Talking sex and violence with Linden deputy general counsel Kend Linden
Starting next week, you can, if you choose, remove virtual sex from your metaverse reality. Come this Summer (probably June), that choice will be made for you. (Unless, that is, you willingly opt for the wild side.) That's the crux of the news announced today by the Lindens: in brief, an optional release candidate (1.23) viewer software will be put out next week, and will contain filtering tools that allow Residents to block Second Life content according to its designated rating-- PG, Mature, and Adult. A few months from now, making good on announced plans to create a "red light continent" of sexual and extremely violent content (i.e., "Adult" rated), the official viewer will include those tools, too. To see and access Adult content from then on, you'll need to first validate adult status with real world identification, by providing payment information such as a credit card, or via the company's designated age verification company, Aristotle.
In theory, this will yield a Second Life where free expression is encouraged across a diverse spectrum of societies and community standards. The question, of course, is if standards of what's considered PG, Mature, and Adult can be clearly defined in specific cases, and enforced. Is that possible? Yesterday I had an in-world chat with Kend Linden (IRL, Linden deputy general counsel Ken Dreifach), who made his company's case.
Despite that conversation, however, questions remain. For instance, the Lindens declined to provide me with a list of the keywords that will automatically flag events, locations, and other content as Adult in the SL viewer's search interface. "I can tell you that [the company] is taking great care to avoid overzealous filtering," a Linden publicist sought to assure me. Given the enormous number of words that have both an innocent and sexual connotation, however, I'm not as yet convinced. If you're a college professor who plans to give a public Second Life lecture on James Bond novels next Fall, for example, I wouldn't advise putting the words "Pussy Galore" in the event description.
In any event, here's how the Lindens define "Adult" rated content, and examples where these definitions would be applied:
The “ADULT” designation applies to Second Life regions that host conduct or display content that is sexually explicit or intensely violent, or depicts illicit drug use. Any region must be designated “ADULT” and therefore require Account Verification, if it advertises or publicly promotes the following: Representations of intensely violent acts, whether or not photo-realistic, e.g., depicting death, torture, dismemberment or other severe bodily harm; Photo-realistic nudity; Expressly sexually themed content, spaces or activities (whether or not photo-realistic). Groups, event listings and classified ads that reference these themes or content must also be designated ADULT.
"We're trying to use language that's not over-broad," Kend told me. Their theory is that most Residents will self-select Adult content if that's their preference. "PG is going to be almost a special use case used by educators and real world businesses," they believe, while "the vast middle ground" of Second Life will be rated Mature.
This is where it gets interesting, because the Lindens have left allowances there. It will be permissible, for example, to have a risque "burlesque show" in the Mature area. The Lindens specifically cite that example ("Something we thought about a great deal", Kend said) to suggest that it's OK to have suggestive content as long as it's not openly sexual, or actively enable virtual sex, as with sexually animated poseballs.
The same goes for nudity in Mature areas: "If something is merely about nudity," Kend told me, "we're not going to create a rule that's so broad that any depiction or suggestion of nudity... is necessarily Adult."
The Linden rules also make allowances for content which happens to contain sexuality for an overall educational or cultural purpose. So for example, a 3D information kiosk on AIDS prevention could presumably remain in the Mature area. I asked Kend if that exception might include, for instance, a Second Life dramatization of the literary classic Lady Chatterly's Lover. The Adult guidelines, he answered, were "Not intended to cover Lady Chatterly's Lover".
How is violent content defined as being Mature or Adult? "The distinction we're trying to draw is essentially understanding this is all kind of a spectrum," Kend said. "Your basic shoot-em-up gameplay, that's not what we have in mind." Rather, at issure are, "more intensely disturbing violent rooms, you know what they are." I mentioned cyberpunk roleplay areas like Midian and City of Lost Angels, which have some violently sexual aspects, but integrated into a much larger narrative and thematic structure. Will they need to move to the Adult continent? "It's hard to address each one at a time," he said. "Roleplayers that are acting out sexual or intensely violent situations may have to designate as Adult..."
It's inevitable that Residents will file abuse reports against each other, alleging that these guidelines have been violated. Kend told me there will be an appeal channel, for Residents who've been reported. I asked him if they planned to make the process and enforcement process transparent, like a police log. "Might be one way of doing it," he said. "We're waiting and seeing what the best form of dialog is going to be."
However individual cases like these play out, Kend Linden expressed confidence that the Second Life community would come to embrace the guidelines, especially since they were derived from numerous open forums with Residents. "We literally took [their] input and channeled that into the definitions," he said. "We're working on the best ways to keep that discussion going." And in the end, the Lindens believe it's in the interest of Adult content providers to adhere, and migrate to their new continent. "I think the great majority of Adult spaces are going to self-categorize,' he told me. "For the rest of it we're just going to be very careful. We're going to have to be consistent and objective about this." For Second Life users as a whole, Kend Linden said, "the community to its credit... has enough invested in this platform that they follow the rules."
Update, 10:55am: Added screen captures of the new release candidate with content filters, courtesy of the Lindens.