He’s now being held in a Michigan jail on charges of third-degree sexual assault and sexual abuse by a person in a position of trust.
According to the Charleston Daily Mail, Leibert and the girl met while playing the highly popular online role-playing game, and were in contact for about 5 months before the assault. He continued to pursue her even after she told him she was 12. He told deputies he continued the relationship because “their love was so strong.”
The night of the assault, Leibert drove several hours from his home near Detroit to the girl’s home in Buffalo. They left in his car. She was reported missing Sunday morning, and that’s when police found them, parked on a side road in Buffalo.
While this incident is in every way awful, the police led the reporter (and readers) to exactly the wrong conclusion:
“People need to be aware that this is something that goes on every day,” [First Lt. Eric] Hayzlett [of the Putnam Sheriff’s Office] said. “We encourage parents to monitor their children’s activities on the Internet and make sure their children are aware that there are people out there with bad intentions.”
These kinds of incidents do occasionally happen, but they’re not that common — that’s why they’re newsworthy. But an isolated incident like this, blown out of proportion, can make parents (especially technophobe parents) unreasonably frightened about what their kids are doing online. While there are many users on World of Warcraft — 10.2 million, as of December 2011 — the vast majority of them are not child predators, just as most people in everyday society are not child predators.
Hayzlett is right in one respect: it’s important to teach kids to watch out for people with bad intentions, and how to deal with such people. It’s not clear whether the Buffalo girl was taught such things. But World of Warcraft — and the Internet — are not to blame.
Moreover, there could be a temptation here to keep girls away from computers, the Internet, and video games. Science overwhelmingly agrees that this would be the wrong thing to do. Numerous studies reveal that this can harm girls’ willingness to embrace technology — and can close off many opportunities to them later in life. A report by Innovate’s Richard Van Eck finds:
Game play in schools can impact attitudes toward technology and possibly influence career choices. If girls in particular are exposed to a variety of games, they may find that there are games they enjoy, and this perception alone may convince them that technology is relevant to them. Similarly, game design in the classroom shows both boys and girls that technology-related careers, like those in the fields of science and mathematics, often involve a wide variety of activities and skills. As a consequence, both boys and girls may begin to believe that there is room for them in these fields.
There are many other benefits for girls as well. A Rutgers study finds:
From their observations of girls playing computer and video games, Inkpen et al. (1994) concluded that “the confidence levels of [selected study participants] affected their playing abilities and their willingness to solve problems through trial and error” (p. 396). When the girls in their study doubted their abilities, they were less likely to tackle math problems embedded in games, and they had less success in completing the games. In a similar vein, Wilson (2002) found that computer comfort level was the single best predictor of a high grade in an undergraduate computer science course.
That describes some of the benefits of video games in general, but what about World of Warcraft in particular? WoW is the most popular game today in which kids can role-play — they can be various heroes, or even villains — to see what that’s like. The psychological benefits of role-playing are well-known by now, and include such things as the opportunity to problem-solve and learn what different personalities are like; perfect explorations for the adolescent mind.
WoW isn’t perfect, and it probably isn’t for everyone. But it would be wrong to forbid girls from playing it on the grounds that they might encounter a sexual predator there. Instead, we must give girls the tools they need to recognize such predators and deal with them appropriately, as this Georgia girl surely was: