Everyone seems to know that the place to find child abuse perpetrators is in the dark corners of society, in the woods, lurking in the shadows on the edge of town and now of course on the internet, in chat rooms and all over mySpace.
This popular truth about perpetrators is indeed frighteningly true; though of course its prominence also masks the fact that most child abuse occurs at the hands of parents, close family and people in positions of trust, not by strangers.
I’m sure there is a mountain of theory about why the typical abuser is depicted as ‘other’ rather than, say, family. It certainly confuses matters. And if public policy follows received opinion, which I fear it does, we face a serious situation.
But within the context of TerrraNova the thing that confuses me is why Virtual Worlds are not getting the blame. I see no rational reason why Virtual Worlds should facilitate abuse more than other computer mediated technologies (which of course means that there must be cases where a Virtual World is implicated), but causal links don’t seem to be the determining factors in what the media chooses to give primacy to.
We’ve had addiction rhetorics, violence, social-isolation, evil Asians or evil East Europeans. But so far no one has tried to pin child abuse on Virtual Worlds – why not?
Comments on Virtual Worlds as non-predatory spaces :
What, claims that MMOs are "addictive" and use of them requires medical treatment isn't enough for you?
Posted Oct 24, 2006 12:22:16 AM | link
Perhaps it's because you need a credit card to play the vast majority of them?
Posted Oct 24, 2006 1:22:13 AM | link
I'm guessing that most of the concern groups and parents that would spear head such campaigns aren't familiar with the current MMOG culture.
But don't worry, it's only a matter of time with the amount of press 2nd life is getting before they get a wiff of cyber furries and cyber child hookers.
Posted Oct 24, 2006 1:36:49 AM | link
Second Life already addressed that with the Teen Grid. By all accounts I've heard, it sounds fairly effective, as well, which surprises me, but eh... I guess it can happen.
Posted Oct 24, 2006 2:20:28 AM | link
Ren>so far no one has tried to pin child abuse on Virtual Worlds – why not?
Because virtual worlds are populated entirely by inarticulate spotty teenaged boys who never wash or change clothes.
Sometimes, the stereotypes work against us, but on rare occasions they work for us.
Posted Oct 24, 2006 3:55:34 AM | link
Richard Bartle > Because virtual worlds are populated entirely by inarticulate spotty teenaged boys who never wash or change clothes.
That’s the sort of thing I was getting at. I don’t want Virtual Worlds to get tarred with this brush, I’m simply pointing out the anomaly and wondering what it is about the social-construction of the concept of Virtual Worlds (particularly MMOs) that makes them exempt from the scare stories that seems to attach to much new-media.
Maybe Richard has put his finger on it, that:
- Virtual Worlds = teen boys (i.e. geeky de-sexualized ones)
And so I assume:
- mySpace = teen girls (i.e. ones that post pictures of themselves thus are overly / inappropriately sexualized and vulnerable)
Is that it?
Maybe there is also that Virtual Worlds are seen as instrumental and goal directed whereas mySpace, chat etc, are social spaces, they are about contact and intimacy.
Which leads to the question of why Second Life and There are not inculcated in the predation meme. It could be that Second Life is so overtly and adultly sexual, but I don’t think that that’s it. I think that the media just don’t get Second Life and There, they search for a point and failing to find a game one they impose external economic goals as the only valid use of Second Life.
Of all the ‘well know’ virtual spaces around at the moment, I wonder if There is the one most vulnerable to negative media attention in this light as it lacks a dominant theme that that easily understood by the popular media and that it’s clean image will invite the negation of that image. How ironic.
Posted Oct 24, 2006 4:40:34 AM | link
Also working against the appearance of this meme is the way VWs are still assumed to be places where nothing is at stake (i.e., "occasion[s] of pure waste"). To paraphrase Richard: Mostly, the Caillois works against us, but on rare occasions it works for us. ;-)
Posted Oct 24, 2006 8:44:11 AM | link
I think two factors are popularity, and marketing. Myspace has 40 times the population of Second Life, and is agressively marketed to teens and college students for the purpose of fostering real-world friendships.
Posted Oct 24, 2006 9:22:56 AM | link
Just for information sake. "There" has only recently (this last year) seen a large influx of younger members where historically the regular population has been generally older with a pretty steady 50/50 mix of male/female. Not based on any available data, just observation over many years, although "There" has reported the 50/50 mix in the past and just recently.
As to old stereotypes. Virtual Laguna Beach is attracting 75-90% young teen females in quantities that have been heavily taxing the world servers lately. It is interesting to see the drawing power a media company has when they advertise to their viewing market.
Posted Oct 24, 2006 9:38:06 AM | link
Some other hypotheses to kick around:
One issue is the lack of a strong fantasy buffer. I don't think that Bully is more violent than many other games involving hand-to-hand combat. But it's drawing criticism because that violence is set in a school against classmates rather than in a graveyard with zombies vs. werewolves.
Second, I think a lot of the fears are focused on the values of public disclosure of identity that make it easier to identify ASL. Spaces which highly value such disclosure have a very different feel from places that value pseudonymity or wearing masks and roleplay.
Posted Oct 24, 2006 9:41:58 AM | link
A werid and amusing thing ive noticed is that alot of parents, dont actually realise that the other people in virtual worlds, are real..
You say to a parent, oh that avatar belongs to a 50yr who lives in the same state, then watch the alarm bells go off, even the same age, once they realise that real people also visit the vr, some parents tend to freak out, even yeh thats tim from down the road remember he came over last week, sends some parents crazy.
With all the press myspace gets, and that your encouraged to divulge your information and pictures, its alot clearer to parents, that people might be lieing about pics/age/location.
Posted Oct 24, 2006 1:35:48 PM | link
The design and nature of many virtual worlds has an influence on this as well. Perpetrators may find online worlds, particularly MMORPGs, hostile places to abuse. I think most teens recognize the difference between other teens acting out negatively to get attention and adults acting creepy with darker motives. Many of you have probably witnessed virtual youth gangs extracting a little vigilante justice on players acting even a little creepy. This type of behavior can turn other players in the vicinity, regardless of their play style, into killers. This doesn't make online worlds safe, but it can be enough to send predators back to the greener pastures of IRC chatrooms.
Posted Oct 24, 2006 1:43:31 PM | link
>But so far no one has tried to pin child abuse on Virtual Worlds – why not?
They simply haven't caught up yet with the phenomenon euphemistically known as "age play" in Second Life and the huge boom in groups with names like Daddy's Little Girl. It has sparked enormous controversy, battles between neighbours, outraged petitions to the Lindens and so on. It's entirely creepy. Many people get very angry at it because Linden Lab has been completely neutral and palmed it off as a "lifestyle" issue which residents can pick or chose.
With children as young as 9 finding their way on the adult grid with the free sign-ups and absence of a requirement for a credit card now, it's really impossible to check ages or understand if "age play" has really gone criminal. Most likely it cannot be excluded. LL has now created three classes of residents, and left it to property and venue owners to check off bans of the following categories, if they like:
--unverified -- no payment info on file
--payment on file, not used
--payment info used
The teen grid is carefully watched, and any straying of adults into the TG or visa versa very swiftly punished by the Lindens. But because there is more checking on the TG, that means children at times come over to the adult grid where there is less checking.
Some clubs fearful that children are logging on with the free accounts have banned the "unverified" status which also then succeeds in mainly discriminating against non-Americans with less access to credit cards.
None of this has been covered much yet, because the only visible story on it so far has come from CNET's Daniel Terdimen who is very close to LL and positive in his reporting and succeeded in deflecting attention to the whole story by making it a "on the one hand" and "on the other hand" sort of thing.
Posted Oct 24, 2006 11:16:33 PM | link
I'd agree with Richard and add one more point: the fact that it's a "game" blinds them to the possibilites of what can happen. Notice how only the games that are "about" something detestable get negative attention from outside the industry? As far as the media is concerned, if the game doesn't have a /havesex command nothing sexual is going to happen there. A MMO could allow users to script their own animations and build their own avatars and not get that kind of condemnation.
Don't underestimate the ignorace of non-academics!
Posted Oct 25, 2006 1:22:52 AM | link
Ren>I think that the media just don’t get Second Life and There, they search for a point and failing to find a game one they impose external economic goals as the only valid use of Second Life.
I find this very persuasive.
Indeed, it may be possible to extend the argument, given that even if there is a game element (as in eg. WoW) the media still want to talk about it from the point of its relationship to the external economy.
Posted Oct 25, 2006 4:46:40 AM | link
> “They simply haven't caught up yet with the phenomenon euphemistically known as "age play"”
Good point. Some variants of this have been going on a long as I can remember in SL, and it’s another interesting anomaly that the popular media have not caught up with it. I did a quick google and yes, it seems on CNET and a few of the more game related sites have talked about it. No CNN or Fox traction yet.
‘Age play’ when it is play between adults is an interesting one. If every couple where one partner has called the other ‘daddy’ or ‘mummy’ during sex are going to fall foul of a law or regulation, the we would have an awful lot of transgressors. That’s a slightly different discussion but if we do have verified adults the who is to say that it’s not legitimate play, after all, SL is ‘Imagined, Created & Owned by its Residents’ so certainly Linden does not have a say in the matter.
> “Some clubs fearful that children are logging on with the free accounts have banned the "unverified" status which also then succeeds in mainly discriminating against non-Americans with less access to credit cards.”
It’s on a tangent but this type of self-regulation is fascinating. What it is you think that club owners fear?
- It is a personal sense of morality?
- LL wrath?
- local legislation?
Posted Oct 25, 2006 5:09:01 AM | link
In a recent BBC Radio 4 interview with the creators or Runescape, child-safety was one of the main issues discussed. According to the interview, Runescape is mainly played by minors and is mainly promoted by word-of-mouth in the schoolyard, so the specific focus of concern was unsurprising.
I think that the main reason many MMOs aren't getting general flak for this kind of thing is that there are actually very few children playing them and not even that many teenagers. I can't comment on WoW, which I have never played, but in the SoE games I do play, and in DAOC which I used to play, I have rarely met anyone (who claimed to be)under the age of 18. The very great majority of all the people I have talked to over the last 5 years have claimed to be, and have seemed to be, in their mid-20s to early 50s.
Now if I was to go back further, to 1999 - 2001 when I first began playing MMOs, there certainly were quite a lot of younger players, but they seemed to boil off to other pursuits or games quite a long time back, leaving the current residue of older gamers and MMO addicts that seem to make up the bedrock population of established MMOs.
Posted Oct 25, 2006 7:09:50 AM | link
Bhagpuss > In a recent BBC Radio 4 interview
Which show was that?
FYI Nick's http://www.nickyee.com/daedalus/archives/000194.php>data suggest that 20% of male players are under 18 and about 4.5% of female. If this is true for WoW and we have nMillion players, that's a lot of under 18s.
Though I think Richard's point is a stronger one, it's the media perception of the player base as, and only as, male and teen that is probably more important than the stats.
Posted Oct 25, 2006 7:46:25 AM | link
"It’s on a tangent but this type of self-regulation is fascinating. What it is you think that club owners fear? "
I don't see any single reason standing out in the arguments I read etc around the general problem of minors in adult virtual areas. Some of it is morality- even adults who indulge in sex roleplay have concerns about what is and isn't appropriate. Some will fear the backlash- increased regulation or effective destruction of their play spaces due to official/public paranoia. Some won't want to find themselves on the end of a lawsuit or criminal prosecution, and others probably just enjoyed the plausible deniability offered by the credit card ID confirmation.
As for myself, as a co-owner of a private rental island including a "sex club", I *personally* do not want to see anything remotely looking like ageplay sex. That's not a policy, that's just because it creeps me the hell out. In any case, our club has a pretty long tradition (as SL traditions go) of being more a place for socialising and conversation, the poseballs are pretty much a backdrop to that (and out of chat range/view deliberately). If we ran one of the high traffic "extreme" places, it might be different. I wouldn't be involved in one of those, though. Ultimately I just build stuff and talk to people. If I had to pick, I would say the threat of over-regulation of such spaces is my biggest concern- positive community spirit can come out of these places- the adult/sex context/background seems to work as a good kind of social glue, even if nobody is actually using the facilities, so to speak. It marks a place more clearly than an (M) on the map.
That said, there are a huge amount of avatars, who, if you show up in certain places, will think nothing of sending you a two word proposition (technically three) in an IM before the site has even loaded. My gut instinct, ironically, perhaps, is that it's those ones who are likely to be the underage boys.
Posted Oct 25, 2006 8:22:44 AM | link
When they do catch up with it, the probable response will be to require that all the staff and everyone in the game have a criminal record check.
Posted Oct 25, 2006 8:34:59 AM | link
Oh, and one thing- I have been told of someone being made to leave SL because their RL partner was told it was some internet sex thing. So while there may be no big media/govt backlash (yet) there is some element of the "word on the street" going on. SL (main grid) being labelled as a (theoretically at least) adults only environment will only add to that idea- an explicit stigma the overall web doesn't suffer from, even though everyone knows the internets are for porn.
Posted Oct 25, 2006 8:38:18 AM | link
1. A lot of "females" online are really males.
2. There's a lot of sexual harassment I've seen online in MMOGs, but I've also seen it in forums, IM, etc. So it's an Internet thing, not a virtual world thing.
3. There are a few things that happen in virtual worlds you don't get so much of in real life - flaming, griefing, etc. - because in real life, there are consequences.
4. People can find enough free porn of any kind on the Internet without going through a virtual world to get it. A virtual world costs money, and takes too much time.
Posted Oct 25, 2006 8:47:36 AM | link
FYI Nick's data suggest that 20% of male players are under 18 and about 4.5% of female. If this is true for WoW and we have nMillion players, that's a lot of under 18s.
For what it's worth, my guess is that Nick's methodology ends up skewing the age distribution significantly older than it actually is, for a couple reasons:
1. MMORPG populations are fairly balkanized and I think there's good reason to believe that the nature of the survey leads to one 'tribe' being made far more aware of the existence of the survey than other tribes. For instance, there doesn't appear to be much crossover between the WoW and Runescape communities (indeed, in an admittedly also self-selected survey of Runescape fan site users, with a sample size of around 20,000, 8% said they also played WoW), and my strong guess is that the meme that is this survey spreads through the WoW community much more rapidly than the Runescape community. (Barely worth talking about other Western MMORPG communities in this context, as none come close in size to these two.) From anecdotal experience, people who see themselves as early adopting "in the know" MMORPG players tend to ignore non-boxed games like Runescape, preferring the big-budget boxed games, and I'd bet that by their nature they're much more likely to participate in a survey like this as part of their meta-existence in the "MMORPG sphere."
2. Teenagers/pre-teens are less likely to take the survey if for no other reason than that the survey imposes a higher barrier to entry for a teenager/pre-teen, in order to comply with COPPA. There's a full page of disclosure information after you hit that you're under 18, including requests that you get permission from your parents to fill out the survey, etc etc. Children are also used to just agreeing that they're over 18 and are less likely to give you an accurate age/birthdate after they've just lied about being 18+.
Quite possible that Nick has worked statistical magic that takes all this into account, but barring that, I really suspect that the proportion of under-18 players (male ones, at least, as Runescape is overwhelmingly male) is actually a lot larger than Nick's estimate.
Posted Oct 25, 2006 2:24:06 PM | link
John Kwon, the idea that people can go on the Internet to get free porn completely misses the boat on this one -- perhaps people might reassure themselves that child pornographers and predators will thus stay out of SL or other virtual worlds but it isn't at all a credible argument. SL is interactive and live 24/7 and there are real people behind the cartoon, so it's a completely different, immersive experience.
Ren, re: "It’s on a tangent but this type of self-regulation is fascinating. What it is you think that club owners fear?
- It is a personal sense of morality?
- LL wrath?
- local legislation?"
I know a number of private islands that have an absolutely rigorous policy: no age play, no debates, no questions asked, do it and you are expelled.
People are very creeped out by the scenes, which involve a mix of RL child porn on the wall sometimes, which I think Lindens will remove if it is discovered and reported; child porn made up of screenshots within in SL, and then customized skins to make up little avatars in their jammies clutching teddybears -- it's very, very unsettling to see enacted (especially for parents) and even if you can hope that the person behind the avatar is over 18, it's just incredibly objectionable and depressing to a lot of people.
They feel that it creates a climate for abuse and will indeed lead to abuse. The numerous groups for age play and the enaction of the scenes creates a tolerance level for RL child porn and an incentive for exploitation -- that's the feeling about it.
You can make all the intellectual arguments you want about consenting adults doing their kinky thing, but the emotional impact of seeing it performed, especially casually in public spaces by people in tiny avatars with all kinds of props, is just awful, and gets a lot of people very angry.
One person who tried to create a watchdog site to out ageplayers found herself railroaded off the forums and her site forced to close down as she was lynch-mobbed by angry BDSM lifestylers who feared they be next on the hit list.
Unlike private islands, that have more tools to discriminate and ban, I and other mainland rentals agencies can't as easily discriminate against people in lifestyles that I or others might find objectionable.
My rental boxes are on self-service and the rules can't get into the content of what people do inside their own homes. If I were to police these busy areas, I'd have to go paging through hundreds of people's profiles and alt-zoom into their homes, to try to do what amounts to "racial profiling" on them. And how to do it fairly? For example, there is a group called Kids in SL that in fact isn't ageplay but something involving the third anniversary of SL that even has Lindens in it.
Unfortunately, one becomes a victim of one's own liberal ideals in this situation and has to accept that illiberal and highly objectionable lifestylers will creep in. Unless I see something that is really an actionable TOS violation -- like the Lindens, I can't effectively deal with this on the open mainland. An island enclave that is setting up a gated community can simply put one more line after "no dogs on the beach" like "no slavery" or "no age play" and they have a tool in the client creating a "covenant" that more effectively binds people renting.
The clubs that are involved in BDSM and age play often are checking off bans on the "unverified status" (and BDSMers are often the most vocal critics against age play possibly because they really want to distinguish between their adult games with consent and what they view as a climate for possible abuse of some kind that will end all lifestyling in SL.)
From reading forums and seeing these intensive emotional debates in group IMs and inworld meetings and various clashes between groups where the Lindens try to maintain order, I think probably what people do in discriminating is protect themselves from legal repercussions. I think the perception now is that if the authorities somehow crack down on age play, production of child porn from RL and from screenshots, even if adults are involved, that the Lindens will throw up their hands and say, we can't do a thing about it, we can't be everywhere at once, we're merely an Internet service, and if we don'to get a complaint we can't process it.
Feeling that the Lindens will leave them out to dry, clubs are putting in their own controls so that they won't face difficulties later on. And it is not really about any of those immediate issues you've listed.
I think one of the common ways to settle scores in the ugly disputes and rivalries that develop in SL in the absence of a real rule of law or official judicial system is to use things like abuse reports on copyright infraction, obscenity, or other criminal activity as a way to harm a rival and threaten them.
People look for things they can try to hang on someone -- swearing in PG, having a tree wave into a property, passing a chat log, making an abusive picture. This works because the Lindens are colour-blind to context and selectively prosecute and incredibly, you can find yourself suddenly slammed with a 3-day ban for swearing in PG or a warning for passing a chat log even in the course of trying to get the Lindens' attention on bigger crimes when manipulative types work the AR system. (This is a microcosm of what happened to Peter Ludlow in TSO, and it's just on its way to happening in SL some day because the Lindens cannot and will not police the world and only police each reportable incident).
Rivals and enemies are constantly attempting to entrap and harass people by using the AR system itself. Threats of legal action for libel or other criminal activity abound in Second Life and have been deeply embedded in the frontier-like culture, regrettably.
I'm not aware of a single case of local authorities becoming involved in any of these issues in SL. I know one way the Lindens controlled it was by admonishing Hamlet Linden (Hamlet Au) not to write about sex lifestyles in SL so that the sensational press wouldn't overwhelm the early adaption phase.
Posted Oct 25, 2006 3:20:31 PM | link
If Linden Labs is allowing "Age Play", which will *immediately* get labelled "pedophilia simulation", they are playing with fire. People will get a little creeped out about the furries and the BDSM culture, but as long as those are avoidable they generally won't get outraged.
But if all this press attention they are courting actually draws in *real* journalists, who won't just write about what they are asked to and are just looking for the juiciest story? Then they're screwed. Totally, 100%, called to testify before congress screwed. "Safe Harbour" and "Common Carrier" defenses won't matter at all, and the splatter will hit everyone in the industry.
Posted Oct 26, 2006 10:34:06 AM | link
What is going on with "age play" in second life creeps me out too, and I think Dave is right that its a public relations disaster waiting to happen.
However Second Life is only one of many, and not anywhere near the largest. I suspect that the reason VWs in general do not get blamed for this is simple, very little of it happens in VWs, at least of the pay to play variety.
VWs are a comparitively difficult place to be a predator. People are all behind an avatar, and we know that many of them are not even remotely what they appear to be. A good number of the minors in the game are playing with their parents, or even thier whole family.
Compare this to myspace where most people are what they post, and where younger people go to have a space that is seperate from their parents. Myspace is a much better place to meet someone who is under age.
VWs don't get (many) of these kinds of criminals because they are not a very atttractive place for them.
Posted Oct 26, 2006 12:16:26 PM | link
That's an interesting point, Tom. It does also imply that you should not create a safe heaven as that would be a honeypot for child abusers. (Who like to pretend to be teens themselves in order to gain trust, then trick the lonley kid over into other interactive media by being their "kind" friend...)
Posted Oct 26, 2006 6:23:43 PM | link
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