Get a life

Culture | A parallel universe online intensifies the tensions of this universe

Issue: "He's in," Sept. 22, 2007

While many Americans watch football or post-season baseball games next month, and many others play computer games where they control the movements of a soldier or an elf, tens of thousands of others will be manipulating virtual images of themselves-so-called avatars-in a parallel universe. They are part of Linden Lab's Second Life, a computer program that allows users to spend hours or days of their own lives trying on a different existence in a virtual world.

Over the summer Newsweek lauded Second Life as the new best place for social and business interaction, and at least 50 major companies have poured millions into developing a Second Life presence where they can try out new products and ideas. More than 300 universities, including Harvard and MIT, have used Second Life as an educational tool. The New York Times this month described the tendency of many participants to engage in status competition, buying virtual clothes and virtual real estate so their avatars go one-up on other avatars.

But one aspect has been little noted: As corporations are trying to figure out how to profit in a virtual world, that world is being transformed by its users into a virtual red-light district, where pumped-up and curvaceous avatars act out their user's sexual fantasies. Casinos, strip clubs, and the site's 100 nude beaches currently attract the most virtual visitors. Second Life's longest-running nightclub, The Edge, offers virtual cash prizes to the sexiest topless male and female.

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According to Second Life's indecency guidelines, "Content, communication, or behavior which involves intense strong language or expletives, nudity or sexual content, the depiction of sex or strong violence, or anything else broadly offensive must be contained within private land in areas rated Mature (M)." Nevertheless, mature events popped up even when WORLD tried to avoid them. One virtual event at a nightclub was rated PG, but nevertheless had this promo: "great dancers at our club they dance for you and if u tip them they will strip for you."

The mature activity isn't limited to virtual nudity; sadistic activity is also common. A general search for "sex slave" brought up 100 results. One brothel's promo picture was a woman's chained wrist alongside her bare bottom. Also among the list was a "human trafficking mansion," where avatars may role play forced prostitution, forced fantasy, sexual slavery, or rape.

According to Linden Lab, registered Second Life users shot up from 1.5 million in 2006 to more than 8 million today, which is one of the reasons companies are trying to build a presence there. But despite their investments, users don't seem interested in visiting places like Coke's "virtual thirst pavilion," which had no visitors when WORLD checked. Instead users were visiting "Sexy Land," the third-highest-trafficked island. They were also buying genitalia, according to Ian Schafer, chief executive of online marketing firm Deep Focus, which advises clients about entering virtual worlds.

It's possible that Second Life will never be more than an online swamp, despite its marketing buzz. Already some indicators suggest the number of users is inflated. Linden Lab counts one-time users and multiple avatars built by individual residents in its totals. But on one Tuesday afternoon in August, just over 36,900 people were online. By 7 p.m. activity picked up to 41,303 people, but dropped to 31,597 by 12:30 a.m. That's not a sizeable audience for advertisers accustomed to reaching millions with one TV commercial.

And yet, according to leading research firm Gartner Research, consumers are likely to head to second lives online. The firm predicts that by 2011, four of every five people who use the internet will try out new lives online.


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