Exploring the Underbelly of Second Life

Allegations of illegal gambling, reports of online orgies, and even an active investigation in Europe of sexual abuse and misconduct seem to have overshadowed the tamer daily goings-on in the virtual world Second Life.

Yet, just this week, it was the locale of an innovative job fair in which upstanding employers like HP tried out new online recruiting strategies on hundreds of willing participants and conducted interviews with candidates for real-world positions.

So, is Second Life more like “Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood” or an episode of “The Sopranos”? It’s both — and that’s inevitable, said Enderle Group President and Principal Analyst Rob Enderle.

“People are going to behave badly wherever they go,” he told TechNewsWorld.

Second Life has become a social destination of sorts, and real-world visitors there will see the whole range of human behavior displayed by the avatars they create in the virtual world.

Excursion of the Nave

As a very unscientific experiment into just how easy it is to network with the shadier characters populating the Second Life realm, I signed on myself. Mind you, I’m not an online gamer, and my young and wild days in the real world are long past. So I entered Second Life using the “girl next door” standard avatar and proceeded to the tutorial section to complete my required orientation.

The first avatar I met turned out to be another reporter — perhaps an indication of the curiosity generated by recent news. Just as disoriented as I was, my colleague asked me a few questions, gave me the Web address of the Portuguese publication for which he writes, and went on his way.

I won’t divulge his avatar’s name, because that would violate one of the “Big Six” rules outlined in Second Life’s Terms of Service — disclosure. To disclose information about another avatar is to release information about the real-life person behind the on-screen persona. The other prohibitions are intolerance, harassment, assault, indecency — except in private land areas rated mature — and disturbing the peace.

I tried my best to avoid violating these edicts, although I did run into quite a few walls and buildings while learning to make my avatar move about. I noticed that other avatars weren’t quite as cautious. One commented on my physical appearance and asked me to dance, and another kept bumping into and rubbing against me.

Finding the Action

To see just how easy it is to get into online trouble, I entered a series of gambling terms into the search function of the Second Life map tool. The term “poker” yielded a variety of hits, and I transported my avatar self to the “PokerPalace.”

There, I met a friendly card dealer by the name of “Black Daniel,” dressed in a sparkly cat suit, complete with a long and swishy tail. Black Daniel was busy doing an online job — overseeing a table of Texas Hold ‘Em. Still, the avatar chatted with me until I dropped the door-closing information: I was a reporter researching a story.

Black Daniel told me I might want to talk with one of the managers of PokerPalace, Dweebs Dweebie. Not surprisingly — and common to reporters in the real world — I found that Dweebs was not available.

As I was thanking Black Daniel, I entered a series of search terms on sexual activities into what I thought was the Map tool. As it turns out, I was entering them into the chat box instead, and I thoroughly humiliated myself with Black Daniel, who remained good natured and seemed not at all shocked.

I fled back to Help Island where I learned that the organized sexual activities on Second Life are a bit more veiled to the novice.

Turning to the Market

What I could have done, according to Enderle, is hired someone to advance my avatar for me. In massive multiplayer online role-playing games like “World of Warcraft,” for instance, the practice of “power leveling” for another player is common.

That is, players will create an avatar and then turn it over to either a friend or a hired assistant to help it mature or reach a certain level of expertise. Most virtual worlds prohibit this practice, but experienced characters often are for sale — for real dollars — on commerce sites such as Craigslist and eBay, said Enderle.

In fact, this off-site activity is one of the problems with verifying the commerce-related claims Linden Lab makes regarding Second Life, Mike Goodman, director of consumer research with the Yankee Group, told TechNewsWorld.

Second Life “is really a social network,” he said, adding that Linden Lab’s economic impact claims — for example, that nearly 18,000 residents had established businesses with a positive cash flow in real dollars last month — are full of “holes you could drive a truck through.”

Bowling for Dollars

One of the problems is the fine line Linden Lab has to walk when it talks about the relationship between its Linden Dollars, the unit of exchange in the virtual world, and real-world currency. Linden Dollars, says the Terms of Service agreement, are “not redeemable for monetary value.”

Yet Linden itself tracks Second World residents’ accounts and runs an exchange called “LindX” that does indeed correlate Linden Dollars to U.S. dollars. With account credits, Second Life users can apply Linden Dollars toward expenses of the service that might otherwise cost real-world money, such as premium features.

The relationship is much more direct on other exchange sites, said Goodman. Still, with so much of the economic activity related to Second Life occurring off-site, it’s difficult to gauge what really is happening, he noted. Moreoever, people garnering Linden Dollars from illicit activities are unlikely to advertise that fact when they convert their online booty to real currency.

Lines in the Sand

The distinction between what we know as real-world wrongs and what happens in Second Life also remains unclear, said Enderle. For example, capital punishment is a hugely controversial issue in the U.S. and is banned outright in many countries. However, online gamers regularly execute one another for crimes, and avatars are completely eliminated by site owners for violations of terms.

While some illicit activities — those related to child sexual abuse, for example — clearly violate legal and moral standards at any level, others are not so clear, Enderle noted.

One of the draws of a virtual world is that it offers users the opportunity, through an avatar, “to explore ideas and activities they cannot in the real world,” he suggested, adding that because Second Life seeks to be a rich and multidimensional world, one should not assume that it is any safer than the real world.

Whose Job?

The question, then, is who holds responsibility for policing the virtual world of Second Life and similar sites?

“From Linden Lab’s perspective, law enforcement is not directly in the purview of the entity providing the service,” Enderle asserted. For starters, there is the fact that the residents of Second Life hail from hundreds of countries, all of which have different laws on issues such as gambling and prostitution. From this angle, law enforcement in the virtual world becomes even more complicated than the already-tangled thicket of online copyright enforcement — an issue that does at least have a common global legal basis.

“Courts are the final arbiter of what is legal and illegal,” Enderle pointed out, and it should remain so. While Second Life management can outline standards for interaction — such as banning “griefers,” who exist only to make trouble for other avatars — it cannot determine whether real-world laws are being violated by virtual world creations.

“Once you start addressing moral issues in an online service, they tend to become your morals,” Enderle observed, stressing that moral standards will vary depending on which company executive sets them. “That’s a slippery slope.”

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