Second Life: a virtual nanny state

Strict codes of conduct, bans on bad behaviour, no gambling or rowdiness: Nathalie Rothschild spent a day in Second Life and found it surprisingly stifling.

Nathalie Rothschild

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Topics Science & Tech

I’m standing on a deserted street. Apart from the wind, which I can hear swishing around me, nothing else is moving. I see a dragon perched by a stone staircase. I walk towards it, but it seems to be sleeping. Suddenly, a man appears at the other end of the street. I wave my arm and call out: ‘Hey!’ He doesn’t respond; instead, he leaps into a car and drives away. I try to get into a car to follow him, but it takes me a while to figure out how these things work. So I decide to fly across the sea in search of more populated land.

It proves tricky to find people to talk to here in Second Life – despite the fact that there are over 8.5million ‘residents’ in this internet-based three-dimensional virtual world. Launched four years ago by Linden Lab in California, Second Life is variably lauded and feared. Some say it holds limitless potential for e-commerce, social networking, business recruitment and spiritual enrichment. Others say it is a sad reflection of people’s need for escapism today. Others still see it as a sordid and immoral playground for perverts, terrorist plotters and gamblers.

After recent news reports about how gambling has been outlawed in Second Life, and claims that radicals are venturing into this virtual world to pursue a virtual jihad, I decided to find out what all the fuss is about.

Like all other Second Lifers, I created a character, or an ‘avatar’. This is a three-dimensional alter ego whose looks and dress sense you can modify and remould as many times as you like. Whatever body parts and outfits have not been provided by Linden Lab can be bought from other, more entrepreneurial residents of Second Life. The only aspect of one’s avatar that remains constant is his or her name. Then again, if you decide the name doesn’t suit you anymore, you can simply create a new avatar. Some, more serious players invest a lot of time, energy and even money into Second Life: they convert real-world money into Linden Dollars, the Second Life currency, and spend it on land, houses and merchandise which exist only virtually.

To me, the most striking thing about Second Life is just how un-striking it is – and how much it replicates the real world’s regrettable levels of policing of interpersonal relations and monitoring of our behaviour. Even in this virtual world, where we’re supposed to be able to let our imaginations run riot, we are actually being watched over and reined in by censorious moderators and touchy individuals.

The Second Life behavioural guidelines state that ‘the use of derogatory or demeaning language or images in reference to another resident’s race, ethnicity, gender, religion or sexual orientation is never allowed in Second Life’ (1). Doesn’t that ring a (real) bell? It echoes, and in fact expands, the censorious outlook that is widespread in the real world, where even making jokes about other people’s religions or singing songs that criticise individuals’ sexual lifestyle choices can be censored.

In Second Life’s ‘Safe Areas’, which cover most of the virtual world, harassment and assault are forbidden. Yet they are so broadly defined (even more so than in the real world) that pretty much any kind of bad behaviour can be described as problematic and thus against the Second Life rules. ‘Communicating or behaving in a manner that is offensively coarse, intimidating or threatening, constitutes unwelcome sexual advances or requests for sexual favors, or is otherwise likely to cause annoyance or alarm, is Harassment’, states Second Life’s community standards. Assault can mean ‘shooting, pushing, or shoving another Resident in a Safe Area […] creating or using scripted objects which singularly or persistently target another Resident in a manner which prevents their enjoyment of Second Life.’ (2)

It seems to me that the greatest ‘prevention of enjoyment’ in Second Life comes courtesy of this preachy and absurd community standards list. The obvious fact that when you shoot, push or shove an avatar in Second Life it doesn’t really hurt anyone – or that being asked for sexual favours by a virtual elf, or even a real-looking animated character, is not the same as being accosted by a creepy man on a real street corner – seems to have escaped those who wrote the rules on behaviour for this world.

This is the saddest thing about this online world: not so much that people choose to spend their time and money there, but rather that Second Life, far from rising above and beyond the limitations on speech and interaction that dominate in the real world, recreates both the most mundane and the most petty authoritarian aspects of our First Lives. Second Life comes across like the online wing of something like Britain’s ‘politics of behaviour’, where government ministers have taken it upon themselves to save us from our nasty habits (eating junk food, drinking too much, smoking, getting angry) and recreate us as well-behaved Brownite citizens.

Second Life started out as a virtual playground where anything could be tried out. Only the level of your programming skills or inclination to engage in cyber activities restricted what you could do. Gradually, as Second Life gained in popularity and won more media exposure, Linden Lab introduced more rules, regulations and stern moralistic warnings. There have been some outright bans in Second Life, on Neo-Nazi avatars and on gamblers. When the gambling ban was introduced last month, Linden Lab cited ‘conflicting gambling regulations around the world’ as a justification. What the bans and codes of conduct in Second Life really capture is a profound mistrust of the public – even the virtual public. As regulators and policymakers in the real world tend to mistrust the public to be able to cope with the open exchange of images and ideas, so the creators of Second Life seem to think we cannot cope with virtual pushing and shoving lest our avatars are emotionally scarred for the rest of their virtual lifes by ‘cyber bullying’.

Despite the promise that ‘from the moment you enter the World you’ll discover a vast digital continent, teeming with people, entertainment, experiences and opportunity’ (3), during my trip in Second Life I found mostly desolate landscapes. From the outside, it can seem as if there is a frenzy of activity in Second Life. The myriad individuals, news agencies, corporations, charities and religious groups that have ventured into the virtual universe, after its expansion was made possible by the roll-out of broadband internet, show that this animated world is not only accessed by introvert saddos, geeky teenagers or gaming enthusiasts. Brands like Adidas and Toyota have created virtual products in Second Life; IBM holds corporate meetings on virtual islands; Edinburgh University has created a cyber campus where students take part in tutorials around a beach camp fire; Reuters has a Second Life reporter; Sweden was the first country to open a virtual embassy in Second Life; the UK Guardian has hosted a film festival there.

And yet, the majority of the 8.5million Second Life accounts are apparently inactive or infrequently accessed, which shows just how quickly the novelty can wear off. After having steered my avatar along empty streets (the avatars I did bump into all seemed to be German), gotten lost in a jungle, attended a panel discussion about virtual religion on a beach in ‘Nowhereville’ and crashed into rocks and oceans because of my poor hand-to-eye coordination, there wasn’t much more to do.

No doubt, there are great opportunities in Second Life, and on the web at large, for interactivity and creativity. Yet at the same time, the world of Second Life feels tame, dull, stifling – no doubt because it has replicated, rather than challenged, the clean-living, no-platform policies and the ‘culture of respect’ that are so pervasive in the real world. Why enter a virtual universe to be told off by nannying policymakers and behaviour police, when you can experience the very same thing on your real-life doorstep?

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor at spiked.

Previously on spiked

Robin Walsh suggested we should all get a First Life. James Woudhuysen argued that gambling addiction is a panic at odds with reality. Stuart Derbyshire questioned the idea that violent video games train for violence. Rob Lyons said that censors who banned the video game Manhunt 2 don’t trust the public to differentiate between fantasy and reality. Or read more at spiked issue Modern life.

(1) See the Second Life community standards.

(2) See the Second Life community standards.

(3) See the Second Life website.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

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