The war against sexual predators has moved to a new frontier: An online fantasy world where some fantasies are no longer welcome.
Second Life is what's known in the online gaming field as a ``Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game.'' But it's more a virtual world than a computer game. There are no points to score or levels to conquer. It's a place where players can do pretty much whatever they want.
What they want begins with the activities that have drawn people to the Internet from the beginning: gambling, shopping and sex. But those who hang around do much more than that. They play with in-world toys, such as cars, planes, boats and guns. They buy land on SL's growing islands and continents. They build homes, businesses and organizations.
They also build relationships, which is one area where fantasy and reality overlap. Players become friends, business partners and sometimes former friends and ex-business partners. They date, get engaged and sometimes marry.
As Second Life grows - it now has 7.9 million official residents, with some 30,000 to 40,000 "in-world'' at any given time - so does its overlap with reality. Hip real-world companies now have stores in Second Life, with links to their Web sites. John Edwards and Hillary Clinton, among others, have campaign outposts in Second Life.
The ACLU held a rally in Washington this week to protest torture and the erosion of constitutional rights - with a simultaneous rally in Second Life for those unable to attend the real one. There are live concerts in Second Life by real performers, the sound carried by Internet radio.
One player I met told me in real life - RL, in SL lingo - he works in technology at an Arizona university. His department holds meetings and training sessions in Second Life, where they gather around a virtual conference table and watch video presentations.
Residents of Second Life move through the world as avatars - AVs, for short - a Sanskrit word for a Hindu deity that has been adapted to describe a digital representation of a person in a virtual environment. AVs are fully customizable, with thousands of possible combinations of bodies, faces and clothing. Dressing up your avatar is a popular avocation, an electronic version of playing with paper dolls.
With all those options though, it's not surprising that most AVs are young, attractive and buff. If you could choose a body to represent you, wouldn't you want it to be beautiful? The AVs look cartoonish, though you can buy "skins'' that make your AV look more realistic, but they aren't static. When you aren't moving them, they fidget, look around, shift their weight from foot to foot.
It's in choosing an avatar that the reality and fantasy get slippery. Some players work hard to make their AVs look like their real life selves. They make no effort to hide who they really are. One pointed me to his MySpace page so I could see his real pictures.
For most, though, the avatar is closer to how they wish they looked, or the character they feel like playing. Some choose to be vampires, or hulking warriors, or medieval wizards. Some wear wings or devil's tails. Some dress as creatures from another galaxy.
Then there are the "furries'' - avatars that are small, cuddly things. Furries, which come in various species, ages and sexual orientations, have created a strong sub-culture in Second Life. Yes, it's weird, even surreal: The other day I saw someone who had chosen to be an ice-cold pitcher of Kool-Aid. But diversity is a Second Life value that goes far beyond skin color.
Avatars can walk, but they can also fly. They can teleport from location to location. They build castles and elaborate treehouses, churches and fantastical sculptures. Someone built a small model of Boston on a beach; another built a replica of the Sistine Chapel. It's amazing what you can build when you aren't bound by the laws of physics.
They make money, too. Second Life has its own currency - Linden dollars - which can be exchanged for real cash (1,000 Linden dollars goes for about $4 in the current exchange rate). Here, too, reality and fantasy overlap. There are stories of residents who have made enough in SL to quit their RL jobs. One AV I spoke to had been threatened with banishment when he was caught buying Linden dollars on eBay.
The avatars move stiffly, but if you click on the right spot, SL will "animate your avatar'' so it can climb, surf or do a swan dive. You and an AV friend can tango like stars or - if you click on the right spot in a mature area - have sex in more positions than you can count.
Second Life is more than games. An avatar is a digital puppet, and there's a human puppeteer behind it. So you - or your AV, that is - can be sitting at a club next to a goth or a vixen or a raccoon, and pretty soon you find out that, in RL, he's a professor in Brussels or a farmer in Boise or an artist in Beijing. Before you know it, you're talking about the Red Sox, or comparing notes on favorite restaurants, or debating global politics.
You can't help but associate the person with the avatar, but you may be way off. The avatar may be a buxom young blonde, while the person behind it is a 60-year-old man.
"You can go cross-gender, cross-species, or even cross-planet,'' an experienced AV tells me.
"Sure, a lot in SL is fake,'' he says, "but the feelings that can be generated can be very real.'' The program can make your avatar dance, but once you start chatting with another resident, you're on your own. You can be charmed or lied to, find the sympathetic ear you've been looking for or get to know someone on the other side of the world you wish you could invite over for coffee.
And sometimes a cartoon avatar can break a human heart. "Been there, done that, got the T-shirt,'' an AV tells me.
What draws people to Second Life, another explains, is the ability to be somebody you can't be in real life, to try something you could never do at home: To be a merchant or a builder, a wizard or a warrior, a superhero or a slut.
Or just to move around, meet people and make friends. "You'd be surprised how many people here are invalids in real life, stuck in their beds and unable to do any of this stuff,'' one AV told me.
For them, and many others, Second Life offers a kind of fantasy therapy.
But for the Lindens - employees of Linden Lab, which owns Second Life - some fantasies are bad for business.
Just as there are adults who choose to present themselves as wolves or warriors, there are adults who come to SL as children. Underage players - Linden Lab is working on an age-verification system to keep kids out, but it's not operational yet - would rather pose as grownups, an experienced AV tells me. The adults pose as children mostly because they crave innocence.
Some apparently crave sex as well, and engage in what they call "age-play'' in mature areas. Such depictions may not violate U.S. child pornography laws, but European laws are more broadly written, and there is a threat of civil litigation. Second Life is a business, after all, and the Lindens worry that bad publicity could drive off customers. In May, "Daniel Linden'' announced in the official SL blog that depictions or avatar portrayals involving sex and minors were prohibited, along with depictions of sexual violence and "other broadly offensive content.''
The free spirits in SL have objected loudly about "thought police'' and pointed out the hypocrisy of imposing such policies in a place where large areas are devoted to combat and kinky sex. Second Life, which advertises itself as "a digital world imagined, created and owned by its residents,'' must not be turned into a dictatorship, they say.
The new policy was tested this week at "Second Pride,'' SL's celebration of gay, lesbian, transgender and other alternate lifestyles. The Pride Committee decreed that child avatars would be treated as the ages they represent, not their RL age, that they would be kept out of areas rated mature, and that they had to be accompanied by parent/guardian AVs.
But a lot of child AVs don't have parent AVs. When a small group of child AVs showed up at the Pride amusement park on opening day, they were evicted - and very disappointed.
"It's only an avatar,'' I heard one say. "I'm really 38.''
Are the child AVs, or those who play with them, sexual predators in RL? Maybe some are. Should they be persecuted in SL, or might they benefit from the fantasy therapy SL offers? Beats me.
But as crazy as all this seems to those of us who are strangers in virtual worlds like Second Life, World of Warcraft, Everquest and a growing list of similar games, this confusing mix of reality and unreality isn't going away. Mitch Kapor, the high-tech visionary who dreamed up Lotus in Cambridge back in the '80s, is chairman of Linden Labs. He predicts that in the years to come, virtual worlds will be as central to the wired world as the World Wide Web is today.
For young people, it will feel like second nature to live in a virtual world like Second Life. We older folks may be confused by the shape-shifting and fantasy/reality traps. But at least our avatars will look young and hip.
Rick Holmes is opinion editor for the MetroWest Daily News. He can be reached by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.