Saturday, December 4, 2021

Roblox, the gaming site, wants to grow up without sacrificing child safety

SAN FRANCISCO — Dave Baszucki, CEO of gaming company Roblox, took the stage Thursday at a conference hosted by his company, reflecting on how much has changed for Roblox since its last in-person event two years ago. Was.

In March, Roblox debuted on Wall Street. As of Friday, it was worth $44 billion, and more than 43 million players use it each day – more than double the number of daily users two years ago. However, one of the most striking differences was the age of the crowd of hundreds of game developers to whom Baszuki was speaking at Fort Mason, a former military base along the coast of San Francisco.

Not long ago, the crowd consisted mostly of children. On Thursday, there were many young adults. And as they’ve grown, Roblox, a colorful, blocky platform that offers millions of online games of all kinds, from exploring tropical islands to promoting digital pets, has tried to grow up with them. .

Roblox’s effort to keep in touch with older audiences while maintaining a safe environment for its youngest users provides both a road map and a cautionary note for other Internet companies attempting the opposite: To join together

While Roblox has often been praised for its efforts, protecting its young users has been an ever-evolving battle. The company reviews game content, offers parental controls and has chat filters that block profanity and information that can be used to identify people. Still, the clear material slips through the cracks. There have also been games that depict the re-creation of avatars and mass shootings of users engaging in graphic sexual activity.

Like many other Internet platforms, moderation has been a “really difficult problem for Roblox to get its arms around,” said Jeff Haynes, senior editor for web and video games at the children’s advocacy and media rating group Common Sense.

Roblox’s shift toward a mixed-age audience comes at a time when the privacy and vulnerability of children online is gaining global attention. Earlier this month, a Senate subcommittee spent several hours listening to a whistleblower detail that Instagram was harming its teen users. The whistleblower, the owner of Instagram, a former Facebook employee, is also expected to testify before government officials in the UK and EU in the coming weeks.

Mixing older users with Roblox’s traditional crowdfunding poses other security risks, such as the potential for young children to be exposed to predators or recruited by extremist groups. The company has tried to crack down on such misconduct, and Baszuki said he recognized that integrating different eras on its platform was “a challenge.” But he said that creating an online world that is safe and open to all was part of his vision for the so-called Metaverse, an idea that people could share a vast online universe together.

“We are optimistic that we can build this society that is truly accessible to all ages,” Baszuki said in an interview after his speech.

Roblox was launched in 2004 on the premise that most of its users were underage, so it took security measures to protect children from online harassment and predators. It has long been wildly popular with children, especially among 9 to 12 year olds.

Baszuki, who has a background in educational software, sees Roblox as a place where children can learn to code, explore virtual worlds, play and socialize, especially if their real-life school is The experience was incomplete. (Robox’s chief product officer, Manuel Bronstein, recently joined The New York Times Company’s board of directors.)

The company makes money by selling a digital currency called Robux, which is used to purchase in-game items, and it splits its profits with the independent developers who make many of the universe’s games. Developers are more closely tied to social media platforms like Twitter, TikTok, Snapchat and Instagram than content creators are, where teens say they often encounter toxic content.

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“We’re sharing less of our lives, and we’re more of, ‘Let’s play hide-and-seek, or go to ancient Rome,'” Buszucci said.

This month, Roblox said that, for the first time ever, more than half of its users were over the age of 13. It recently announced new tools designed to attract older players to the platform, such as more live avatars; the ability for developers to limit certain games to players 13 and older, or possibly players 17 and older; And a voice chatting facility is available for people who are at least 13 years old. To verify their age, users can upload a government-issued identification along with a selfie.

Earlier this month, Roblox updated its Community Standards to ban any depiction of romance or discussion of political parties. It also explicitly barred terrorist or extremist groups from recruiting or fundraising on the site – an issue that has plagued social media companies like Twitter for years.

Baszuki said it is a “huge responsibility” to integrate older users while maintaining standards of civility and good behavior. But he was optimistic that the company would be successful, he said, because Roblox has a history of treating children better than adults on other social platforms.

Child safety experts said that as other sites try to broaden their appeal to children — for example, Facebook said it would specifically target those 13 and younger — before suspending those plans. Will build an Instagram product for you – they can learn important lessons from Roblox.

Titania Jordan, chief parenting officer of Bark, a tech company that uses artificial intelligence to monitor children’s devices, said that although bad behavior can sometimes slip through the cracks at Roblox, the company is still in its approach to child safety. Is “commendable”, especially compared to sites like Facebook, Instagram and TikTok.

One Roblox tool other companies could implement, she said, was the ability to turn on parental controls that kids can’t disable. Jordan said she’d feel a lot better about letting her 12-year-old son use Snapchat, for example, to enter a PIN code at a certain time and lock the app for the rest of the night. An age verification system backed by an ID was also comfortable, compared to apps on which it’s easy for any age to log in and create an account, he said.

The fact that Roblox has devoted a good portion of its design to combating misconduct and illegal content, but is still facing criticism, could be another lesson for companies like Facebook, Common Sense’s Haynes said. He said it may take social platforms – many of which already devote considerable resources to policing offensive or violent content – ​​before they believe they can safely offer something to younger audiences. , try harder.

Roblox’s young developers are also optimistic. After all, they know what’s on the Internet outside the confines of the digital world of Roblox.

“You can always find little examples of something slipping away – someone spells a curse word in a weird way; everyone has seen that but compare it to the open internet,” says CJ Oyer, a 23-year-old developer who grew up playing roblox, said at the company conference.

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