The new Nintendo Wii and Sony PlayStation 3 are expected to be hot holiday items, but some consumer advocates are urging parents to take a closer look at their gift lists.
They say many are unaware that most of the newer game consoles allow players to surf the Internet, play games with strangers or do both."Parents think of risks in terms of technology, and not in terms of the use of technology," said Parry Aftab, an attorney who specializes in Internet privacy and security law and is executive director of the nonprofit Web site WiredSafety.org.
When Paige Solomon, 10, of Coronado, Calif., bought a Nintendo DS hand-held, her mother, Irene Castaldo, never realized that the small game player was capable of connecting - via short-range wireless technology - to other Nintendo DS players across a room, at a park or in a shopping mall.
"I had no idea," Castaldo said. "I didn't even know you could do that."
And, Castaldo said, her daughter didn't realize it either.
Nintendo DS users also can connect to Nintendo's gaming site - and thus other Nintendo DS owners - at no charge through Wi-Fi hotspots available at McDonald's restaurants.
Both the $249 Nintendo Wii, due to hit stores Nov. 19, and the $599 PlayStation 3, expected in stores on Nov. 17, will offer Internet access through a wireless Wi-Fi connection or a hard-wired connection.
Among existing game devices, the Sony PlayStation 2, Microsoft Xbox 360, Sony PlayStation Portable and Nintendo DS all offer some form of online access, either to the Internet wholesale or to closed networks for playing games with others.
The Xbox 360, for instance, comes with free Xbox Live service that allows users to send and receive text and voice messages. For $49.99 for a year, the service allows users to play games against one another.
The Sony PSP can surf the Web over Wi-Fi connections - now commonly found in coffee shops, restaurants and even in some city downtowns - as well as connect to other Sony PSPs within a short distance, no more than a tennis-court length away.
"Somebody can reach out to a child in a mall or on the playground, and parents wouldn't even know their child was interacting with a stranger," Aftab said.
She said that while many parents watch, and even restrict, where their children go online on a computer, they don't necessarily realize they should pay the same amount of attention to their children's activities on video-game systems.
"The problem is, parents are buying these technologies blindly," Aftab said. "We need to make sure somebody clues parents in on it. Parents need to know if they're buying a game device that allows them to play against the computer, against their best friend or against anyone, anywhere in the world."
She said the concern began emerging in the last couple of years.
"Parents saw their kids with a headset, screaming at their Xbox, and it didn't occur to them that maybe there's somebody on the other end listening to them scream," Aftab said.
In January, Santa Rosa, Calif., police arrested Ronnie Brendan Watts, 26, on suspicion of molesting a 14-year-old boy he met on Microsoft's Xbox Live online service in the fall of 2005. The two eventually contacted each other via e-mail and instant messaging, police said.
Police said Watts met the boy in a park in the Northern California city where the alleged molestation took place. A spokeswoman for the Sonoma County district attorney's office said the case is pending.
Game system makers have included controls that allow parents to limit online access, restrict what games a child can play and whom a child is playing with online, noted David Cole, president of DFC Intelligence, a video-game market research firm based in San Diego.
All three of the major video-game system makers - Microsoft, Sony and Nintendo - have such controls.
"Almost from the start, they have put a huge emphasis on parental controls," he said.
Cole said that children can get into more trouble with cell phones and computers than with video-game systems.
"I think the thing about video-game systems is they have so many controls and are so protective," Cole said. "You've got cell phones and computers, where there are obviously fewer parental controls. Children are going to be much safer on the controlled video system, as opposed to wide-open mobile phones and computers."
Aftab said many parents, especially those unaware of the online connections contained in their children's gaming devices, aren't always cognizant of the parental controls.
Mitch McKay of Coronado, Calif., admits that he didn't realize his 15-year-old son's Xbox had parental controls. But he said he makes it a point to be there when his son is playing online.
McKay said he has talked with Jonathan, a high school sophomore, about not giving out personal information and also about the fact that other players may not be who they say they are.
"I've told him that Joe, who says he's 27, married, has two kids and lives in Boston could be a 45-year-old in Los Angeles," McKay said. "We've had those discussions."
Jonathan said he got a subscription to Xbox Live about a month ago, primarily so he could play the game Halo 2 against his friends from school.
Still, when playing with anonymous players, Jonathan cautions that the language can be crude. He said playing online may not be appropriate for younger children, such as preteens, because of the swearing.
WiredSafety.org's ad campaign, which begins next month on its Web site, will urge parents to read about what their children's game consoles can do before buying them. The campaign will tell parents to pay attention to the three Cs: content, contact and commercial risks.
For content, parents must ask what types of videos, photos or information can children see and share, Aftab said.
Contact means, "Can someone reach out and communicate with my kid or can my kid communicate with someone else?" she said.
To determine commercial risks, parents should ask whether the device could require a service that ends up costing them money, Aftab said.
"Soon, everything is going to be Internet-accessible," she said. "Parents have been totally clueless about what the technology they buy for their children can do."