In the second life of Marianne McCann, childhood never ended. Though in real life a woman well over 30 (by her description), Marianne's avatar stands knee high to a June bug, with pigtails wrapped in pink ribbon. In Second Life, she mostly plays with avatars who look her age (there are hundreds of them), attends elementary school, goes to summer camp, and returns home to loving parents who tuck her in at night. She's even turned the trappings of childhood into a business-- her store, You Know For Kids (direct teleport here), is located in a kind of mini-mall built like an elementary school, and there she sells SL versions of Lite Bright(tm), Eazy Bake Oven(tm), and other nostalgic toys from 70s. ("Stuff dat I wanted as a kid," as she puts it.) While this recreation of lost innocence is presented without irony, you can still occasionally see the adult behind it peeking out. (The store's name, after all, is evidently borrowed from the Coen Brothers' Hudsucker Proxy, not exactly the kind of movie a kindergartener watches.)
If you've been half-following Second Life's more recent controversies, this last paragraph will probably seem strange, since the connotations of avatars roleplaying as children have been anything but innocent. Rather, they've been associated with allegations (by the media and European authorities) of simulated pedophilia, and worse. And while the Lindens have expressly forbade that kind of behavior in-world, non-sexual roleplaying is still permitted, and persists-- often, Marianne tells me, by people like her who have been abused as children themselves, and yearn to recapture in Second Life an innocence that was so atrociously ripped from them. So now this subculture of adult Residents roleplaying as children exists in a social purgatory, adamantly protecting itself from occasional pedophiles who'd exploit them, while also enduring the suspicion of Residents who assume the worst-- or just find the whole notion of playacting as kids to be essentially creepy and suspect. (In a distinct class of strangeness, that is, from roleplaying as a robot, or a magical elf, or even a humanoid furry animal.)
All this came up after Marianne McCann won New World Notes' Uncanny Valley Expo, in which she presented her avatar downcast, and close to tears. In effect, she'd turned her avatar into a form of protest against the backlash directed at all child-age avatars and the moral panic spurred by totally legitimate concerns over protecting real children. So after the contest I chatted with her, and Marianne described this community of overage kids, and her reasons for joining it. Her conversation-- painful, forthright, likely controversial to some-- after the break.
and titled it "blog.secondlife.com"
As you know, there's been a lot of history and opinion around child avatars for some time, with a lot of people suspecting kid avvies to be used for prurient reasons. Also, some people are just a little put off by an adult playin' a kid. This came to a head earlier this year, with an expose on German television, which lead to a blog post by Linden Lab, clarifying their positions on child avatars, sexual ageplay, and the trading of real world pedophilic images. Emotions ran very high during that time, and many posted messages in the blog's comments about how vile child avatars were as a class-- that we were all suspect, and wrong.
The day that came out, I read through all those comments, and was very very sad and troubled. For me, and for many SL kids, well, we don't do any of that stuff. Indeed, many of us faced a lot of that in the real world, and are here having a better childhood than we had the first time. So reading all of that felt, well, hurtful. As a result, I thought I should use my avatar to show how I felt towards all of this, and gave a sense of what the person behind the avatar was feeling.
On why she roleplays as a child in Second Life
Oh, I've asked myself that a few times too. [Smiles] There are several reasons, actually. For one, I am an abuse survivor, and also had other experiences in my real life childhood that SL allows me to overcome. I'm able to create a better childhood than what I had the first time. Also, when I first came into this world, I had two friends here who were already playing kids, so I was introduced into the "kid culture" fairly early on, and found it appealing.
When I first explored being a kid in Second Life... I had a lot of the same [pedophilia] suspicions as anyone else. I was still new to Second Life then, and the grid -– on the surface -- appeared to be awash in dance clubs and escorts, even then. In my early explorations, I was surprised to find nothing I would call into question. In the 20 months since then, I have personally known of less than a handful of locations created for sexual ageplay.
On the kid roleplaying community
Well, much like Goreans have their own places and ways in SL, or furries, or elves, kids also have their own ways and means in SL. We have sims that cater to us kids, and established family units, and so on...
I mean, in the real world I had good parents, but they were really too busy to really listen to me or do things. In here, I have two wonderful parents who, while they also have their own interests outside of my and my siblings, they do always listen, and care, and will be there for me when I need them most. That's big for me. Also, my experiences in school here in-world has allowed me to feel a bit more comfortable within that sort of group environment. I was regularly beaten up in elementary school-- so here was a chance to recast that experience. For me it was healing, because it showed me that those experiences don't have to be painful ones. And of course, you have an extra layer of security to it all. If you are threatened, unlike the real world, you can teleport away, or just hit command-Q [to quit Second Life] and come back later. You can also rely on real-world knowledge that you might not have had as a kid, to avoid the bad situations.
It provides a certain level of... what's the word... empowerment. I should add that I've also seen others who have "grown down" and played kids, who have taken even greater strides than I, learning positive experiences from their in-world families and better ways of relating that they carry into their real lives.
It's hard to say how many [there are]. The Second Life Children group has over 500 members, and does not include adults. And not nearly all child avvies are in that group!
As to how many sexual ageplayers are in that number? I suspect very few. In all my time as a kid, and being very involved in kid stuff in SL, I've run across and heard of very few kid avvies involved in that (usually people who are working as escorts), and more adult avatars soliciting kid avvies. They just don't seem that prevalent. Not like the rest of kid-dom.
On how the community polices itself against pedophiles—and allegations made against them
It is common to see [warning] notices go across the groups about that, trying to police against it. I know also that many of the big stores-- Inner Child Depot, Clown Town, etc.-- tend to share ban lists and the like, and alert each other to that sort of potential activity... One of the great ironies to me is that a lot of those who play kids are the first to try to keep sexual ageplay away, yet were also the first to be suspected.
What I have known more of are places for those interested in playing kids within Second Life. There have been included countless playgrounds, from the long-gone Sweetheart's Park and Neverland Park, to play areas in Starlight Starbright, Little Paradise, Fletcher, and Livingtree. There is a pediatric hospital (using Star Fleet-style medical procedures!), an elementary school, three different scouting groups, and even a regular sleepover camping experience called Camp HardKnock. The latter has a great YouTube video, showing just what that camp was like.
What you'll find at these places are signs and notecards, letting those interested know that these locations are not for sexual ageplay, right alongside prohibitions against weapons and griefing. For a great many of those who are playing kids were real-life abuse survivors (myself included), or are real-life parents. One of the last things these places would want is to promote such activity.
It is one of the things that makes so much of the attention paid to the issue of sexual ageplay challenging for those who play kid avatars (and our in-world parents, teachers, etc.) is that we are automatically assumed to be sexual ageplayers, even if we are some of the more vigilant against it.
On playing a kid in Second Life
Current Linden Lab policy allows child avatars: they do not seem interested in a policy that prohibits a "type" of avatar, only inappropriate actions by or between avatars.
For child avatars, we face some of the strictest restrictions in Second Life. I have to be careful, for example, in where I happen to go in-world-- just to make sure I am not in proximity of sexual-themed pose balls (I confirmed this with Michael Linden yesterday.) While some might find it embarrassing when their skirt doesn't rez properly, I could potentially face administrative action. I have to watch just how I say "I'm five anna half years old," for fear that someone is going to think I'm asserting a real age-– I suspect none of those vampire role players ever fear someone assuming they're really hundreds of years old.
At the same time, there are legitimate concerns. Setting aside the fact that it's more likely you'll find the avatars of real under-aged players in the mainstream clubs and sexually-themed areas than at the virtual playgrounds and schools, no one wants real children to be victimized, and it is reasonable in modern society to fear that very thing when one sees a child avatar in this shared world of ours.
Yet the world of child avatars in Second Life is far from what one might expect from the outside. For myself, I live in a nice, white clapboard home alongside the water in Islandia. I have a wonderful mommy and daddy who are there for me when I need them, who tuck me in at night, and who we go and do fun things with. I have a sister and a brother who I get to go fishing, or skating, or whatever with. There's no hidden rooms full of X-rated content, no filth under the surface – we're just being kids, having fun, righting old real-life wrongs in some virtual way, and enjoying our Second Lives.