The ABCs of e-mail

A new Carnegie Mellon computer game teaches elementary schoolers how to play safe online.

There is no completely effective “child lock” for the Internet, but one team has come up with the next-best thing. The team, from Carnegie Mellon’s CyLab and Information Networking Institute, created a game for kids to learn about cybersecurity.

Today’s information age has boomed with the success of the Internet. The Internet is a powerful resource for finding information, connecting with friends, and doing whatever web browsing one desires.

Nearly endless quantities of information, large amounts of which are personal, flow through the World Wide Web every day. However, as with all things, there are downsides to using the Internet.

A huge concern for most Internet users is the protection of information, also known as cybersecurity. Cybersecurity involves protecting user information from any nonapproved party, be it a company or an online snoop.

A young virtual audience

A recent survey conducted by i-SAFE, Inc., an Internet safety educational group, found that over 70 percent of students access the Internet at least once a week. About one-third of all the students surveyed used instant messaging and e-mail to contact friends over the Internet.

Because of the high exposure to the virtual domain, many risks arise for kids’ safety. When children enter chat rooms, personal information such as their addresses or names can often come up in conversation.

Children sometimes do not understand that when they tell other people that information, they could be releasing personal information into the wrong hands.

Cybersecurity encompasses the preventative measures needed to avoid any accidental sharing of personal information.

A joint venture was formed between the Information Networks Institute’s CyLab at Carnegie Mellon and i-SAFE Inc. to address the issue.

The team created “Carnegie Cadets,” a web-based game to teach preventative cybersecurity for kids aged eight to 10.

“That’s probably one of the biggest problems for that age range,” said Amanda Kraemer, the project’s creative lead. “They just don’t understand that everything they put on places like MySpace is...accessible to everyone.”

“Sharing information is definitely a big issue for kids when they first get online. They get into a chat room and they don’t know who they’re talking to, so they assume everyone is friendly,” said David Doyle, the game’s multimedia and software testing coordinator.

“They can easily jeopardize themselves without even knowing it.”

Playing the online name game

“Carnegie Cadets” was developed using Adobe Flash. The team wanted to keep the interface simple and entertaining for their younger audience, and so the game uses vector art to give it a cartoonish look.

The game introduces concepts relevant to keeping personal information secure with a superhero story.

Throughout the game, players learn different aspects of cybersecurity by playing interactive mini games.

After each game, players are asked to help out a fellow virtual cadet with their newfound cybersecurity knowledge. If they succeed, they are rewarded. Plans for the game call for 10 to 12 missions.

“It’s kind of overwhelming until you really break it down into little bits. The whole game is broken down into mini bits like smaller games,” said Charles Brandt, technical artist and animator.

Current topics include sorting through inappropriate e-mail and sharing personal information online. This approach to edutainment is one that the development team thinks is essential to the success of the project.

“One of the biggest challenges is that edutainment, as it stands now, really hasn’t worked in the past, and one of the main reasons is that they’re not keeping the kids’ attention,” said Doyle.
The team is putting their game to the test with Pittsburgh students.

The Fox Chapel School District just started using “Carnegie Cadets” in four of its elementary schools: Kerr, Fairview, O’Hara, and Hartwood.

The school district received the software last week and is conducting test runs with its elementary students.

“We really want to try to create more awareness,” said Bill Gusky, coordinator of information technology for the Fox Chapel School District.

The full game is expected to be released in January 2007. i-SAFE Inc. will be the primary distributor of the game. The company will offer the game to select schools.