Today’s games use the internet to challenge other players around the world, who are also logged on to their own computers or consoles.
Whether using a PC, Mac or console such as the Sony PlayStation 3, Microsoft Xbox 360 and Nintendo Wii, online multiplayer games are now increasingly popular, linking children to other players across the globe.
Even a handheld device like the Nintendo DS or Sony PSP can connect to the web and give access to strangers to play against.
Many games will allow the use of headsets with microphones attached, so young people can talk to their rivals. Others may take advantage of web cameras to allow them to see each other.
And while youngsters may understand the rules around - and dangers of - social networking, chatrooms and mobile phones, they may not match these up with online gaming.
Instead, they may be more likely to let their guard down in an environment where they are distracted and having fun.
If your children play games online, here are some tips to help you keep them safe.
PARENTAL CONTROLS: All games consoles – as well as computers – have parental controls built-in that allow you to restrict access on your child’s login to games that aren’t appropriate for their age group.
Some of these controls will also let you set how they interact and communicate and what they are able to download. Make sure to investigate these; they aren’t as complicated to set up, as you might fear.
Keep the console in the living room, rather than a bedroom, so you can monitor how it is being used and for how long.
FRIENDS’ LISTS: As with any list of people your children talk to online through Instant Messaging, discuss the same risks and problems surrounding ‘buddies’ on their games console.
Do they really know who these people are? Remind them not to tell strangers in the virtual gaming world where they live, their age, give out phone numbers or addresses and never ever arrange to meet without an adult present.
USERNAMES: When you play multiplayer games online, you will have to choose a username, nickname or handle. Children should never use their real name but they should also be taught to be careful about the title they choose so it is not offensive, or sexually suggestive.
GAME RATINGS: If a game says it is for over 18s, then it is for adults only. Be aware of what your youngsters are playing, these games are age-rated for a reason. Do not buy products that aren’t meant for their age range. Talk to their friends’ parents to ensure they aren’t playing 18+ games out of your sight.
CYBER BULLYING: Bullies can thrive in any online environment and are just as much of a danger in the gaming arena. They could send text or email-style messages through the computer or console, or use voice chat to make threats and deliver abuse. Keep an eye on your child’s emotional state when they finish playing.
GROOMING: The Child Exploitation and Online Protection Centre (CEOP) warns that children may be approached through online gaming by those with a sexual interest in young people. It can be very easy for them to contact a child and the young person could be encouraged to carry out inappropriate behaviour in return for gaming rewards or cheats. Remind youngsters to tell an adult straight away if they come into contact with anyone who makes them feel uncomfortable, or to report it to CEOP.
GAME WITH THEM: Websites such as Disney’s Club Penguin offer a safer place for children under 10 to enjoy online games with each other. For older children and teens playing online PC games such as World of Warcraft, parents may find it useful to sit with them and understand the virtual worlds they venture into. Or play along with them too.
ADDICTION: Online gaming can be fun, but it can also be addictive. Children can become obsessed with completing a game in the fastest time or achieving the biggest number of rewards. Set time limits of play and be careful your child is not sneaking down to play it at night when you are in bed. Do not allow them to use the console in their bedroom at night.