Wizard 101: How to Insult People and Circumvent the Filter

Posted by | September 4, 2008

RANT WARNING: This is a rant, be prepared to disagree. It is an editorial treatment of a problematic subject. If you have an angle that was not explored, anecdotes, or other commentary please feel free to throw in. Your two cents are welcome.

People probably have already heard from us about the white-listed filter that exists in Wizard 101. It is not as badly implemented as similar for-tweens offerings in the market—things that often implode under their own weight as unusable. While it is nice that the filter is less cumbersome it is still a filter. It’s a form of censorship that doesn’t really add to the experience, it doesn’t offer any actual protections, and exists solely to damage the immersion for the players and make KingsIsle Entertainment look better to potential investors and overzealous parents.

We are going to continue to refer to the use of the filter and the choices made into its white list as the responsibility of KingsIsle Entertainment. It is their doing and their donkey to drag should it get untenable.

It’s hard to fault KingsIsle Entertainment for this behavior at first glance. After all, it does make good business sense. They are attempting to market this game to the tween/teen age groups, and that age group comes with the demographic most easily scandalized and drawn about by the nose: parents. The good business sense comes in to pandering directly to the fears of those parents by producing a deceptively comfortable “safe zone.” Even if all it takes is a little prodding to tear through the veil of verisimilitude; it will draw in the beau coup bucks.

There are numerous examples where good business sense does not make good moral sense or even good sense for society at large. Such as when factories used to dump their waste chemicals directly into nearby rivers rather than going through expensive processes to store and clean them up. It made good business sense at the time because it cost far less, and the cities largely ignored them because the factory gave them lots of jobs and brought in a great deal of money. Of course, then people started to get sick and die.

Practices like censoring communication pollute our communal consciousness in a very similar way.

Does censorship make children stupid? We abridge the experience our children have of the world in a myriad of ways because it could be harmful to them. Like putting plugs in the wall sockets, locking cabinets full of poisons, and putting sharp objects out of their reach… But all that while if we are not educating them and not supervising them, these actions will not benefit them—eventually they will be older, taller, more likely to get at those poisons, knives, and electrical sockets. If they had no experience of them up until that point they will get into trouble.

Can we really equate language and words to sharp knifes in the kitchen? No, not really. That’s certainly not it.

With knives we are afraid of cuts and lacerations, but with censorship we’re afraid of communication. A fear of knowledge. KingsIsle is white listing language in a way that puts a perfunctory sugarcoat on everything said in the chat, it demonizes strange words and strange wording, blocks insults, and a lot of vulgar aphorisms. It certainly creates a false sense of decorum—but none of this actually does anything more than shift the use of language to other more creative ranges.

“You have sheet for brains!”

See how easy that was? It was even totally within the bounds of KingsIsle’s white list. In fact, our friends and us have gotten down to saying “donkey brains” instead of “damnit” when we’re annoyed at a function of the game. In a lot of ways the filtration just acts as a bad replacement for supervision. Like people want to be comfortable with this sort of interaction to allow their children to run about in virtual worlds unsupervised because some fragile veil has been spread between them and the rest of the world.

How exactly is this training children playing the game? It reminds us of a particular come-across with a good friend of ours when we were standing in a cell phone store with her son. He’d found a particularly strange phone that only had four buttons (programmable, for children) and it was said to the effect, “Oh, might get something like that for you one day.” And when he asked about it, she said, “Oh no, honey, when we get you a phone I’ll get you a real phone.” Yes. Wizard 101 chat is not real chat. It is a grim parody of Fischer Price chat: dumbed down, patronizing, patting the players on the head as if they’re cretins.

Language finds a way, donkey brains!

The use of filters in video games to modify or blur language is an insipid expedience done out of cover-your-ass foolishness at best and morally questionable at worst. This filter does not raise the bar high enough to prevent “bad people” from soliciting our children online (of course this is because most of that solicitation is being done by their own classmates.) It will not prevent kids telling other kids where they live or their phone numbers or giving out their IM info. What it will do is give them a sense of frustration at the agonizing censorship the filter provides as it cuts words out of their newspaper.

The only thing that protects people online from these extremely rare potential threats is going to be actual education and this sort of hell-paving good intentions gets in the way of that. How does one explain exactly to a student that we don’t trust them with their own language while trying to educate? How exactly can we teach them about the world without the world available even to us to provide the materials.

Worse. KingsIsle has created an interesting experiment in how to make everyone conform to the same linguistic rules. The filter manages to strip out what’s left of “body language” on the Internet; it makes it more difficult to tell if someone else is actually on the level or not. Having been compressed into a particular vocabulary means that they don’t have a chance to step out of bounds as easily, giving them the same veneer as everyone else. Sure, we will never suffer chatspeak on Wizard 101, but whatever, Ignore and Report have worked for ages.

We won’t exactly deny this video game to our children, but we will probably tell them over and over about how communication isn’t a piecemeal experience.

This sort of thing actually harms our children. It does not protect them from anything. Especially not themselves. Certainly not reality.

As a parting gift, our particular bête noire about the filter.

What is with KingsIsle’s dislike of English diction? To wit, much to our chagrin we discovered that semicolons are verboten, our favorite part of punctuation ripped from us like a babe who has been divested of a doll. We cannot even use the word “semicolon” because it’s not in the white list—to make things worse, discussing the problem is also impossible as the word “semicolon” itself is not permitted, neither is the all important “grammar.”

Oh yes, and before we leave, a moment of zen.

As of this posting the KingsIsle filter blocks the word “censorship.”

20 Comments so far
  1. Ms. Pixel
    September 4, 2008 2:39 pm

    That seems rather draconian in nature. But I have to admit that I laughed at, ““You have sheet for brains!” My only other experience with a language filter has been on the forums of the browser based game named Lunar Wars. Unmentionable words usually come out as “Poopy”. Everyone knows what the words are filtering out but I’m sure it helps some parents sleep better at night.

  2. Helvetica
    September 4, 2008 2:49 pm

    Thanks for coming by, Ms. Pixel! You would have to thank one of our friends for the “You have sheet for brains!” because we are not exactly masters of invective. That one was submitted during the editing of the editorial by one of our friends. It made us laugh also.

  3. JB Good
    September 5, 2008 2:33 pm

    Interesting point of view, but one wonders if you are a parent. Sure, the parent needs to provide oversight and control over their child’s game play. But if you make everything open-ended, the amount of effort on the part of the parent becomes too burdensome to bear, so they just prevent the kid from playing the game. Anytime you are in a community you are at risk that they will do something inappropriate. Most parents are concerned that their children will experience vulgarity and smut that the kids do not understand and that parents should not have to explain until their kids are older.

    Additionally, I’m not sure if you are aware of US Laws regarding the protection of children, but the COPPA law requires web service providers to prevent children from seeing or sharing inappropriate or dangerous language/information. The rule is explicitly for children up to 12 years old. If an on-line service provider allows them to access their service, and does nothing to shield them from inappropriate content (the term here is pretty vague in the law too) and it does not prevent them from sharing private information about themselves or their families – the service provider can be in violation of the law, and suffer dire consequences. The law even goes so far as to spell out ‘chat’ as a channel that has to be protected.

    So while your desire for “freedom” may be honorable, from a purely business and legal perspective it makes a lot of sense what the makers of Wizard have done. You feel free to fund a business, and build a game (targeted at the “tweens” market and families). We’ll see whether when it’s your money you don’t make a set of reasonable business choices that end up in the same situation.

    As for ‘getting around the filter’… Are you seriously comparing “poop” with “sh*t” in terms of ‘levels of vulgarity’? Then you really do have ‘sheet for brains’…

  4. BorakOBummer
    September 5, 2008 4:42 pm

    “As of this posting the KingsIsle filter blocks the word “censorship.”

    good sheet

  5. io
    September 6, 2008 2:22 pm

    @ JB Good

    COPPA my ass: http://www.ftc.gov/bcp/conline/pubs/buspubs/coppa.shtm

    Read it and weep. COPPA requires an operator like KingIsle to get parental consent before allowing children to use chat, and that’s all. Since Wizard101 is a pay service now, it can function like all the other pay services for children: use parental credit card information to verify their identity and make them click through consent. Any company allowing children under 13 to access a site who does not demand this consent with verification is in violation of the law. KingIsle’s choice to implement a white list filter (rather than a black list filter, or no filter at all) has nothing to do with COPPA.

    As for your comment “one wonders if you are a parent” — it’s irrelevant and offensive; maybe Helvetica is a parent who uses a very different parenting style than you imagine. Maybe *you* aren’t a parent. But, it doesn’t matter. One needn’t have a child to discuss how the our shared society deals with children.

    Further you say: “the part of the parent becomes too burdensome to bear”. And I call bullshit. Parenting *is* a burden to great to bear from day one. White list chat filters give parents a false sense of security, the illusion that the burden has lessened, but it hasn’t. No amount of security will keep children absolutely safe. I believe that supervising your children and teaching them to think before they act — to consider the possible danger in every situation — is the only way to give them a fighting chance. Having a child means accepting the burden of knowing that your child is not invulnerable and immortal. That’s life.

  6. Vire
    January 27, 2009 3:52 pm

    I can’t think of a single instance in games where censorship has been a good thing. That extends beyond chat filters too.

    Really, I can understand & handle a black list, but Wizard101’s system makes any kind of intellectual conversation almost impossible. They block everything but the most basic words… it’s truly frustrating.

    In fact you cannot even type numbers. I was playing it earlier when someone asked me my level, I tried to type it in numbers… blocked. So i tried to type it in letters and the word was blocked as well! Absurdity.

    Censorship promotes ignorance and ignorance promotes stupidity. If I was a parent, I would want my children exposed to reality. They are going to be eventually, all the better if it happens in the safe environment of a game.

  7. Jago
    June 9, 2009 7:51 pm

    @ Io

    Man, (or woman), you are my hero. I was thinking everything you said when I read JB Goody-Two Shoes’ post. In addition to what you said, making adult players filter their words is a violation of the 1st amendment rights.

  8. waresmith
    July 30, 2009 6:25 pm

    This company has no parental controls. Without my permission, my 10 year old took my credit card and charged $80 (the annual fee) three times in a row, buying tokens of some sort. He some how pretended to be me, and set up his own parent confirmation. The company emailed me saying that “Currently there’s no known method to validate a “real” parent vs. a child impersonating a parent” The company refuses to give my money back or to acknowledge their responsibility. BEWARE — not a very good company. The game is now banned in my home

  9. Helvetica
    July 31, 2009 9:32 am

    That’s a new surprise to us, waresmith, but I think we would suggest contacting your credit card company and complaining that the charges made by your child were fraudulent.

  10. charlie
    August 4, 2009 1:09 pm

    i love insulting people on wizards

  11. Helvetica
    August 6, 2009 12:19 pm

    It does seem to be a pastime enjoyed by many on Wizard 101, charlie.

  12. Jack
    January 25, 2010 12:31 am

    Other games at least only block actual swear words. With Wizard101’s filter I can’t say “aah,” “google,” or “blargh,” nor can I use any kind of punctuation like quotes, parentheses, or double exclamation marks.

    Really? Really?

    What’s really depressing, though, is all of the stories about “10-year-old steals parent’s credit card, spends ridiculous amount of money on game.” Bad parenting skills aside, when I was 10 (pretend I is in italics), I was smart enough to know that purchases would show up on my parents’ credit card bill. Sheesh! The blind stupidity of today’s pre-teens!

  13. Toll
    February 27, 2010 2:19 pm

    This is actually sort of funny. While I cant say ‘Shut up’, ‘Be quiet’ and ‘No one cares’ are not censored, and since everyone knows of the censor, they get the implication of the insult anyway. I also tried out, in a isolated dungeon, ‘Long Snake’. If I can say that, kids would know what I was talking about, and that defeats the point of the censor. All this is doing is forcing kids to be creative in their insults.

    In the end, it dosent matter that the game’s censored. There’s always a way around. At least the Commons cant turn into something similar to WoW’s infamous Goldshire…(Shudders)

  14. lary
    September 30, 2010 12:20 pm

    I can’t think of a single instance in games where censorship has been a good thing. That extends beyond chat filters too.

    Really, I can understand & handle a black list, but Wizard101′s system makes any kind of intellectual conversation almost impossible. They block everything but the most basic words… it’s truly frustrating.

    In fact you cannot even type numbers. I was playing it earlier when someone asked me my level, I tried to type it in numbers… blocked. So i tried to type it in letters and the word was blocked as well! Absurdity.

    Censorship promotes ignorance and ignorance promotes stupidity. If I was a parent, I would want my children exposed to reality. They are going to be eventually, all the better if it happens in the safe environment of a game.

    OK, you don’t need to type in numbers if you go to the friendly chat icon in menu chat you can say you level in the stats part. The filter is fine.

  15. yajaira
    June 23, 2011 5:46 pm

    i had no idea what the thing said at all so um yea i agree wit whatever it said lolz! =P

  16. Changeling
    July 12, 2011 9:58 am

    I have no problems with the chat filter, especially as the only numbers that are necessary are an option in the chat menu. Also profanity has no business being allowed in anything geared toward pre-teens (and this is coming from someone who had a mouth like a marine at 10…case and point). I also disagree with the apparent conciseness that the filter retards the language used (as text speak is filtered and people have to communicate in full words and sentences, I really fail to see the argument). If you want to gripe about anything used in MMO chats, then gripe about text speak. At least KingIsle is forcing everyone to use English.

    However, if you really want to communicate completely uncensored then buy yourself a mic and use ventrilo. It’s free for a 5 person server (and as Wizards101 only allows you to have 4 people in a group, that’s all you need). Besides chatting while playing an MMO takes too much time and is completely ineffectual (especially as there are other options that allow you to actually speak instead of typing when you should be targeting monsters, running to a new location, etc). Or if you still find this filter offending then stop playing the game and find a new one.

    Oh and to Waresmith…the blame on that rests solely with you (as I highly doubt that you did anything other than ban the game in your home). 1) The kid should have been instructed as to what the punishment for theft was as soon as they had the cognizance to realize that money bought things (and reminded of it often), 2) if after around 9 years of life (and with proper parenting) they still pulled that, then you make the punishment worse (like grounding them till college), and finally 3) KingIsle is correct when they say that there is no way to prove that a child stole their parent’s credit card…for all they know you actually did purchase things from the online store and were trying to get out of payment. You should have gone straight to the credit card company instead.

  17. connor
    August 22, 2011 7:01 pm

    hi im 12 and i used to play i was talking and i said who has a girl friend and it was censerd im like what the fuck and girl wasnt censered untill after i pressed space and typed in friend so i quit the censer made the game in possible to play whith friends

  18. teagan
    January 15, 2012 8:23 pm

    i don’t like it that much it’s screwed up so boring everyones trying to find boyfriends and girlfriends plus u can’t even say words like fart,burp,evil,dislike and horrible. i hate you u

  19. The Librarian
    April 3, 2013 8:58 pm

    This article was nicely written, and humorous too. Nonetheless, I have to demur on some of your points, as raised in your article:

    The act of filtering profane expletives is a good step towards the healthy and holistic development of a child, who is playing Wizard101 often. They will also have to spell words correctly in order to articulate their thoughts – that means that they cannot type offhand remarks and this reduces the possibility of they misspelling words. The censoring of expletives is understandable, because hardly any parent wants to see their children cursing at such a young age. Teachers and the public will definitely question their parents of their upbringing and doubt their inculcation of moral values.

    However, abbreviations like ‘lol’, ‘brb’ and ‘lolz’ are still within the bounds of Wizardry speaking, so I don’t see the reason why you are thinking that the filter is making a mockery of the whole game-play experience. And yes, there are the numbers we cannot spell in game, so I still have to agree that the filter is absurd in the sense that it is even censoring ‘innocuous’ words.

    But the paradoxical thing is: Players who have membership have a much more open text chat. So does that mean that we have to compensate to talk freely? Isn’t this similar to paying a bail to release yourself from the shackles of who-knows-what?

  20. Helvetica
    April 4, 2013 9:25 am

    Thank you! That was a brilliant reply and this article has gotten somewhat stale on the subject — it’s been some time since I studied how language-control systems are implanted in MMO games. Although Wizard 101 and Pirate 101 are now still in existence, including a few new from other companies that cater to young children and families. Their strategies and how they affect gamers and games in general do tend to concern me a bit — but, as I said, I haven’t had time to return to the industry to look at how people have taken to them.

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