For Kids, (Virtual) Identity Theft is All Too Real

[qi:002] Jack Myers posted a rather long article this morning chronicling the trials of a 13-year-old girl who recently had her avatar stolen in the casual anime-styled MMO Gaia Online. While it’s true that there are now virtual characters with virtual possessions that translate into real dollars, the article sensationalizes a problem that is hardly new. The scam is known as phishing, and it remains one of the surest ways to part a fool with his password.
But the dynamics do change when there are kids involved. Although companies warn all players against giving out their passwords, minors who go on to get scammed present a special PR problem. No one wants unhappy kids complaining on message boards and, even worse, to the press, and companies will have to start going the extra mile to ensure greater security measures in user accounts.
When it comes to protecting you from your own gullibility, exactly how much responsibility lies with the company? Well, when we’re talking about kids — little people whom we don’t allow voting rights or legal independence — then the company, I’m afraid, bears infinite responsibility, especially in the eyes of the parents who are allowing their kids to play.
There is a psychological aspect to all of this as well. Virtual spaces are also real spaces, and real things happen in them. Real feelings get hurt. Julian Dibbell famously demonstrated this in his seminal essay, “A Rape in Cyberspace.”
What happened to the girl who had her Gaia Online avatar stolen felt like theft because it was theft, and she went through feelings of violation similar to real-life theft victims. The emotional attachment to virtual spaces intensifies the need for companies to court children as players very, very carefully.