Phony kids, virtual sex

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

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
6 min read
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 News.com 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 News.com 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 News.com about their experiences witnessing sexual or sexually charged age-play.

I've seen "open chat messaging along the lines of 'Daddy's going to spank you if you don't stop flirting with...'" one "Second Life" player said. "And then, 'Oooh, Daddy, I'm sorry, Will you spank me anyway?' Usually it is a young 'teenage' girl avatar and her 'daddy.'"

Another player, known in the virtual world as "Usagi Musashi," said that when pretending to work in a virtual sex club in "Second Life," she often saw child avatars trying to pick up adult avatars.

"One day in the welcome area, I saw one child" avatar, Musashi said. "This one was just posing like she wanted some action. They stand around and look for action like escorts...then (they) age play."

That's the sort of role-playing that can be quite disconcerting to some people. "I would say it's virtual pedophilia," said one veteran game designer with significant experience studying online community standards. "I've got three kids, so I have zero tolerance for these kinds of things."

But does pretending predict real-life pedophilia? One psychologist isn't so sure.

It may be a red flag if someone--say an adult male playing an adult male engaged in play with a young female avatar--is repeatedly playing the role sexually aggressing a child in the game," said Joy Davidson, a certified sex therapist and author of "Fearless Sex." "I would be concerned about someone who is continually choosing to play the role of someone sexually aggressing a child."

But Davidson said most other cases--the person playing a young girl avatar, or someone only trying out the role of the adult male engaging in digital sexual activity with a child avatar, for example--could well be the behavior of people fantasizing about their own times as a sexually active teen.

Nonetheless, Kelly Rued, who is developing the sex-themed virtual world "Rapture Online", said she thinks Linden Labs has a responsibility to address the age-play issue because the environment enables those with fantasies about sex play involving children to play them out.

In fact, "Rapture Online" itself will specifically allow sexual age-play, Rued explained, but addresses the issue by making it impossible for avatars to look like children. In short, adult avatars can be dressed in children's clothes, but it's still clear that they are supposed to be adults.

Rued, who is a regular player on "Second Life," said she recognizes that Linden Lab is in a tough situation because it would be nearly impossible to police all of that virtual world for content. And if game managers did have the wherewithal to do it, many members accustomed to being left alone would quit. That said, she still thinks the company should find a way to rein in the ability to create child avatars for use in sex or violent play that would make others in the "Second Life" community uncomfortable.

"This is one of those cases where you might want to limit the rights of a few people," Rued said, "to make the majority of the people happy."

And that's something Linden Lab would consider--if its community demanded such an action, said David Fleck, Linden Lab's vice president of marketing.

"With technology, we can do exactly that if we felt it was necessary or important to do so," said Fleck. But "the data that we have doesn't support that that's a necessary action at this time. The other thing to remember about 'Second Life' is that it is a free-form canvass. You can do what you want, and be what you want, and that's what attracts people. So as you soon as you create restrictions, including about what you look like, that in itself causes different kinds of problems because of censorship."