Something that I like to discuss is the ease with which individuals open themselves up to cyberstalking. A lot of people don’t even realize the detail they are revealing during online conversations and gaming sessions. While these online gaming tips should be considered by adults, the goal of this checklist is to create a conversation point for parents and children (and teenagers).
Online Gaming: The Setup
What video game are you playing?
Different video games have different levels of interaction. Some games, such as first person shooters, sports games, and casual games are less likely to have high levels of interaction. While MMOs (Massively Multiplayer Online Games) and MOBAs (Multiplayer Online Battle Arenas) are likely to have higher levels of interaction.
What video game platform are you using?
Video games played over console have many benefits when it comes to online privacy. Mostly, the communication platform is built into the console. You don’t have to worry about data exposure from external platform usage. At the same time, everything is tied to a paid account and you associate closely with that profile, often linking other accounts to your console identity. Knowing where this data is associated is key.
What is your online username or persona? Does the game tie your username to your in-game name?
Many games will have a username that is separate from your in-game name. Others will use your email for login and display the username to everyone. I personally encountered this issue when I created a Blizzard account. I picked my usual ‘treguly’ username, assuming I’d then pick an in-game name. Unfortunately, they displayed that name in game and I had to reach out to support to have them change my username to something less identifiable.
Additionally, people tend to assume an online persona and use it across message boards, forums, and other places. You may share little nuggets of information in each of these places that allow someone to piece together your identity. It’s important to know exactly where this name is already in use and what you are revealing.
Online Gaming: In Game
What information are you sharing?
This is the big one and one where it’s a good idea to set ground rules ahead of time. Can you share your country? Your state or province? Your town? Can you say how old you are, when your birthday is, or what your real name is? These are important rules to establish ahead of time.
Another big one is email address. I commonly establish a separate email address just for gaming purposes. When I sign up for discussion boards, game related websites, or provide an email address because somebody in-game wants to send me something, I use a throw away account tied to that in-game persona. It avoids leaking too much information, because your email address is often the key to finding a plethora of information.
Does the game allow the sharing of URLs?
Clicking on links is the most common wait to be baited into running an exploit, downloading malware, or falling for phishing. Does the video game allow anyone to just randomly share URLs with other gamers? What is your policy for clicking on these links?
Does the game allow for world building?
Games where you build worlds or maps are relatively common and even single player games where this happens can leak information. If you build a map of a city in Cities: Skylines (a single player game) and release it, there’s a chance it’s your hometown. Perhaps you model Toronto in Minecraft, others might assume you live in Toronto.
Online Gaming: Out of Game
What third party tools do you use?
Some tools, like Discord or Slack, allow for out of game communication without revealing too much personal data. They are common in gaming communities and simply display a username that you select. Other tools, however, like TeamSpeak or Mumble will disclose your IP address to the server admins. The same is true for forums related to video games. If these are large public entities, this may not be a big deal but with smaller sites dedicated to groups within the game, this may reveal personal information that you don’t want revealed.
How is your Microphone configured?
Whether you use your Mic with the in-game communication option or a third party service, there are typically three options: Always On / Continuous Transmission, Push to Talk (PTT), and Voice Activated (VOX). Always On is seldom used and typically frowned upon, so users end up with PTT or VOX as an option. VOX should be considered the weaker of the two options from a privacy standpoint as it is likely to pick up background noise or other speakers. This may mean that private conversations end up transmitted to whoever is on the other end of the connection.
Do you stream?
Many users these days are turning to Twitch or YouTube to stream video games. The setups to do this can be quite basic (like the functionality built into your Xbox One) or complex (with multiple cameras, microphones, and scene switching software). If you are streaming, what is your setup? Are you displaying your full screen or a subset of your screen? Do pop-ups from other programs get displayed? What is shown in your background? Is there anything that could reveal where you are or who you are? It may be worthwhile to invest in a cheap green screen or backdrop in order to mask the real background.
While this list isn’t complete, these are great questions to get the conversation started. Whether it’s your tween’s first foray into online gaming, a catch-up conversation with your “I want to be a professional gamer” teenager, or a hobby that distracts you from the daily grind, it’s worth knowing what you’re exposing and with whom you’re sharing that data.