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Younger gamers learn how to cheat

ERIC BENDEROFF • Mar 9, 2007 at 8:18 AM

With all the qualms parents have about the Internet, from worrying about sexual predators to whether their kids spend too much time online, here's another one: It can teach them how to cheat.

At one increasingly popular site where young kids inhabit a fantasy world of penguins and igloos, some are downloading illicit software to stuff their virtual pockets with gold coins instead of earning their keep fairly by playing games. Across the Internet, blogs, message boards and even video clips on YouTube.com offer 8- to 12-year-olds tips and tricks on how to steal coins at ClubPenguin.com or swindle their way to a higher salary at Whyville.net. A simple Google search pops up hundreds of places to find such insights.

During the last three months, cheating has become such a concern at Club Penguin that on Tuesday the Canadian company approved new guidelines banning the practice, said Lane Merrifield, co-founder and chief executive.

"If anyone is caught trying to instruct other players or is teaching them how to cheat on Club Penguin, even on another Web site, blog or forum, we are instituting a permanent ban of the player who is doing the teaching," he said.

Parents are generally happy with sites like Club Penguin and Whyville, where their kids can play safely online and interact with other youngsters. But to some educators, the cheating is yet another example of a competitive culture looking for shortcuts to get ahead. Worse, these cheaters can be as young as 8, and by unfairly learning how to obtain the biggest igloo on the block, it could foreshadow cheating in other aspects of life.

During the last two decades, cheating in school is "absolutely getting worse," said Tim Dodd, executive director at the Center for Academic Integrity at Duke University. "We've looked at middle school behavior and seen students begin the life of a plagiarist. They are downloading pieces from the Internet and using it as their commentary paper for the fifth or sixth grade."

(EDITORS: BEGIN OPTIONAL TRIM) For parents, though, the issue of cheating at sites where their child plays merrily in a virtual world while meeting new friends from across the globe is not even on their radar. "She talks to her friends in Spanish" on Club Penguin, said Penny Facchini, of Highland Park, Ill., talking about her 11-year-old daughter, Renee. "She's got to be learning something." Renee was up at 6:15 a.m., Wednesday and already on Club Penguin, where she was arranging the furniture in her igloo. "To me, it appears to be a safe, wonderful way to spend her free time," Facchini said. (END OPTIONAL TRIM) The world of Club Penguin, which launched in October of 2005, is getting very large. While the company won't disclose how many members it actually has, data from ComScore Networks showed it had nearly 4 million unique visitors in January, double the unique visitors the site had in July.

A spokesman from Club Penguin called the 4 million figure "conservative."

Here's how the virtual world operates:

Kids sign up, pay up to $4.95 per month and are assigned a penguin, which represents the child's online image. The penguins waddle around the site and bump into other penguins they can chat with.

Penguins and their igloos are plain at first, but as kids accumulate coins at various games, they can purchase nicer clothes or buy furniture, fireplaces and carpet for their igloos. Each month, a new catalog of outfits and igloo upgrades is introduced. An Ice Castle igloo upgrade offered in the March catalog sells for 5,100 coins.

Hence, there is constant competition among the penguins to have the coolest igloo and the latest fashions - and some kids are too impatient to play a game to earn more coins.

On the Web, they can find a sophisticated program called WPE Pro that "sniffs" network connections and can be used for a variety of online games, including those on Club Penguin.

"It's a down-and-dirty network analysis tool," said Dave Cole, director of security response for computer security firm Symantec Corp. "As data travels to from the computer to the Club Penguin server, it stands in the middle and modifies that traffic. That's where your cheats come in."

Essentially, the software tricks the server into thinking a penguin has earned more coins.

(EDITORS: STORY CAN END HERE) Another worry: While the program itself won't harm a computer, Cole said, kids often pick up this "gray area" software at sites known for secretly downloading spyware to a computer.

The cheating is no secret to some kids.

When Penny Facchini asked her daughter about the cheats, Renee said, "Oh yeah, Mom, I know about it," Facchini said. "I had no idea. But thankfully Renee said she would never do it, that ‘it was like stealing from a bank.'"

(EDITORS: STORY CAN END HERE) Beth Irwin, a mother of three kids who play on Club Penguin, was startled to hear about the cheating on the site.

"My 10-year-old [Abigail] is more competitive and her main objective is to earn coins and buy furniture and fancier igloos," said Irwin. "My girls love to go in and look at all the members' igloos to see what other people have. But if they learned those igloos were done through cheating, I think that would be very disappointing for them."

When she asked her two girls about the cheating, they said they were unaware it existed.

"I asked them if they would do it, if it was as simple as hitting a few keys, and they both said no," Irwin said. "But they admitted it would be tempting."

At Whyville.net, another virtual world for tweens, members are banished if they are caught cheating, said Jay Goss, chief operating officer.

Banished members would have to ask their parents to create a new account and explain why they were kicked off the site.

"That can be a pretty impactful way of learning something," Goss said.

Cheating and gaming go hand in hand.

It is ingrained in the culture, said Reilly Brennan, a spokesman for Chicago's Midway Games, who called it the main reason for buying gaming magazines. The magazines are filled with hints, shortcuts and hidden codes to help players get a leg up. Now, "the Internet has become the biggest hint book ever made."

But the notion that young children are learning to cheat to get ahead of their peers is worrisome, said Duke's Dodd. "There are subtle and not so subtle messages that only getting ahead matters," he said. "It's the notion of status. We've entered this high stakes notion of living."

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