SciTech

Games teach cybersafety

College students aren’t the only ones decorating their dorm rooms.

In “Carnegie Cadets,” an educational computer game advocating Internet safety, kids have complete control over their own virtual spaces. Players are able to earn rewards and purchase wallpaper, furniture, and even pets.

“The kids really seemed to love that part,” said Stan Strzempek, a computer teacher at Kerr Elementary School. In the beginning of October, Kerr was one of four schools in the Fox Chapel Area School District to receive a beta version of “Carnegie Cadets.”

Almost two months later, the responses from students have been overwhelmingly positive. According to Strzempek, kids requested to play the game in computer class for weeks after first trying it out.

Developed by Carnegie Mellon Cylab and the Information Networking Institute, “Carnegie Cadets” is targeted at fourth- and fifth-grade students. For the project, the “Carnegie Cadets” team partnered with i-Safe, a pioneer company in the realm of Internet education.

“The original intent was to have it available just through a website,” said Amanda Kraemer, the creative lead to the “Carnegie Cadets” team. This idea quickly became impractical, as the size of the program grew throughout its production.

“Carnegie Cadets” consists of a series of minigames, each offering a different lesson in cybersecurity.

Each minigame unlocks a quest in which the player is required to help out a character in the game, and kids earn prizes for their achievements. This way, kids are able to test out their knowledge after learning each new concept.

One of the lesson topics is the sharing of personal information online.

Chat rooms are notorious for being untrustworthy online environments, but even elementary school students have accounts on profile-based social networking sites, such as Myspace.com. Sometimes these accounts present false data.

“They are [on it], and they are listed as the 99-year-olds,” said Kraemer. “We’re trying to change their behavior by teaching them to reason,” she explained.

Instead of simply telling its users not to give out personal information on the Internet, “Carnegie Cadets” stresses the potential consequences of doing so through the use of concrete examples.

For example, children learn that if they share their addresses or even list locations close to where they live, a stranger could use that information to show up at their houses.

In the information-sharing minigame, the player is a bouncer at a night club, which represents a chat room. The objective is to turn away users asking for personal information, in addition to those offering it.

During the corresponding quest, the player interacts with a character in the game; she has accidentally shared some personal information in a chat room and needs advice. The character explains her dilemma through a series of speech bubbles appearing on the screen.

When talking to the other characters, children can choose from about four responses, some of which are more correct than others. The format is similar to that of a role-playing computer game.
Each quest contains several rounds of dialogue, including an initial setup where children can choose how to greet the other character. This way, the exercise has the feel of a conversation, not a quiz.

One of the reasons that it is so important for schools to teach children about the Internet is that their students come from a wide variety of backgrounds.

“The range is incredible,” said Kraemer. “In the fourth and fifth grade, some kids lack even a family computer, while others might have them in their bedrooms.”

“I think it would be great for parents to go through with their kids,” Strzempek said, who admitted that Pennsylvania has a weak curriculum for online education.
“At some point, they have to make conscious decisions on their own.”

“Carnegie Cadets” endows its player with the authority to make educated choices. While playing the game, children feel that they are in charge. They control what they say to other characters in addition to how they spend their earned rewards.

Though the purpose of “Carnegie Cadets” is to inform its users about the dangers of the Internet, its creators tried to create a game that children would enjoy playing. “The kids really like the appearance,” he said. “I think it’s very sleek.” Animated in Adobe Flash, “Carnegie Cadets” had a style similar to that of a cartoon.

“It was presented in a medium that the kids really, really loved,” Strzempek said. The interface is perfect for elementary school students, he explained, who are typically visual learners.
It’s often difficult to attract children to educational software, Strzempek explained. Looking and feeling like a regular game has helped “Carnegie Cadets” to overcome that obstacle.
On top of that, the creators of “Carnegie Cadets” worked to captivate their players by providing a wealth of empowering, adult activities, according to David Doyle, the team’s multimedia software support.

More than anything else, children have relished the opportunity to furnish a virtual dorm room. “All they want to do is buy things for their room,” Doyle said.

The team is working on a final version of the game to be released early this year. It will include additional minigames and a more comprehensive plot.