Tuesday, September 25, 2007


Virtual Worlds is my beat at the office. I am asked to react to client thoughts about entering the VW space. In doing this I keep gathering useful info I thought I would share.

Real/unreal legal challenges
Second Life remains the bellwether for confusing social and legal issues created by virtual worlds.

Linden Labs, maker of Second Life, has aggressively banned casinos out of concern for legality in many countries. Money laundering and tax avoidance fueled this focus.

Next, a
Dutch prosecutor opened an investigation of “ageplay” in February on the grounds that representations of child sex are illegal in the Netherlands. The prosecution was dropped because the representations within a VW were deemed “too much a computer animation” and not realistic enough, but not before a flurry of action and reaction resulted.

Within SL, people of both sexes use different avatar representations such as animals, faeries, tinies, monsters, vampires, and also children. Child avatar owners fully role play childlike attributes including baby talk. (This is not unknown in the analog world as well, of course). While numbers are unknown, the numbers of age players that are nonsexual appear to outweigh sexual representations. Sexual representations require two consensual adults behind the avatars (behaviors cannot be forced and minors are not allowed in SL).

Popular responses to the initial threat of prosecution fell into two areas: people wanting any representation of children in SL stopped because it was felt to be a “training ground” for paedophilia. Another view centered on free speech and the feeling that, like violence, bestiality, and many other behavioral representations, consensual ageplay in a fantasy environment is “bedroom speech” no clear indicator of real world behavior any more than shooting people in Halo is.

Interestingly, most debates make the assumption that men were the culprits to be prosecuted or prevented while the consensual partners, (many possibly women in control of the child-like avatars) were not cited in the debate, even though Dutch law points to the possessor of the child avatar as the primary law breaker. The legal quandary that virtual representations create has led Linden Labs to seek ways to cascade legal liability away from the software maker and down to individuals in the world.

Linden revised the terms of service (TOS) for Second Life as an initial response. These modifications help lower the temptation to clutter Linden with small claims lawsuits. Additionally “land” owners are required to register land containing “offensive or sexual content” so that Linden can disallow any avatars not officially cleared as being of legal age from entering that land. This has placed land owners in the position of liability and required visitors to that land to verify their identity with Linden using a database marketing company as the verification vendor. Thus liability has devolved effectively from software maker to the “host” of visitors in the world.

A fuller expression of the shedding of liability is the introduction of “Serve your own world”. Areae has announced testing of
Metaplace, a packaged virtual world that can be served by anyone. Each instance of a Metaplace can be connected to another, creating one mega-world out of many separately served parts. This model of separately interconnected, self-served worlds is being pursued by Linden Labs and several other companies as well. The underlying liability for serving a virtual world lies with the company or individual serving it.

The resulting implication is that we will all have to have our own TOS between us and anyone we interact with in a virtual world in order to deflect liability for representations of behaviors that are deemed by someone (anyone, really) to be very realistic, therefore “real”, and therefore threatening.

Cave painting destroyed the separation of reality and unreality using a limited access, legally controlled virtual experience. Today we have virtual worlds; a broad access, legally controlled virtual experience. Perhaps the only difference in 20,000 years of virtual experience is that lawyers have replaced shaman.

Portable populations
Gartner declared that 80% of our communication time will use avatar based worlds within the next 4 years. I suspect that will be true in 2 years for teens.

A Dozen new worlds have been announced in recent months, some client-based, others web browser-based.
IMVU and Gaia are growing at a rate similar to SL was in the fall, while SL itself has leveled off at 9.5 Million accounts. SL remains the only world where a corporation can inexpensively create a presence and communicate directly with “communities of interest”. SL is also the only world allowing user generated content across the world. New worlds are either closed, (adverworlds) best from an advertising context, or are private label worlds (under development).

Sony’s Home for PS3 has been delayed till spring while other corporate efforts such as Qwaq appear ready to go. Qwaq is a self-hosted 3d environment designed for the Webex crowd. The logic goes: Instead of a presentation environment why not get everyone into a virtual room and hash it out using avatars?

Google appears to be
testing a new world with students at the University of Arizona based upon a number of carefully prepared components including Google Maps, Google Earth, and Google Sketchup, a 3d modeling application given away free. The actual virtual world application may be based upon Everyscape but may include learnings of Google’s new social networking platform Socialstream.

Socialstream aggregates content across many different networks to present social information in a way that ties it to the person who posted the information, and not the site from which it came. Imagine you can have your Facebook, Flickr and IMVU in a single location. There are many such efforts underway.

This same goal of a common protocol allowing an avatar to be portable between IMVU, World of Warcraft, and SL (for example) is being investigated by IBM, among others. If this succeeds, it will be similar to the W3C protocols allowing a common view of web pages regardless of platform. The effort here, if successful, is causing many to proclaim the web “dead”, since all the information transfer now accomplished within the web can be done using the avatar as the “homepage” for each person.

VW and healthcare

The Second Health London Local Community Hospital and Polyclinic are now open. Created by the National Physical Laboratory and Imperial College London, the SL sim includes a virtual hospital and animations helping describe complex medical concepts. This is another good example of unbranded health-oriented communities that teach about and influence consumer attitudes. This approach is a good first step into using the educational power of virtual worlds. Some of our clients are looking into this.

A commanding understanding of how best to build connections to health communities remains missing.
This paper about health neo-tribes is an interesting description of the possibilities.

Certainly we know that pharmaceutical companies have to deal with what anyone says in a virtual world, word for word, along with the unpredictability that engenders. The nongovernmental bodies deal with it by sending consumers to health authorities for information about any conditions mentioned in conversation, but pharma companies do not yet have that luxury.

Controlled adverworld presences are a solid opportunity for advertising even within the pharma space, but the problems for any health care company wishing to take full advantage of direct consumer relationships will force a legal and governmental sea-change to succeed. It will happen but it won’t be pretty.

No comments: