The power to create and fully control a world seems unfathomable unless we are talking about a virtual one. And Roblox lets you do exactly that. It serves as a free, social platform that hosts a variety of games and experiences that one can participate in, all while offering a robust chat system.
Players can create their own custom avatars by cycling through a set of options such as hair, clothing, accessories, and emotes. Then, in just a few clicks, you can pick a server and jump right in the middle of a game session. Here, you could be evading the police, playing a multiplayer shooter, or making new friends in the in-built Robloxian Highschool, to name just a few.
Created by David Baszucki and Erik Cassel in 2004, Roblox saw rapid growth in the second half of 2010, when YouTubers began using it to create memes or play bootleg versions of popular games. The pandemic-induced lockdown was another driving force, urging children around the world to sign up and interact with each other, taking the player base to over 164 million active users in August 2020. It also played host to some virtual concerts, similar to Fortnite, where artists like Zara Larrson and Twenty One Pilots performed in a range of interdimensional stages.
Besides the consumer aspect, Roblox includes a downloadable software called Roblox Studio, which is the core engine the game runs upon. Players can use it to create virtual spaces and objects by tinkering with 3D models or coding over them with “Lua” programming language to create new game modes for others to play.
The assembly stage, however, does not require any coding knowledge. Just like Unreal Engine 4, users can directly import and interact with the provided templates to scale and resize, change angles, and move them around using draggable axes.
The in-built properties tab adds more depth to your models, by offering colour options, transparency slider, shadows, and reflection. It even lets you pick textures. Collisions can be enabled as well, through a simple checkbox so your character does not pass through models or walls like a hologram
When finished creating the game or virtual room, users can publish it for anyone to play or set it to ‘private’ or ‘friends only’ by heading over to the permissions settings. One can also select what devices the game will be run on – PC, phone, tablet, or consoles.
Robux and child developer exploitation
Robux is essentially a virtual currency that is used to make purchases within the game. Most of them are cosmetic, while others enhance your Roblox experience by unlocking paid games. For instance, in city-based simulation game modes, players can buy boosters that speed up the progression rate or give them extra money to fulfil certain tasks, instead of having to earn them through gameplay. These are called microtransactions and are generally frowned upon because of how manipulative they are – providing an unfair advantage to those willing to pay for it.
The in-game currency can be acquired via the official store in packages, for which, you will have to pay real money. Spending the lowest tier, $4.99 (about Rs 372) grants 400 Robux, while the highest amount, $19.99 (about Rs 1490) grants 1700, letting you buy upgrades and abilities for your LEGO-like characters. There is also a monthly subscription model called Roblox Premium, which provides bonus Robux, as long as you have your card attached to it.
The company has been criticised time and again for these exploitative practices, where children have spent large amounts of money on the platform without their parents’ consent. Additionally, there have been cases where accounts that filed chargebacks or requested refunds have been deleted, or players have gotten baited into clicking sketchy links in exchange for free Robux.
Now, to be fair, there are ways to earn free currency, which mainly involves developing a Roblox game with some form of monetisation or referring friends using the affiliate program. However, in mid-2021, an investigative journalism YouTube channel – ‘People Make Games’ accused the studio of exploiting child developers. This would involve promising “serious cash” in exchange for monetised games, while in reality, offering them little to no money.
To put this in perspective, Steam takes a 30 percent share from all its sales, while on Epic Games the value is set at 12 – which is why a lot of developers opt to release games there. Roblox follows a similar formula as the platform Steam but pays the remaining 70 percent in Robux – a virtual currency that has no real-life value. Now, if any user intends to draw those Robux and turn it into real currency, the minimum withdrawal amount is 100,000 Robux, which is equivalent to $1000. Meaning, if you happened to earn $950 worth of virtual currency, your real-life paycheck still stands at $0. Might as well wait until the next month for more players to hop onto your game, or plough your hard-earned Robux back into it.
Roblox’s ever-growing player base makes it difficult for smaller games to get discovered from the vast ocean of what the company considers “top games”. In order to succeed, one can hustle and keep their hopes up, or pay Roblox to advertise their game.
For this, a user has to convert their money into Robux and then compete in an auction to earn advertisement slots. After that, it is a matter of chance. In short, child developers end up investing more money into the game, instead of actually profiting.
Communication system and harassment
Unlike Minecraft’s cluttered chat interface, Roblox features cleaner solutions. There is a text chat system that pops a speech bubble on top of one’s head, making it easy for players to recognise who is talking to whom. A voice chat feature is included as well, though to access it, one needs to be over 13 years of age. And yes, parents can control who their kids communicate with and there are filters for games that are off-limits to minors.
But unscrupulous elements do find their way in. This could be for scamming kids off their hard-earned items via the in-built trading system or doing something way horrible such as sending inappropriate messages. In fact, this was the case with one of Roblox’s own developers who preyed on a girl for months. Ironically, when the incident came to light, the victim was shamed for “trying to ruin someone’s life”. While the developer’s account was banned soon after, there was no word on actual repercussions.
Additionally, there is adult content, prevalent all across the platform, with black market casinos and virtual sex/strip clubs taking centre stage. However, the company can only shut down these rooms/games instead of moderating or regulating them, given most users here use third-party apps for communication. Or at least, that is the excuse they keep falling back on.
In mid-2020, an investigation led by Fast Company led to the discovery that a lot of the digital sex parties were, in fact, run by kids below the age of 17. Dubbed ‘condo games,’ these spaces served as a free haven for anyone wanting to shell out their deviances. Players would create naked characters, roleplay, and have them perform sexual acts, with options that let them switch positions. Others were simply there to use slurs and make offensive jokes.
Roblox was created to be a vast digital playground for kids—more than half of American players are under 16. Now the company is waging a technological shadow war against “condo games:” digital sex parties where kids act like adults. https://t.co/OCknlcSwrt
— Fast Company (@FastCompany) August 19, 2020
Finding a condo game is a difficult task, and in most cases, child developers were creating these themselves. The process involved paying a certain amount of Robux to an owner on some private Discord server, who would offer templates and code for the game. The buyer would then tweak some aspects, advertise it as their own sex club, and as you would expect, gain more traction than he/she would have if they had created their own original game.
For entry into such clubs, customers would have to purchase virtual shirts or items via Robux, which goes into the creator’s pocket before ultimately, making its way back to the company. The thriving environment also makes it easy for paedophiles to groom children for sexual abuse, though most moderators claim to ward suspicious ones off their servers. This would involve setting up message filters, listening to their voices, and banning those who offer to share illicit pictures on Snapchat.
There have also been instances of sexual violence in-game, most notably in 2018, when a US mother noticed her 7-year-old girl’s avatar getting gang-raped by two individuals. At the time, Roblox banned the player and apologised to the victim and her family, and found out that their protection system had been hacked and tampered with. The culprit had edited the code to have customised animations appear, which also added the male genitalia.
It looks like some of these problems could have been avoided if only Roblox had better content moderation. Simply implementing a review and approval system for games before hosting could drastically improve the experience for kids. Adding a verification process to limit the ease of creating new accounts or just adding a stronger payment system that requires the parents’ direct authentication is also a great solution. But, the company continues taking the safer route and banning people instead of adding appropriate measures, which would be costly.