Kiddie talk

The Irony of our Second Life's: my 2px on age play

And so it came to pass, that the Lindens saw that they couldn’t afford to support two grids at the same time, and lo and behold! The Teen Grid was no more, and teens were allowed to enter the Main Grid. And the Lindens saw that it was good.

Well, perhaps. Residents, however, have a slightly different opinion, as can be seen by the more than thousand comments on Terrence Linden’s announcement of the upcoming end of the Teen Grid. After years and years of reinforcing the idea that teens and adults would never mingle, Philip finally had to revert the ‘Lab’s standing policy on the clear separation between adults and teens. For now, after January 1st, 2011, only 16 and 17-year olds will be allowed on the Main Grid, but both Philip and Terrence have promised that they would work a solution to allow the 13 to 15-year olds a way to access the Main Grid as well at a later stage.

This is a surprising turn of events, since it has always been a strong policy to keep teens off the grid, no matter what. The main reason is, of course, purely financial: Linden Lab, continuing its policy of downsizing, is cutting costs wherever it can, and making sure the company remains lean and profitable. Keeping two grids, specially one that had few residents (comparatively speaking), didn’t make much sense.

Linden Lab could have simply shut down Teen Grid and tell all teens that they’re sorry. But the decision was made to incorporate them on the Main Grid. Why? It’s not as if Linden Lab is on a masochistic downwards spiral to destroy Second Life’s community by announcing increasingly more intolerable policies. The truth is, Teen Grid was used by a lot of educators — at least nominally so; teens report that most sims were left empty; but the point is that those educators paid for the sims, no matter how intensely they were used or not — and since LL’s dubious continuing support of the academic and corporate customers, they made a gesture of goodwill towards them.

Let’s look at the positive side first, since it’s often the most neglected one. A virtual world for clever teens is something quite rare, and that’s what actually the Teen Grid was. Of course it had its share of jerks and idiots — but these would come and go. A few remained, and those have the unusual characteristic of being able to self-entertain themselves. They’re creative, talented, and engaged within SL. They always complained how hard it was for them to address the tiny market of TSL, and have now this awesome opportunity to release their creations on a vast world with over a million regular consumers of virtual goods.

A few parents also have manifested the desire to be in-world with their kids. While a lot of people find this odd, I find it very healthy that parents and their children share at least some of their interests. It is a most excellent way to bridge the generation gap. In a sense, “playing with your parents” is something that you stop doing in your teens, for no real reason except a slow change of mindset, where parents start to become strange beings for the hormone-pumped teens that just see them as obstacles in their life of pleasure… but, again, why should this be so? In my (probably conservative) way of thinking, parents and their children are a family that share a lot of things together, and it’s not bad to share common things and do them together. In my teens, I also enjoyed to watch TV and go to the movies with my parents, even though I most often went with my friends. Even in my late twenties I used to go with my mommy to watch blockbusters, because we both love them, and most of my friends were too intellectual and just wanted to see boring French or Italian neo-realist movies… I thank my mother for her open mind and for saving me for the dread of watching 15-minute-scenes with a static camera pointed at a tree or a cloud, and instead being able to enjoy myself while watching Superman 🙂

And finally, of course, there are the educators. An early frustration by several universities which joined SL early on (e.g. in 2006) was that they had lots of projects with high schools and were unable to implement them in SL. Funding for whole educational projects was often rejected because their target audience — teens in high school — was not allowed to see the content in SL. With the ability to certify teachers to log in to Teen SL, this at least enabled some of the projects to thrive, but they were still limited in the amount of content they were allowed to deploy (since they had to do everything from scratch). Merging the two grids allows all these projects to continue to be in SL and will encourage future educational projects to be brought to SL as well. Even some corporate projects that have a younger audience in mind might rethink their virtual world alternatives and put SL on their horizons again.

All the above (including the financial issue) are good reasons for merging the grids instead of just dropping the Teen Grid.

Then there is the reverse side of the coin.

Let’s be clear on this, there are several different classes of users in Second Life, even though each class tends to behave as if they are the only one, or at least, the one in the majority. Most people in Second Life couldn’t care less if teens are around or not, so far as they comply to ToS — meaning that they’re not actively griefing or copying content, for instance, and behave reasonably towards all other residents. That’s what we, after all, expect from everybody — teens are no exception, and shouldn’t be. Talented and creative content developers who exhibit their astonishing builds will very likely have no problem at all with teens visiting them; similarly, a live musician doesn’t care about the age of the audience (unless, well, their songs are particularly rude or with a strong sexual content — but teens buy CDs from Lady Gaga, and listen to them at home, so this argument wouldn’t hold water anyway…). In fact, the majority of what goes on in Second Life — and this is the “majority” as per fact, not per anecdotal evidence — is pretty much innocuous for all ages. So, sure, some avatars show a bit more skin than in real life — how bad is that? Disney movies “for the family” show skin, too, and they’re more than allowed.

The real issue, however, comes from one of the most powerful drives of the economy, and this is what Linden Lab is reluctant to admit: adult content sells, and keeps the economy afloat.

Now “adult content” is a vast, overarching word for a lot of activities that are done in Second Life. It’s not just about Stroker Serpentine’s million-USD-dollar enterprise selling pose balls, or the vast range of kinky outfits that are sold everywhere on the grid, although obviously these are also part of the picture. No, I would say that it’s really more about relationships between adults. They can be as simple as two avatars holding hands watching a beautiful sunset in the most peaceful, child-safe area in Second Life. Nobody wants a teen to unexpectedly drop on them and suddenly exclaim (on voice!): “Mommy, what the hell are you doing??”

That is, indeed, the crux of the question: how do you explain a relationship with a complete stranger to your kids? If you are having the same kind of interaction in MSN (even on a webcam!) on your laptop, at least you’ll know if your kid is physically around, and can take the appropriate precautions. But on Second Life, you don’t know where your kids are. They might even not be allowed to log in to SL and thus have to go to a friend’s place and log in from there… while you’re comfortably enjoying an online adult relation with a “friend”. It’s not even about cheating: that relation might be absolutely legitimate as a single mother turns to the online world in search for a partner (some statistics show that in 2010 one out of four couples will have met online first), or the other way round, of course. But you don’t want your kids to drop on you — not before you feel comfortable enough with your relationship to the point you want to tell them about it. And, so far, they had no way of intruding on your “safe zone”, because SL was adult-only.

Obviously the same might happen in real life (in fact, it happens all the time), if you’re surprised by your kid in an innocent coffee shop where you’re having a romantic chat with your prospective future partner, but don’t want to make a big announcement at home yet. Your kid suddenly entering the very same coffee shop would lead to a disaster. So, well, to avoid those, people turn to the relative safety of virtual worlds (or online chats), specially to those that are adult-only and safe.

There is, of course, the issue about cheating; there is the issue about indulging in fantasies online that you would never dream to admit to your kids. Or your friends’ kids. You certainly don’t want your neighbours’ kids to start talking about what a kinky life you have in-world, and sooner or later, your own kids will hear about it too.

It’s not really about “exposing” teenagers — specially 16 or 17-year-olds — to sexual content. I find it very hard to believe that any parent really thinks that 16-year-olds are naive, except perhaps on Amish communities (and even so, I would not believe it). Even on sexually-repressed Islamic countries like Saudi Arabia, 16/17-year-olds know all about sex, and they have figured out things for ages. Believing otherwise is, well, just fooling yourself — or just assuming a hypocritical stance.

Like some people have often said, it’s not really about pornography in Second Life. If you think that SL has a lot of porn, think again. Ironically as it might sound, I find SL has actually very little adult content compared with the Internet-at-large.

Even if you drop on Zindra, you won’t see scenes of Sodoma and Gomorra on the streets: ironically, the “hot stuff” happens (mostly) behind walls. While almost all adult websites out there, to lure customers in, will show much worse things, even before you click on the button saying “Enter if you’re 18”. And of course nothing prevents young people to click on that button: God will not suddenly be paged and drop some lightning bolt on top of the trespassing kid. While a few websites are filtered out by school and even home firewalls, and some sites take more care when handling minors, most don’t care — just jump to sites on countries that have no such qualms and you’ll get access to pretty much everything if you’re a teen really interested in online porn.

And then there are “quasi-pornographic” materials lurking on the Internet which are even harder to classify. Manga and anime can have quite sexual content, but, since they’re “just cartoons”, they’re considered “art” and usually left completely unprotected. One of my best friends in college, himself a late teen, bought graphic novels from Manara just to drool at the pictures and get excited with the stories. Milo Manara is undoubtedly one of the finest artists in Europe — but he just draws comic books. Very explicit comic books. Around here, you can buy them off the shelves, no matter what your age is, because, well, it’s art.

Second Life avatars depicting explicit sexual acts are… what? You cannot shrug it off as being “merely pixelated images” and little else. In the realm of pedophilia, in Europe, even drawings and cartoons of sexual intercourse with minors are considered illegal, a reason why Linden Lab forbade age play in SL. Age play is technically not forbidden in the US, because it’s done by consenting adults to consenting adults, but images from age play — specially if they clearly depict kids — are disallowed pretty much everywhere. All this is really just make a point: pornography, as its own name implies, is a graphical representation of a sexual act, and whatever else we can say about Second Life, there is no doubt that it’s graphical indeed. If images have the ability to excite people and arouse their sexual feelings, you can try to shrug off SL’s “virtual” sex as much as you like, but you’re just trying to argue against yourself.

Where does that leave us?

It’s undeniable that Second Life is used by very many residents as a very deep, immersive form of interactive escapism, perhaps to a level that few other things out there allow. I don’t use the word “escapism” in a negative sense. Just because more intellectually-minded people prefer to read books, that’s a mild form of escapism too, and it’s hardly a “negative” one. I have argued in the past that, among all different types of leisure/escapism/hobbies we can have, immersion in a virtual world, where at least you are almost constantly interacting socially with other people, sharing the same experience, is probably one of the best forms. Escapism is also not day-dreaming, wishful thinking, or hoping for things that you will never get otherwise: it’s a distraction from a routine, and a mental stimulation which relaxes us. I find it inseparable from what in general we call the human experience: we dream, we think, we have fun; and while some of these things are shared with at least some mammals and other animals, we can go way beyond that with our imagination. And I’ve also noted on the article linked above that the ability to play is crucial for us mammals, in order that we learn skills and techniques to make us better prepared for the tough reality of life.

While you can experience different forms of this escapism-turned-into-leisure in SL, engaging in what we usually label as “adult activity” is merely one of them (going to shop for clothes is another one!). It happens to be very popular, and, more to the point, one of the major driving forces behind SL’s economy, since its very beginning. Oldbies will remember that in the early days of Second Life’s thriving economy, you only had kinky clothes for sale. It was expected that pretty much everybody would engage in so-called “adult activities” — at least, the merchants expected that those were the kinds of customers that would be willing to pay for clothes. These days, we have widened the market, and offer lots of different services that would hardly be classified as “adult content”, but that is just a consequence of the broadening of the user base with an increasingly larger variety of tastes. The engagement in adult activities, and the consequent willingness to buy so-called adult content, has not diminished — rather, it has grown in importance, volume, and, ultimately, revenues.

What also happened is a certain sophistication in the kinds of offerings we have. Let’s just look at pure content creation. A “sex bed” before Stroker Serpentine’s days was probably just a plank of plywood triggering very simplistic animations, and those would be enough, since there was nothing better around. They might have been laughable in their ingenuity, simplicity, and overall low quality. But these days, “sex beds” are crafted with exceptionally high quality. It’s not just the animations that get better and better (within the limits of SL’s capabilities, of course): it’s the bed itself. It might use sculpties these days, and when you lie on the bed, the covers part to perfect the illusion that it’s a real bed.

So is the talented content creator who designs the bed (not the anims, nor the scripts that trigger them) part of the “adult content designer” community? I would hardly be pressed to say so. A bed is just a bed. The nicer it is, the more people might wish to buy it. It’s a decoration element; a conversation piece. But it’s also a prelude to adult activity. And this is where things start to become slightly fuzzy. Avatars don’t need to sleep (their owners do!), but we nevertheless buy beds. Why? Because, at some point, you might use the bed for… adult activity. Even if most of the time the bed will just be, well, nothing more than a bed.

Of course the same applies to fashion. Unless you’re looking for specially kinky outfits in Zindra, walking around most shops you wouldn’t find content that is explicitly sexual or adult in nature. They’re just avatar clothes: they make your avatar look nice, that’s all. But, like in real life, that’s really oversimplifying the issue. A top that shows just the right amount of cleavage can become a potent stimulator of desire. But it might just be a top and nothing more. It might have bunnies in it, or flowers, or a Hello Kitty clone. Is that “adult content”? Hardly, but… the intention of the wearer might be to just show the required amount of flesh to say, “I’m available”. You might never notice it when you see the top on the picture at the shop. But the buyer will know when to use it, and what to use it for. In a sense, there is really no difference between SL and RL, except, of course, that in SL all clothes fit 🙂

And obviously the same thing is valid for pretty much every other type of content, specially events. Some people go to clubs or parties to get partners, and dress accordingly, although they might be in a General sim, and just become alluring by giving slight, but perceptive, hints: it might just be the way a skirt drapes around your hips when dancing. It might be the right kind of shirt that shows off a tattoo on a well-muscled arm. It might be a certain expression, created by a clever animator, which gives the avatar a certain stance that can be picked up by body language, even though it never fully translates well into SL — but we humans are very, very good at picking clues. By this I don’t mean that everybody who drops on the dance floor is expecting to get a partner for a wild cybersex session. But some do. And this might be happening in the most pure and innocent setting in SL, which might, from the outside, be expected to be safe for 6-year-old toddlers.

So here is where we run into problems. Of course we all know that the hardest-core adult content is available on Zindra (and private islands set to Adult) and kids will be completely off-limits there. Most regions in Second Life — according to some counts, perhaps more than 70% — are Moderate (formerly known as “Mature”) — and they ought to be free to roam by teens, since from the outside, at least, they look perfectly innocent: it’s mostly what happens on the skyboxes that is not fit to be watched. Linden Lab, by allowing teens only on General areas, and somehow “muting” non-General areas on their viewers, will go a long way to at least easy parents’ minds about what teens can see or not. I imagine that there will be a lot of work to be done regarding more complex things: for instance, it would be nice if we could flag text chat or voice chat as being “adult” and it would be immediately blocked from teen viewers. If that’s the case, even if the cammed around, they wouldn’t be able to catch their own moms having fun with a complete stranger — they wouldn’t be able to see the surroundings, they wouldn’t be able to see the avatars (just a vague grey shape, and perhaps not even the avatar names or their titles), they wouldn’t be able to see the animations, they wouldn’t be able to chat and/or listen in to voice. Under those circumstances, they might imagine that something would be happening behind closed doors, but they wouldn’t have a clue about what is happening.

The problem, of course, is in the subtle forms of innuendo. These cannot be programatically filtered out. In real life, since we can spot kids and teenagers quite easily, we can “tone down” these subtle forms and wait until they’re out of sight. In Second Life, we won’t have visual cues about who is a teen or not, so it’s important that LL gives us those clues. Many have suggested that underage avatars be flagged as such, quite visibly so (via a name tag in a different colour, for example, and showing on the map with a red marker), which at least would give people ample warning. Third-party viewers like Imprudence also alert users automatically as soon as they come in range; if there is a way to extract the real age from their profiles, this could be seen as a red, flashing warning (equivalent LSL-based HUDs do pretty much the same thing, for the viewers that don’t support this functionality — like all the range of LL-developed viewers). And, of course, we have always had the option to ban our parcels against unverified avatars.

It’s not a perfect solution but… how much better it is compared to a lot of social networking sites! Have you ever been stalked by a minor on Facebook, who, for some reasons, is deeply attracted to your pictures, even though the images might be completely innocent? It’s a very strange and awkward feeling. And there is really not much you can do about it: even if you lock down your profile against the kid, you will always have this nagging thought in your mind that he or she might have downloaded all your pictures while they could, and have them safely stored in their hard disk, are sharing it with other friends of their own age, and so forth… it’s creepy, but there is nothing you can do about it, except, of course, never register at any social networking site, and never share a single factoid about yourself online. I actually know a few people who do exactly that.

On the extreme scale of panic, what so many residents posted as comments on that LL announcement goes an entirely different route: they’re scared — and really scared, not merely arguing for the sake of an argument — that if a minor inadvertently catches them in an adult conversation, even if they’re not doing much, they can immediately be arrested by the FBI and spend the rest of their lives in jail. Of course this is an overreaction — in real life, you’re not liable if you’re having sex with your partner, and a kid just happens to have a long-range telescope and amplifies an image reflected in a mirror over your bed… — but it’s one that makes people nevertheless leave SL because they believe it could happen. While they might consciously agree that the real life is full of opportunities for kids to watch adults having sex with each other, and they might even remember reading things about how kids get access to “kinky” (but not really “adult”) profiles on social networking sites, or even lie about their age to join webcam cybersex rooms every day to watch what’s going on there… subconsciously, they forget about all that, and just panic about Second Life. It’s an irrational fear… or just something more profound? I really think that, in a sense, although SL is just about pixellated avatars, the sense of immersion goes way deeper than showing some kinky pictures on one of the millions of dating sites out there. Somehow, people don’t feel “threatened” by having their RL pictures on those dating sites, but nevertheless panic about SL, where most people’s identities are pseudonymous anyway (while a picture of yourself on the Web will reveal your identity almost immediately!). It’s the quality of the immersion that makes us rethink our priorities about our fears and expectations.

And SL has always been an adult playground, even if many really didn’t understand the implications. In a sense, what we read on those comments, is that adults in SL feel all of a sudden that they’re close to their idea of paradise: a virtual environment where they don’t need to worry or bother with pretence. They can be whoever they want to be, free of Puritan constrains or what other people think, and away from those pesky minors, who just force them to behave in ways they don’t enjoy. This is the next best thing to paradise, and people have been enjoying it for many years, and, naturally, are not prepared to accept that it might change abruptly.

But it doesn’t have to. I think it’s important that Linden Lab at least explains the whole process of muting adult content for teens in more detail. Of course, there are no 100% safe-proof methods of guaranteeing safety — like the saying goes, if you want your computer to be 100% safe and secure, do not connect it to the Internet, and do not load any applications on it — but this would go a long way to make people more comfortable about teens (and even kids) on the main grid. It’s highly likely that all the methods described before will be implemented by LL until the year’s end, since a lot of those features already exist. Some, like banning parcels from non-validated avatars, or avatars and content getting muted, have been little used because people fear they’ll ban their friends from countries where validation doesn’t work; but residents might get more comfortable with it once it becomes clear it’s the only way to shield yourself from minors roaming the grid. Others, like clearly identifying and tagging minors as they approach your location, should be feasible (at least on the newer viewers, which already label friends in a different colour), and able to be developed well within the allotted time-frame for the grid merge.

Overall, I think, it’s mostly an issue of communication and unrealistic expectations. After all, in real life, we managed to handle all of these issues quite neatly. Ironically, the Web is far less safe for kids than Second Life, but we just pretend it’s safer and tell ourselves this convenient lie. Second Life, unlike the Web, is a closed environment which is under the absolute control of a single technology provider, Linden Lab. All it requires is Linden Lab’s goodwill to take this issue seriously and place good safeguards in place — and make sure they are able to properly communicate them to residents.

Many thanks to the ever-amazing Vint Falken, artiste extraordinaire, for the hilarious comic to illustrate this article. Even though the subject is quite serious, I hope that you managed to read the whole article with a smile.

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