Habbo sex scandal: how did we get here?

By Jeremy Wilson on June 20th, 2012

As with many of the visual entertainment mediums developed by humans, sex has cast its shadow over computer games since their inception. In 1972, Atari released their fourth game, Gotcha, a maze based game with the two joystick controllers replaced by two squeezable pink rubber bulges, setting a precedent for games flirting with innuendo. The mischievous pixel based smut that followed was never short of an audience. Text adventure game Softporn Adventure was released in 1981 for the Apple II and sold 25,000 copies. At the time, there were only 100,000 Apple IIs.

Mortal Kombat, Duke Nukem, Tomb Raider (Nude Raider if you downloaded the patch), Grand Theft Auto… As games have developed and graphics improved, adult themes of sex and violence have become entrenched. Gamers have accepted explicit imagery and themes as sine qua non for their virtual world in the same way that Picasso nudes hang from gallery walls and Sharon Stone uncrosses her legs on movie screens. From Gotcha onwards, sexually charged games have been made, sexually charged games have been bought and sexually games have been played.

So what do people get from playing sexually charged computer games? What do people get at all from playing computer games? The psychology of gamers is complicated, but there are common visceral sensations they are all chasing. People play for the challenge; they seek the reward of achievement through application, the journey not the result is what matters.

People play for the joy. They are enticed by curiosity and immerse themselves into the wonder of the virtual world. By indulging in equivocacy, they enjoy inhabiting a world of theirs and the game developer’s making. People play to escape reality. They seek to alter their internal sense of being by applying the emotional world of the game to themselves.

People play for the social experience. Multiplayer games offer interpersonal dynamics of competition and co-operation. The group playing experience intensifies the emotions associated with camaraderie. Thus the game becomes the facilitator of feelings not necessarily related to the virtual world of the game.

How does sex fit into all of this? Adult themes may well enhance the joy of the virtual world, by adding facetious gloss to the in-play detail. But, largely, sex is found permeating the immersive, escapist aspect of gaming. Engaging with titillating sexual themes is in essence an arousal. From the Theatre of Epidaurus to the books of the Brothers Grimm, we have sought vehicles through which to alter our emotions and fix our moods.

Computer games add a dimension of involvement to neurological pleasure seeking, but largely they function as manifestations of an amaranthine desire to change our state of mind through artistic stimulus.

The online social gaming arena functions by blending elements from the immersive altered reality that users experience playing video games with the new social networking world. These new social worlds have fostered two kinds of interpersonal online activity: synthetic recreations of real world interaction and anonymous communication. A quirk of this new anonymous communication is that, as it is perceived to exist outside of the real world, participants find it easy to stray from their social and moral frameworks. It is a microcosm in which primal instincts can roam unchecked.

Online social gaming in alls is guises is the curious offspring of the Massively Multiplayer Online Game (MMOG) genre: games that allow players to engage simultaneously in a single virtual world via the internet. The different types of MMOGs generally augment the existing sub-genres of computer games. The multi-player element in first-person shooters can be stretched beyond the split-screen, simulation games can increase their immersive reach and role-playing games can combine immersion with the unbridled depth and complexity that RPG gamers seek.

Social MMOGs however offer an unfamiliar gaming cocktail. There are the bastard spawn of Zynga varieties, disparagingly known as “cow clickers”; which leverage the players social media platform as a means of increasing stickiness. And there are the mash-ups of social networks and virtual worlds, which replace the pursuit of an objective or experience with the gamification of anonymous social interaction.

This social MMOG experience offers a new, piquant sensory adventure. Shooting people in multi-player mode on the N64’s GoldenEye (still the best computer game, ever) plunges you into a fantasy where you are able to act beyond your abilities and moral sensibilities. When anonymous communication is the core function of a game, that fantasy starts to dilute. It is this equivocal relationship with reality that often allures participants.

Perhaps the best known social MMOG is Second Life: an online virtual world and agent for living a fantasy life. You can play golf, start a business, join a steampunk community and, yes, have sex. In a world where adults are living lives and building relationships, it is to be expected that they should seek carnal gratification online. Luckily for them there’s a whole Second Life industry devoted to such needs: beds, whips, chains and genitals are all available for purchase.

The grey area of reality that these relationships occupy is illustrated by the meandering paths they can follow. Some people move their contact into the real world. Some even get married. Others pursue dark fantasies, carrying out acts in the virtual world that they couldn’t and wouldn’t ever in real life.

This brings us nicely to moral panic flavour of the moment, Habbo. Habbo is a social MMOG in much the same vein as Second Life, but with the fantasy dial turned down a notch. It is a gamified social network for teenagers set in a virtual hotel. Teens roam the Habbo hotel as an avatar which can converse with other avatars and can purchase for itself and others items with which to furnish rooms.

This set-up, combined with inept moderation, has led to predictable results. Let kids mingle in their own private world free from parental influence and a not insignificant part of their conversation will revolve around sex. Create a world where kids can converse anonymously with adults disguised as kids and – shock – you will attract perverts.

Habbo has not only created a world that facilitates these activities, its business practices encourages them. À la Zynga, it engages in the dubious practice of flogging immaterial “virtual goods”. In other words, a mechanism that facilitates preying on the fledgling addictive urges of young minds is baked into Habbo’s business model.

You do not build a revenue stream that involves strangers paying to furnish teenagers’ bedrooms with the cool stuff they want without realising who some of the people keen to offer the free stuff are going to be. And you most definitely do not allow your busiest rooms to be called “sexy stripclub” and “naughty nightclub” without realising you are providing the same service as a Second Life orgy room.

Channel 4’s Rachel Seifert described in detail what she found going on in those rooms. Rooms which were full of rows of beds with cartoon children laying down ready for people to come and have sex with them, rooms which had “kissing booths” which shook while they were being used for cyber sex. There were even little cartoon girls dressed in red and black bikini thongs and teddy bear ears who were dancing on a platform and performing a striptease for the cartoon boys while white ponies, bunny rabbits and chickens were running around in the background. It was unbelievable.

It makes the PR diarrhoea that shortly thereafter poured out from Sulake, Habbo’s parent company, feel a touch disingenuous. Here are some of the more juicy ejecta.

As soon as we saw the Channel Four News report on Tuesday evening, we took the decision to mute all conversations across the site. This has had a massive business impact, but the safety of our users is non-negotiable. We must maintain our focus on the quality of interaction within the Habbo community, and not the quantity of visits we receive.

During this time, senior management and world leading technologists are working tirelessly in our Helsinki headquarters to ensure that we deliver the best possible protection to the millions of teenagers and young people who regularly visit our site.

It doesn’t take the world’s most sophisticated algorithm to discover which avatar-clad paedophile keeps asking 13 year old girls whether they want to Skype. I’d suggest starting with a filter, for, let’s say, the word “Skype”?

“We want to work with our users to define and deliver a fully protected environment as well as a creative user experience,” wrote a representative of the company. “That’s why I am announcing ‘The Great Unmute’. It’s going to provide a chance for our users to create a conversational tidal wave, telling us what they want.” Not to keep being propositioned by paedophiles I’d imagine…

“We would like to thank Channel Four for initiating a global debate around this incredibly serious issue. It has provided a global wake-up call for both my company and our poorly-regulated industry and we fully intend to actively participate in finding a regulatory solution that will protect our users and ensure the long-term reputation and future of the social gaming community.”

The conviction of Matthew Leonard for online child sex offences after contacting the majority of his 80 victims through Habbo clearly wasn’t a sufficient wake-up call for Sulake…

The issue of child safety online has been rumbling on since the dawn of the internet, but perhaps these revelations about some of the abuses that can result from the gamification of young teenagers will be the wake-up call for decisive action. Let’s just hope rash decisions aren’t made. Already, moronic calls for censorship of the internet are starting to be heard. Andrea Leadsom MP’s views are typical of the ignorant responses from public figures.

Society has always held the view that it has been a right of parents to protect their children – to decide when and what they eat, when they go to bed etc. But with the advent of the online “wild west”, parents are considered neither capable nor have the time to ensure they can. This is bullshit. Parents need to grow up and take responsibility.

Pleading ignorance is not an excuse. We’re not talking about teenage boys salivating over a 32-bit Lara Croft: this is a distortion of reality in young minds. Expecting others to take care of kids’ interactions on virtual gaming platforms is ill-advised at best. They might not all channel naiveté and libido into their debauched revenue streams, but the potential for Habbo-type problems to materialise in any virtual setting where social interaction has been gamified is obvious.

There’s no point waiting for outside forces to intervene, as illustrated by John Carr, an advisor to the UK Government on internet safety policy for children. He was featured in the Channel 4 exposé expressing shock at its findings. When you advise on online child safety and don’t know what’s going on at the biggest teen social platform on the web, you are at best useless and worst a muculent charlatan.

This is basic stuff. Parents have to teach that virtual strangers are as real and dangerous as real life ones. In fact, more so: the dumbing down of social interaction to text boxes and cartoon characters makes grooming a lot easier. Kids need to know that bad people exist in the online world, and that their personal information is a valuable commodity.

Finally, maybe it’s time to ask whether 13 year old children have any place in the online social gaming world at all? Mark Zuckerberg can do with their own online interactions as he wishes. But does a 13 year old really need their developing sense of identity and self-worth to be whored off to an incompetent Finnish software company?