but the design
also corresponds to the control system and often consists of a carefully designed series of levels and a
reasonably neutral image. Blood and erotic content are rarely found in dev-games, unless a developer
focuses specifically on such a market.
Spil Games, a Dutch game producer, but also the company behind the popular casual games sites
spelletjes.nl, spel.nl and girlsgogames.nl, states that the neutral nature of its games is a requirement: Not
only are they location-neutral, they are also designed with all sorts of players in mind (Spil Games, 2008).
Extensive testing rounds are an integral part of the development process. This makes dev-games
reasonably ‘bug-free’, i.e.: the game will cause few computer problems. Owing to the broad target group, the
developers of dev-games are cautious about the introduction of radically new game concepts. Dev-game
developers need to take into account not only the reception of their games, but also their own personnel
and corporate identity.
A number of players in this market are: GameHouse.com, Spilgames.com, Ranj.nl, realore.com, qb9.net,
bigpoint.com, playrix.com, sandlotgames.com, spelpunt.nl, absolutist.com, mumbojumbo.com,
interplay.com, alawar.com, popcap.com and freshgames.com.
Indie games
Unlike the corporate dev-game developers, independent (indie) game developers are less constrained by
considerations of corporate identity and employees. They are often enthusiastic professionals or semiprofessionals who work on projects on a freelance or voluntary basis. Thanks to their independent status,
they are free to try out innovative and unconventional game systems, and their products often contain
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violence, erotic content and drugs. Indie game developers will also be more inclined to make a political
game (either on their own or for a customer).
Indie games have a reasonably painstaking level structure, polished design, few technical problems and are
often highly innovative. This creative strength is then often recognized and supported by producers and
sites (such as Armorgames.com and Kongregate.com).
User generated games
User generated games (UG games) are generally created by young programmers. These games often have a
confused level structure, poor positioning of the buttons, little control over gameplay elements and their
design is often ‘derived’ from well-known games such as Super Mario Bros, Sonic the Hedgehog, Mega Man
and Metal Slug 2.
The jokes are usually simple and often intended to shock. In addition, the majority of UG games contain a
great deal of violence and blood. Because the makers of UG games want to distribute their work as widely
as possible, their games are usually free. Which makes them very attractive for casual games sites.
The basic visual material for UG games is usually drawn from ‘sprite archives’ on the internet. These are
websites that provide ‘sprites’ – the graphic elements from which games are built. From characters to
accessories and even complete game worlds. UG games are more about demonstrating your prowess as a
programmer than perfect presentation. These games are usually made by just one person, who often has
little or no experience of games development.
It may seem therefore that UG games are best avoided, but this is not always the case. UG games are a
nursery for young talent. Sometimes, UG game makers are discovered at an early stage. For example: 16year-old Coolio Niato. He single-handedly developed Light-Bot, an educational game that teaches the basic
principles of object-oriented programming.
Conclusion
Dev-games are developed for the whole family, indiegames and UG games are not. Free casual games sites,
however, are full of indie games and UG games. The latter two types can be very innovative and fun, but
take scant account of the potential vulnerability of (young) users. It is therefore indie games and UG games
that cause the most problems. These casual games can be placed on casual games sites at little or no cost,
but are often bloody, contain adult humour, and are often not suitable for young children.
4.3 Intended target groups and actual visitors
Many casual games sites, such as: Spel.nl, Girlsgogames.nl, Meidenstart.nl and Leukekinderspelletjes.nl,
are geared explicitly to children and young people. This does not automatically mean, however, that these
sites are also really suitable for their intended target groups. The use of language can be incomprehensible,
there can be violent and frightening casual games on the site, et cetera.
Also, there are casual games sites that give the impression that they are intended for children (colourful
design, simple layout, simple navigation, short texts, etc.), while this is not actually the case. Sites such as
Spele.nl, Crazygames.nl and Elkspel.nl are most certainly not children’s sites.
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Untranslated (Korean) game on Funnygames.nl
An example. Popular website Crazygames.nl claims to be geared to
children and young people aged 10 to 25, but contains a large
number of casual games that are not suitable for children as they are
violent, or offered in the original Korean version (see illustration), and
therefore totally incomprehensible, or because they contain animal
abuse.
Within its advertising model, Crazygames.nl offers external games suppliers the opportunity – in return for
payment – to be the first link in a category. This can mean that the game Gangsterleven.nl can be found in
the categories ‘humour’, ‘skill’, ‘combat’ and ‘multiplayer’. In this game, the aim is to sell drugs, rob banks
and steal cars in order to achieve a higher rank. Gangsterleven.nl is also one Double Media’s own titles (the
operator of Crazygames.nl). For the sake of profit, significant concessions are thereby made in relation to
the categorization of the games.
Not only does the content of the casual games on various sites not always correspond to the child-friendly
environment, but the companies advertising on these sites also fail just as blatantly to correspond to the
way children see the world, as demonstrated by the presence of advertisers such as World of Credit (a
credit provider) and Telfort.
Misleading advertising
Misleading advertisements are still omnipresent, including on casual games sites, in spite of strict
enforcement action by the Advertsing Code Committee [Dutch: Reclame Code Commissie]. Examples we
found include: the now well-known free ringtones, which in reality are an expensive subscription; laptops
and games consoles you can win, but never get; in short: everything we previously described in our
advertising dossier ‘Free! (but not really)’ [Dutch: Gratis! (maar niet heus)].
“Congratulations!” (misleading advertisement on Girlsgogames.nl)
In the weeks leading up to Sinterklaas (Saint Nicholas’ Day, 5
December), the girls’ site Girlsgogames.nl showed an advertisement
from SD&P Interactive b.v / YamTalk. By playing the game, you will
automatically – so the ad claims – win. All they need to know is your
06 (Dutch mobile) number. However, what you then end up with is not
a gift, but a paid subscription to Yamtalk, without this immediately
being made clear. The cost of this subscription is 9 Euros a week. It is only then that you have a chance of a
gift. This type of advertisement should not appear on websites intended for children.
4.4 Business models
Casual games sites usually offer free play. The site owner therefore generates income largely from the
placing of advertising (in the form of buttons, banners, site takeovers, etc.) However, there are also other
options. The games world has, roughly speaking, seven business models, which we will briefly examine
below. In a limited number of cases, some of these models are also used on casual games sites.
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1. Retail / pay per game
The traditional business model for games is the retail model (sales model). In this model, the games are
sold to the customer individually. This may be in the form of a physical product, such as a CD-ROM or a
cartridge, or in the form of a digital file. The game is then installed and played on a PC, a games console
such as PlayStation or a handheld, such as the Nintendo DS. Old campaigner Sega, which until recently has
concentrated on distribution by retail, has been experimenting since October 2008 with a free games site:
www.playsega.com. After registration, a handful of free games can be played.
2. Try and play
Because players want to know what they are buying, a lot of developers offer the opportunity to try a game
out before buying. These ‘trial’ versions are presented in a number of ways. Sometimes, only part of a game
is made available (the first levels, for example); another developer offers players a trial period. Players are
‘tempted’ with a small part of the game, so that they finally purchase the whole game. This business model
can be found at Zylom.com, among other sites. The ‘full versions’ are given the strategic name ‘deluxe
versions’ by Zylom.
3. Pay per Play
A third model involves paying every time you play. In this case, players usually buy a number of virtual
monetary units (diamonds, credits, game points, etc.) and these can be spent on any game on the site. This
is very similar to the ‘coin-up models’ that have been used for a very long time in gaming halls. Players put a
(virtual) coin into the machine and can then play until the Game Over signal. This type of model assumes
optimum coordination of playing time/level of difficulty and ‘coin drop’.
4. Subscription model
Some sites offer subscriptions. Depending on the form these take, you can then play limited or unlimited
online games.
5. Freeplay + Content Pay
This model is relatively new to the games industry, and is usually applied in virtual worlds and MMORPG’s
(Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games). Players can play for free, but are stimulated to buy
accessories, such as clothing, weapons or raw materials. In the Netherlands, this model is applied on teen
site (12+) Habbo.nl . Here, you can furnish your virtual character’s room using furniture bought on the site.
6. Tournament – Skill-based
In this business model, players pay to take part in a game tournament. The winner receives part of the pot,
as does the operator. For legal reasons, this is rather thin ice for the operators, as the games must be
completely ‘skill-based’. This means that the outcome of the competition cannot be determined by chance
factors – otherwise it is considered gambling.
The websites King.com and Gameduell.nl organise such tournaments. Puzzles publisher Keesing (part of
de Telegraaf Media Groep) has also recently become active in this area, through the website Zigiz.com.
Judging by the casual games on offer, Zigiz.com is aiming for an adult public.
7. Free play + Advertisements
Virtually all casual games sites place advertisements. This business model is strongly dependent on the
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number of visitors the site attracts. The more visitors, the higher the advertising income. The
advertisements can take all manner of forms. Spele.nl , for example, offers the following options:
•
•
•
•
•
•
•
around the casual games, as a ‘site-takeover’. The background of the site contains a sponsored
depiction of a product or brand;
as ‘loading screen’ or pre-roll before the casual game starts. Before the visitor can play a casual
game, the site shows an advertisement in this space;
as a banner. A banner is shown while the casual game is being played;
as a sponsored game. When you click on the game, you are sent straight to the advertiser’s site,
where the game can be played;
as a text advertisement. While playing the game, a text by the advertiser is shown below the game
(often in the form of a Google Ad);
as sponsored items in the casual game. For example: the Adidas clothing at whyrobbierocks.com;
as game advertorial, or a game in the look & feel of the casual games site.
Banners can be paid for on the basis of the number of times they are viewed (cost per mille (thousand), or
CPM) or on the basis of the number of times people click on them (cost per click, or CPC). In the first case
(CPM), the operator of the site will tend to put as many casual games as possible on the site – including
bloody games if necessary – or place the same casual games in several categories, in order to generate the
maximum number of banner views. In the second case (CPC), advertisements can be disguised as casual
games in order to maximize the likelihood of people clicking on them. We have seen the latter at
crazymonkeygames.com, among others.
Conclusion
As the current casual games sites derive virtually all their income from their advertisements, they focus on
quantity rather than quality. Each click brings in income, but a small range of expensive dev-games alone is
not enough for a casual games site to generate sufficient advertising revenue. The more casual games a
casual games site has, the more advertising income. This means that free sites are overloaded with indie
games and UG games.
Indie games and UG games may be innovative and fun, but they take little account of children and their
vulnerability.
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5.
Undesirable casual games
For children, it is virtually impossible to find a site with free casual games without coming across violent
games. Of the 70 providers we examined, only 10 sites contained no violent or bloody games. The popular
sites, such as spele.nl, spel.nl, spelle.nl and elkspel.nl, all contained such games. Below, we will examine a
number of undesirable casual games, from least to most harmful. This in accordance with the PEGI rating –
a European rating system for games on sale in the shops. In addition, there is also PEGI Online for online
games.
5.1 PEGI, Kijkwijzer for games
Since 2003, the games you can buy in the shops have been provided with the pictogrammes we are
familiar with from Kijkwijzer. For games, this system is called PEGI (Pan European Game Information). On
the basis of the pictogrammes, parents can see for what age a game is suitable (or, more accurately: from
what age a game is no longer harmful), and what harmful elements they may contain.
PEGI pictogrammes
The idea behind this type of pictogramme – which is the result of
‘classification’ – is that the pattern of expectation is of crucial
importance when playing a game. You could compare this to a
haunted house – you know before you enter that you are going into a
haunted house. You are therefore expecting frightening elements, which need not always be bad. If you are
expecting frightening moments, you can also enjoy them. If you are just walking along the street, however,
when someone gives you a fright, this will have a different effect from that when you enter a haunted
house, when you know in advance what to expect. It is the same with games. This is the difference between
classification and non-classification.
•
•
•
•
•
Terms and parties involved
PEGI stands for Pan European Game Information. PEGI gives consumers information about games
for sale and rent. For further information: www.pegi.info
PEGI Online assesses online games in accordance with the same system. For further information:
www.pegionline.eu
The PEGI system is owned by ISFE, the Interactive Software Federation of Europe. For further
information: www.isfe.eu
ISFE has contracted out the implementation of the system in the Netherlands to Nicam, the
Netherlands Institute for the Classification of Audio-visual Media. This institute has been responsible
for the Kijkwijzer system in the Netherlands since 2001, and since 2003 also for PEGI.
Kijkwijzer provides consumers with information on films and television programmes. For further
information: www.kijkwijzer.nl
The PEGI system has age pictogrammes for 3+, 7+, 12+, 16+ and 18+. Note: there is no pictogramme for
9+, although this would be desirable. We will return to this topic below when discussing the undesirable
casual games.
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In addition, there are warnings for bad language, sex, discrimination, drugs and, added recently, also a
pictogramme for online games. This last pictogramme shows whether a bought game also contains online
elements, and therefore involves certain extra risks. For example, in the case of games that can be played
partly online, children can often chat with other players or access user-generated content.
In the Netherlands, Nicam applies the same criteria and age limits for PEGI as for the rest of Europe. This
often leads to stricter rules than we are used to in the Netherlands, as some Member States place greater
emphasis on certain elements of the guidelines. Greece, for example, has outlawed gambling, which means
a game will always have the age recommendation 12+ if it contains a gambling element.
PEGI Online
A recent development is that online games can now also carry the PEGI pictogrammes. The PEGI Online
rating system is comparable to the system for bought and rented games, and uses the same age
categories. A website with a ‘PEGI Online Hallmark’ assures parents that the content of that site has been
approved for children of a particular age. The requirements cover matters such as privacy policy and the
way in which the site handles advertisements. As well as, of course, the content (the games themselves).
The latter is problematic.
Unfortunately, it is difficult to apply PEGI Online to casual games sites. One of the requirements is that all
content on the site must be rated. For large games producers, such as EA-Games (maker of the Sims,
among others), this is not such a problem, but for casual games sites, such as Spele.nl, with hundreds of –
unrated – games, it is.
PEGI criteria
An important criterion when assessing violence, for example, in a game, is the question of whether it looks
realistic. Violence in a game can be presented in a slapstick-type way, as in the Tom & Jerry cartoons. Such
a game will naturally be given a different rating from a game in which you can blow someone’s head off with
photographic realism.
The extent of violence is tested on the basis of a questionnaire compiled by European experts drawn from
the fields of child psychology, church movements, the legal profession and academia. These experts
determine which criteria apply to which phase of life, and this is then summarised in a list of questions used
by Nicam and its coders.
PEGI encompasses an extensive set of criteria, including the following:
• serious violence (beheading, hacking off of limbs, torture) always gets the 18+ pictogramme;
• if someone is shot and the reaction of the victim is realistic, without a lot of blood and wounds being
visible, the game will be given the age recommendation 16+ plus violence. The same applies if the
game contains drugs or alcohol use;
• the rating for bad language is reasonably strict because of the United Kingdom. Sexually explicit
games are always rated 16+ and are also provided with the pictogramme for bad language;
• realistic-looking violence, used against a fantasy character, or non-realistic looking violence used
against people or animals and the use of words or gestures that are sexually explicit, will lead to the
use of the pictogramme for 12+
• non-realistic violence against fantasy characters is found to be suitable for 7+
• slapstick-type violence or violence in cartoons that can be offensive, images of nudity in a non-sexual
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way and frightening images and sounds are also rated 7+.
In the paragraph below, we will apply the criteria listed above to a series of online casual games. Parents
can then do the same for the casual games their children play.
5.2 Examples of undesirable casual games for children
Undesirable online casual games can be divided into two main categories.
• offensive casual games;
• potentially harmful casual games.
The effects of such casual games can vary from desensitization to images of violence, to becoming fearful,
and showing violent behaviour. A number of examples of both types of undesirable casual games are given
below.
For each casual game, comments are given by two experts:
• Peter Nikken is a psychologist affiliated to the Netherlands Youth Institute (Dutch: NJi) and is the
author of the book Media Violence and Children (Dutch: Mediageweld en kinderen);
• Martijn Huigsloot works for NICAM, where he is responsible for the PEGI ratings.
Note: normally speaking, a PEGI rating is determined on the basis of the complete content of a game. The
games in this survey are unrated, so Martijn Huigsloot has given an indication of the expected PEGI rating
on the basis of part of the game, usually the first level.
1. Offensive casual games
We will start with category 1: the offensive casual games. These are casual games that reward a moral code
different from that which is usual. Naughty games, in which disobedience and the like are rewarded.
Although probably not harmful to development, these are casual games which could lead to children
becoming conflicted within themselves. It is therefore up to parents to determine to what extent their own
children can deal with such messages.
Perry the Perv [Dutch: Perry de gluurder]
This casual game rewards peeking at women under the shower. If you
do it well, you end up in bed with the girl in question.
www.funnygames.nl/spel/perry_de_gluurder.html
Peter Nikken: “This game appeals to the awakening sexual feelings of
pre-adolescents and young adolescents, and could appeal particularly
to young boys. It is probably too silly for adults and older adolescents.
Use (abuse) is made of familiar, favourite elements, such as
animation and Harry Potter, to interest children from the age of around 7 in the game. It gradually builds up,
rewarding the peeping tom with increasingly revealing images. The message to children is that voyeurism
pays and is acceptable. Whether this is actually harmful, it is difficult to say. Sexualisation is certainly not
discouraged; women are portrayed as sex objects.”
Martijn Huigsloot: “On the basis of what I have seen to date, I can say that no explicit sex occurs in the
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game. Under PEGI, this game would therefore receive a 12+ rating on the basis of suggestive visual
material.”
Miss Malfunction
You can win this game by clicking at the right moment with your
mobile telephone to take photos of models at a fashion show. Points
are earned by photographing untied bikini straps and underwear
visible beneath falling skirts.
www.spel.nl/game/Miss-Malfunction.html
Peter Nikken: “A pretty tasteless casual game that elaborates in an
abstract way on the perversity of pre-adolescents and young
adolescents. What it is exactly you are photographing is never made
very clear. This could be seen as sexualising, whereby women are seen as sex objects and have no other
function. Whether this is harmful, and if so how harmful, it is difficult to say.”
Anne Frank Chestnut Tree Game [Dutch: Anne Frank Kastanjeboom Game]
The chestnut tree in the garden of the Anne Frank House in
Amsterdam is under threat of being cut down. In this game, you can
either cut down the tree or save it from destruction.
www.lollibomb.com/projects/anne
The launch press release from Tibaco Internet, the maker of the
game, stated: “Tibaco Internet Media has launched the Anne Frank
Kastanjeboom Game on Funnygames.nl. Funnygames.nl wishes to
respond with this to the hype that arose around the removal of the
chestnut tree Anne Frank saw from her hiding place in the back of the house.” In short: a Holocaust icon as
amusement. The game is no longer available on Funnygames itself, but can still be played on the site of
Lollibomb, the originator of the concept, the soundtrack and the game.
Amy Winehouse – Escape from Rehab
Help the addicted Amy Winehouse escape from the rehab clinic. It
isn’t easy: she is completely drunk, has taken drugs and finds
monsters blocking her path.
www.spelletjes.nl/spel/Amy-Winehouse-Escape-from-Rehab.html
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Escaping Paris
Help Paris Hilton escape from prison. The guards must not see her. If
she is caught, she is beaten with batons.
www.spele.nl/game/ontsnap/laatparisontsnappen.html
Peter Nikken on both casual games (Winehouse and Hilton):
“Parodies on the drooling news reporting surrounding Amy Winehouse
and Paris Hilton. Children would have to be at least 9 years old to be
able to recognise this. From the age of 12, they will have no trouble
doing so. The violence is not always very realistic and can be recognized by children of 9 years and older as
not real.
Martijn Huigsloot: “Based on what have seen of the games, I would say the rating for both games would be
based on the violence: unrealistic violence against a human-type character. Under PEGI, this would lead to
a 12+ rating”.
2. Potentially harmful games
What can be potentially harmful, are violent or bloodthirsty casual games for children who are too young for
these, as well as scary casual games children send to one another as ‘a joke’, by MSN or e-mail. These
harmful effects can be expressed in bedwetting, nightmares, desensitisation, etc.
Below, we will give a number of examples of casual games that can be found on the more well-known sites.
Nikken and Huigsloot played a number of these games. They then provided comments and, where possible,
an age recommendation. In most cases, the recommendation was: violent games are not suitable for
children under the age of 9 years.
Nikken explains: “For most games, violent behaviour by the gamer is rewarded with points and levels, the
violence is always seen as justified (the bad guy has to be stopped using violence, not in any other way) and
pain and suffering are trivialised. Furthermore, the player has to keep practising to get the hang of the
(violent) acts. The fact that children have to perform these acts themselves, makes games different from
the films and series children watch in a more passive way. The fact that some games show external
similarities to cartoon series, does not by definition make them more innocent.”
Nikken continues: “More realistic games will have a stronger effect, but unrealistic games with abstract
figures can also cause changes in attitudes, because as a player of these games you also become absorbed
in them; this has been shown by research into the potential effect of violent games. From a developmental
psychology perspective, it is clear that children generally only have sufficient cognitive capacity from the age
of around 9 to adopt a critical attitude in relation to media products (in other words: being able to recognize
fantasy as ‘not real’ and provide arguments for this), and to be able to distance themselves from these
emotionally. From this age, they also start to give arguments for their own emotions, ideas and preferences
and approach these from a third-person perspective.”
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Swords and Sandals [Dutch: Zwaarden en Sandalen]
‘Swords and Sandals’ is a popular game already available in many
parts. 6-year-olds also like to play it. Fight as a Gladiator against other
cartoon-type characters and earn pieces of gold for each fight you win.
This can then be used to buy better weapons.
www.speeleiland.nl/spel/zwaarden_en_sandalen_zwaarden_en_sand
alen.html
Peter Nikken: “In the version I played, my first opponent was defeated after a number of rounds by his head
being cut off. The head ended up on the ground a clear distance from the body, and surrounded by red
pools. A large red pool surrounded the body. The game is in English, but the pictures are instructive enough
for children who don’t speak English to play the game. The violence is set in the distant past and the
characters, which you put together yourself, are reasonably abstract. Although there is, objectively seen,
serious violence in the game, it is not clear that this is experienced as such subjectively by children. The
characters are not realistic, but 2-dimensional. The actions are also not detailed and there are no
defenceless victims.”
Martijn Huigsloot: “In spite of the fact that the game is 2-dimensional and uses drawings of characters, they
are human types and the violence in the game is serious. There are decapitations, and arms and legs can
also be cut off. For this reason, this game – on the basis of what I have see of it – would get a 16+ rating.”
Skull kid
Speeleiland.nl describes Skull Kid as follows: “To get through, you
have to use a character with a skull for a head to saw through
cupboards and kill other people using the saw. If you are successful,
you go up a level each time.” It then says: “contains a funny tune!!”
The blood flows freely, and the funny tune does nothing at all to
detract from this.
www.speeleiland.nl/spel/skullkid.html
Reaction Peter Nikken: “This game is tasteless. Both objects and people have to be sawn through or blown
away in order to progress. There is no alternative to reach a higher level. Blood is visible in the case of the
people and there is a lot of, repetitive, violence. The acts of violence are not super-detailed, however,
although the acts themselves are serious.”
Martijn Huigsloot: “On the basis of the first two levels, under PEGI this game would be given a 16+ rating.
This is because the game contains repeated serious violence against human-type characters.”
Sift Heads 4: Vinnie’s Paradise
Sift Heads is a popular series on the various sites, in the style also
known as Xiao Xiao. Sift Heads means something like ‘make sieves of
heads’. Sift Heads 4: Vinnie’s Paradise places the player in the role of
a sniper and adds another layer to the game: recognizing the target
and not taking out any ‘innocent’ bystanders.
www.speeleiland.nl/spel/xiao_xiao_sift_heads_2.html
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Peter Nikken: “A somewhat abstract drawing style indicates to children that this is a game that is not part of
reality. At the same time, it also has elements that have been taken specifically from reality (in particular,
the types of guns used). In order to assess this properly and be able to distance yourself from it, you have to
be at least 9 years of age.”
Martijn Huigsloot: “In spite of the moral and the fact that this game is an animation, PEGI would rate this
game 16+, owing to the large amount of serious violence and blood.”
Shoot Terrorists / Bin Laden Liquors
The hunt for Osama Bin Laden has also permeated through into
online casual games. On the net, various casual shooting games can
be found in which you can shoot at terrorists (i.e.: Arabs on camels).
They most resemble a shooting stall at the fair. And, of course, you get
extra points for hitting Osama himself. We found it tasteless and oversimplified.
www.1001spelletjes.nl/spellen/Bin+Laden+Liquors.html
Peter Nikken: “Here, Osama is depicted as the archetype of the
bearded, turban-wearing terrorist. Children cannot recognize this archetype and can certainly not distance
themselves from it, whereby the risk of stereotyping for them is greatest. The game environment, Bin Laden
Liquors, is static, but also realistic owing to the photographic design. The gun is also clearly realistic. This
increases the risk of desensitisation. Anti-Muslim sentiments can be reinforced. On the other hand, the
blood is not very realistic and the Osama figure always falls down in the same, relatively simple, way when it
is hit.”
Martijn Huigsloot: “On the basis of what I have seen, this game would be given a 16+ rating on the basis of
the bloody violence against a human-type character that is seen in the game.”
Body Ladder
Body Ladder is an example of a game type that is very heavily
represented on casual games sites. In such murder games, ‘stick
men’ (abstract characters that consist of a circular head and thin,
stick-like body parts) have to be murdered. These games are
particularly bloodthirsty and stimulate violent behaviour by giving high
scores for the number of game characters murdered.
www.elkspel.nl/spelletjes/Actie+spelletjes/Body+Ladder.html
Peter Nikken: “This game contains no explicit, realistic actions. The
animation style is 2-dimensional and the zombies are shown in a
pretty abstract way, with no eyes, for example. Young people can
distance themselves from this.”
Martijn Huigsloot: “The characters in the game are not realistic and 2-dimensional, but the violence is
bloody and very frequent. For this reason, on the basis of what I have seen to date, this game would receive
a 16+ rating.”
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Rapid Randy
‘Neutralise your enemy’ is the assignment in war games such as
Rapid Randy. In a metro station, you have heavy weapons at your
disposal to get rid of the terrorists.
www.elkspel.nl/spelletjes/Schiet+spelletjes/Rapid+Randy.html
Peter Nikken: “The environment in this game is pretty realistic (metro
station, quay by the harbour, etc.), as are the characters. The shooting
action is also presented in a 3-dimensional way that makes a realistic
impression. According to PEGI, 16+ would be rightly applicable.
Desensitisation to violence is a potential risk of repeatedly playing such games.”
Martijn Huigsloot: “On the basis of what I have seen of the game, this game would receive a 16+ rating on
the basis of the violence in the game aimed at people.”
Death Game
The Death Game is a real test: can you jump out of the way of the
approaching train in time? If you’re too late, you hear screams and
end up lying in pieces on and alongside the rails. A bloody game for
18+ which is available to young children at Spele.nl.
www.spele.nl/game/reactietijd/springoptijdweg.html
Peter Nikken: “A pretty tasteless game, involving avoiding an
onrushing train in the nick of time. The game results in two different
emotions, depending on the outcome. Firstly: pride if you manage to jump out of the way in time, and the
motivation to try and stay there just that little bit longer next time. This is reinforced by the reward being
expressed in the distance to the train at the moment you jump. As a player, you tend to want to make this
distance as small as possible. Secondly: horror if you jump away too late. The sounds and blood reinforce
this emotion. The images are pretty realistic, but the perspective (birds-eye view) requires the capacity to
perceive this. Younger children can’t do this.”
Martijn Huigsloot: “Owing to the serious violence, seeing a human body being smashed to pieces by a train,
under PEGI this game would be given an 18+ rating.”
Hostal Part II – The Killing Floor
The description on Spele.nl says it all: “You will play in a bloody world
and have to try to escape from the torture rooms. Make sure you
rescue the other captives!” The game world is seen with photographic
realism from the perspective of one of the captives.
www.spele.nl/game/hostalpart/hostalpartthekillingfloor.html
Peter Nikken: “An extremely violent game that is absolutely not
intended for young children. The elements of torture, kidnapping and
the realistic framework make the game captivating. There is a danger
of desensitization among fans of this genre and fear effects among new (less experienced) players.”
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Martijn Huigsloot: “Based on what I have seen of this game to date, PEGI would give this game a 16+ rating
on the basis of realistic and bloody violence.”
Brainz
Brainz is an example of a ‘Zombie Shooter’ game. This genre is often
found on casual games sites. Players have to protect themselves
against hordes of murderous zombies. Zombie shooters are usually
derived from the horror game Resident Evil, which has an 18+ rating.
Lots of blood and scary monsters.
www.spelle.nl/Aktie/4417/Brainz.html
Peter Nikken: ‘The introduction page shows that this is a very violent game, showing a pretty realistic
character with ripped off limbs and bloody wounds. The addition of zombies appeals to the interest young
adolescents and pre-adolescents have in this genre. The game itself starts from a bird’s eye perspective;
the player is a small figure on a flat grassy surface, and is approached by zombies (other shapes). Yellowish
shapes indicate that you are shooting, and red dots that blood is flowing and that limbs are being torn off.
This is a long way from reality. The question is to what extent we can talk about human characteristics here.
The instructions within the boxes are more realistic, for example that you know what type of weapon you
have.”
Martijn Huigsloot: “These games contain a great deal of serious violence against human-type characters, in
a three-dimensional environment. On the basis of this, these games would get an 18+ rating under PEGI.”
Colour Vision Test
My Child Online received most complaints about the shock game
Color Vision Test on Spele.nl. In this (so-called) test, players have to
enter a number that is hidden in a picture. After a few pictures, this is
no longer possible and you are ‘punished’ with a scary photo and a
ghastly scream.
[Orinal URL at Spele.nl no longer available. Spele.nl removed the
game short after the publication of the Dutch version of this dossier.]
This casual game is not placed in the shock games category by
Spele.nl, but in the reaction time category. If this game were in another category, it could immediately have
a completely different effect. Categorising games in the right way can save a great deal of problems.
Peter Nikken: “With this casual game, I can well imagine that you can get quite a shock from the noise, in
combination with the weird image. The game consciously gets you to focus intently on what you are seeing,
and on reacting as quickly as possible. Children learn to recognize and write numbers from the age of 5 to
6. So they can play this game from this age.”
Nikken continues: “If young children play this game alone, it could lead to negative shock reactions. Their
pride in being able to recognize numbers well is suddenly crushed by this brutal ending. This could also give
them the impression that, whenever you enter a wrong answer, you will be punished. Whether this has
consequences (such as bed wetting, nightmares, etc.), it is difficult to say; this will in all likelihood vary from
child to child. I would certainly discourage children under the age of 9 from playing this game, however –
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certainly if playing it alone.”
5.3 Alternatives to PEGI?
As stated above, the PEGI rating system is not (yet) available for casual games sites. Alternatives are
feasible, however (or even already available), in the form of proper categorization of the casual games.
Three options can be identified: on the basis of rating, on the basis of category and on the basis of age.
1. On the basis of rating
Many sites give their casual games a quality indication based on the number of play sessions (i.e. how
many times the game has been played), or on the basis of a rating system whereby users award a score to
the game. Both variants give a good idea of what the fun, interesting games are, but of course say little
about the content of the games.
2. By category
Most casual games sites structure the range they offer by categorizing games by themes or genres, such as
‘dressing up games’, ‘thought games’, ‘letting off steam’, or ‘racing games’. This categorization by genre
says nothing about the quality of the games and gives little or no information on the minimum age for which
the game in question is suitable.
3. By age
None of the popular casual games sites has categorized its games by age, which would certainly be a useful
option. The fighting and shooting games in particular, as well as the games featuring adult humour, would
benefit from an age recommendation.
The only situation in which we found an active age-check, was with the game Drugsdealer on
1001spelletjes.nl. In this case, the check was principally owing to the fact that, in this game, players also
have to perform assignments of a more adult nature, such as collecting photos for a nude magazine. There
are other games on the list whereby it is explicitly stated that they are for adults, but whereby no age-check
is offered. We conclude from this that the technology to warn children to a certain extent and protect them
does exist, but has not yet been fully implemented.
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6.
Good casual games
Fortunately, there are also many casual games that are good. The problem is, how do you determine what is
good and suitable? The PEGI rating is not much use in this case, as this only concerns potential
harmfulness. A puzzle game, for example, may have an age recommendation of 3+, as it contains no sex or
violence or other problematic elements whatsoever, although it is completely unsuitable for 3 or 4-year-old
children as it is much too difficult. That a game may not be offensive or harmful is a necessary precondition,
but not enough of a precondition.
Below, we will define ‘suitability’ in two ways. Firstly, on the basis of the usual quality criteria for good
games in general, and then in accordance with the criteria previously developed by My Child Online for the
Golden @-sign [Dutch: Gouden Apenstaart, the annual award for the best website for children]. The second
then ends with some examples of online casual games that fulfil both sets of criteria.
6.1 General quality criteria for games
Good games – including online casual games – fulfil the following quality criteria:
1. they have clear rules;
2. they have clear objectives;
3. there is clear feedback from game actions;
4. the introduction of new game elements is well balanced;
5. they arouse feelings of control and mastery;
6. they lend themselves to different playing styles.
Below, further elaboration of these criteria is given. The paragraph closes with some ‘good examples’.
1. Clear rules
The rules that determine the course of the game must always be clear and consistent. The boundaries of
the virtual playing field must be as clear as the lines on a real football field. Negative rules must be
enforced consistently.
In games, players are seldom surprised by the negative outcome of rules, as can happen in board games
such as Game of Goose or Ludo. In computer games, ‘chance’ will seldom send you back to the beginning
of the game world. Nor is there a large risk of losing your advantage by a ‘lucky throw’ on the part of an
opponent.
If games do contain surprise rules, these usually have a positive outcome. For example, players can get
‘power ups’ or ‘bonuses’ at random moments. Nevertheless, it is striking how often the rules system of
good games has a rigid structure, with little room for chance.
2. Clear objectives
As online games generally present clear and easily understandable rules, the same applies to the game
objectives in a good game. These are easily expressed and always seem to be attainable. Game objectives
are often ‘tangible’ and seldom seem to be far away in the future.
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The achievement of an objective or sub-objective is a pleasant experience. Concluding an action, thought
process or time period is referred to in neuropsychology as a ‘closure’. Within this scientific discipline, it has
been demonstrated that closures work like rewards and give a corresponding feeling (Holopainen & Meyers,
2000; Holopainen, 2008).
3. Clear feedback on actions
Good games are full of closure moments. Every ball eaten in Pac-Man gives a closure moment. The
computer is constantly saying: ‘you’ve eaten a ball, you’ve eaten a ball, you’ve eaten a ball’, etc. The points
score also accumulates simultaneously with eating the balls, and the player hears a sound: ‘you’ve eaten a
ball’.
This type of feedback on actions in games is particularly important to the experience of pleasure by the
player. Nevertheless, this form of feedback – linking actions to a scoring system, sounds and visual cues –
is often overlooked by games developers. In this case, the player doesn’t know what s/he has done right,
nor whether s/he is successful. The game becomes meaningless if the player doesn’t receive sufficient
feedback.
The rules and aims of a game can only give the impression of being clear and achievable if sufficient
feedback is given for each action. A good game can often be recognized by a clearly communicated control
system (part of the rules), consistent reprimands for wrong actions and an objective that can be expressed
in a single sentence.
4. Balanced introduction of new game elements
As soon as the rules and aims are clear to the player, s/he must feel a challenge. Games often have
increasingly difficult levels. Level 1 of Super Mario Bros, for example, is easier than Level 8. The creation of
this learning curve is one of the more difficult tasks facing the game designer.
The player shouldn’t find the game too easy, nor too difficult; a balance must be struck somewhere between
boredom and irritation. This happy medium is often referred to in game theory as ‘flow’. This term, coined by
psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (2001), describes the mental state of a person concentrating
completely on the action, and thereby seeming to forget their environment. Players lose themselves in a
game like readers who are drawn in by the narrative of a book or the audience of a film in the cinema.
One way of achieving this is to introduce all the game elements in a painstaking manner. A golden rule for
this introduction is i+1. Elaborating on the knowledge gained in a previous level, the game designer
introduces one new game element at a time (and no more). A similar principle applies to the way the
controls are explained to the player.
5. Feelings of control and mastery
Players must have the feeling that they are the masters of their own progression through the game. They
now know how the game should be played, and what the next hurdle to overcome is. The more the game
progresses, the more difficult it becomes to overcome particular problems. These problems never seem
insurmountable, however. This increases the feeling of mastery of the game, and thereby the player’s
pleasure.
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6. Suitability for different playing styles
Finally, a good game should appeal to different types of player. Different players have different playing
styles. One may work analytically, like a chess player, exploring the various possibilities, while another may
play more pragmatically, using ‘trial and error’ to try and get from one level to the next. The game must
cater for all these various types of players.
Good examples
Below, a selection of casual games is given that comply with the criteria outlined above. I.e.: these are
casual games that fulfil the general quality criteria for games. This need not necessarily mean that they are
casual games that are completely suitable for all children in all situations. The instructions for most of the
casual games, for example, are in English, which means that they cannot be played by all children without
help. The instructions are, however, often so simple that children will have no trouble with them if they are
given a little help by their parents.
Fancy Pants
www.spele.nl/game/platform/fancypantsdeel2.html
Skywire (cable cars)
www.funnygames.nl/spel/kabel_baan.html
Penguin Diner
www.spele.nl/game/bediening/penguindiner.html
Open Doors
www.bigfishgames.com/online-games/3119/en_opendoors/index.html
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Bubble Tanks 2
www.spelletjes.nl/spel/Bubble-Tanks-2.html
6.2 Criteria for good casual games sites
My Child Online has previously drawn up criteria for good children’s websites (also in cooperation with Peter
Nikken of NJi). These criteria were at the time intended to serve as a guideline for the jury of the Gouden
Apenstaart, the annual award for the best children’s website of the year. These criteria are repeated below,
specifically in relation to casual games sites.
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A casual games site should be attractive
The site should not be full of buttons and banners, making the site primarily an advertising hoarding
Texts should be well-written: good use of language, geared to the target group
The site should be understandable by the target group
The site should have clear instructions for all games in the native language
There should be a good balance between the use of text and images
The site should contain no casual games that encourage violence or bullying
The site should contain clear categories, and not too many subcategories
The casual games should be in Dutch or English (i.e. not in Korean or Japanese, making the game
impossible to play)
The range should be subject to a critical selection, and not everything should be put on the site
simply because it is available
A casual games site should be reliable
The provider/maker of the site should be clearly stated
Makers of the site should be easily contactable through the contact information
The site should contain information on the makers’ aims
E-mail to the site managers should be answered within two days
The site should contain information on publication dates
The site should contain information for parents
The commercial aim should be clear and advertising messages recognizable as such
The commercial partners should be reliable. Unreliable partners include, for example, suppliers of
ringtone advertising
Children should not be tempted to spend money by the site
Children should not be tempted to give information, to be passed on to third parties, about
themselves or others (parents, friends) via the site
The site should contain information on any processing of visitor data
The site may not breach any privacy legislation
If children have to register, they should be shown a message telling them to fill in the form together
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with a parent
If the site contains a forum or chat facility or a link to such, this must be adequately managed to
provide a safe environment for children
The site must not contain any offensive material or other harmful elements, such as very violent
casual games
The site should indicate for each casual game from what age the game is suitable
The site should not refer directly to other sites that are not suitable for the target group
The casual games on the site should be in the right categories – in relation to shock casual games
and violent casual games in particular, it is very important to know what to expect
All links should work – the site should not contain any ‘dead’ games or links
The site should not contain any links to websites containing viruses or other malware
A casual games site should be user-friendly
The site should have an easy URL
The site should have a short loading time, both in terms of the homepage and subsequent pages
Links and buttons should be recognizable as such
The site should have a user-friendly navigation structure, geared to children
It should not be possible to get lost within the site: you should always be able to see where you are
and easily return to the home page
The design of the website should support the navigation and not the other way around
All games should be divided into categories that are clear and logical for children. A casual game, the
aim of which is to give children a shock, should be classified under ‘shock games’ and not ‘skill
games’, for example
The casual games should load within a frame within the website. In order to play the games, there
should be no or hardly any use of external links
All casual games should have clear instructions in Dutch on how to use the game, at a fixed location
within the page (i.e. not only within the game itself)
The site should have a clear layout of all the casual games that can be searched by category and age
limits.
6.3 Examples of good online casual games sites for children
Clearly, practically none of the popular casual games sites fulfil the criteria given above. They may contain
good casual games, but generally speaking, all of these sites are simply not suitable for children. But: there
are alternatives. The internet is huge, and there are still many safe places offering good casual games for
young children! We have categorized them as follows:
1. casual games with an attractive, imaginative environment;
2. casual games that promote logical thought;
3. casual games that develop skills;
4. casual games that allow you to learn and remember things;
5. casual games that correspond to themes discussed at school;
6. casual games which enable you to identify with a positive character;
7. casual games that stimulate thinking about good and evil;
8. casual games that encourage cooperation;
9. casual games that encourage you to make things yourself.
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1. Casual games with an attractive, imaginative environment
Many children are scared by blood splashes and scary monsters; these also leave little scope for the
imagination. There are games, however, that are so attractive that children want to play them purely for that
reason alone. Playing attractive games can be a way of introducing children to art and entering into a
discussion with them on what they consider to be beautiful and ugly.
Nice, well-executed casual games can often be found on the websites of your child’s favourite television
programmes.
Miffy mini-games [Dutch: Nijntje spelletjes]
www.nijntje.nl
Orisinal
www.ferryhalim.com/orisinal
Beautifully designed mini-games, which are also fun to play. These
games are intended for children, but are so attractive that adults can
also enjoy them.
2. Casual games that promote logical thought
Many games appeal to the skill of looking for solutions in a logical, structured manner. What should you do
first, and how should you then proceed? On most casual games sites, these games are called puzzle
games, strategy games or thought games. Examples of casual puzzle games are Bejeweled and Zuma. Most
of the computer variants of well-known board games, such as chess, Go, Mahjong and the like also fall into
this genre.
Zylom
www.zylom.nl
3. Casual games that develop skills
As we have already seen, casual games can be good for hand-eye coordination. There are also casual
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games that teach you how to use a mouse, in which speed of reactions or ability to concentrate are
required, or in which the player can practice typing.
Typemania
proto5.thinkquest.nl/~kle0061
Practising sums a lot is also very useful, even if it is not the favourite pastime of many children. But present
it in the form of a casual game, and it is suddenly much more fun! Not for nothing has the Freudenthal
Institute for Science and Mathematics Educations [Dutch: Instituut voor Didactiek van Wiskunde en
Natuurwetenschappen] created dozens of casual games during recent years, in which players have to do
sums.
Table maze [Dutch: Tafeldoolhof]
www.leerspellen.nl/spel/730/Tafeldoolhof.html
4. Casual games that allow you to learn and remember things
The most well-known memory-training game is memory. But there are many more casual games that train
the memory – for example, casual games whereby players have to click on items in a particular sequence
and games in which you take orders and have to deliver these to the right people on time.
Happy Memory
www.1001spelletjes.nl/spellen/Happy+Memory.html
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5. Casual games that correspond to themes discussed at school
These days, museums, the government and all kinds of organisations involved in education develop games.
These games often cover topics from the fields of learning that deal with ‘learning about yourself and the
world’ (geography, history, nature studies, etc.). Some of these games were designed to also be used at
school.
Fatfit [Dutch: Vetfit ]
www.lekkerbelangrijk.nl/vetfit/main
Vetfit by The Netherlands Nutrition Centre [Dutch: Voedingscentrum]
deals with healthy eating and nutrition in a playful way, whereby you
earn points by planning the daily meals and activities for your game
character.
Game plaza [Dutch: Spelletjesplein ]
www.spelletjesplein.nl
This site links to the sites of museums and other organisations, but
also private projects involving games that are both fun and
educational. The casual games are arranged according to school
subjects and themes.
Games from the BBC
www.bbc.co.uk/schools/games
The BBC has a large number of casual games that can be used in
education. On this site, you will find a kind of fruit machine with which
you can search for all kinds of games. For both primary and secondary
education.
6. Casual games which enable you to identify with a positive character
It is always nice to play at being a knight: you are the strong hero who kills the dragon and rescues the
damsel in distress from her ivory tower. Everyone loves to escape into another role now and then. For a shy
child, it can be fun to transform into a cunning magician in the game; for a child that likes to talk about his
or her daring exploits, it is great to care for a helpless animal – without his or her peers knowing about it.
There are also many games in which players can carry out a profession, such as vet or waiter, doctor or
chef. Some games even give a pretty accurate impression of reality!
First-aid game [Dutch: EHBO-spel]
ehbo.nl/jeugdkizzy1.htm
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Magic Baking Game
www.elkspel.nl/spelletjes/Humor+spelletjes/Brood+Bakken.html
7. Casual games that stimulate thinking about good and evil
Social organisations sometimes create games that bring players to think about their own actions. There are
such games that deal with the environment, but also with political topics and development aid.
Save the short-eared owl [Dutch: Red de velduil ]
www.leerspellen.nl/spel/797/Red_de_velduil.html
8. Casual games that encourage cooperation
Many casual games are played alone, but there are also games in which the best results are achieved if you
cooperate with others. There are games whereby you play together at the same computer and games
whereby you cooperate via the internet, such as Pictionary at Spelle.nl. Usually with online casual games,
the opportunities for communication outside of the game are limited, meaning that the risk of undesirable
events occurring is small. Playing together, however – whether at the same computer or via the internet –
always demands special attention from parents and guardians!
9. Games that encourage you to make things yourself
Some games are in fact more of a toolbox that allows children to make their own games. For example,
building your own rollercoaster or cycle track or obstacle course with magnetic and electrical obstacles, air
pressure or water pressure. Those who are really creative can create a whole game online using the
GameKit from Klokhuis. These home-made products can usually then be shared with others via the website,
whereby children are stimulated to make their casual games even better.
Klokhuis Game Studio
gamestudio.hetklokhuis.nl/index/home
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Yoyogames
www.yoyogames.com
At Yoyogames.com, you can find lots of games made using the free
GameMaker package. This offers an easy way to make your own
games. Once you have created a nice game, you can then share it
with others on YoYogames.
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7.
Conclusions and recommendations
Below, we present the conclusions we can draw from the above. We have drawn up a number of
recommendations based on these, both for operators of casual games sites and for parents.
7.1 Conclusions
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All children aged between 8 and 12 years play online-casual games
A large percentage of children aged 5, 6 and 7 years also visit casual games sites
A few sites attract the most visits, but children roam all over, for example by searching for ‘casual
games’ using Google
The range of easy-to-play online casual games on offer is gigantic, both nationally and internationally
Most casual games sites arose from a hobby, and they were often set up by boys in their teens
wanting to earn some pocket money
With a few exceptions, most of these sites have not got their house in order. They usually have no
privacy policy, and it is usually difficult to contact the makers of the site
Without supervision, children will always find violent casual games on casual games sites
The group aged between 5 and 10 years old is the most vulnerable. The majority of the casual
games that feature violence is not suitable for them
A substantial proportion of the casual games sites feature violent casual games that could even be
harmful to children aged up to 12 years or even older, owing to the serious violence they contain, the
relationship between violence and reward, the repetitive and frequent nature of this, the active
contribution of the players that resembles training and thereby has a potentially desensitising effect
None of the sites applies age categories.
7.2 Recommendations for operators
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Sites should draw up guidelines for self-regulation. For example, through the recently established
sector association Dutch Game Association or through Digibewust (English: Digiaware)
Sites should inform their users better about the content of their games. If sites do not wish to or are
not able to choose a clear target group and adapt their advertisers or business model accordingly,
they should warn players about offensive or potentially harmful games
Sites should become more professional (including drawing up a clear privacy policy and better
availability for questions and complaints)
Sites should introduce an age rating system, preferably PEGI Online, starting with the most popular
games
Sites should differentiate their range of casual games more in terms of suitability for particular ages:
all casual games for a certain age together. This will allow parents to better see how children can
best use the site, or screen off particular sections of the site, or make these available in ‘your own
environment’ (i.e.: in a children’s browser, such as MyBee).
Sites should de more accountable in terms of their policy concerning the selection of games,
whereby a conscious effort should be made to arrive at a better balance between quantity and
quality. If the age of visitors to the site starts at 5 years, and there is a large group of visitors aged
between 6 and 12 years, it is appropriate to not simply publish everything you can find, but rather to
make a considered selection
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Sites should be more transparent in their commercial aspirations, particularly if they offer casual
games to children
Sites should make a clearer distinction between advertisements and games
Sites should contain more information for parents.
7.3 What does this mean for parents?
Children up to the age of 12 usually come across unsuitable content on casual games sites, such as erotic
content and extreme violence, entirely by accident. If this is not 18+ nudity, the harmfulness of this is
probably not so great. This does not apply to the violence in many games, however. A large number of
violent casual games is potentially harmful to children under the age of 9 years, while another considerable
number are also potentially harmful to children up to 12 years old, or even older.
This is because of the type of violence in question, which is frequent and has to be repeatedly dealt with by
the player, who in effect is therefore being trained in using violence for his or her own benefit (more points,
higher level), whereby the effect on the victim is trivialised. Children can only adopt an attitude to this
themselves from the age of 9, and distance themselves from it emotionally. Even then: the repetitive nature
of this violence, the confrontation with torture, beheadings and other bloody and tasteless violence, can
lead to a certain degree of desensitisation at this age.
For this reason, it is in many cases safer to apply a limit of 12 years. Naturally, this depends on the
particular child. For children younger than 9, and certainly younger than 7, however, the violent casual
games we have discussed are certainly by no means just an innocent pastime.
It is therefore necessary to state clearly that children may not play games involving nudity and violence. This
is a start: talking about it and telling the children what you approve of as a parent, and what you don’t. Your
personal taste will play a large role in this, as it should. But there are also moral issues involved. If your
child knows where your moral boundaries are, this provides him or her with a significant benchmark. It is
therefore important to warn your children that there are casual games that are not suitable, and to tell them
that they should close these immediately if they accidentally come across them. This offers a certain degree
of protection, but it is of course not enough. The fact is, it is very difficult for young children up to 10 years
old to make a distinction between the various kinds of casual games, which means they are not able to
consciously develop a strategy to effectively avoid undesirable effects.
We are therefore forced to conclude that most casual games sites are not suitable for children, even if
these sites seem to be made specially for them. Action needs to be taken to make it fun for children again.
As long as the makers of casual games sites are not willing to make concessions to parents by following the
recommendations given above, parents will have to take matters largely into their own hands. A number of
practical tips in this regard is therefore given below.
7.4 Tips for parents
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Talk to your children about the kinds of casual games they play on their favourite casual games
sites. Where do they like to play, and why? Ask them to show you the casual games they like
Try to tell your children how to make a good choice of casual games and how to find nice casual
games (which categories are best), and how to avoid the wrong casual games. Be honest about
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wanting to avoid nudity and violence. Talk to them about why you don’t want them to play these
kinds of casual games
Try to guide them as much as possible to casual games sites that are decent, or take measures to
prevent them accessing sites you do not want them to visit. For young children, the children’s
browser MyBee (www.mybee.nl) is a good idea: this allows you to retain the maximum amount of
control and to profit from the experiences of other parents with good sites
Install a good virus scanner and keep it up-to-date. The world of online casual games is very
hazardous in this regard: protect your computer against potential damage from harmful downloads
You can help children who are interested in games and computers in general when taking the first
steps designing their own games. This brings in another, more creative, element. Several good books
have been published that help children learn to use the programme GameMaker, for example.
Remember that there are many casual games with very subtle forms of violence, in the form of
misogynistic behaviour, anti-Islamic attitudes or other forms of discrimination. Racism and extremely
unpleasant behaviour involving animals also occur. Often you will not see these things immediately
when starting to play a casual game. Explicitly condemn these types of casual games. With a child of
10 year and older, you can also enter into a discussion on how it is that people like these kinds of
casual games, i.e. on the function of malicious pleasure. Some people use this to defuse their fears.
But if you are not afraid (of women, Muslims, people with a different colour skin), there is nothing
funny about them, is there?
Talk to children about clever, cunning commercial interests, and the fact that they can sometimes be
tempted to play a casual game and leave their mobile telephone number in order to win a prize, but
in actual fact they are thereby taking out a subscription to an SMS service that costs a lot of money.
To prevent your child taking out such a subscription, you can register the telephone number at
www.smsdienstenfilter.nl. If you have fallen prey to such a casual game, submit a complaint to the
ConsuGuide consumers’ guide [Dutch: Consuwijzer].
You may also want to tell your children about the existence of ‘shock games’. The best way is to play
one that you already know together. Introduce it well, tell the child what is going to happen, what
s/he can expect and explain that some people like to give others are really bad fright, but that this
usually isn’t funny. If the child knows what is going to happen, and plays the game together with you,
the effect is relatively less harmful and s/he will be much better able to put it into perspective the
next time.
Realise that children can also play multi-user games via casual games websites, whereby they can
chat at the same time (using the chat function that belongs to the game). This exposes them to
intensive contact with strangers. Many children in our survey said that they had experienced
unpleasant or aggressive behaviour from other players. Manipulation, aggression, exerting pressure
and threats are not uncommon in these environments. Discuss online behaviour as part of your
internet education as soon as you allow your children to play on casual games sites. How do people
behave towards one another? Why do people sometimes do something unpleasant, which they
wouldn’t do as readily face-to-face? How can you respond if you experience something unpleasant
like this?
Our survey revealed that parents talk more to young children about their online experiences than
with children aged 12 and older. It is a very good idea to keep talking to children about their
experiences, particularly as they are getting older – it is then that they will start to use the multi-user
games environments more frequently.
With children above the age of 12 years, continue to pay close attention to their reactions after
playing games. Vulnerable children are those children who become completely absorbed in a violent
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game, don’t talk about anything else, cannot let it go, feel strongly attracted to violent games and
cannot empathise well with others. These children are extra vulnerable to harmful influences. If you
have the feeling that the behaviour of your child is being influenced negatively, you should act.
Finally, your knowledge of your own child should be the measure of what you permit and what you
don’t. At the same time, you should take note of the recommendation that children up to the age of
at least 9 years should not play games that feature serious violence, however cartoon-like the
environment, and however innocent they may seem, by being offered on those nice casual games
sites.
Important websites
www.weetwatzegamen.nl – for parents, containing information on games, with a weblog for and by
parents
www.mijnkindonline.nl – on internet education in general, with a weblog on children and media
www.ouders.nl – everything for parents, with an extensive forum, also about children and computers
www.mybee.nl – the best children’s internet environment for primary school aged children – and its
free!
www.game-maker.nl – starting point for learning to design and make games yourself, using the
GameMaker programme
www.consuwijzer.nl – information from the government, advice and complaints about consumer
affairs
www.smsdienstenfilter.nl – here, you can block your child’s mobile phone number from
subscriptions to SMS services, such as ringtones, etc.
Finally: have you come across something you would like to tell us about? Do not hesitate to mail:
[email protected]
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Literature
Bartle, R. A. (1996). Hearts, Clubs, Diamonds, Spades: Players Who Suit MUDs. Consulted in May
2008 at: www.mud.co.uk/richard/hcds.htm
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