SHOE LEATHER: Reported Stories

Not Really Virtual

Are virtual worlds an escape from
life, or another way into it?


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"Play is distinct from ordinary life both as to locality and duration. This is [another] main characteristic of play: its secludedness, its limitedness. It is 'played out' within certain limits of time and place. It contains its own course and meaning"
– Homo Ludens (1938) by Johan Huizinga

He's a pimply faced, unemployed 20-something. He is unclean and unkempt with only a few friends to speak of, let alone a girlfriend. He lives in his parent's basement, a dismal minefield of empty Ramen noodle containers, deflated packs of Capri Sun and Pop-Tart wrappers. The place is a total dump but he doesn't really mind because meticulously centered in front of a worn futon is an HD-TV that allows for total immersion in his world on the screen.

Only he's not. A study released in 2009 by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention assessed the physical health of gamers and found that they are more likely to be in their mid-to-late thirties, married, college-educated, female almost as often as male (45 percent of gamers are women) and have been gaming for about 12 years. Average annual income? More than $75,000. If most of them are mature, gainfully employed adults capable of real relationships, why does the stereotype of the anti-social gamer persist?

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Like romance novels before them, the appeal of video games is their ability to transport their players into a world apart from the everyday. This attracts the socially awkward because games provide a shelter from conventional social norms and pressures and allow for a temporary escape to worlds governed by different sets of rules and objectives. While the gamer might have trouble fitting in with his peers, he is at ease in the virtual realm where he is a hero, beloved by his friends and feared by his enemies. This mutually exclusive relationship between the real world and the world of the game is identified as an important element of play by the Dutch cultural theorist Johan Huizinga, one of the founders of ludology, or the study of play.

In the last several years, however, this either-or mythology has been steadily eroding. Far from providing a separate, virtual world, online platforms such as Second Life have become completely intertwined with social, economic and legal issues in the real world. In Second Life and in other "MMOs," or Massively Multi-player Online games, users make and spend money, steal property, and harass and sue each other. All the while, they are meeting actual people and participating in groups that serve as legitimate extensions of their social lives. Categories such as "real" and "virtual" begin to lose their utility.

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Although Second Life is nowhere nearly as popular as the high-profile MMO World of Warcraft, or the virtual world Habbo Hotel, Second Life has attracted more than its share of attention. In an article that appeared a full 16 months before Linden Lab launched the platform in June 2003, John Markoff, the veteran New York Times tech writer, laid out its three basic elements: One, it's an online 3D virtual world; two, because it has no built-in structure, objectives or narrative it is better described as simulation not a game, and three, users have created all of Second Life's content, not its developers. These peculiar elements, not its size, set Second Life apart.

Linden Lab's CEO Phillip Rosedale revealed that he was first inspired to create such an open-ended platform after encountering Nevada's Burning Man festival for the first time. Burning Man is perhaps best described as a cross between a huge music festival and an interactive art exhibition. All types of people, like artists, musicians, free spirits and even techies like Rosedale on vacation from Silicon Valley gather to spend a week together in the harsh environment of Nevada's Black Rock Desert. It gets its name from the ritual burning of a gigantic human-like effigy on the last Saturday of the festival.

"Burning Man is wondrously purposeless," Rosedale said to Rolling Stone in 2005. "It asks you not to have a reason to be there." Like Burning Man, Second Life doesn't really have a point either. When entering Second Life for the first time, it's easy to get frustrated because it is difficult to find something to do. "Even though Second Life isn't a game in the sense that you have some given objectives imposed on you, people still adopt all sorts of different objectives for themselves," said Vili Lehdonvirta, a researcher at the Helsinki Institute for Information Technology, in a telephone interview. Lehdonvirta has a Ph.D. in economic sociology and has written extensively about virtual communities. He is currently a visiting scholar at the University of Tokyo.

One of these objectives, just like in everyday life, is to meet people. This is the most ubiquitous goal of Second Life, but it isn't as easy to accomplish as it sounds. Brand new users enter Second Life through a Help Island equipped with tutorials to help the user learn Second Life's basics. These basics include moving around, editing an avatar's appearance and using the platform's instant messaging and search functions. More often than not, these islands are nearly deserted, populated with a few other users struggling with Second Life's notoriously steep learning curve. Instead of leaving users to walk, fly or teleport aimlessly around looking for companions, the search function will order locations by popularity. That way, whatever new users choose to do, whether its going to a dance club, examining the reconstruction of an ancient city or exploring a spooky pirate ship, they can be sure to meet people when they arrive.

Since we've actually had some real data from virtual worlds, online communities and games, it's become clear that it's not just about escapism. For many other people, virtual worlds and online communities are simply an extension of their existing lives that contribute as opposed to taking something away from it.

These social aspects of Second Life have drawn it more comparisons to social networking than to online games. "It's closer to Facebook or MySpace than to Warcraft," a Second Life resident told me (most users prefer "resident" to "player"). To those who still cling to the stereotype of the reclusive gamer, this comparison of Second Life to Facebook and My Space might sound questionable. As a social network, Facebook is thought to facilitate interpersonal communication, while the stereotype would hold that online gaming (MMOs especially) are obstacles to a normal social life. Sociological research on virtual worlds says otherwise. "Since we've actually had some real data from virtual worlds, online communities and games, it's become clear that it's not just about escapism," said Lehdonvirta. "For many other people, virtual worlds and online communities are simply an extension of their existing lives that contribute as opposed to taking something away from it."

Lehdonvirta went on to say that even when people do join virtual communities for the sake of escape, it isn't always a bad thing. "For example, to sexual minorities or other people who feel they are not able to express themselves fully in interpersonal conversation, these kinds of online communities can provide a great resource and actually have great psychological benefits for them," he explained. Not surprisingly, social groups centered around alternative lifestyles are popular in Second Life.

While some researchers question the durability of online social groups and relationships, Lehdonvirta's research in Habbo Hotel shows that they serve the same purpose as offline social groups: to help form social identity. He went on to explain how the disintegration of stable neighborhoods and stable families under the pressures of modern life have worked to enhance the appeal of online communities. Geography poses no limit; they can be accessed from anywhere. Because of this, Lehdonvirta believes that not only will online communities be able to resist disintegration, but one day might serve as viable substitutes for traditional social groups.

In his well-received doctoral dissertation, titled "Virtual Consumption," Lehdonvirta questioned the very vocabulary that has been used to refer to simulations like Second Life. Terms such as "virtual world" and "virtual community" are simple and catchy, but end up reinforcing the common misconception about them, that they are mock-ups of offline worlds and communities. Instead, Lehdonvirta emphasizes a "social world" perspective, which likens Second Life to interpersonal groups like a workplace or a classroom or a sports team. This way of thinking recognizes that users can be members of different social worlds at the same time, some online and some not. All together these make up an individual's social life. Because social worlds aren't mutually exclusive, they sometimes overlap. "Take for example World of Warcraft and [information technology] professionals," said Lehdonvirta. "It has become such a big brand name in the IT world that some have compared it to golf: it's a way to socialize, make contacts and discuss business deals."

As computer-mediated groups gain more recognition in society, there is no reason social groups in Second Life should be considered differently than offline ones. Like book, cooking or country clubs, they attract people who build their membership and relationships around common interests.

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Because Second Life relies on users to design all of its in-world content, Linden Lab had to attract programmers, animators and graphic designers to its world. It did so by creating the first platform in which users retain ownership of the original content they create. This content includes items like clothes, hair, accessories, body shapes and animations for avatars, even homes and vehicles. These can be sold through Second Life's marketplace or in-world stores to other users for Linden dollars, Second Life's virtual currency. Linden dollars, or Lindens for short, can actually be exchanged with real money at the rate of about 270 Lindens for one U.S. dollar. Because Second Life's software is free, Linden Lab makes most of its money by leasing "land" (actually server space) to Second Life users who want a virtual place to call their own. Linden Labs also charges a 3.5 percent transaction fee when users exchange their dollars for Lindens. This really adds up. Second Life users exchanged a total of $140 million worth of virtual goods in the second quarter of 2009 alone.

These impressive stats have made some dub Second Life a "shopping platform" and in fact, most of the attention Second Life has received in the mainstream press has focused on its financial aspect. In May of 2006, Anshe Chung, Second Life's first real estate mogul, was on the cover of BusinessWeek. Yes, an avatar was on the cover of Business Week. The story reported that she had earned more than $120,000 dollars by buying, developing and reselling virtual plots of land for a profit. Later that year in a press release, Chung claimed that she had "become the first online personality to achieve a net worth exceeding one million US dollars from profits entirely earned inside a virtual world." Although these rags-to-riches tales are rare, they demonstrate the real economic incentives for users to start a business in Second Life. But what they don't address is a much more complicated but equally important phenomenon: why so many people purchase virtual goods in the first place.

To most, it seems flat-out crazy to spend real money on virtual land, a new online outfit or a virtual home for an avatar. While it may be illogical, Lehdonvirta points out that it's no more so than a consumer's motivation for purchasing any physical goods. "We have all these needs in our lives that we address with various products — like gardening tools that help us maintain our garden or equipment to maintain our cars with," explained Lehdonvirta. "From a marketing perspective, those needs may be recognized as intrinsic — we need them — but if you distance yourself from the situation, you realize how contrived and artificial they are." Although the need for spending money in Second Life may be contrived, virtual goods help users achieve their own goals or objectives, just like physical ones.

Like its tangible counterpart, virtual consumerism in Second Life is motivated more by social and emotional decisions than rational or utilitarian ones. My avatar Kurt Crescendo discovered this during his first few hours in Second Life. Fresh off Welcome Island, Kurt's first stop was the Galaxy Dance and Strip Club, one of Second Life's most popular nightclubs complete with DJs, pole-dancers and hostesses. Wearing just a plain white t-shirt, black slacks and nondescript shoes, he was very under-dressed.

Within minutes of entering the club, he was approached by a woman nearly twice his height wearing a stylish white sundress and dainty ballet slippers. "Welcome to the wonderful land of SL sweetheart, and welcome to The Galaxy ♥♥♥ Smooch ♥♥♥," typed the friendly giant. How did she know he was new? Before Kurt could ask her, she gave him a gift. "Double click on both those things I sent you ;)" she winked. "What are they?" asked Kurt as he looked through his item inventory in search of his new gifts. "A skin and shape, huni, so you don't look so noobish," she replied, using the Internet slang for "newbie." Over the next hour or so, she lavished him a few more goodies: stylishly ripped jeans, rugged boots, new default animations and some stubble facial hair.

Kurt felt like a new man. His new body shape made him taller and more buff and the skin was more textured and realistic than Second Life's default. His new animations made him walk tougher and stand straighter. He liked the stubble because it made him look more like his namesake, the late Nirvana front-man Kurt Cobain. The boots and the jeans weren't spectacular, but overall his new outfit helped him blend in nicely at the Galaxy.

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Besides demonstrating the generosity of some Second Life residents, this extreme makeover, Second Life edition, shows that Kurt's appearance gave him away as a newbie. In Second Life, virtual goods like the right clothing, body shape and other accessories are necessary to participate in social circles. Kurt's experience at the Galaxy isn't very different from what happens when someone arrives under dressed at certain up-scale restaurants and clubs. The waiter will quietly go fetch a jacket and tie.

Had Kurt worn his Galaxy gear to Sweethearts, a popular Jazz club, he would have looked like a ragamuffin. Instead, he spent 19 lindens (about seven and a half cents) on new suit and ended up having a great time. But when he approached a pretty girl for a dance at Bootliciouz R&B Club wearing the same suit, she laughed and typed "Oh oh no, lol! You look like a lame, sorry." The more social groups a Second Life residents participate in, the more virtual goods they need to purchase. Ironically, this suggests that the more money someone spends in Second Life, the more socially active he or she is.

Games create another incentive to spend money in Second Life. Like iPhone or Facebook applications , Linden Lab allows users to design programs that are compatible with the Second Life platform. To play, users must first buy a custom interface (or HUD, short for "heads up display") for each game. For example, Bloodlines, a vampire and werewolf role-playing game, is one of Second Life's most popular. In general, role-playing games work well in Second Life because of their emphasis on performance and character development, which are already important aspects of the platform.

Bloodines' developers charge $2.25 for its HUD which displays its user's health, points and other statistics, and then markets, for a dollar or two each, a whole slew of additional bonus items from potions to amulets. Users also create unofficial spin-off content to enhance the game's role-playing aspect. These include werewolf body shapes, flasks for blood and extra-long fangs. The more money a user spends on a Second Life game, the more immersive the experience, not unlike buying box-seats instead of grandstand tickets for a baseball game.

This combination of gaming with social networking has proven to be a lucrative one for the gaming industry as a whole, as some developers have changed their revenue model to take advantage of the enormous popularity of sites like Facebook and MySpace. Instead of charging for software, they adopted a "free-to-play" system. Because digital distribution has reduced to almost zero the costs of physically reproducing and shipping software, developers can afford to give away games for free without losing much money. But to make a profit, they must turn a small fraction of players into paying customers to recuperate the cost of free users. One way to do this is to market virtual goods that improve the gaming experience, just like in Second Life. While virtual goods generally cost just a fraction of a dollar, research suggests that in 2009 the casual gaming industry has made about 1 billion dollars from virtual good sales.

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Despite Second Life's success as a shopping platform, running a business in Second Life is far from easy. Nyteshade Vesperia is the co-owner of XCite!, one of Second Life's most successful brands of what she calls "adult attachments" for those interested in exploring Second Life's sexual side. An experienced business owner in the technology industry, she touched on some of the differences to running business in Second Life. "First, barrier to entry in Second Life is, generally speaking, much lower than it would be in real life," said Vesperia. "Cost of doing business is also much, much lower. But then there are limitations to the medium that will affect things like marketing and customer service. And lastly, my favorite — we live and die according to what's happening with Linden Lab."

As many business owners have found out the hard way, Second Life is not a democracy. The developers are Second Life's judge and jury. They have the final say in who stays, who goes and who lives where. Although entrepreneurs risk less overhead when starting a Second Life business, if they cause trouble, all it takes is one click by the Lab and they could lose their money and be banned from Second Life with no legal recourse. For Second Life's adult businesses, this threat looms particularly large considering the controversial nature of the content they create. Some critics have gone so far as to call Second Life a cyber-sex simulator.

In just the past year, Linden Lab affected some major changes to Second Life that hurt its adult industry. First, it devised a rating system to classify the different regions in Second Life and then moved all of those rated "mature" to a separate continent, much in the way Britain shipped its convicts off to the Australian penal colonies in the 18th and 19th centuries. Next, Linden Lab implemented an age-verification system which requires users who want access to mature content to submit a form of identification, such as a driver's license number. Linden Lab then verifies that information against public records, thus limiting the number of residents who can access stores that sell adult products. This in turn limits the adult industry's reachable market.

All in all, Linden Lab and Second Life's adult industry have a paradoxical relationship. "While part of them, I'm sure, wishes we didn't exist, Linden Lab also recognizes that the adult side of SL is fairly large, so I am also sure they value us on a different level," said Vesperia. Put bluntly, Second Life's adult industry generates substantial revenue for Linden Lab, but if sex became too visible in Second Life, the platform would risk compromising its mainstream appeal. For this reason, Linden Lab has given its adult businesses enough tools to survive but not enough to do so easily.

There is a chasm of comparison between anonymity and privacy. We eagerly plop down a credit/debit card to get that iTouch at a bargain on eBay. Yet when asked to surrender the minimal identification and accountability to be able to download a piece of software or music, we run screaming.

Urban studies buffs will recall a similar tactic used by former New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani, who, pledged to "revitalize" Times Square in 1995. He supported a rezoning law that prohibited all sex-themed businesses from operating within 500 feet of schools and residential or religious buildings. Around the same time, the New York City Police Department began to punish what it called "quality-of-life" crimes by relocating the homeless away from so-called "clean blocks" into less desirable parts of the city. Similarly, Linden Lab's recent policy changes don't aim to stamp out Second Life's adult industry, but rather, they seek to make this community invisible to the general public. As Linden Lab put it in a blog post explaining its new policies, the purpose is to "give residents more control over what they see."

But being able to adapt to policy changes like these is important for a Second Life business. It's no coincidence that entering Second Life, Vesperia and her co-owner Javier Puff (they prefer to go by their avatars' names) had experience running a business together in the technology industry. When they first joined Second Life four years ago, they hoped it would be a fun outlet for their techie skills. But soon after, business began to mix with pleasure. First they started a virtual clothing line — Puff designed the clothes and Vesperia, the jewelry. Then one day Puff designed a penis "strictly for his own use," Vesperia said. "The idea that we would ever sell it was not even on the radar." News of the creation spread. Friends started asking for copies. Considering that Second Life's default avatars are all born sans genitalia, demand was soon high enough to sell the item in XCite!'s clothing store for 600 Lindens or roughly $2.50. By August of 2009, the store had sold more than one million products to 230,000 individual customers. The anonymity of the Internet has always lent itself well to sex.

Although Linden Lab's policy changes messed with XCite!'s business plan, its owners took this in stride. The challenges of conducting business in Second Life may frustrate owners, but it is not to their advantage to complain. In Second Life's Terms of Service contract, Linden Lab reserves "the right at any time for any reason or no reason to suspend or terminate your account." This draconian wording scares many business owners into docility, as the last thing they want to do is risk giving Linden Lab a reason to terminate their accounts and consequently, their livelihood.

Not everyone plays it safe. Florida resident Kevin Alderman is the owner of a very successful Second Life adult business called Eros LLC. He has been by far the most vocal critic of Linden Lab for not addressing the biggest obstacle facing Second Life's business owners of any kind who create content: piracy or, as it's sometimes called, "content theft."

In 2007, Alderman brought a copyright infringement and trademark violation suit against a Second Life avatar who had copied one of his popular SexGen™ beds and then sold it at a discount. The suit got a lot of attention because it was the first time that charges had been filed for a criminal act committed in a virtual world.

Francis Taney is the Philadelphia-based IT and intellectual property lawyer who represented Alderman. He said that the context may have been exotic but the facts were pretty straightforward. "There was copying, display and distribution of [Alderman]'s stuff without his permission — that's copyright infringement," said Taney. "The graphics, the underlying computer code and the animations are all protectable under the Copyright Act. The guy was saying these are genuine SexGen beds — that's false designation of origin under the Lanham Act or trademark infringement. I didn't see too much trouble fitting the facts of the case into those causes of action."

What did cause some trouble, however, was identifying the defendant. All they knew was his or her avatar's name: Volkov Cattaneo.

When Linden Lab declined to hand over Cattaneo's real-life information voluntarily, Taney and Alderman served the company with a subpoena. They requested the defendant's log-in history, transaction information, chat logs and any real-life information the user may have entered while signing up for a Second Life account. Unfortunately, because the only verifiable information required to set up an account is an email address, they discovered nothing about who Cattaneo really was. However, from his log-in history, they got the Internet protocol addresses (IP addresses) he had used to log into Second Life. From those, they were able to do a reverse look-up and find the Internet service providers associated with the addresses. Next, they served the service providers with subpoenas. That led to the addresses and phone numbers of the two different homes from which Cattaneo had logged into Second Life. One of them was the home of the defendant's grandmother. He was finally identified as a Texas teenager born Robert Leatherwood.

Just identifying the defendant took four months. "It was time consuming, it was costly and it didn't have to be if Linden Lab required users to keep some kind of verifiable real-life information on file." said Taney. "In general, we were disappointed with what we viewed as the lack of help from Linden Lab in shutting the guy down." After spending significant time and money on the lawsuit, Alderman ended up settling out of court with the unemployed Leatherwood for a small undisclosed sum.

In September of 2009, Alderman made an even bigger splash when he and one co-litigant brought a class-action lawsuit against Linden Lab itself. The complaint, filed in the U.S. District Court of Northern California, charges that because Linden Lab is aware of, profits from and does little to prevent the sale of infringing content, it is just as guilty of copyright and trademark infringement as a user like Leatherwood.

For a 32-page document of legal jargon, the complaint is surprisingly colorful, bluntly stating how, by ignoring rampant copyright infringement, Linden Lab has "turn[ed] the Second Life community into a vast virtual flea market in which users peddle knockoffs and pirated copies of IP-protected products and services." It goes on to point out that although Linden Lab could put a stop to infringement, it doesn't want to because it makes money, directly and indirectly, from all in-world economic activity, regardless of its legality.

Linden Lab has a powerful defense in the controversial Digital Millennium Copyright Act, or DMCA. Passed in 1998, its aim was to update copyright legislation to account for technical issues presented by the Internet. For example, here's a question: Should a service provider like YouTube be held responsible for copyright infringement committed by its users? The multimedia industry insisted that it should and gave two reasons. First, in the event of litigation, a single corporate entity like YouTube is much easier to sue than an anonymous user, as Alderman found out. Second, to avoid perpetual lawsuits, YouTube would need to do all the work by screening its content for copyright infringement. Service providers like YouTube, on the other hand, thought it unfair to to be held liable for the actions of millions of their users and also argued that it was impractical to screen all of its content to determine if it violated copyright.

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The DMCA established a compromise between the two sides with the following notification system: If HBO, for example, finds an episode of one of its programs posted on YouTube, it can contact YouTube and have it taken down immediately. YouTube then contacts the user with this information and if he or she believes that the posting is within the law, the user has ten days to respond with a counter-notification. When HBO receives this counter notification, it has ten days to decide whether to sue. If HBO chooses not to, the content in question is restored. But if the user doesn't respond in time to HBO's takedown notification, the content stays down.

Copyright holders benefit from this system because infringement doesn't need to be proven before their content is removed. ISPs benefit because their end of the bargain couldn't be simpler: remove the content quickly, no questions asked. If a service provider like Linden Lab facilitates this notification and counter-notification system between copyright holder and alleged infringer (which they do) they are protected from liability under the DMCA.

But this protection is conditional. To avoid liability the DMCA states that the service provider (1) cannot be aware of the actual infringing activity or of any circumstances that makes it possible, (2) cannot directly profit from the infringing activity, and (3) must quickly remove infringing content once contacted by copyright holders. Alderman's complaint charges that Linden Lab is aware of circumstances that make copying possible, indeed profits from copying and acts sluggishly to remedy it. Basically, his lawyers must convince the court that Linden Lab is not doing enough to qualify for safe harbor under the act. Although Taney is not representing Alderman in the lawsuit against Linden Lab, he anticipates that as a defense, Linden Lab will emphasize the absurdity of being held responsible for the actions of its millions of users worldwide.

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All copyright legislation must strike a balance between protecting the financial interests of copyright holders and the general public's right to information. While copyright holders must have tight enough control over their intellectual property to make money from its reproduction, the public is entitled access to information for its own personal, non-commercial use. Even though the DMCA failed to protect the copyright of Second Life business owners like Alderman, when it was first passed, critics thought it over-protected copyright holders.

The first copyright disputes of the Internet age were between big institutions like mainstream newspapers and smaller enterprises like blogs. In 1999, the Church of Scientology showed how the DMCA could be abused. It filed complaints against a number of dissenting blogs for posting church questionnaires and audio clips of its founder L. Ron Hubbard, along with anti-Scientology commentary. Even though the content was posted under fair-use, the accusations by the church forced the blogs offline anyway. Remember, the DMCA doesn't require the church to prove infringement before the content is removed. Instead, it is the responsibility of the accused to prove his innocence and after filing a counter-notification, his only opportunity to do so is in court. Because legal fees loom larger for small businesses than they do for big institutions, the blogs didn't even bother fighting back. In this way, the DMCA favors big institutions with deep pockets and lawyers on retainer.

It is not surprising then that the DMCA was championed by the entertainment industry whose big corporations, like record labels and production studios, rely on copyright for their profits. "Going back to the beginning of the digital age, there was this extreme irony for industries that depend on copyright," said New York based lawyer Eric Saltzman, the former director of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard University's Law School. "They imagined being able to make digital things and being able to transmit them in ways that would cost nothing. But just when the future looked as bright as can be, the bottom fell out of their pails and they found themselves holding a sieve, not a lock-box."

For these industries, the Internet was both a blessing and curse. While it basically eliminated the costs of reproducing and distributing information goods (that is, non-tangible products), the Internet also made copyright infringement as easy as clicking a button. As the music and movie industries found out, it would cost them much more in infringement than it saved them. The Digital Millennium Copyright Act was a direct reaction to this frightening realization. Although it succeeded in strengthening the loose grip copyright holders' had on their digitized content, it may have gone too far and over-compensated.

If the DMCA has a tendency to over-protect copyright holders, why does it fail in Second Life? The answer lies in the relationship between copyright and technology. "Before the industrial revolution, ideas and expression weren't very valuable because everything was mostly a one-off," said Saltzman. "But following standardization and mass production, owning the ability to be the only person who does that production became very valuable." Logically, the easier and cheaper it becomes to reproduce goods and ideas, the more valuable monopolizing these rights becomes.

"One of the barriers to copyright infringement in the analog days was that it costs money to do it, sometimes a lot of money," said Saltzman. "If there's a bestseller book, you had to have some sunk cost and expend money copying it. If you got caught, that money was down the drain." When users copy information goods like a DVD or video game and share that through the Internet, users risk hardly anything up front. The production of a CD, DVD or video game can cost millions of dollars and involve hundreds of people, but once the first copy is produced, reproduction and distribution using the Internet becomes virtually effortless.

In the late 18th century, before industrialization, the country's legislators had barely even conceived of intellectual property rights. "The founders never really planned for intellectual property and they never intended for copyright to be a complete lock on uses," said Saltzman. "In fact, some of them even wouldn't assert claims to their own work because they thought it was part of their duty to get it out there."

All of the data, every creation and every script are all stored on Linden Lab's servers. Without them, it's all mostly worthless. You can never own any of it — not really.

The original Copyright Act of 1790 granted authors copyright of their work for 14 years and, if they were still alive when it expired, it could be renewed for another 14. Since then, this period has gradually been extended and today, copyright lasts for 70 years after the life of the author. Now, authors own monopolies on the uses of their published ideas across all languages and mediums just as Heinz patents the shape of its ketchup bottles. Even a celebrity's name, image and likeness are legally protected by the "right to publicity." In a 1992 commercial, Samsung, the electronics company, depicted a robot dressed up in a pose reminiscent of Wheel of Fortune co-host Vanna White and was sued because of it.

Because of the Internet, it's not necessary to have a record deal, a radio station or a syndicated television show to attract an audience. Coupled with affordable computers and recording equipment, one person can publish his own original content on sites like YouTube or social networks. Even without equipment, users can still rework existing media into something new like a video mash-up or music remix. Because they aren't limited to just consuming or producing, Internet users have been called "prosumers," a portmanteau of both.

When the DMCA was being written in the second half of the 1990s, this shift in the relationship between producers and consumers had not happened yet. Access to computers and the Internet was limited, so relatively few companies had the resources to host content (dot-com giants like Yahoo and American Online and the mainstream press come to mind). Because the barrier to entry was still high early on, successful companies managed to maintain their advantage online. But as the technology and broadband infrastructure developed to allow more user-interactivity (this has been called "Web 2.0"), individuals and smaller enterprises gained control, something the DMCA failed to foresee. Its notification system seems to assume the traditional David and Goliath relationship of consumption and production — that is, big corporate producers at the top struggling to defend their copyright from the semi-anonymous user.

Likely, it is the Internet's shift towards this democratic model that has made the DMCA less effective. It is no surprise then that when applied to a user-oriented platform like Second Life (add to this its penchant for anonymous role-play), the DMCA becomes more or less useless.

First off, there is the very small percentage of businesses that make enough money to afford litigation in the first place. Lawyers don't accept Linden dollars. Issuing a DMCA take-down notice is usually nothing more than an empty threat since most copyright holders can't afford a legal battle. Second, even when pirates do receive DMCA take-down notices, they can just discard their Second Life identities and create new ones, re-uploading the copied content for a small fee. Alderman doubts that adapting the DMCA to address these quirks of Second Life would help much. "There is no regulation that I am aware of that can grow a conscience or morals," he said through his avatar Stroker Serpentine, a hairy, tattoo-clad manly man who rarely wears more (and often wears less) than sun glasses, shoes and a pair of unbuttoned jeans. "And no one with any web savvy expects Linden Lab to be able to eliminate content theft."

Two technical facts make piracy possible in Second Life. First, Second Life's software works by downloading information from Linden Lab's servers and then storing it on the user's computer. Second, because the software is open-source, meaning portions of its code are publicly available to allow users to create their own custom applications, savvy programmers can figure out exactly where on their computer this code is stored and then write a program to copy it.

Although legislative or technical solutions aren't likely, Alderman believes that if Second Life users could be identified more easily, content theft would lessen. "There is a chasm of comparison between anonymity and privacy," he said. "We eagerly plop down a credit/debit card to get that iTouch at a bargain on eBay. Yet when asked to surrender the minimal identification and accountability to be able to download a piece of software or music, we run screaming."

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While the anonymity of the Internet affords people the freedom to be whoever they want to be, it also can bring out the worst in human nature. This idea is hilariously illustrated in the the well-known cartoon "John Gabriel's Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory" by the web-comic Penny Arcade. Its caption reads "normal person + anonymity + audience = total fuckwad."

Lehdonvirta explained. "Given anonymity, people do all sorts of things, including unethical ones, that they might not do in other situations" he said, providing a slightly more nuanced version of the theory. For example, plenty of people who would never shoplift from a music retailer don't think twice before downloading music for free off the Internet. As Alderman suggested, this "disinhibition" is directly connected to a lack of accountability. "When you have this kind of throwaway identity, you're not afraid of the social punishments that might accrue," said Lehdonvirta. "The problem comes with the fact that throwaway identities are not really embedded in any one social context."

It is no surprise then that piracy in Second Life has been pioneered by a controversial and marginalized group called "griefers," which former-griefer Joshua McCracken, a 23-year-old from Augusta, Georgia, described. McCracken is better known by his pseudonym DeadlyCodec. "The griefing subculture is in some ways related to the hacker subculture," he said. "Both generally involve manipulating software in one way or another to make it do things that the authors didn't intend." While hacking mainly focuses on stealthily compromising network security, griefing has a strong social (or better put, anti-social) component, meaning it aims to disrupt the online experience of others aggressively.

Because commerce is central to the Second Life experience, griefers have done their best to disrupt it through content-copying programs, the same ones that victimized Alderman. CopyBot, one of Second Life's best-known piracy programs, was distributed by a high-profile group of griefers called the Patriotic Nigras or PN. "I'm sort of responsible for the CopyBot resurgence in SL," confessed McCracken. "I reverse-engineered a program called SL Bot. All I had to do was modify the code a little bit to let it take objects without the owners' permission."

In mainstream culture, griefing has gotten attention in the form of cyber-bullying, its simplest and cruelest form. In 2007, Megan Meier, a 13-year-old girl from Missouri, hung herself with a belt after being harassed for weeks through her MySpace page by her online boyfriend Josh Evans. It turned out that Evans was really Lori Drew, a middle-aged mother of one of Meier's friends who lived just four houses down the street. Drew created a fake MySpace account after hearing Megan had spread rumors about her own daughter at school. Incidents like these have prompted some to peg griefers as virtual sociopaths, but in McCracken's experience, griefing in Second Life is more about invention than destruction.

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McCracken's first contribution to Second Life's griefing community was to program weapons for use by the Patriotic Nigras and others. "The first weapon I created was a cube that changed shape and stretched and distorted itself as if violently possessed while emitting ear-curdling shrieks from a freaky recording I had uploaded," recalled McCracken. "They would pop up and spit out copies of themselves and spew them all over the place. It would lag [the servers] so badly that everything would be in slow motion." These types of self-replicating objects are popular with griefers because they multiply until they overload and crash Linden Lab's servers. Not only are other users victimized (they risk losing their inventories when this happens) but so is Linden Lab, at least indirectly.

All griefer weapons exhibit this triple threat: they annoy other users, they cripple Linden Lab's network and they entertain the perpetrators. Take SpongeBob Bed Cubes, for example. Shaped like a giant, distorted likenesses of the children's TV character SpongeBob SquarePants, they are programmed to find the nearest users and bump into them over and over. "I remember there was this female avatar that was pissed as hell, screaming at me because they were like three Sponge Beds on top of her and she couldn't move," laughed McCracken. "I was just sitting there with [fellow griefers] Dick Burns and Relic laughing and acting incoherent and obnoxious. We'd act retarded just to frustrate people even more. That part of it was fun; it wasn't so much about pissing the other person off than just being goofy and having a good time."

Although not by name, Linden Lab addresses griefing in the "Community Standards" document it has posted on Second Life's website. The document establishes in-world social guidelines, forbidding behavior such as intolerance, offensive language, discrimination, harassment and assault. Griefers tend to violate them all. To enforce these guidelines, Linden Lab rolled out a self-policing system where users who are victims or who witness griefing can fill out an "abuse report," detailing the name of the user, the date, time, location and description of the offense as well as any screenshot or chat history that may be pertinent. Linden Lab employees review these, corroborate reports with data from their servers and then take action, either warning the offenders, suspending or terminating their Second Life accounts or permanently banning them if it is a repeat offense.

But tech-savvy users can easily create a new accounts if their current ones are terminated. Even when facing a permanent ban, which blacklists a user based on his or her IP address, griefers can create new accounts and mask their real identities by connecting to Second Life through another computer called a network proxy. This kind of identity-laundering is common in counties that censor sites like YouTube or blogs for political reasons.

Over his two years in Second Life, McCracken has been banned for griefing so many times that he estimates he has created several hundred "alts," or alternate Second Life accounts. "One by one they were all deleted," said McCracken. "But the idea of being one person one day, and someone else another day was appealing." This is what Lehdonvirta means by "throwaway identities." Believe it or not, when McCracken first joined Second Life early in 2007 under the name Sil Demina, he fully intended to capitalize on Second Life's economy, not sabotage it.

It didn't quite work out.

"This is kind of goofy, but at first I operated a virtual mafia called the Demina Family," said McCracken. "We were about seven people strong and we would go into casinos and extort the owners by threatening to orbit their customers." Orbiting is a griefing tactic that shoots the victim's avatar into Second Life's stratosphere. When this mafioso scheme failed to generate cash flow, McCracken thought he might have to invest some capital before seeing any returns. So he began to pay installments on a small plot of land he wanted to buy from Jenna Fairplay, a Second Life "land-baron," he called her.

Around this time, McCracken was beginning to experiment with Second Life's coding language and came into possession of his first griefing weapon, the 1995 Lulz gun. As a technical exercise, he began to take it apart and isolate its different functions. "In it, I found these flashing seizure balls that would replicate every time they bounced," said McCracken. "There was something about dropping a couple of those balls around and then all of a sudden they're bouncing all over the place. It's hard to explain, but watching all the chaos unfold was like, 'Wow.' I'm not even sure I understand the psychology to it myself."

Apparently not sharing McCracken's appreciation for the spectacle, someone filed an abuse report against Sil Demina (the identity of the complainant is protected) and Linden Lab suspended him for two weeks. Unable to log into Second Life, McCracken missed his monthly $70 payment to Jenna Fairplay. After refusing to give him an extension, she repossessed his land. Having already invested hundreds of dollars in the plot with nothing to show for it, McCracken was not at all pleased. "I was pretty mad about that and flew off the handles a bit. I immediately created five alts and terrorized [Fairplay] to the point where someone claiming to be a cop from Missouri called and threatened me with harassment charges. I hung up on him three times and went to harass her some more."

Just one day before his suspension ended, McCracken got permanently banned for his incessant griefing. "I had nothing to lose anymore," said McCracken. "The purpose of the whole game changed for me — it became about discovering how much disruption and chaos one person can cause. I know that sounds terrible but to be honest, for some reason I was never even motivated to learn about Second Life until I started griefing." For the next year or so, McCracken become one of the more active members of the griefing community and even assumed a leadership role in the Patriotic Nigras when it started to falter.

By mid-2007, McCracken and his compatriots were griefing madly and Linden Lab could do little to stop them. "At the time, we could unleash self-replication attacks and run around the grid dropping self-replicating boxes all over the place for four to six hours at a time," said McCracken. "I literally could grief so long that I'd get bored with it." But eventually, by implementing some technical safeguards, giving landowners the tools to protect their property and establishing a security team, Linden Lab became a more efficient adversary. "It isn't like it used to be," said McCracken. "Linden Lab responded to those attacks and they did a pretty good job of it. Now griefing has got to be a little bit more low key because it's time consuming to create all those alts accounts and connect through proxies."

This cat-and-mouse dynamic between the developers and the griefers appealed to McCracken. "They're putting in the safeguards to try to stop us because we're not supposed to do this stuff and we find ways around it — it's like an arms race," he said. But eventually it got old and after about six months of hardcore griefing, he stopped. "It might be a maturity thing," he said. "I was tired of fighting with everyone. After a while it wears you down."

In December of 2007, McCracken announced that he was retiring from griefing. This time around, as Adromor Wierwight, he became a contributing member of the Second Life community. He freelanced for Second Life's primary newspaper The Alphaville Herald, even started his own Second Life newspaper and rolled out two new business ventures that were starting to see some cash flow. "I had four actual stores across the grid and a home I was renting," said McCracken. "I was starting to do nicely." But it didn't last. "Then they banned me! They found out that I was behind Adromor and Harry Linden swung the ban hammer and obliterated me. There's this 'once a griefer always a griefer' attitude, as if I'm going to be 70-years-old and still griefing in Second Life."

Again, like with Fairplay's repossession a year earlier, he was left with nothing. Only after this final ban did McCracken retaliate against Linden Lab by releasing CopyBot and carrying out a vengeful stint of griefing. He even paid Jenna Fairplay one last nasty visit. Then, he quit Second Life for good. "Everything that I had created, all of the rent I had paid for my stores and my e-home — all gone," said McCracken, as he tried to explain the disconcerting feeling that, just like Alderman and XCite!'s Vesperia, he wasn't quite in control of his virtual life. "All of the data, every creation and every script are all stored on Linden Lab's servers," said McCracken. "Without them, it's all mostly worthless. You can never own any of it — not really."

Unwittingly, McCracken accepted this risk when he agreed to Second Life's "Terms of Service," that pesky text field and "I Agree" button that pops up with when installing software. Item 1.4 states that despite being called a currency, Lindens aren't even fictional in-world "currency" but rather a limited license that Linden Lab "has the absolute right to manage, regulate, control, modify and/or eliminate . . . as it sees fit in its sole discretion . . . and will have no liability to you based on its exercise of such right."

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With these words in mind, Second Life begins to sound paradoxical: it grants users copyright to their intellectual property but warns that the currency they gain from this right isn't real; it allows for business but guarantees anonymity — all in a medium that makes rationalizing bad behavior a cinch. While its inspiration may have been Burning Man, Rosedale opted out of adopting one of the festival's central tenets: a ban on commerce. Advertising, vending, buying, selling and even bartering are forbidden on the Burning Man grounds.

In a 2002 speech at The Cooper Union in New York City, Burning Man's co-founder Larry Harvey explained that he hoped a gift-based economy would help “burners” (as festival attendees call themselves) form deeper, longer lasting relationships based on cooperation instead of the transient ones required by an exchange economy. But in Second Life the social and the commercial try to coexist and they fail to do so peacefully. After all, the basic concept of private property assumes stable, singular identities – something Second Life cannot guarantee. While in one way it does succeed in connecting people, McCracken's experience with Second Life shows that online, just as often as offline, you can always count on money to drive them apart.

All simulations, from complex computer models to platforms like Second Life, are valuable because of their ability to distill very complicated systems into something digestible. Media scholars, most notably the late Roger Silverstone in his book Morality and the Media, have assigned media a similar role, that of resolving the paradoxes and conflicts that define everyday life. Be it a TV show, newspaper or a video game, all media present a stable image of the world with well-defined actors, motives and morals. But because of Second Life's ambitious simulation of both the social and economic worlds, it ends up embodying these tensions, not resolving them.

While Second Life can't begin to capture all the complexities of everyday life, it's not completely blind to them. Far from a fantasy land that people visit when vacationing from reality, it is one of the only forms of media that doesn't insulate its users from a very real challenge: how to be both a cooperative, friendly neighbor and a shrewd, competitive capitalist.

William can be contacted at

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NYU Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute