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Google makes games to help teach internet sense, safety and positivity to kids

Interland

Google has announced Be Internet Awesome; a collaborative project focused around teaching children how to be safe online. There are a bunch of teaching resources for parents and schools but I’m posting about it because the Interland section [official site] is a suite of four colourful games each focusing on a different aspect of safety.

As per the Google blog the initiative was developed in collaboration with the Family Online Safety Institute, the Internet Keep Safe Coalition, ConnectSafely and others. Pavni Diwanji (Google’s VP of engineering for kids and families) notes:

“for kids to really make the most of the web, we need more than just helpful products: We need to provide guidance as they learn to make their own smart decisions online.

“This is one of the most significant issues that we all face as a new generation grows up with the Internet at their fingertips. It’s critical that the most influential people in our kids’ lives—parents and teachers, especially—help kids learn how to be smart, positive and kind online, just like we teach them to be offline. It’s something we all need to reinforce together.”

First and foremost I’m interested in whether the parents among you think these games will be useful to your children.

I’ve played all four and I think some felt more able to stand alone than others. The ability to act as standalone games will be more or less important depending on whether you want to use them alongside the other resources Google is offering. But given it’s far more of an investment to read the 48 page PDF which is what the curriculum section is [Be Internet Awesome Curriculum PDF] than go to the browser page it seemed to me like having them all function as fun things which teach by themselves was important. I’ve put my own thoughts below but, as I say, I’m interested in whether parents or other caregivers think differently. I’ll also add that to me it seemed like the curriculum was aiming for a totally different age range than the games. The games seemed like pre-school or very early primary age whereas the curriculum activities (which would theoretically be supported by those games) seemed to be for the top end of the primary age range – maybe even early high school.

The first was a river zone which looks at phishing but crossing the river is just answering a quiz. I think the basic info it imparts is obviously useful but from being a kid at one point and knowing kids, you can know the correct answers for an educational game high score but then not apply them at all in real life. It’s things like knowing not to forward chain letters or not clicking on pop-ups offering you free stuff. You know know that in the abstract (and explicitly giving that information is valuable) but it isn’t the same as being in the moment and feeling the pressure to interact.

Interland

For that one I would have been interested in a game where you maybe have to manage a pretend inbox and where clicking on the faux pop-ups gives you a penalty and the game gradually teaches you more about the ways you know if someone has been hacked. This section was also clearly US-focused in that it mentions what to do if someone asks for your social security number. I assume it’s supposed to be existing in dialogue with the other resources but sometimes that makes it feel like an end-of-chapter test rather than a tool for imparting knowledge in a fun way. I’m specifically thinking of a question where one of the answers involves verifying that an email comes from who you think it does but that can be a pretty complicated thing. The curriculum digs into that in a lot more detail, by the way.

The sharing section was really interesting to me because it abstracted the idea into a kind of laser reflection puzzle. You needed to bounce a beam of light to only hit particular targets representing how you only want information to go to some people and not others. I liked how when you were sending a video you had taken of someone without permission it asked you to send it to the bin and not a person because you shouldn’t record people without permission. Other bits had you sharing a picture of an x-ray only with family. It felt like a good balance of an actual puzzle and the info Google and their associates wanted to impart to me but I’m well above the target audience.

There was also a simple platformer where you collected hearts and then distributed them as compliments to fellow Internauts (for thus the game’s inhabitants are named). Big yellow bears acted as cyberbullies and would need to be reported or trapped. This felt more like a basic “don’t be a jerk” theme I’ve seen in a lot of games aimed at young children, although the idea of reporting a bully to get them removed from the gamespace felt effective. Again, I’m not sure how it would translate to real life because it would depend on the accessibilty and effectiveness of the moderation where you happened to be hanging out online. As an example, Twitter is a place where it can be incredibly difficult to get any real resolution to cyberbullying.

Interland

The remaining game is a simple collection game where you pick up cubes with lower case, upper case and symbol characters in order to create a secure password. This one felt nothingy to me because it was more like a vague tutorial than actually putting any knowledge into practice. The passwords I generated using the system would perhaps have kept the enemy hacker character at bay (and hackers in real life) but I tried to memorise the password myself to see if it was useful for real life and… four minutes later it’s gone. Obviously the part about using a mixture of characters is the important part, but I’m concerned that you might leave the game thinking “well, that’s the theory but I guess I’d need to write it down to use it a second time so maybe I’ll stick with something else”. There are also a bunch of theories about online passwords and how we manage the balance between memorable and safe (or rely on some other system which we need to evaluate for safety). Perhaps that’s overthinking it.

But lest it sound like I’m being dismissive of the Be Internet Awesome project as a whole, I downloaded and read the curriculum PDF. I’ve been pointing out that it augments and improves upon the browser games but there are some cool activities beyond the Interland games tucked away in there. The one which just caught my eye is where you give kids a selection of online activity from various characters and see what they can deduce from those snippets about that person. There’s a detective game element but it would underline the point that you can give away a lot of information without meaning to if you aren’t careful. It includes things like status updates, browser history, checking in at locations, pictures from events and more which could be used to find you or figure out how you might be vulnerable.

An extension of that activity encourages kids to look at the information and see what other types of people might think based on that info. What would an employer assume? What would your family think? What would the police find out? What would an advertiser get? How about you in ten years? Another activity in that section is about evaluating the information you have and whether you a) have the right to share it in the first place and b) if you do whether it’s in the appropriate place.

To me it feels like the curriculum document is the far stronger piece which is perhaps to be expected. It’s great on one level because it offers a bunch of different ways of approaching important topics but I’m a little disappointed that the games can’t seem to do more of the heavy lifting, simply because downloading and reading a 48 page PDF is less immediately engaging than playing browser games.

Anyhoodle. Enough from me. What do you think? Good? Bad? Weird age discrepancy? Sudden strange need to throw letter blocks on the floor as a means of password generation?

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Philippa Warr

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