Vice, an online media outlet which gets about 55 million monthly visits and is generally considered the most influential news source among millenials, has a fascinating if inherently disturbing feature on the role of virtual sex in the lives of real pedophiles. Predictably, Second Life's centrality in that activity is featured. Snip:
The free-to-download platform is Aladdin's genie in pixel form, able to manifest anything at a user's whim: G-rated towns lined with maple trees and French boutiques, in-game foot races benefiting IRL cancer foundations, hellscapes where women in Juicy Couture tracksuits noisily craft anvils, and, famously, secluded zones attracting sexual deviants of all proclivities. Its edifices and landscapes aren't Second Life's only venues for boundless exploration: So customizable are Second Life avatars that a player could don a cleft chin and Armani-style suit by day and by night, hulking paws, green fur, and exaggerated, functioning genitalia. Predictably, Second Life became a hub for fetishists around the world—including pedophiles.
The subject is ripe for study by psychologists and other academics. I hope Linden Lab and other virtual reality developers also give it a read, because it explores the dark side of fully-unregulated user generated content and highlights the moment when SL started earning its "weird sex" reputation:
At the peak of Second Life's popularity, Jason Farrell, a reporter from Sky News, was tipped off to a playground hidden behind the wall of a virtual shopping center; it was called "Wonderland," either with deep irony or cutting earnestness, depending on whom you asked. According to Farrell's 2007 report, child avatars—typically manned by residents over 18—would bide their time on swings and slides until users approached them offering money in exchange for sex. Torture, rape, and maiming were just some of the items on the menu there. News of this "virtual pedophile ring" led to a domino effect of shock and horror covered by news outlets worldwide.
In one of the many related reports, a German news station aired a clip to illustrate the kind of indiscretions going down right under Linden Lab's nose: a scene that involved a young girl naked and on top of an older bald man in his bedroom. A toy merry-go-round spun nearby. For added pathos, the news station filmed Peter Vogt, a senior public prosecutor in Halle who handled cases of child pornography, watching the clip. Horrified, he told the reporter, "It really makes no difference if this is a fictitious or a real event, when the objective elements of child abuse are given." Ethically speaking, many would agree.
Financially, there was no doubt: A reputation as a hub for furry sex and pedophilia isn't exactly a tech company's ticket to the big bucks. In response, Linden Lab cracked down on "age-play," sexual role-play between a child avatar and an adult avatar, generally both operated by IRL adults. Lucas*, a former Second Life age-player, understood Linden Lab's decision—they have to preserve their reputation to stay afloat as a business—but still considered it an infringement on his "free speech."
As I explained last year, Second Life is still saddled by this reputation (and this new Vice story will only help renew and solidify it). And as Twitter just discovered during Gamergate (and Linden Lab learned the hard way), when a private company enables extreme free expression without any thought of the social ramifications, it puts its own brand and larger userbase in jeopardy.
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