Four Habbo Hotel players, aged 15 to 20, debate the future of the game after Channel 4 News revealed explicit sexual language is commonplace – and rarely moderated.
Amber: “I’ve been on Habbo for three or four years, I’m now 18.”
Josie: “I’ve been playing it since I was 11, I’m now 15.”
Emily: “I’m 20 years old and I’ve been playing it since I was 12. I’ve even got the badge awarded to people who’ve played for more than 1,825 days.”
Omar: “I made an account in 2007 and began to play more regularly from 2010. I’m 17 years of age.”
Since Channel 4 News revealed the full extent of sexual and sometimes violent behaviour inside Habbo Hotel, there has been a huge response worldwide with some fans angry that the game had been “singled out” and others relieved its negative aspects had “finally been exposed”.
We brought together four young people, with up to eight years’ experience playing the game. They chatted with Jon Snow about what should happen next, why moderation needs to get better and why the game is “not all bad”.
Amber, 18, explained why some of the protests had been so strong.
“I think people are angry because it has been the best part of 8-10 years that Habbo has been going on and in a week Channel 4 News managed to tear that down and take away everyone’s place – and divide it.”
But Omar, 17, said that paedophile activity is “very obvious, as soon as you’re on the site.”
Emily, 20, agreed: “Since I’ve been using the site it’s been happening on a very large scale. I did mind at first, but I carried on using the website so I got used to it. After a while, you ignore it… get used to it.”
But Josie said she believed other children were often responsible for sexual behaviour.
“Not all are paedos, a lot of them are children…. some of them are the same age as us.”
Omar added: “Young people being sexualised is a very big part of this… and whether it’s right to have two young people of the same age engaging over an avatar.”
And Emily, 20, said she had developed ways to deal with potentially threatening players.
“Sometimes I would humour them. They’d come up on my instant messenger and said ‘do you want to have online sex’…”
Amber explained why she had found the site “helpful” as a young person exploring her sexuality – and why our investigation had upset her.
“It [Habbo] has helped me in so many ways and it was just this very negative report. It [the C4 report] didn’t show any of the positives.”
But Omar thought the game’s maker needed to take responsibility.
I’m glad that you did expose it because it’s basically given moderators a kick up the butt, but at the same time Habbo is not all that bad. Amber
“They [Sulake] know that kids are emotionally attached to this website and they’re using it as a business proposition. Young people put their faith into the site and reveal images to each other or whatever – and that, perhaps later, can be used against them.”
Emily added: “When I was younger I was a lot more interactive with it. It was, and still is, a very good community.
“The younger people who don’t know who to speak to about their sexuality go on this site and because – as the reporter mentioned – there are gay, bisexual and lesbian rooms, they go into those rooms and speak to other people in the same situation as them.”
Amber said: “I dated someone [I met in Habbo] for eight months. I met her in real life and had a real relationship with her.”
Josie agreed: “When I joined it when I was 11 I was very self-conscious girl… I was different to people in many ways. I was a very upset person at the time, I had a lot of issues. I made a best friend [in Habbo].”
Critics of the game claim that, even without the threat of paedophiles, Habbo Hotel – a game aimed at players from aged 13 – has become overly sexualised. Did the panel agree?
Josie told us: “For me… if someone approached me and I didn’t feel comfortable I’d block them. The facilities are there to block and delete people.”
Omar disagreed: “It should be prevented before it gets to that point. I’ve met lots of people who’ve given pictures of themselves to someone… and they’ve used them later to cyber bully them.
“When you try to report that to moderators you can’t sum up all the issues. You just get a standard response.”
Emily also thought moderation was the main issue.
“I’ve reported many people while using the site. I used to have a popular gaming room – there’d be offensive language, offensive behaviour happening in my room before my very eyes. I’d kick them, report them, and nothing gets done,” she said.
She also described a virtual encounter with a male avatar when she was younger.
“He said ‘are you a virgin?’ I said ‘yes’.
“He said ‘I’m going to take your virginity’. He started using asterisks, cyber sex descriptions of what he was doing to me, and at the time my heart was racing, I was panicking, I didn’t know what to do.
“I went to tell my mother about it and my mother calmed me down and said ‘just ignore them’.
“But I carried on using the site and that was the point that I said ‘oh, what’s sex?'”
Overall the group agreed that Habbo was not alone and that, with better checks, it should continue.
Amber said: “I’m glad that you did expose it because it’s basically given moderators a kick up the butt, but at the same time Habbo is not all that bad.”
Emily said: “Habbo Hotel has been picked out and when [Channel 4 reported it] I jumped for joy and thought that finally we’re going to get a better website. But I also thought it was a shame Habbo had been singled out because it’s happening all over the internet.”
Omar thought it was a wake-up call for Sulake.
“The owners can do anything they want, they know what goes on, but they’ve only decided to take decisive action after the news report.”
“I used it because I found a certain amount of comfort in being able to use something that took me out of real life.”
Emily, 20, said: “We’re proof that older users are on the site. We’ve all been using the site for a very long time, so there must be something good about it.”
Josie: “Through the confidence and social skills I’ve gained [in Habbo] I can now talk to people.”
Amber: “Habbo is very good for self-confidence. I go on Habbo when the weather’s bad! When the weather’s good I will go out with my friends, I’ve now got those social skills.”
Emily: “I’m 20 years old, I’m reaching the point where I think ‘am I a bit old for this site?’
“I, as a mother, wouldn’t be sure if I would be happy about knowing my 13-year-old child is talking to someone who is 20-years-old. Twenty is an adult.”
Channel 4 News invited the Chief Executive of Sulake, Paul La Fontaine, to join the debate but he declined.