Competitive video gaming has never been more popular. In just a few short years it has evolved from a niche interest rooted in hardcore gamer culture to sold-out arenas like Madison Square Garden and even possible inclusion in upcoming Olympics.
While competitive gaming helps teach players critical skills like problem-solving, teamwork, and communication, there are also many negatives — especially when it comes to player privacy. Let’s take a look at just one example of how we may be revealing more than we realize.
A (very) brief overview of League of Legends
League of Legends (aka League) is a massively popular online multiplayer battle arena that offers players several different game types. The goal is generally the same regardless of which mode a player selects: Destroy your enemy’s base while protecting your own. Whichever team destroys the other’s base first wins.
To achieve victory, it’s not enough for players to be skilled — they must also communicate and strategize. While there is an option to handpick your own team, many players — especially those new to the game — are paired with total strangers. If your teammates are friendly, perform well, or simply aren’t trolls, it makes sense to join forces for upcoming matches.
This is where things can become problematic.
Oversharing with strangers and IRL meetings
If players simply met strangers online or communicated solely about the game at hand, privacy and safety concerns would be minimized. However, this is rarely the case. Players frequently share personal details about their lives with teammates, especially if they have a history of playing together.
When The Washington Post asked 17-year-old Chasion Adams about conversing with his online teammates, he provided insight as to how natural oversharing can be:
“It's like we have the game in common which is cool and then we talk about everything else like what kind of music we like and what's going on with school."
Revealing personal details, including what school they attend, can put minors (and even adults) in a world of danger.
Further, players aren’t just connecting with unknown players online — they’re meeting them in real life. According an in-depth study by the Pew Research Center, as much as a third of teenagers who meet strangers online are also meeting them in person. This can be especially problematic, considering multiplayer chat is one of the most popular ways online predators contact children.
For more terrifying statistics, you can read CNN’s article about online predators.
Troubling privacy options
When a player invites a stranger to their party or joins the lobby of another player, their microphone instantly turns on. Others connected to League’s voice client can hear every word they’re saying. Here are three features that should cause concern.
#1 Automatically join voice channel
By default, when a player joins a party, they automatically join the associated voice channel. That means other users connected to the voice client can hear the player, sometimes without that player’s knowledge.
#2 Input mode set to “voice activity”
Making matters much worse, the input mode is set to “Voice Activity” by default. This means users don’t have to push a button (walkie-talkie style) to communicate. If the system detects a certain level of noise, it begins automatically transmitting that data to everyone on the channel.
#3 Other players can manipulate the system
If a player initially disconnects from chat, they will not appear visible to others.
However, they can connect at any point during the game, and other players will not be notified someone new has joined. This means a player may not even realize they’re being spied on.
Perhaps the most troubling aspect of this is League of Legends has had a tremendous amount of time to get this right. Players have been asking for voice chat for years, and millions have since turned to third-party apps for functionality. To struggle with core privacy options this late in the game is, quite frankly, astonishing.
Other privacy concerns
This is far from the only privacy concern parents and gamers should have. For example, many gamers use their handle as part of their social media profiles. Often, social handles and gamertags are the exact same. That means online strangers can easily track down the player’s real-life profile.
Additionally, many games post a user’s match history online. Strangers can learn what time you or your children typically play video games, who their preferred characters (aka champions) are, and other sensitive data than can be used for nefarious purposes.
For many gaming companies, this data is set to public by default. However, some providers are getting with the times, including Steam, the world’s largest video gaming service. They made waves earlier this year when they set all gamers’ libraries to private by default.
What steps can you take to safeguard privacy?
If you’re looking to safeguard your privacy and that of your family, there is no magic bullet.
Every game, every platform, and every console is a bit different. For the specific League voice channel issues, opt out of automatically joining their voice channel and select the push-to-talk option.
If your children play games online, check their privacy settings not just when they initially sign up, but periodically to make sure that no settings have been changed. If you don’t want them playing video games with strangers online, investigate the settings different online games offer. It can also be a great opportunity to talk to your kids about privacy in general, what it means to them, and how they can take an active role in defending their own privacy.
If you’re a gamer yourself, make sure to check through your privacy settings on all your platforms, and check back in every so often, especially if there’s an update.
For more information about preserving your child’s online safety, check out the ESRB’s official page on the matter. And to learn more about staying as anonymous as possible, you can download our complimentary guide, Protecting Your Privacy: Best Practices for Mobile, Social, and Search Settings.
The most important thing you can do, however, is stay vigilant.
Know which games your children or friends are playing, and ensure they’re taking the proper precautions. If you’re not sure what those may be, contact the game’s manufacturer or visit their website. You can often easily answer any question you may have, and from my experience, they are eager to help.