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Kids steal to feed gaming habits
by Sia Ling Xin

MORE children are stealing credit cards and cash from their parents to secretly purchase virtual items for computer games.

These items are typically weapons that help a player advance in a game, or limited-edition virtual collectibles.

At Touch Cyber Wellness & Sports, a cyber-wellness education programme for youths run by voluntary welfare group Touch Community Services, counsellors have seen 14 per cent of the 191 gamers they have counselled from 2006 to last year exhibit stealing behaviour, said its manager, Mr Poh Yeang Cherng.

Mr Nicholas Gabriel Lim, executive director of psychological- services provider iGROW, said that in the last five years, seven in 10 youths whom he had counselled steal money to buy items such as MP3 players and mobile phones.

In the past year, he has seen a shift towards stealing for gaming – from hardly any cases, to two out of 10.

A school counsellor, who declined to be named, said: “There will always be youths who make the mistake of stealing. We are now seeing more cases of kids who steal in order to buy the coolest pair of shoes, virtual swords and animals.

“It’s harder to detect such theft because there is no tangible evidence of it, but this is a big problem that’s going to get bigger.

“Kids are hiding in their virtual worlds. This accounts for their obsession with virtual toys. They’re forgetting there’s a real world.”

Mr Poh added that a reason for the problem is that game developers are exploring different ways to maximise revenue from games.

Developers used to make money just from the sale of games. Today, however, they also earn revenue from the trading of virtual items, he said.

“In recent years, we observed that payment for games’ features has become easily accessible to children and youths,” he said, citing payment methods such as value cards from convenience stores, SAM machines, SMS-payments and ez-link cards.

The accessibility of payment methods encourages children and youths to use them, which can cause more theft cases, he said.

Mr Jason Chong, creative director of game-developing company Think! Studio, does not think such games pose a serious problem.

Players can pay US$1 (S$1.41) to US$19.90 to buy points that are used to redeem virtual items that his company lists on social- networking website Facebook. The games are “affordable to most teens and children” who “have a wide range of payment options”, he said.

He advised parents to play the games with their children and let them make small purchases as a reward for good behaviour. He added that if his company were to receive “any parental complaints or advice, we will identify (the problem) and assist them”.

Mr Lim said other reasons for the trend of stealing include peer pressure and youths’ need to fit in.

It is not unusual for youths to be led by their emotions to behave in a certain way in order to relieve their frustration and boredom, he said, adding that these emotive responses may lead to consequences which they are often unhappy about.

Parents can help youths recognise the consequences of their actions, and have them undertake a new and better response to similar situations, he said.

A 13-year-old girl succumbed to stealing because she enjoyed playing Farmville, a game on Facebook where players build a farm from scratch and harvest virtual crops and animals. Players can use credit cards to purchase “farm dollars” to buy items such as a lake, which costs 56 farm dollars, equivalent to US$10.

The girl stole her parents’ credit card and spent about $25 on the game. She said: “I wanted a farm that people would be jealous of, and having a beautiful farm makes me happy.

“So I took my parents’ credit card without permission. I thought I’d just do it, and maybe no one will find out.” After her parents found out what she did, she tried to persuade three of her friends to steal from their parents.

They refused and reasoned with her, making her realise that stealing was wrong, and that she should not drag them into it.

One of her friends’ parents informed her family, who decided to sit down with her for a discussion. The girl’s mother said: “It’s shocking. I’ve heard about kids getting addicted to gaming and spending too much time on it, but I’d never expected anyone to steal to buy virtual things.” On her parents’ advice, the girl has taken up other hobbies such as cycling and abacus class.

These activities have cut down the amount of time she spends on computer games by more than half.

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