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Roblox voice chat checks ID to keep kids safe, but slurs and sex sounds slip through

(The Washington Post)
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“Roblox,” the gaming platform accessed daily by more than 43 million active users, many of them children, is garnering complaints from users, parents and privacy advocates after granting large groups of players access to a new voice chat feature last week. This new feature, which allows users to hear the voices of other players in their proximity in the game, is intended as another element to help developer Roblox Corporation craft its version of the metaverse, or a more immersive Internet. Instead, the company is having trouble smoothly surfing the Web’s new wave after reports of players using voice chat to disrupt experiences with slurs and lewd noises. There is also criticism of an associated identity verification system to access the voice chat feature, which requires users to submit a photo of themselves and a government-issued ID to prove they are 13 years of age or older.

Roblox Corporation sees spatial voice chat as part of the path toward its vision of the metaverse by replicating real-world interactions and conversations in its digital playground. While Facebook and others in the tech sector jockey for position in a race that will supposedly deliver a new, immersive, highly commodifiable Internet, “Roblox” is in a better position than most to realize some version of the metaverse due to its users’ ability to move between innumerable player-created worlds and maintain belongings purchased with in-game currency, called Robux. But so far, the addition of spatial voice chat has presented the developer with a number of challenges as it grapples with users’ freedom to communicate and the online safety of young players.

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In-game voice chat has been an increasingly common component in games that require collaboration and coordination among players; it also lets users just socialize while playing. For “Roblox,” which allows its denizens — a vast portion of whom are under the age of 16 — to make their own games, users previously communicated via text-based chat bubbles or through their own self-curated servers on Discord, a popular messaging platform unaffiliated with “Roblox.” Now with voice chat, verified users can have their voice projected into the speakers and headsets of any other user wandering within earshot in the game: You might encounter, for example, a blocky human audibly professing their love to a photorealistic potato. This makes “Roblox’s” cornucopia of player-made worlds feel like living, breathing places — digital realms rife with opportunities for human spontaneity.

But while spatial voice chat could deepen the immersion of fantasy adventures or just allow players to chill in a room and talk, it also means strangers can approach and communicate with minors using voice chat, which is accessible to users ages 13 and older. (“Roblox” is rated as suitable for players 10 and up by the Entertainment Software Rating Board.) This presents a potential liability at a time when the FBI has warned about predators preying on children in video games and reports have uncovered predators targeting underage creators on gaming-adjacent platforms like Twitch and YouTube. A June report from Wired detailed a group of users within “Roblox” who administered rules for their in-game community that equated to fascism, subjugating some users’ characters as enslaved people.

The introduction of voice chat into “Roblox” has sparked social media discourse over the wisdom of the decision, with numerous players posting about hearing slurs. Some have posted videos of simulated sex sounds and acts and discussion of drug sales. One such player, who goes by the Twitter handle “MattST” and did not offer his full name, said he encountered the latter in “Roblox Community Space,” a game made by “Roblox” itself.

“It’s not very hard to find a server of people simulating inappropriate things from drug deals to sexual acts,” MattST said.

Other “Roblox” users have questioned whether some kids under the age of 13 are sneaking through the vetting system. A “Roblox” player going by “Kairoh” posted video of what sounds like a young player using voice chat in a role-play shooter game called “Da Hood" and said they encountered “more kids spewing vulgar words.” Another user, “xDemon,” posted on Twitter about hearing a player he believed to be under the age of 13 “scream the n word over and over again” in a game called “Mic-Up.”

“ID requirement seems useless if all these little kids keep getting passed it,” xDemon said when reached via a Twitter direct message.

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Brian Jaquet, senior director of public relations for the Roblox Corporation, said the company has been rolling out the voice chat feature over the course of the year to minimize harm.

“Communication is at the heart of how our users connect and socialize with each other, which is why we are gradually rolling out spatial voice and age verification to the platform in a slow, measured way,” Jaquet said. “The safety of our community is our number one priority and influences the decisions we have made and will continue to make.”

Voice chat has been a vexing component of the games industry for this very reason. To help guard its community against such inappropriate behavior, “Roblox” is requiring anyone who uses the voice chat feature to first register by sending a photo of their government-issued ID — a driver’s license, ID card or passport — along with a selfie. The process has rankled its younger users who want to utilize the feature but do not have a government-issued ID, as well as those concerned for the security of their personally identifiable information. “Roblox” has had two data breaches — one in 2016 and one in 2019 — that revealed troves of personal info and allowed malicious parties to alter people’s games, respectively. Roblox Corporation says it has designed the age verification system so that data is encrypted, utilizing a third-party company, Veriff, for the task.

“'Roblox’ does not store raw ID documents nor selfie data,” Jaquet said. “Although session information is stored by Veriff, no Veriff employees have access to any ‘Roblox’-specific information. Veriff then passes the metadata that confirms whether a user has passed verification.”

While many players on Twitter have voiced skepticism of the system for privacy reasons, other “Roblox” creators feel like it falls in line with the modern, society-wide erosion of privacy.

“I would assume anyone who has a smartphone in their hands is already forfeiting so much of their information to every third party out there,” said popular “Roblox” YouTuber Megan “MeganPlays” Letter. “I just think it’s another one of those things. It is what it is.”

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The goal of this two-step process is to avoid fraudulent IDs, an idea so prevalent that many “Roblox” players have joked about stealing their parents’ IDs, while TikTok turned fake submissions of joke IDs — like a notorious image from the movie “Superbad” — into a meme.

“Fraudulent IDs or an ID that belongs to someone else will be declined,” Jaquet said. “In addition, we use multiple signals from a user’s selfie for facial recognition as well as multiple points of contact from their ID to determine that they are an authentic individual. Obviously, we discourage that kind of behavior, but our verification flow is well tested to reject users that upload fake IDs.”

Jaquet added that the identity verification process would remain in place despite the criticism.

Users that encounter toxic players abusing the voice chat have the in-game option of blocking or muting offenders. “Roblox” also allows users to report them. However, MattST and others that spoke with The Post questioned the effectiveness of reporting violators.

“'Roblox' has a big track record of having almost useless moderation to the point it is a meme,” MattST said, noting that he did not report the above incident for that reason.

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Ammon Runger, community director at “Roblox”-focused developer Schwifty Studios, believes Roblox Corporation still does more to prevent harmful comments and content than it gets credit for. For example, he noted that in text chat, an automated moderation system targets even non-vulgar messages like “Where do you live?” and “Wanna meet up?” and games featuring inappropriate themes — for example, pornography and graphic violence — regularly get deleted from the platform.

Voice chat is more difficult to moderate because it occurs in real time. Jaquet said the company is working to improve voice chat moderation.

“'Roblox' is using a combination of user reports and other user actions like mutes and blocks to identify and take action against players who are disrupting the experience for others,” he said, “and our moderation tools will continue to improve during this beta period.”

For now, explained Jaquet, “Roblox” has employees manually reviewing every voice chat report, but as more and more players gain access to the feature, algorithms will play a “bigger” role in moderation. In addition to that, “We will be instituting additional mechanics that are aimed at ensuring civil discourse," he said.

Alisha Karabinus, a games researcher at Grand Valley State University in Michigan and a parent of two children ages 8 and 13, questioned the practicality of depending on young users to report bad behavior.

“How will that work with kids? Will they report on one another? Will they tell an adult? Or will they be afraid to tell an adult for fear that their game might be taken away?” Karabinus said. “[If no one under 13 can access voice chat] it also results in what is basically a badge or a label for younger users on the platform, and that is definitely a concern. Does such a division make the platform’s youngest users more identifiable then, and therefore more vulnerable?”

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As a parent, Karabinus said she’s still coming to grips with the new chat system.

“There’s already such a problem with griefing and hostility in some games — and early ['Roblox'] chat clips seem to be going exactly as expected with that.

“Game spaces, as we well know, are not always the most friendly, and while we can build great communities within games, they usually are just that: intentionally built and maintained groups and spaces, not random public ‘squares,’ as it were.”

Karabinus said her son has aged out of being interested in “Roblox,” but that she probably won’t let her daughter — who uses “Roblox” to keep in touch with friends and role-play via text chat — use spatial voice chat even when she’s older.

“Frankly, I can’t imagine allowing voice chat with strangers in there, even if she was old enough to participate,” Karabinus said. “I don’t particularly want her hearing it, either.”

Mitch Kocen, a Pennsylvania-based writer and parent who has three “Roblox”-playing kids, said that while he intends to cut down on his young son’s “Roblox” playing time in the future, he’s more concerned about inappropriate content on other platforms.

“What I really need to do is to figure out how to crack down on his YouTube browsing,” Kocen said. “That stuff is bonkers.”