Users of the popular online platform Roblox say that while the games’ bright colors and block-like avatars may appear kid-friendly, parts of the platform are far from appropriate for children.
Briona Thoms, 17, is one of the 43 million people who use Roblox. She told TODAY about stumbling upon a NSFW corner of the gaming platform, which allows people to both play and create games of their own.
"It looked like a bedroom that I joined into," Thoms said. "And then I saw morphs on the side, so I was like 'Oh, I could be like a dog or something,' and then I clicked on it and it said like male and female and then as soon as I clicked on female, it had like their chest and stuff but they're naked."
Thoms was describing accidentally joining a virtual strip club on Roblox. The digital spaces, also called "condo games" or "scented games," are user-created X-rated digital experiences where players can remove their avatars' clothes, make them simulate lewd acts, and even accessorize them with adult toys.
Thoms said that she finds these spaces "gross," since "little kids could stumble upon" them.
"I don't think any parent wants to have that conversation when their kid's like, 5, 6 years old," Thoms said. Thoms said that she immediately told her mother Tracie about what she found.
"I was appalled. I couldn't believe it," said Thoms.
According to Roblox's community standards, the site "does not allow sexual content or activity of any kind." Roblox told NBC News that they don't believe "condo games" are widespread because of the stringent safety system that helps monitor the platform.
"On the rare instances where we find or are pointed to people or content that violate our rules, our moderators swiftly remove it and take other strong actions," said Roblox in a statement provided to NBC News. "It is misleading to suggest such isolated instances reflect the family-friendly Roblox experience."
While the platform may quickly remove inappropriate content, experts said that it can be a struggle to keep up.
"This is basically a game of Whack-a-Mole, whereby every single time they try to take down one or two different games, 12 to 20 get popped back up within a matter of minutes," said Jeff Haynes, senior editor of video games at Common Sense Media.
Haynes said that those looking to act inappropriately on the site are constantly finding new ways to bypass moderation systems. One method is offering an online currency, known as Robux, that can be used in the game.
"There are ... plenty of reports where predators have offered kids Robux to check out a game, check out this site," Haynes said.
Roblox said it has "zero tolerance" for predatory behavior and "specifically monitor(s) for and block(s) chat behavior that indicates an attempt to bring a player off (the) platform."
But Roblox users say that social media makes "condo games" easy to find.
"There'll generally be these short, quick snappy videos that get your attention. They'll be like, 'Oh, join this game at this link, and it will be hidden under a different name. It'll be called like 'doggy training.' It is what would be known as the 'condo game,'" said 17-year-old Alex, who asked that his last name not be used out of concerns for his safety. He and his friend David, who also asked that his last name be withheld, run a major Twitter account for Roblox news.
David added that these videos will disguise the name and look of a room where the "condo game" is being played "just to fool the moderation system, so Roblox will take longer to find the needle in the haystack."
Thoms, the 17-year-old who accidentally stumbled into one of these rooms, showed TODAY how easy it is to find condo games using a third-party chat platform. Once inside the room, she was able to remove the clothes from her avatar and noted that other avatars followed hers around.
"It's not a good place," Thoms said of the condo game. TODAY could not show much of the content from the room because of its explicit nature.
The potential for explicit content doesn't mean parents should totally write off the popular gaming site. Instead, adults should make sure that they are keeping an eye on what their kids are playing and doing.
TODAY offered some expert advice on how parents can keep their kids safe on Roblox:
- Learn a little about Roblox: Sitting with your child and understanding the game they're playing can help you grasp the way the game works, and let you know what's not OK.
- Disable the chat function: Getting rid of the in-game chat function will make it much harder for a stranger and potential predator to connect with your child. Roblox already bans users from sending images and videos in one-on-one interactions, and blocks phone numbers sent to or from players under the age of 13.
- Protect your safety settings: In Roblox, you can set a pin that keeps your child from disabling your security settings.
- Stay aware: It can help to make sure your child is going online in a room where you can see and hear what's happening, not behind a closed door.
- Communicate with your child: Most importantly, make sure that your child feels safe and comfortable coming to you if they see something inappropriate, and emphasize that they won't get in trouble for alerting you if something's wrong.
"Report what you see; come to Mom and Dad," said Tracie Thoms, the mother of Briona. "Kids are so young, but kids are a lot smarter than what we think they are too, so I'm hoping they do the right thing and I'm hoping the parents do the right thing as well."