updated 9/5/2006 8:59:36 PM ET 2006-09-06T00:59:36

Online computer gamers who spend countless hours slaying monsters and battling other virtual foes are now facing more worldly threats, including online predators and scammers who want to swipe their game accounts.

"City of Heroes" maker NCsoft Corp. on Tuesday announced a program to warn its customers about real-world risks in the virtual universe of its games.

"It's a public environment where everyone can see and hear what's going on," said Robert Garriott, chief executive of NCsoft North America. "The single biggest mistake people make is, they meet people online, and once they start communicating, they slip up."

Though its "PlaySmart" initiative is still in the early phase, the company hopes to include some basic guidelines in its packaging by the end of the year.

Among the suggestions: Parents should not only monitor and play the games with their children, but also should be aware of the potential for social interaction that can include voice chat and text-message exchanges.

Today's online games allow for an instant, free flow of dialogue between thousands of players simultaneously. The tasks set forth in such games, such as killing dragons or traipsing dank dungeons, often require coordinated teamwork.

Though the true names and identities of players are disguised as avatars ranging from animals to sorcerers, there's nothing to prevent players from probing for personal information.

NCsoft's guidelines will be printed on small cards with the games as well as on NCsoft's Web site.

Other basic rules would seem to apply to life in general: never give out credit card information, never offer personal information to other players, and never give passwords or account information to friends so they can play on the account.

Garriott said one of the leading sources of customer complaints is when players lend account usernames and passwords to friends.

In such instances, accounts can be stolen outright or pilfered of virtual goods such as rare weapons or armor that the true owner spent months or years accumulating.

The effort comes as millions worldwide play such games every day. According to a recent study by Parks Associates of Dallas, revenue from online games is expected to grow from about $1.1 billion last year to $4.4 billion by 2010.

Ron Teixeira, executive director of the National Cyber Security Alliance, called NCsoft's program a good first step.

"Parents may think games are games," Teixeira said. "They think it's pretty innocent and nothing bad can happen, but the reality is that children virtually are somewhere else and interacting with people that may not be good."

Video games also are rated for content by the Entertainment Software Rating Board, a nonprofit industry group.

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