Ubiquity of Communication

Read this essay by Randy Farmer, a pioneer of virtual online worlds, explaining something called Disney’s ToonTown.

Designers of online worlds for children wanted to severely restrict the communication that users could have with each other, lest somebody say something that’s inappropriate for children to hear.

Randy discusses various approaches to this problem that were tried over the years. The ToonTown solution was to restrict users to something called “Speedchat,” a menu of pre-constructed sentences, all innocuous. They also gave users the ability to conduct unrestricted conversations with each other, provided they both knew a secret code string. The designers presumed the code strings would be passed only to people a user knew in real life, perhaps on a school playground or among neighbors.

Users found ways to pass code strings to strangers anyway. This page describes several protocols, using gestures, canned sentences, or movement of objects in the game.

After you read the ways above to make secret friends, look here. Another way to make secret friends with toons you don’t know is to form letters/numbers with the picture frames in your house. Around you may see toons who have alot of picture frames at their toon estates, they are usually looking for secret friends. This is how to do it! So, lets say you wanted to make secret friends with a toon named Lily. Your “pretend” secret friend code is 4yt 56s.

  • You: *Move frames around in house to form a 4.* “Okay.”
  • Her: “Okay.” She has now written the first letter down on a piece of paper.
  • You: *Move Frames around to form a y.* “Okay.”
  • Her: “Okay.” She has now written the second number down on paper.
  • You: *Move Frames around in house to form a t* “Okay.”
  • Her: “Okay.” She has now written the third letter down on paper. “Okay.”
  • You: *Do nothing* “Okay” This shows that you have made a space.
  • Repeat process

Randy writes: “By hook, or by crook, customers will always find a way to connect with each other.”

Posted on June 20, 2007 at 12:48 PM16 Comments


suomynona June 20, 2007 1:18 PM

you may see toons who have alot of
picture frames at their toon estates,
they are usually looking for secret friends.
… and they are also pedophiles or FBI agents

JoeHonkie June 20, 2007 1:49 PM

Hah. In Phantasy Star Online (another old multiplayer online game, which I played on the Dreamcast) they would censor a lot of words, and non-keyboard chat was pretty slow anyways. They did have a set of primitives that could be used to make preset chat pictures. These pictures were often worse than any four-letter expletive that you can think of.

I believe some folks had two pictures they would rapidly switch back and forth between to make an animated “scene.”

rapier57 June 20, 2007 1:56 PM

This kind of challenge is something children love, too. And they will pass around the information like crazy when they learn the new codes. Most children think this is just fun and don’t understand how dangerous it can be. It doesn’t matter how much to tell them not to talk to strangers, or play with guns or whatever, they are going to ignore that training much of the time when confronted with the gun or the stranger. It has something to do with wiring. I think the connections for danger avoidance don’t develop until after puberty.

Tanuki June 20, 2007 2:03 PM

Where there’s a will, there’s always a way. As a kid, a group of us had a secret code using plastic toy farm-animals as the transmission-medium.

I’m reminded of the product-safety warning on a packet of magnetic refrigerator-letters: “Letters may be used to construct words or phrases that some may find objectionable!”.

MikeA June 20, 2007 2:21 PM

… and they are also pedophiles or FBI agents

Or, if you live in the universe of “Numbers” (CBS), they may be serial killers working out their grievances against paedophiles with a little vigilante FBI-agent act…

Any way you slice it, bad idea.

Andy June 20, 2007 2:59 PM

I wonder if anyone considered that using the word “secret” in “secret friend” only makes the whole idea more enticing to children.

1-800-CALL-JIM June 20, 2007 4:58 PM

I think we are raising a generation of docile, cow-like kids. Rather than allowing them to interact and to make choices without having to get everything approved by an adult, we “protect” them, so that they never learn to accurately assess whether something is too dangerous. Then, they grow up and either cower in their apartments, afraid of imaginary threats, or they stroll out into the world oblivious to the occasional person who actually does want to harm them.

Example: talking to strangers. Everyone starts out as a stranger. If the kid can never talk to a stranger, what happens when he goes away to college? Are you going to go there with him to decide which professors and fellow students little Johnny can speak to? Are you going to arrange for him to have “approved” managers and coworkers and customers? If the answer is no, then you need to teach him NOW to talk to strangers but to use judgement as to whether (and when) to end the conversation.

chimera June 20, 2007 5:33 PM

@Andy re ‘Secret’ friend

“You know you’re not supposed to go in there. What is your fascination with my ‘Forbidden Closet of Mystery’?” — Chief Wiggum to Ralph

Peter E Retep June 20, 2007 10:39 PM

Most Kids are trying to decode an unknown mystery world
that they and their loved ones live in,
about which their parents make either cryptic remarks or concrete remarks,
but about which all they really know is what is concrete experience.

So, they are trying to discover the concrete meanings behind each and every concrete presence, whether that mask is the adults’ cryptic remarks, or it is the curtain of their own ignorance,
often coupled to the clues presented in the actual presentation of the concrete
directly to them by their senses,
both of which simply mask a mystery to which they respond by trying to find out.

This is one reason they are susceptible to other children’s entreaties
to copy and to “try out” the dares, delights, acts, experiences,
hence drugs, or other hidden substances, or consequences of others,
especially others near their own age and ability that communicate with them.

They simply don’t know, and they don’t know what they don’t know,
and they are trying to find out what connects to the truth of something or behind it.

Security is necessarily a trade-off,
hence an abstraction
created from two or more other abstractions,
known usually only to adults.

What works with kids is role-play
and rehearsal,
for their first response to
that unknown situation will be whatever seems
most like the familiar,
that reply that comes first in their minds.

C Gomez June 21, 2007 11:24 AM

I freely admit I was one of those kids, but over twenty years ago. I was on Compuserve and the early Prodigy and AOL, not to mention local BBS’s.

Yes, I met a lot of unsavory people.

I consider myself lucky, or maybe well-heeled. I never really got close to anyone who was dangerous and they never got private information from me. I don’t know if I was instilled with some good senses of privacy or what. Maybe I was just lucky.

Or maybe dangerous people weren’t prowling those lines of cyberspace back then.

Personally, I would want these games “for children” to have methods to prevent communication with strangers. I think as a parent, it is my responsibility to know what is going on in the virtual world. I see no reason why I shouldn’t approve those communications and use my judgment in allowing new friends.

Sure, kids form covert channels, but I still own the computer. If I don’t recognize a listed friend code, I’ll want an explanation.

First and foremost, I would take my responsibility as a parent to instill good values and sense about making online friends. Some of my best friends are friends I made online, and have come to meet and spend time with back in our real world, so to speak.

Richard June 21, 2007 5:16 PM

Mattel has a similar online environment with whitelist chat for Barbie. They use an interesting method for becoming a best friend’ with whom free chat is possible. To become a ‘best friend’ you must take your friends barbie doll MP3 player and plug it into your computer. Most little girls won’t be popping their Barbie Doll MP3 player in the post to the local pedophile (we hope). I’ll be interested to see what work around is discovered however.

bob June 22, 2007 7:13 AM

@rapier57: “I think the connections for danger avoidance don’t develop until after puberty.”

actually I think they dont develop until after PREGNANCY…

Anon Y. Mouse June 23, 2007 10:17 AM

Yep, yep… it’s essentially impossible to limit
communications if any interaction is allowed…
all it takes is a couple of agreed upon symbols
(say, one & zero?) and everything can be built
up from those. If not the picture frame ruse
described above, then something else. The kids
might even re-discover Morse code.

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