Monday, August 18, 2008

Beware Mini Match and Other Free Online Games for Children

Last month Cartoon Network launched Mini Match, free online (computer) games for entertainment for children. These free games are being marketed to Cartoon Network viewers via commercials shown in between children’s cartoons. These are not JUST free online silly games. They differ in that they are based on social networking and they are built around multiplayer games (games played against live people while chatting). This site allows free text chatting although the site claims that certain words are banned from being used. I don’t know how they get around abbreviations such as those to alert the other chatter that a parent is in the room or watching (see this list for numerous abbreviations for those and for many profane language and adult themed abbreviations).

I say, “Beware these games” for two reasons.

First when my husband was home with my younger son yesterday, my husband granted permission for my younger son to navigate himself to this site. Apparently my younger son had seen the commercial on TV. My son (age eight) tried to set up the game but it overloaded my PC and repeatedly shut it down. When I came home and got involved in the problem situation, my PC was slowed to a snail’s pace. So I am wondering if Cartoon Network’s Mini Match is the source of the new spyware that has been loaded into my system. I now need to spend time fixing these issues, running spyware programs and so forth. I had not wanted to spend my time in that way as fixing computer problems is not high on my list of fun things to do nor do I have time in my busy schedule for new problems to solve.

(Update 8/19/08: Clarification... I was thinking that while I think that researching these sites is important I wondered if you may wonder how it is that my husband approved my younger son using the site. My husband assumed it was a regular solo player child-friendly-innocent-harmless-but-possibly-stupid video game site. He did not check out the site himself. In his defense this all happened minutes after the two of them came home to an empty house after being at Scout sleepover camp and my husband was tired, and I was not around to ask for my opinion.)

Second these games as I said before are a different level of game play. They are not just silly free games that a child plays alone ‘against the computer’. There is chat here, and although an article I read about Cartoon Network's Mini Match said the chat is pre-scripted and “kid friendly” that is not true. I checked out the Mini Match site today and confirmed this is free text chat. I feel that exposing young children to multiplayer gaming sets them up for wanting similar experiences with other online free games (RuneScape) other gaming systems (Wii). It is a bit like the domino effect. First they play free social networking games online then they want other networking abilities (like MySpace, instant messaging or the paid multi-player gaming options on home video game consoles such as Xbox360’s Xbox Live platform).

One other word of caution is that if you try to visit the Cartoon Network Mini Match site you may be directed to the wrong site. My son told me the commercial said to go to playminimatch.com this redirects you to the right site which is http://minimatch.cartoonnetwork.com/. However if you go to www.minimatch.com you will be directed to a different site which has a free games on it, some of which will download spyware to your site and others require downloading programs onto your computer which is also a virus and spyware risk.

Over the last few years we have tried some of the free online games for children and some for all ages as well. Mostly we were trying to say yes to our children’s requests and to keep them happy. I figured they were free so at least I was not spending money on them. After some time with various sites it didn’t take long for me to ban these in our household (more on why later).

For Christmas 2007 our family finally caved and allowed our children to get their first ever video gaming system. We made it through ten plus years of parenting two boys until this happened (seven or eight years longer than most American families with boys go without a video gaming console). We own an Xbox360 which has an ‘Xbox live’ feature which so far we do NOT use. For those who don’t know, the “Xbox Live’ feature connects the gaming system to the Internet to access some more free games, to access a chat feature and to allow multi-player games with strangers. One reason to avoid the live component costs a monthly fee ($13 per month). Secondly, I don’t like the live chat feature, it allows use of a headset for live talking (not text based talking on the screen). While that may be cool for older teens or adults, I am not interested in having my young boys hooking up online with strangers from across the world for what basically is the same thing as telephone chatting while playing multiplayer games with them! I don’t think I need to spell out the safety issues with allowing my boys, then aged ten and seven, do I?

One reason we bought the video console gaming system was to keep our children off of the free online entertainment games that many of their friends were playing (Millsberry, Club Penguin, RuneScape and so forth). I figured it may be safer and a better gaming experience to own the console and to control the games my children played within the safety of our home without being subject to commercials or live chat features with strangers. I could control the games they played by allowing or banning certain games from being played in our home.

My concern with Club Penguin was the stupid-ness of the game and the waste of time of the silly games, and the high addiction-ability of the game. I really don’t want to hear that Club Penguin is an educational game site as the games that require answering trivia questions are not really very educational at all; it is a stretch to claim that Club Penguin is an educational game site. Kids seem to get hooked in with meeting their real life friends online to say little scripts and to play the games. I have heard many conversations between schooled and homeschooled children asking to meet later online at Club Penguin, and telling what their screen names are and so forth. The parents I know who allow their children to play it formerly were very against video games in general but they let Club Penguin slip in as it is free and they feel they are getting something for nothing, keeping their kid happy to play the online game like their friends are doing, yet are getting away with not buying a $350+ video game console (Wii, Xbox360) plus shelling out for each game played. Well I say if you want to talk to your real life friend pick up the phone and call them or arrange a face to face meeting. Lastly to get some extra doo-dads the kids are enticed to spend real money in the Club Penguin store to heighten their game experience.

I had my children avoid Millsberry because of the high addiction rate; they were getting addicted to it. While playing the game they became irritable and moody and sometimes quite angry, lashing out in anger by yelling or banging the desk or slamming things around the house. This behavior was never before exhibited by either of them. Additionally, I felt that the games are completely stupid. The fact that the games are limited in their ability to move around and so forth, it is sometimes hard to win the game or at least to not get killed, due to the limits of the low end technology of the game’s programming combined with the limitations of the computer keyboard. They got mad sometimes when they got to certain levels and wanted to win but the limitations of the game prevented it. To try to figure out the issue, I played some of the games myself and can personally attest to this, even I experienced inferior technology issues that ‘made me die’. For example sometimes the games have a slow reaction time so even though I pressed a button to tell it to do an action (jump, turn etc.). Indeed it is frustrating to play a game to a certain level then be prevented from going further due to system related problems or low technology based issues. My children and I were both annoyed by that and all of us wanted to replay the game to try to beat it. After a while it seemed that some games at a certain level left us doomed. This type of gaming can end up being more frustrating than fun and it can also lead the player to become addicted to the game as they try to find success.


Some will argue that there is no advertising on the Millsberry but that is just NOT true. There is advertising for sugar cereals on the site, hidden in the games themselves, in the titles of the games, built inside of some games and so on. People have commented on a former blog post of mine and insisted there was no marketing but they are flat out wrong. The fact that some children and parents don’t even see the marketing is enough to make all parents stop and think about what is really going on!

RuneScape is the largest free Internet based role playing game in the world and it has rules to restrict use to players 13 and up. However it does have players under age 13, some with the parent’s knowledge and consent, and I bet other kids are using it without the parents having a clue what is going on. All you do is check a box to say you are over 13 when setting up your profile, and then you can play, making it easy for Internet-savvy younger children to lie.

I don’t like RuneScape for my young children because it is a free text chat type game that specifically matches up players onto teams of strangers from across the world in order to play this long-term team type role playing game. A child or people aged 13 years old and up could be playing against older teens or adults. I fear contact with pedophiles or other negative influence people who may be using this free site to make easy contact with minors. Even if you think that my fears about pedophiles are unfounded, I have other reasons to share about why I ban RuneScape from our home at this time. RuneScape appears to be highly addictive just like other role playing games are (Sims, World of Warcraft, etc.). I am not interested in opening the doors to role playing games yet with my sons as it is so addictive (to some people at least) and I want my sons more fully engaged in real life and putting their priorities into real life pursuits rather than living too much in a make believe world played on a screen against strangers (not real life friends seen in person).

In early 2007 Disney changed their website to jump onto the online social networking scene, aimed at tweens (kids aged 8-12) as outlined in this Wall Street Journal article dated January 2, 2007. The site is called Disney XD.

Later in 2007, Disney bought the popular Club Penguin site in order to own more of the market, as discussed in this August 2007 Wall Street Journal article.

It seems that more and more companies who market products and services to children are jumping into offering free online games or free online games with social networking to young children. I want everyone to realize that this is all part of marketing and advertising campaign, each company wants to get in on the action. Luring children in by means of advertising on children’s television channels and appeasing parents by offering free services, the companies hope to access your children’s time and attention. It seems to me that the buzz created among children as young as Kindergarten and First Grade, when talking and promoting these websites to each other is nothing more than free advertising and it seems to me so far these companies are achieving their goal!

External Links

My blog post dated July 2006 about my opinions of Millsberry.

For a list of blog posts I published in the past on the issues of children and Internet safety, see here (label Internet safety issues for kids and teens)

If you are downplaying the issue of addiction to computer games, here is an article by WebMD.
Title: Detox For Video Game Addiction?
Experts Say Gaming Can Be A Compulsion As Strong As Gambling

Published: July 3, 2006
Source: WebMD
Posted at: CBS News

Millsberry free children's game website run by General Mills cereals

Club Penguin (was independent at first, now owned by Disney)

Disney XD site for tweens for games and social networking

RuneScape free role playing game on the Internet

RuneScape Wikipedia entry telling pro's and con's of the site

Cartoon Network’s Mini Match new children's social networking/multi-player game site

Netlingo list of Internet chat and Text Message abbreviations

Disney targets tweens with social networking site and free online games (tweens are kids aged 8-12)---
Article Title: Updated Disney.com Offers Networking for Kids Web Site's Strategic Revamp Encourages More Interaction -- But Parents Will Be in Charge
By MERISSA MARR
Date: January 2, 2007
Published by: The Wall Street Journal

Later in 2007 Disney made another move in the online social networking arena by purchasing their competitor Club Penguin. Read about that here:

Article Title: Disney Buys Kids' Social-Network Site
By MERISSA MARR and PETER SANDERS
Published on: August 2, 2007
Published by: The Wall Street Journal

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7 comments:

gypsy said...

Christine, It is disheartening that many parents do not investigate what their kids are experiencing at such young ages. I will read the other articles you've posted. My kids (6 & 8) don't use the web. We have educational or challenging computer games, including some I highly recommend (Fritz & Chesster Learn to Play Chess, Zoombinis Logical Adventure, Zoo Tycoon) etc. Simply put, I see no value to any of the online stuff. Not at this age. There is so much else to do in life!

MamaK said...

Wow! I had no idea about all the video game lure for the kids. We do use some stuff like, Brain pop, Time 4 learning, and Webkinz. I will def keep my eye out on all of this!-K

Love 2B Homeschoolers said...

I would love it if you would blog a bit about your experience with the Xbox. Are you happy with your decision to get one?

My boys are the same age as yours and I have thus far managed to keep our home gaming-system free. I feel like I'd rather occasionally argue with them about getting one, rather than constantly arguing with them about usage rules if it were here! But a part of me worries that the likelihood of "addiction" will increase when they are old enough to decide to own one for themselves, if they don't learn usage habits now.

I'd love to read about your reasoning in getting one, and your experience in owning one, since we seem to parent very similarly :-)

christinemm said...

MamaK I don't think the websites you are using which you pay to use have the same issues. Isn't it true that Time4Learning a site you pay for has no ads or marketing?

The lure of Millsberry and some others is they are free to users but have the ads or other marketing embedded in them.

The RuneScape site is free but that RPG (role playing game) issue is separate.

christinemm said...

Love2B...

I have a blog post in process about why I finally bit the bullet.

I plan to also write of some challenges with limits and the challenges that happen with our friends.

Lastly I will write our rules, what we've tried, what failed, the revised plans etc etc.

I plan to do a little series on it. Possibly as early as this upcoming week. I have so much to say that it is hard to say it all with brevity.

Andrea R. said...

I found your site searching for sites similar to Mini Match and Club Penguin. Perhaps things have changed since you wrote this review.

Both of my children have accounts at Mini Match and I have a parent account linked to them so I can easily follow them around and even play the games with them. I spent several hours with them playing the game, on three separate computers, and no one but my own two kids knew that I was a parent.

It is definitely not a free chat. I couldn't even tell my kids to come to dinner. I'd say that easily 50% of the words I typed, all harmless, every day words, were blocked because they weren't in the Mini Match dictionary. I found the standard chat to be all but useless. It is especially hard for kids who may make typos or spelling errors guaranteed not to be in the Mini Match dictionary. Because of that my kids only use the predefined options for chatting there.

I might pop in once in awhile and play a game with my kids, but I am satisfied that they can use the site without supervision after spending time there with them.

christinemm said...

Andrea R thank you for leaving such a detailed comment sharing your positive experiences with Mini Match.

I have a blog post in draft that I need to polish about a different issue with video game playing that I had never been aware of. I hope I can get it finished to publish tomorrow.