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The Habbo scandal shows just how far games have come

By on July 2, 2012
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Last month, UK broadcaster Channel 4 ran a shocking story about the highly-sexualised experience of the teen-focused chat room and virtual world Habbo Hotel. As a result, investors pulled out, retailers stopped stocking Habbo gift cards, Habbo itself took the unprecedented step of "muting" all chat on its service for a while and commentators rightly asked whether Sulake, the owner of Habbo Hotel, had done enough to moderate a service aimed at children and young teenagers.

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The Channel 4 News story was an important expose of issues that needed to be raised. But what was striking to me was what didn’t happen as a result.

We didn’t get angry mothers saying that online games were taking away their children’s childhood. We didn’t get ill-informed MPs complaining about the pernicious influence of games. We didn’t get the press saying that "something must be done" about online games.

Channel 4 made some very serious allegations about a single games company. Commentators (rightly) said these allegations were terrible, and Habbo should do something about it. No one blamed games, or the Internet, in general. They all blamed a single company for its own issues.

Habbo needs to get its house in order. But all the rest of us can now breathe a sigh of relief that we will be criticised in the popular press only for own failings, and not for simply being a newfangled technology which can be easily attacked to gain votes or audiences.

This is an enormous step forward.

About Nicholas Lovell

Nicholas is the founder of Gamesbrief, a blog dedicated to the business of games. It aims to be informative, authoritative and above all helpful to developers grappling with business strategy. He is the author of a growing list of books about making money in the games industry and other digital media, including How to Publish a Game and Design Rules for Free-to-Play Games, and Penguin-published title The Curve: thecurveonline.com
  • Facebook has been covered by the BBC – I think it was Panorama – regarding sharing and privacy. So I don’t think Facebook is protected from media criticism somehow.

  •  I’m afraid I disagree.

    Any time the press find an issue with a company and claim “something must be done” about an entire industry, that is bad thing.

    The story didn’t take a reactionary stance to something many viewers didn’t understand – whether that is online games, social networks or virtual chatrooms. It had specific issues and specific warnings about a specific company.

    A blanket “social networks are bad” would have been a terrible response. I’m not pretending that there aren’t issues in other businesses: I am saying that by targeting a single company, Channel 4 gets to have accurate reporting while also raising the profile of grooming and the importance of age-appropriate behaviour more generally.

    I can’t see how you think this is a step backwards for the social networking industry as a whole.

  • Conor

    It may well seem like a colossal step forward for the games industry, but what you are forgetting is that Habbo is less of a game and more of a social network. It is a glorified chat room and the focus is on ‘mingling’ with others rather than embarking on a computerised adventure across unknown new lands or shooting every enemy soldier in sight, consequently putting social networks on the firing line as opposed to games publishers. Habbo was selected very strategically by Channel 4 as it is aimed at children, but other sites, such as Facebook, have much bigger and more diverse user bases and certainly a far bigger problem. The public is (for now) not concerned about Treyarch or Bethesda, but Sulake and Facebook.

    Also, Channel 4 chose Habbo because it is a relatively small community and, frankly, I don’t think many thought it still existed before reading/seeing the news giant’s report on June 12. C4 wouldn’t have dared to target the internet’s biggest problem, Facebook, because they would never have lived it down and they couldn’t have used propaganda either. I think you’re wrong to imply that ‘Habbo needs to get its house in order’ as if it’s the only game/social network that needs to take action. This same issue exists on a plethora of other websites – some forgotten, some still very much alive – and, frankly, 
    one would be wrong to assume otherwise.

    It sure is a step forward for the games industry, but it is also a step back for the social networking industry which, despite what you may think, receives just as much criticism.