Massively Multiplayer Online games (MMOs) have carved out a huge piece of the gaming empire in recent years – and they're good, too (we've come a long way from Adventure Quest Worlds... though I did play the hell out of that as a kid!). It's not unusual to see MMOs winning awards and developing the kind of huge, dedicated fanbases that you'd usually associate with single-player titles, either. I'm a huge Final Fantasy XIV fan, and I'd probably say that it's my favorite game, period.
But, because MMOs attract so many players, and because these players all get to interact together in a shared virtual space, they attract troublemakers. The scale of this "trouble" can vary. Hackers might want your password, crooks might try and sell you busted copies of the game, and, of course, garden variety idiots can go out of their way to spoil your day if a dungeon or a match isn't going their way.
In this guide, I'll give you some tips on how to stay secure on MMO games.
Unfamiliar with MMOs?
MMOs are a unique breed of video game. You often get to customize a character before entering into a virtual world – a world inhabited by countless other players, unlike single-player titles where it's just you and the NPCs. Then, you get stuck into clearing content and gaining levels.
Whether you play matches with strangers or go adventuring with friends, MMOs provide an incredibly important virtual meeting space. My friends live overseas, so MMOs give me a way to interact with them beyond joining VoIP calls or joining Discord servers – we can hangout in a way that's not quite physical, but still kind of substantial (thanks to customizable avatars and playable characters)! The game gives us something to do, goals to work towards, and achievements we can share.
This is all more important than ever, with COVID-19 keeping us confined indoors. Friends that live in the same cities and towns are looking for safe ways to interact – and gaming ticks that box. In fact, a report by Verizon has revealed that video game usage in the US rose by 75% since the start of quarantine!
And investing in an MMO is a great way to pass the time and feel like you're, well, doing something! MMOs are alive in a way that a lot of single-player games just aren't. The bigger, better-known titles are always putting out content or hosting events for their players, meaning there's always a reason to log in.
So, now we've covered the basics, let's jump in to some of the dangers that come with MMOs – as well as a few tips and tricks to mitigate them.
How to stay safe on MMO games
The risks that players face when checking out MMOs can largely be split into two categories – the technical dangers, and the social ones. Technical threats are things like malware and worms, phishing scams, and identity fraud – and I've covered each of these (and then some more) below. You'll also find some super simple and steps that anyone can take to secure their accounts.
And seriously, give them a go! I can't tell you how devastated I'd be if I lost access to my FFXIV account or characters. I've put so much time into them, like four years, but cybercriminals don't care about any of that. All they see is the huge crowd of players and the opportunities that that presents.
Malware is going to be a major concern for PC gamers – one little virus or malicious injection can cause untold chaos on your devices. You can come across malware in so many different ways, too. Links leading to dodgy sites, bogus sign-in forms, or downloads that actually install malware onto your PC or laptop.
Once malware has a hold of your device, a cybercriminal can potentially monitor the things you do, the sites you visit, the logins you use – or even gain control of the machine entirely, incorporating it into a botnet! If that wasn't bad enough, malware can now be tucked away the actual code of an MMO – just look at Jade Dynasty, a 2011 release popular in China that was spreading the Morto Worm.
Nearly every MMO has an accompanying website, and there might be forums or character profiles, too. These websites attract cybercriminal attention because they often lack solid security – making it that much easier for a crook to pinch your login details. Additionally, the craftier cybercriminals can actually make fake websites for the sole purpose of stealing your details.
These sites are bogus, but can look totally convincing with all the right text, logos, jargon and images. You might get a link to one via an equally legit-looking email, asking you to login to correct some details or download a new patch, but if you do, you'll be handing over your username and password to a crook, or signing yourself up for a nasty virus.
Check out ProPrivacy's guide on how to spot a fake website for some tips on not being caught out.
A staple of cybercriminal activity! If you've been around on the net for a while, you'll have seen your fair share of phishing attempts in your inbox. They all start with an email; some look dodgy right away, some don't, and often they'll try to frighten you into thinking there's a problem with your account that you need to login and solve. Again, if you follow the link or reply with your details, you're passing them into the hands of a crook – who'll hope that you've used the same login information for multiple sites and services!
It's not a good idea to nab games from torrenting sites – the risk outweighs the reward almost every time! The same is true for MMOs, and if you do take your chances with a torrent, you could actually end up getting banned from the game (or prosecuted!) if it's found out that you didn't pay for your copy. Also, remember that torrent games files can easily be infected if you're not purchasing them directly from the source.
It goes without saying, but if a game's software has been compromised, then any machine that runs or connects to it will be compromised, too. MMOs are, unfortunately, more risky in this sense than their single-player alternatives, because you have to connect to a game server. These servers can be vulnerable to malicious attacks and DDoS, where criminals attempt to collect user details or inject malware scripts into the game.
If you're a FFXIV player, you'll be acutely aware of the fact that you can't stand in Limsa Lominsa for more than 10 seconds without some gil seller spamming the chat. Obviously, don't click on these links. They're phishing scams, and handing over any details in exchange for a clear, currency, or boost is… a bad idea. Players have had their details swiped and their accounts stolen from them! In-game micro-transactions are also against the rules of most MMOs, too.
Technical safety tips
👯♀️Don't be a detail repeater
It's tempting to sign up for an MMO with a catchall email address and that one password you always use, but it's dangerous, too. If your account does get compromised, the hacker will have access to any other account or service that uses that same combo. Make a new email address for each game you check out, and switch up your passwords, too! I'd recommend that you try a good password manager to help you remember them.
💪Revamp weak passwords
This is Internet 101; go wild with numbers, symbols, and non-dictionary words when creating a password. You'll want to stay away from anything including a pet or maiden name, or variations of the word "password" – like "[email protected]". We recommend combining three random words and making them unique. For example:
This will give you a safe password that's easy to remember, and nearly impossible to crack.
2️⃣Use two-factor authentication
If your MMO has 2FA, use it! It's a great little measure that grants you so much more control over who can login to your account. Basically, you'll need a code to access your account, and the code will be texted to you – meaning crooks can't snoop or meddle with your characters unless they have it, even if they already have your email and password.
🙅♀️Don't share your account
Not only is account sharing probably against the terms of service of your MMO, but it's worryingly risky. All it takes is one bad day, or one disagreement, for things to go sour. Your characters or account could be deleted out of spite or anger, or as a prank by someone who just doesn't see the value of it or the time commitment!
🧼Keep your computer clean
The best and simplest way of ensuring your PC or laptop stays free from unwanted viruses is by getting your hands on a good antivirus. We've got guides covering the best antivirus names out there, so take your pick, and be sure to schedule regular scans of your device!
⚠️Avoid cracked copies
Like I said earlier, it's better to stay away from torrent copies of MMOs (or just video games in general), because you can never be sure of what you're actually downloading. You could end up with a broken copy, or one riddled with malware! Get your game from a trusted vendor or direct from the source – and just think, paying for it means that you're doing your bit to support the industry!
Player interaction is a huge drawing point of MMOs, and those moments where you clear tricky content with a team, or help out a new player with their own obstacles, are awesome. But it's a double-edged sword. Large gatherings bring out the worst in people as well as the best, and the relative anonymity provided by a game can be downright dangerous.
Of course, talking or playing with a stranger will always be a gamble. Most of the time I find that my interactions are pretty wholesome – we'll say "o/" when entering content and then "tyfp!" when leaving. But strangers can be mean, especially if the match isn't going well or if frustrations are mounting.
Misogyny runs rife across game servers, and I think that some of it boils down to the fact that online games are still seen as a space for guys, for men, and that we're just guests.
This isn't a new opinion or sentiment by any means. In fact, The Guardian reported in 2017 that women often feel as though they're intruding in male spaces – going so far as to avoid party chat and voice chat for fear of being "found out."
I see this all the time amongst my own group of friends; a mix of LGBT women, men, and non-binary folks. We'll avoid in-game voice chat when we play Overwatch and stick to our private Discord, instead. We'll leave out any indication as to our gender when interacting with party members in FFXIV. And, a lot of us play male characters – which is partly a character choice, and partly to distance ourselves that much further from unwanted attention.
But it's not all doom and gloom for girls playing MMOs! There are more female gamers out there than ever before – in fact, it's thought that there are about one billion of us! Just as many women are playing video games as men, too, and in most countries the numbers work out at about half-and-half.
It's also important to note that, according to a Nielsen Survey, 10% of gamers are part of the LGBT community. There's a real and thriving family of gaymers out there – people who've been able to find companionship in a safe, virtual space that allows you to present yourself however you like, and however you feel most secure.
Socially speaking, the importance of MMOs really can't be understated, and just as many folks play them for this aspect as they do for the achievements and level-grinding. But let's circle back, and cover some of the more common social threats a gamer can come across when booting up an MMO.
You'll be familiar with griefing even if you've never come across the term before – it happens when a play goes out of their way to make your experience miserable. They might prevent progress in content or undermine a win in a match, they might feed you incorrect information to sow confusion, or alter objectives. It's all pretty childish stuff, but that doesn't mean that it can't be frustrating or upsetting, regardless of whether you're a new player or a vet. As for why griefing happens, well, it could be for any number of reasons – maybe something was said that the griefer didn't like, maybe they get a bizarre thrill out of spoiling someone's experience of the game.
Assumptions and anxiety
MMOs are very much still considered male stomping grounds – and this is a bias that persists across a multitude of genres, especially first-person shooters, action titles, and fighting games. In reality, there are plenty of thriving female gaming communities, but revealing that you're a woman (or just being found out over voice chat) can have some bizarre and uncomfortable consequences. It might be assumed that, because you're a girl, you're being carried through the content, and a lot of female gamers feel a massive amount of pressure to play at their peak all the time – so that they don't "let the team down" or reflect badly on other girl gamers.
I can't talk about the social risks of MMOs without mentioning harassment. You only have to Google Gamergate to see the sort of vitriol that women in gaming faced then, and still face today – and even folks playing with female avatars can be on the receiving end of misogynistic language or unwanted romantic advances.
There's always a moment of panic when teammates find out that I'm a girl, where I wonder whether they're going to be cool or not. If the worst happens, if they're not cool, the insults can come very quickly. I think nearly every woman has been labeled a "slut" or a "bitch" at some point, either for making a mistake in content or speaking up about how the next match could go better.
The most frightening part of it all is not knowing how far it could go – the harassment could end with the match, or the bullies in question could seek out your social media profiles, your email address, or even your physical location in extreme cases.
Social safety tips for MMO gamers
🙎♀️Go with your gut
Trust your instinct and avoid downloading MMOs that just look shady. They might be new and untested, or have a bad rep amongst reviewers; either way, it's better to give them a miss if you have any doubts. Stick to titles that have established communities and all the resources you need to stay safe, socially.
I constantly see players on FFXIV advertising their Twitter or Carrd accounts in their search info, and I'm sure it's a decent way of picking up RP interest and/or directing traffic to a Ko-Fi page. But, it's also broadcasting your digital whereabouts to anyone who cares to look – and that can include harassers.
📝Brush up on the rules
Nobody expects you to sit down and read that entire ToS agreement, but it's still a good idea to get familiar with the rules of the MMO you're playing. Do you know what constitutes harassment or bullying? If you do, it's that much easier to report it.
👿Don't feed the trolls
An oldie but a goodie! Idiots who go out of their way to belittle or bully you are going to hope that you respond – whether you're upset, angry, indifferent; it won't matter, so long as they're getting that reaction to play off of. Don't respond to nasty messages. Block the idiot in question, report the incident, and vent to your friends. Bullies tend to get bored and move on if you brush them off and deny them that all-important gratification.
🧰Know your tools
Any good MMO is going to offer its players the ability to block and report players in a few clicks – and it's so important that you get familiar with the process. Block liberally if you have to! If you're reporting an incident of abuse, it's always worth taking a screenshot to back up your claim and provide evidence.
🐇Don't platform hop
Lots of players form Discord or Skype groups, and you might sometimes be invited to join a server or a call to coordinate your gameplay efforts. This can be massively intimidating, and if you feel pressured and put on the spot, you can agree without really wanting to. So don't! Unless you're certain that you know exactly who's in the server, and unless you trust the invitation, steer clear of leaving in-game chat (where it's much easier to curate your experience and report harassment if it happens).