Phony kids, virtual sex

Makers of the online world "Second Life" grapple with adults pretending to be sexually active children.

In the increasingly popular, adults-only virtual world called "Second Life," a player can pretend to be a bear, an elf or just about anything else he or she imagines.

But even in the open-minded "Second Life" community, what people consider to be acceptable may have its limits. Some of the virtual world's biggest fans are shaking their heads over what users call "age play." This age-based role-playing can take on various forms: It can be as innocuous as people acting out a family dynamic, or as potentially troubling as two adults engaging in sexual role playing, with one of the avatars made to look like a child.

While "Second Life" maker Linden Lab acknowledges that age play occurs in its virtual world, the extent to which it happens in its most discomfiting form is unclear. The game's forums frequently buzz with debates over the appropriateness of "age play," but no one interviewed by CNET said they have actually "seen" what could bluntly be described as graphically playacting the behavior of a pedophile.

Even so, legal experts said such virtual behavior between adults isn't likely to break the law, since there are no real children involved.

"It would not be (illegal) under child pornography laws because no actual child was used in the act," said Jack Balkin, a professor of constitutional law at Yale Law School and an expert on legal issues surrounding virtual worlds. "Child pornography laws receive special treatment under the First Amendment because children are sexually abused and people traffic in the results of that abuse." This does not apply in the age-play situation, he said.

Illegal or not, virtual role-playing that could easily offend many players puts "Second Life" creators at Linden Lab in a tricky spot: Do they try to legislate morality when it's likely that no laws are actually being broken? Or do they let people do as they wish behind closed virtual doors?

"Second Life" requires all players to be adults--and acts to remove anyone it can prove is underage. It has a separate grid for teenagers. And Linden Lab states categorically that it has zero tolerance for exploitation of actual children, such as uploaded images, in "Second Life" and will act quickly against anyone engaged in such behavior.

"If this activity were in public areas it would be viewed as being broadly offensive, and therefore unacceptable."
--Robin Harper, Linden Lab vice president of community development

When "we have evidence of child pornography or abuse that involves children in the real world...we will act to protect the child and notify the authorities," Robin Harper, Linden Lab vice president of community development wrote in a posting on the official "Second Life" forum (free subscription required). "The individuals involved, if it's proven the exploitation occurred, will be banned."

But when the issue of age play has surfaced, as it has on numerous occasions in the forums, Linden Lab has taken pains to address the more complex issues that the behavior raises.

"There are people in ('Second Life') who are role-playing (as) children engaged in sexual activities," Harper wrote in the forums. "While not a terms-of-service violation--no illegal activity--it could be argued that this behavior is broadly offensive and therefore violates the community standards. If this activity were in public areas it would be viewed as being broadly offensive, and therefore unacceptable."

A teenage girl and her 'daddy'
In an interview with CNET last week, Harper said that if a critical mass of "Second Life" participants were to ask that something additional be done about sexual age-play, Linden Lab would tackle the issue in some way. So far, there hasn't been a general outcry, she said.

But Harper also pointed out that what has made "Second Life" popular among its 170,000 players--and it's growing at a rate of about 20 percent a month--is the freedom it affords people who want to try out new personas, particularly in private sections of the virtual world, she said.

"We've tried very, very hard not to broadly ban role-playing type behaviors," Harper said, "because when all is said and done, the ability to try new behaviors and try new things out is a big reason people are in virtual worlds."

Still, it's not clear how often people are engaging in age-play types of pretend behavior. But two "Second Life" players told CNET about their experiences witnessing sexual or sexually charged age-play.

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