Registered sex offenders in New York state are being shut out of online gaming systems that have allowed them to interact with children anonymously under an agreement announced Thursday by state Attorney General Eric Schneiderman.
The deal applies only to sex offenders within state borders — boundaries that may not hold much weight in virtual gaming worlds where players young and old mix anonymously, conversing by voice and written message.
"Online gaming is not just a digital playground. It has the potential to be a 21st century crime scene," Schneiderman said, citing a 2008 Pew Research Center study that found that 27 percent of teenagers acknowledge playing games online with strangers. Many games require players to interact virtually with others.
The deal may be the first of its kind to focus on online gaming; Schneiderman said he was aware of no other. Such precautions are frequently taken on more traditional social networking sites such as Facebook.
"All the time I encounter people online asking me how old I am, where I live," Christopher Trueblood, 12, told NBC New York. "Kind of like they want to be my friend and come see me."
Trueblood says he spends about two hours a day playing online video games and is contacted by a stranger at least once a day. His mother isn't very concerned because she says her son has common sense, but she wonders about other teens.
"It would be a great idea to make it a law, to force companies to ban those people," said Kim Trueblood.
The agreement — dubbed "Operation: Game Over" by Schneiderman's office — has led companies including Microsoft and Apple to shut down or suspend communication privileges for more than 3,500 accounts. The attorney general declined to identify companies that have thus far declined to participate.
Schneiderman said his office was exploring ways in which the program could be expanded to other states. In New York, registered sex offenders are required to disclose all their email addresses and online accounts, allowing gaming companies to perform a weekly purge of player accounts associated with the offenders.
"The gaming industry, if anything, is a more dangerous place," said Schneiderman. "It's a place for predators to set them up for personal contact."
Earlier this month, Schneiderman said, a 19-year-old man pleaded guilty to sexual abuse charges after befriending a 10-year-old through Microsoft's Xbox LIVE and luring the boy to his home.
Child advocates say parents need to tell their kids what to look out for.
"Kids need to watch out for something that makes them uncomfortable, and then parents have to talk about that discomfort," said Laura Ahearn, of Parents for Megan's Law. "Predators tend to pretend to be a child's friend first and then try to stack that kid against their parent."
The companies that have agreed to participate in the program are Microsoft, Apple, Blizzard Entertainment, Electronic Arts, Warner Bros. and Disney Interactive Media Group.
Get the latest from NBC 4 New York anytime, anywhere. Follow us on Twitter, Facebook and Google+. Sign up for email newsletters here. Get breaking news delivered right to your phone -- just text NYBREAKING to 639710. For more info, text HELP. To end, text STOP. Message and data rates may apply.