Miércoles 20 de Junio de 2007, Ip nº 195

Trouble in online paradise
Por Chris Stevens

Millions are signing up for virtual worlds - but they are taking their vices with them.

What began as an idyllic retreat for gamers and sci-fi fans has begun to sprout rotten polygons. From real-life murders and underground sweatshops, to money-laundering and child prostitution, virtual landscapes such as Second Life have shown that our migration to online worlds can be as traumatic and destructive as our colonisation of real ones.

Second Life has always aspired to recreate society; as it has grown in popularity and population, it has, quite naturally, begun to attract some of the internet's seedier characters. A disturbing behavioural science experiment has begun. William Golding would have been thrilled to witness his plotlines played out in the darker corners of our online islands, where the savagery of avatars drives some to riot and others to assault each other.

The appeal of virtual worlds is about to hit a new high, and Golding's pessimistic view of human nature could be tested on a massive scale. The relatively understated offerings from Linden Labs, the company behind Second Life, are soon to be joined by virtual universes from companies that have a proven expertise in manipulative and seductive entertainment.

Consider the partnership between Big Brother producers Endemol, with games-maker Electronic Arts, creator of The Sims. These two companies intend to collaborate on a virtual world broadly similar to Second Life, called Virtual Me. While Endemol makes exceptionally addictive entertainment out of five morons sat in a hot tub, The Sims demands that you make sure your brainless Tamagotchi-human eats enough food and goes to bed on time. Combine these two world-leaders in turning banality into light entertainment and we might never leave our homes again.

Soon we'll get to see what a television production company would do if they were allowed to plan, police and govern a city. Were Endemol to advertise its virtual world alongside Big Brother, you can imagine the volume of residents such a place would attract, and the kind of environment Endemol might possibly provide them with. Would you want the producers of Big Brother as the architects of your virtual town? Endemol would be responsible for policing this online game: would they take the same view of exhibitionist behaviour in their virtual world as they do in the Big Brother house?

Then there's Sony, who are soon to release the PlayStation 3's virtual world, Home - a kind of hybrid between Second Life and the social-networking site Facebook. Again, the audience for this virtual world is massive and could quickly eclipse Second Life. Home is a slicker experience than Second Life, but it's also more insular. Sony's world doesn't have the virtual geography of Second Life - you can't walk between locations, you can only teleport. Most of the action takes place inside your virtual house, or those of your friends. While the basic house is free, it's not a very exciting place to live. You can pay Sony to add the trappings of consumer capitalism - a plasma television, a pool table, wooden floors, and modern art. Rather than meet up in real-life to play a game, Sony have virtualised the experience - you can meet up with friend's avatars and sit around a virtual console - erasing the only remaining real-life human interaction that a hardcore gamer might experience.

From what we've seen of Home so far, Sony have been very careful not to make it vulnerable to the problems of Second Life, but as a result, there's infinitely less scope for creativity in Home. The creators of virtual worlds are clearly struggling to find a balance between the freedom to invent in the virtual world, and the need to police them.

Unlike multiplayer online games such as World of Warcraft, there is no broad gameplay element to Second Life, and no way to "win". You don't get points for leading a battalion of orcs into battle or fighting off giant turtles with a cranial drill. Residents are encouraged to talk, buy land, build and trade; its creators pitch it as a benign equivalent of the Wild West. The Second Life tagline reads: "Your World. Your Imagination", but Linden Labs has uncovered what a dangerous proposition this is when you consider what the human mind is capable of. Witnessing human avatars clumsily having sex with virtual animals is one of the consequences of giving perverse minds free rein in a virtual world, but there are more sinister aspects to Second Life, too. Some adult players dress as minors and then prostitute themselves in "age play" scenarios. Just last month, German prosecutors launched an investigation into players who were buying and selling sex with underage avatars. In some cases, the participants were offered child pornography outside the game.

Second Life's polygon world is powered by that great tradition: money. Players buy and sell in "Linden dollars" - Reuters track their value each day, as they do the dollar or the pound. The presence of cash accounts for many of the seediest corners of such virtual worlds, whether it's players posing as minors to sell virtual sex in Second Life, or real-life Chinese workers in Shanghai sweatshops playing around the clock as "gold farmers" in World of Warcraft (worldofwarcraft.com). Gold farms are tightly packed buildings full of men hunched over computers, paid to play multiplayer games and earn credits that can be sold to rich Westerners who don't have the time to devote to advancing in the game. It's a kind of battery farm for grown men, but instead of laying eggs, the human chickens play computer games in which real currencies change hands.

If you've never played in an online world before, it's difficult to appreciate how seriously players take these virtual experiences. Not only have some players died as a result of neglecting food and exercise, so engaged were they in their virtual existence, but some have killed in the real world as a result of disputes in the virtual one. An online gamer in Shanghai, 41-year-old Qiu Chengwei, stabbed Zhu Caoyuan several times in the chest after being told Zhu had sold his stolen "dragon sabre", used in the online game Legend of Mir 3. The sword was worth around £430, but the time and energy spent in winning the weapon in the game had been staggering. Qiu had apparently reported the theft to the police, but was told that they could not investigate the loss of virtual property. This might lead any reasonable person to conclude that some humans struggle to differentiate between the real and virtual world, but it's more likely that people sitting in dark rooms for days on end staring at graphics on a screen are predisposed to bizarre behaviour anyway.

As its bright graphics and friendly website would suggest, Second Life is in many ways a utopian re-imagining of the real world. Virtual sex-crimes and gold farming aside, there are enough good, decent folk to delight anyone who thought the spirit of the 1960s was dead. Much of the world is populated by creative types who come to build elaborate structures on land they've bought, attend university lectures, or discuss ideas. It's a kind of bohemian paradise, because in Second Life there are no wars, droughts or famines to put a downer on lofty ideology.

There are, however, floods. Last month a rolling flood hit Second Life, but this flood wasn't caused by torrential rain, or a tsunami - instead, it originated in several of Second Life's servers, purposely engineered as part of a campaign to raise awareness of global warming. Residents logged on to discover their homes submerged. It was the kind of publicity stunt that would be prohibitively expensive to enact in real life. Ironically, National Geographic was quick to note that "because of the computer equipment required to power Second Life, people's online personas, or avatars, consume as much energy as the average real-world Brazilian", making the whole exercise rather hypocritical.

Our virtual worlds have begun to struggle with many of the same problems as emerging societies. If you were hoping to find escapism online, you should be prepared to run into trouble in paradise. For the moment, most Second Lifers share the hopelessly optimistic outlook of Ralph in Lord of the Flies: "This is our island. It's a good island. Until the grown-ups come to fetch us we'll have fun."

  02/06/2007. The Daily Telegraph.


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