Sex, Politics, Shopping and Terrorism Second Life Just Like The First

Second Life, the four-million-strong online community, is turning more and more into a pixelated copy of reality and its institutions, complete with rampant consumerism, political candidates and lawsuits. Whatever happened to the brave new virtual world?
Von Khuê Pham

Jean Marie Le Pen is clearly unpopular among Porcupine residents. The far-right French presidential candidate's supporters from the Front National party are met with gunfire, explosions and angry protests outside their new office in the settlement of Porcupine, previously better known for its shops than its political institutions.

But the fracas at the shopping paradise turned battlefield is different from the usual anti-Le Pen demonstrations -- because Porcupine is not located in the real world but in the virtual one. Welcome to Second Life.

Le Pen may be politically conservative, but when it comes to technology he's clearly ahead of the game. He was the first politician to recognize that Second Life, the online game where users create avatar versions of themselves, could play a role in his campaign.

Last November he gave his oui to his party's youth wing, the Young Front National (FNJ), to create a virtual branch to promote his presidential candidacy. "The media and the other parties laughed at us at first but then the Socialists and Conservatives quickly followed us into Second Life," FNJ vice director Nicolas Riac told SPIEGEL ONLINE. However Le Pen turns out to be as controversial in the virtual world as in the real one, and his party's new Second Life offices were the scenes of violent virtual clashes between his far-right supporters and left-wing activists.

The latest member of the French political establishment to establish a virtual presence was interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy. "Sarkozy Island," a virtual island populated by avatar supporters of "Sarko" -- as the presidential candidate is often nicknamed -- opened last week. The virtual visitors' center is already proving more popular than Sarkozy's real Paris headquarters -- organizers say it has had around 20,000 visitors since it opened, significantly more than at the real center, which only receives a couple of hundred visitors a day.

Goodbye cyberpunks, hello traditionalists. Four years after US company Linden Lab created Second Life, the virtual utopia is resembling the real world and its mechanisms more and more. And as the population booms -- the number of registered avatars has risen 600 percent in the last six months to four million -- the on- and offline worlds are beginning to wonder whether Second Life should be run by institutions of civil society rather than a benevolent corporate dictatorship.

Cash, sex and crime

For one thing, there is a lot of money to be made in Second Life -- the game's currency, Linden Dollars, is convertible to real US dollars -- and Second Life's smell of success has already lured big corporations like BMW, Gucci and AOL to set up virtual offices. Virtual entrepreneurs like Ailin Gräf, alias Anshe Chung, the game's first self-made US dollar millionaire, are taking over the property and clothing markets, while drug dealers and pimps compete with each other over the seedier side of business.

But money attracts trouble in the virtual world, too. In a postmodern version of David against Goliath, American lawyer Marc Bragg is suing Linden Lab over virtual property ownership at a federal court in Philadelphia. Bragg claims he was "dispossessed" when his Second Life account was cancelled because he wanted to sell a virtual estate which he had acquired by exploiting a system error.

Bragg says he lost several thousand US dollars which he had invested and made virtually, and is suing Linden Lab for breach of his property rights. The company, on the other hand, claims that Bragg breached their terms of service agreement. The case reflects a broader debate over the extent to which a company like Linden Lab should be allowed to have complete control over what, to many intents and purposes, is a virtual nation state.

Another problem is sex, which is rampant on Second Life -- as are, inevitably, its perversions. While liberal-minded Internet denizens may not be too bothered by virtual swinger clubs or brothels, online pedophilia is more problematic.

In Second Life, virtual rooms for sex between children and adult avatars exist. The Dutch Federal Court in The Hague is currently assessing, as part of a test case, if such activities constitute cases of sexual abuse or pedophilia. At the heart of the matter lies the question of whether watching virtual child pornography could lead to real-life copycat behavior, or whether virtual child abuse could be an offense in itself.

Acting real

While the extent to which virtual behavior influences real behavior may be debatable, it seems that the real world has an indisputable influence on Second Life. A research team headed by Stanford University graduate student Nick Yee has found that avatars in Second Life behave just as humans do in real life, adhering to the same social rules. "We were surprised how many of the social norms transferred," Yee wrote in an email. "While we expected some of them to transfer, we didn't expect almost all of them to do so."

The researchers studied avatar gender roles and social interaction patterns and compared them to human behavior. They found that personal space matters even in the virtual world: Male and female avatars keep a physical distance from each other in the same way that men and women do. Pairs of male avatars tend to stay away from each other the furthest while female-female pairs stay physically closest to each other. Male-male pairs also exchange least eye contact while female avatar pairs look at each other most.

That avatars act just like humans is not surprising to Yee: "It's hard to forget or ignore the norms that we have used every day in the physical world since we were born," he says. "These social norms help guide and sustain interaction."

This could be why the Second Life population models itself on real society. Behind every furry, flying or androgynous avatar is a player made of flesh and blood, whose preconceptions have been formed by his or her real life environment. Another Second Life expert, the French blogger Loic Le Mer, put it this way: "If you have a stupid player who creates an avatar, that avatar won't be smart just because it's a digital creature."

In any case, the similarity in avatar and human behavior is likely to increase even further in the future. American company Vivox announced on Tuesday that it was developing a voice program for Second Life which will enable avatars to speak with each other -- and even overhear other avatar's conversations.

Social change through Second Life?

Still, Loic Le Mer believes that the real world could change for the better because of Second Life. In his opinion, the online game is at the vanguard of globalization, "but globalization as an opportunity, not a threat."

He predicts that more and more people from all over the world will earn a living through Second Life in the future. "The great thing about Second Life is that it brings together people from all countries, and everybody can make money by creating an object and selling it," he says, adding that an acquaintance of his makes €1,000 a month from selling virtual glasses to avatars.

Players from the developing world in particular can find ways of making money in Second Life, he says. The booming economy means that there is much demand for people who know how to create, for example, virtual buildings, which sell for around €50. "It may not be a lot of money to people living in the West, but for others it is," Le Mer says. However, he does agree that Second Life is not a place of total equal opportunity. "Of course, access, technology and skills vary between the developed and developing worlds," he admits.

But the link between Second Life and global capitalism could also herald another evolution: virtual terrorism. Second Life is already home to a group of self-proclaimed avatar revolutionaries, the Second Life Liberation Army.

In order to fight what they call the "dictatorship of Linden Lab," the virtual freedom fighters have been setting off bombs at Second Life stores such as American Apparel and have put bounties on the heads of commercial contractors. So far, nobody has been injured by the code-toting anarchists. Fantasy and reality have not yet merged completely.

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