So you may have read or seen this story about how an 11 year old autistic boy was labeled a cheater by XBox Live and his 1500 achievements taken away:
The first reaction might be, "How could that happen? Why are you so evil, Microsoft!"
And, according to Stephen Toulouse, Director of Policy and Enforcement for Xbox LIVE, he had personally verified that some outside means was done to get those achievements. Then things get ethically ambiguous, as on one hand, everyone hates a cheater, and on the other hand, the mom tells a pretty good story about how this is a significant outlet in the child's life.
Speaking of the child's life, one's next reaction may be, "Why is this the boy's only social outlet?" Now, having known parents of autistic children - one severely - I can certainly understand that it may be very difficult. A few key questions run through my brain:
- Why is the mother letting the kid play violent shooters? Autistic or not, violent shooters are not appropriate for 11 year olds.
- Does the mother let the child use a microphone, or listen to other people while playing? The amount of smack talk that goes on in online games - especially shooters - is amazing. The rampant homophobic and racial slurs, whiny teenage boys, and malicious taunting - even if it's only 1 out of 10 players - is enough to make me not want to play them.
- Does Microsoft not see the implicit bad PR associated with doing anything negative with an autistic child?
- Isn't there *some* other activity that her mom can get her son interested in?
Why would an 11 year old autistic boy cheat?
Ah, it's obvious, isn't it? The online community of gaming is simply not healthy for a demographic that young. Kids at age 11 - autistic or not - shouldn't be subjected to this. These are highly competitive environments with very little empathy or patience. A child that age would be under a lot of pressure, and so I'm not surprised at all that he cheated to grab a few achievements. The real question is, "Why does Microsoft not care about how awful the online gaming environment is?"
Well, it does go back to parents. I'll almost always take the game company's side in that games should be able to be explicit, but appropriately rated. Parents need to watch what their kids are playing and put their foot down against things that aren't appropriate for their level of maturity.
At the same time, Microsoft has a very hands-off approach to their game-play community. Unless someone's cheating, the amount of vulgarity and offensiveness in online games can be astounding, especially shooter games. It's hardly just Microsoft's problem, either. I've yet to see any sort of self-policing system where users can submit particularly offensive audio for review. And it'd be so easy to do - the same way many games have video-capture built in that grabs the last 30 seconds from the game.
And this is bigger than an 11 year old problem. The harassment is from all ages and targeted at players of all ages. Online shooters account for the biggest opening weekend game sales records, and earn billions of dollars to the publishers behind them. But do they care what really goes on during the games? No, they slap a "rating of this game may change with online experience" or similar euphemistic legal dribble.
What is cheating?
Back to the specific case, the cheating isn't even that serious. Who really cares if some 11 year old boy has more achievements? It's not even in-game cheating where a player would get an advantage. Hey, you want some easy achievements, from an "external source"? Go to any one of a hundred websites with game secrets and tips. You'll unlock way more secrets through cheating by looking online than you will with some software hack.
That's what makes this so ridiculous. So Microsoft, buck up, give the kid back his achievements, and apology. And to the mother - well - good luck. Maybe consider nicer games, because the source of the problem isn't going away.