Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Second Life (Part III)

This is the third in a five-part series on social networking sites and their potential impact on the real world. To explore the issues created by such sites, we are looking at Second Life, the virtual world created by Linden Lab of San Francisco. Second Life has encountered a fair number of problems--some of which might have been anticipated and others that no one could have foreseen.

Remember: unlike many online games, Second Life is not set up for gamers to "win." There are no progressively difficult levels of achievement. Instead, SL is intended to mimic the real world. And, as in the real world, the way to show your superiority is in subjective ways: the clothes you wear, the house you live in, the vehicles you drive, the job you possess and the number of friends you have.

The first order of business of most SL residents is to find a way to earn Linden Dollars. Those dollars are needed to buy clothes, to purchase land (or to rent an apartment or hotel room), and to build a house.

There are a variety of very low-paying jobs in SL. You can be a shop clerk or a security guard. You can be a dancing body in a nightclub (to help the club look popular to avatars dropping by). You can model clothes for a fashion designer. If you have real world skills, you can be a fashion designer or a builder. If you have social skills, you can be an event host or a DJ. If you understand money, you can buy and sell property and become a land baron.

Occasionally, a new resident will think to earn money through virtual sex. While there are escort services available, many residents are also willing to have virtual sex for free.

The issue of adult-oriented businesses also raises the problem of content. I've already mentioned that minors are directed to Teen Second Life. However, the adult SL grids are also divided into PG and Mature. Adult-oriented businesses and activities must confine themselves to the mature sims (large areas) of the grids.

Remembering that Second Life exists on a large array of servers, purchasing land is the equivalent to purchasing bandwidth. This helps your house and avatar to upload more quickly than someone who is in SL for free and is not a landowner. However, some residents complain because of the lack of zoning beyond PG and Mature. It is possible for a resident to spend more than $1,000 in real money to buy a large parcel of land, only to find another resident setting up a popular business right next door on a much smaller parcel of land. That business--if it draws enough traffic--will be a drain on network connections and greatly impact the owner who has spent a large sum for "superior" service, only to find reduced performance.

There have also been cases of neighbors harrassing each other by painting graffiti on walls or engaging in other acts of vandalism. "Land griefing" is a term for someone who obstructs another resident's view or creates a nuisance in order to force his neighbor to pay him to go away by purchasing the extortionist's land at a premium.

Like the real world, SL and other games attract con men, eager to steal from or cheat residents. Gambling is permitted in all areas of the adult grid. However, the machines are "built" by residents and may be rigged to win all the time. Residents do well to remember the warning, caveat emptor.

Another scam was reported by the sci-fi game "Eve Online" earlier this summer. A player named Cally set up a virtual bank and then absconded with billions in virtual currency deposited in his bank by gamers hoping to earn interest on their unspent dollars.

CNet News addressed the problem of virtual crooks in an article titled "Cons in the Virtual Gaming World." The article asked:

[W]hat happens when the rules of a game allow players to be subject to trickery, robbery, embezzlement, fraud and other deeds . . .? Some gaming experts . . . think that it might be time for real-world judicial systems to take the antics of virtual scammers like Cally seriously, even if the game creators are willing to let them get away with their schemes.

Wired News reported on May 18, 2006:

In what might be a first-of-its-kind lawsuit, a Pennsylvania lawyer is suing the publisher of the rapidly growing online world Second Life, alleging the company unfairly confiscated tens of thousands of dollars worth of his virtual land and other property.

For its part, SL accuses the attorney of scamming their land auction system. The resident, Marc Bragg, "copied the URL for a legitimate auction, then swapped in the ID number for land not yet up for sale publicly, so there would be no minimum bid and few, if any, competing bidders." In essence, he purchased a large plot of land that would have sold for a minimum of US$1,000 for US$300. When Second Life execs realized what he had done, they froze his account and refused to permit him to withdraw "about a million Lindens" (or approximately US$3,700). Bragg is suing for US$8,000, saying that there was nothing in the SL Terms of Service prohibiting him from doing what he did.

Most observers believe that Bragg's hacker-like method will lose him the case. However, many eyes are fixed on the outcome. Forbes.com reported: "On October 4, 2006, a first-of-its-kind lawsuit was filed in Chester County, Pennsylvania seeking remedies for a series of virtual land deals gone sour. The lawsuit was originally filed in magistrate court on May 1, 2006 and re-filed with a more detailed complaint because of importance of issues being addressed in the case . . . This suit is unique because the land does not actually exist in the real world and no law has yet been created in the United States with regard to the unique nature of virtual land."

Tomorrow, we'll look at more issues raised by life in virtual reality--issues involving the DMCA (Digital Millennium Copyright Act).

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