Note to parents: your kids are being trolled (and trolling) in Minecraft.
The act of trolling is as old as the internet - probably older. Its intent is to provoke an emotional response by engaging in behaviour likely to upset its target. In the early days of the internet, "trolling" was generally associated with posting inflammatory comments in news groups. More recently, the word is used to describe a wide range of online harassment.
Arguably there is good trolling and bad trolling, as extolled in The Age's article Why People Troll. Good trolling creates debate, questions our assumptions and makes us think. Bad trolling, as generally evident in Minecraft games, serves no other purpose than to offend and upset its victims - and is nothing short of a cyber-bullying.
Trolling in Minecraft - or "griefing" as it's known - can take various forms: from beating up players, stealing or damaging their virtual property; or by exploiting bugs in Minecraft and its extensions to interfere with the play of others.
None of this will be new to regular players of Minecraft. But many parents may be blissfully unaware of what their kids are being subject to (and subjecting other kids to) during the many hours they spend in this virtual world.
There is a slew of YouTube videos demonstrating how to grief other players in Minecraft. Many have titles like 6 year old Trolled on Minecraft or Trolling an angry kid on Minecraft and Skype. Judging by the ratio of "Likes" versus "Dislikes", there is a ready and eager audience for this form of alleged entertainment.
Playing pranks is part of being a kid, and you can always expect a bit of horseplay where groups of children get together. Where the situation gets more than a little sinister is when adults engage in deliberately humiliating young kids and posting their efforts up on the internet.
In this YouTube clip, the ironically titled "Mr Man" trolls an 11-year old by destroying his creation - a recreation of the US aircraft carrier 'USS Nimitz'.
The 11-year old is clearly quite proud of his work, and demonstrates considerable knowledge of his subject. Mr Man's angle for his trolling is that the kid's work is definitely worth inclusion in a "Top Ten" list of Minecraft videos Mr Man is putting together, feeding the boy's ego while at the same time surreptitiously planning to wreck the creation in an unrecoverable way.
The most disturbing part of this - apart from a grown man causing emotional pain to young children - is that Mr Man will probably be generating income from the distress caused. I'm disinclined to suggest that you watch the video. The video is quite lengthy - it goes for about 30mins - but regardless, any viewing has the potential to line Mr Man's pockets with advertising revenue. Naturally, If you do watch this you have the option to "Dislike" the video - or even report it if you think the content is inappropriate. That is completely up to you.
In this clip an older player trolls a 6-year old, apparently as pay-back for the child throwing away the virtual possessions of the troller's cousin.
The 6-year old can be heard getting hysterical as he is repeatedly tricked and abused by other players. In a follow up to this video the child is encouraged to throw his character off a high building by the troll.
The 6-year old may have been acting out in the first case, but how we get to the point where anyone thinks this is a reasonable way to discipline a 6-year old is beyond me. And why no adult intervenes is also a mystery.
I'm fully aware that this article is likely to garner negative feedback from some readers. But any suggestion that I don't have a sense of humour will be blithely ignored. There is schadenfreude, and there is picking on young children. And only one is truly funny.
In the videos above, other children are witnessing - and sometimes directly participating in - the online harassment of other children, made easy by the lack of personal consequence. While the videos represent the most public form of bullying, day-to-day playing with Minecraft can include more persistent and subtle bullying. At least in the playground there's potentially a teacher within earshot who can intervene if play gets out of hand. Online, there's often no such overview.
In a way, kids are just learning about how to exist in a digital, semi-anonymous world. But an important lesson should be that your actions do have consequences - at least to the victims - and accepting trolling is normalising brutality.
My own kids have their own private Minecraft server, intended to provide a safe play space for them and their friends. Regardless of controls they've put in place, we've still seen a reasonable amount of aberrant behaviour. Kids being kids, it's expected that they will push the limits - especially when they think no grownups are watching. Griefing from "friends of friends" who had been invited on to the server without my boys' knowledge was common, resulted in more restrictive levels of access for most players.
In one incident a child resorted to threats "I won't be your friend anymore" and suggestions of self-harm lest he get his way - all undeniably forms of psychological bullying. A quick phone call to this parents resolved the situation, but also revealed that the parents had no idea what was going on only a few feet away.
Nothing here is meant to denigrate the role of parents. It's quite a task to keep up with your children's online activities. Technology is changing quickly and your children are adapting much faster than you are.
From my point of view though, I have a right and a responsibility to know what my kids are up to online. It's a little bit easier for me, coming from an IT background, but I think we all need to keep ourselves informed. In general I'd suggest that keeping the lines of communication open is by far the best approach.
Our boys spend a lot of time on the internet - possibly too much, but we are a bit of a geek family. We're not restrictive about the kids use of computers, but we do like to keep an ear out for trouble.
If you hear online chats ramping up in intensity, it's probably a good time to ask what's going on. Over the weekend my oldest was being griefed by someone running an exploit, constantly killing my son's character and changing his spawn point so he couldn't re-engage with the game.
His conversations with other players became more and more frantic. I wished we'd stepped in earlier, but we did intervene. I'd hate to think how he'd be feeling if we'd just left him to get more and more worked up over it.
It may only be a game, but what happens in Minecraft can be as real to your kids as something happening in the real world. If your child seems sullen after a Minecraft session it might not be a bad idea to ask how things are going.
Kids need to have strategies for dealing with bullies - whether in real-life or on the internet. Having something they have worked on for hours - or even weeks - destroyed by some idiot will have an effect on their happiness, and they won't learn how to be resilient from a wiki page.
Ask what servers are your children are using on regular basis. Is there any kind of supervision on these servers? Do the administrators enforce any kind of rules to keep the servers fun and fair? Many servers will have policies against griefing, but it's good to who you or your kids can talk to if they are getting harassed.
But most of all ask your kids how they deal with bullies online. They need advice on what to do when they are being victimised. Sometimes it's just as simple as suggesting they walk away from the game for a while, or trying a different server. But they need advice from someone they can trust, not advice from someone in an online forum.
Kids also need to understand how to keep themselves safe online. They need to be able to protect their online identity. Minecraft itself offers a level of anonymity while playing, but using other services may expose information about your child's identity. When I hear about kids being griefed over Skype I wonder what else their attackers possibly know about them.
You need to keep yourself safe as well. If your children are running servers on your home network there is an opportunity for someone to compromise your internet security. Are your kids running Minecraft servers from home? Have they installed plugins? Do they know where the plugins come from? How can they trust the source? These are important things to know.
Before you say anything about "being too old to play with computers", put down your iPhone and have a look at what your kids are engaging with.
Minecraft is the virtual equivalent of a getting out a big box of Lego. It's an incredible amount of fun and there's really no end of things that can be learned through it. Kids are learning about architecture, design, logic and maths. They are learning how to solve problems and work co-operatively with people all around the planet. The more technical kids are learning about managing servers, about operating systems and programming.
There's so much good stuff in Minecraft, it almost seems trite to point out the negatives. It really is a lot of fun to play - and play is something we can easily forget about in our busy, self-serious adult lives.
The worst thing you could possibly do is ban your kids from playing Minecraft. They are learning new skills that will help them on the journey into the kind of life and work that we can't even imagine.
The original "Creeper looking through broken glass" image was sourced from http://hdw.eweb4.com/out/945751.html.