Even in the online world, we can't all just get along

On Blogs

March 11, 2007|By Troy McCullough | Troy McCullough,Sun Columnist

Second Life continues to grow at a phenomenal rate, but trouble has been bubbling to the surface of late.

The utopian visions of the virtual world's founders are being threatened by militant factions demanding more of a say in shaping their virtual lives and by roving bands of "griefers" intent on causing mischief and chaos wherever they can.

Now claiming more than 4.3 million "residents," Second Life has been basking under the near-constant glow of the media spotlight. Politicians and celebrities have set up camp on the site. Businesses and organizations have opened shops. And curious computer users by the million have created accounts, built avatars and stepped foot on Second Life soil.

"From the moment you enter the World you'll discover a vast digital continent, teeming with people, entertainment, experiences and opportunity," the Second Life introduction boasts. "Once you've explored a bit, perhaps you'll find a perfect parcel of land to build your house or business."

That's the ideal. But the reality is a little messier these days.

Low-grade disruptions at Second Life events have been common for some time - barrages of flying pixelated genitalia interrupting in-world speakers and performers are so common that they've become cliche - but as big-name organizations and individuals have entered the site, the attacks have taken new forms.

American Apparel's in-world store - the first major commercial chain to enter the world - was hit with a virtual atomic bomb blast last month. Reebok's store was targeted as well. Gun-toting militants have also sprayed residents outside the stores and elsewhere with bullets.

Unlike in many 3-D games, Second Life residents can't be "killed" by such attacks. The acts merely represent a visual annoyance, and if they're graphically intensive enough, they can temporarily bog down the Second Life servers or cause the program to crash on a user's computer. But some worry that such attacks threaten to undermine the site, drive people away and ultimately bring the virtual world to its knees.

A group called the Second Life Liberation Army claimed responsibility for the virtual nuclear strikes, saying it wanted to raise awareness for its pet cause: avatar rights. "The population of the world should have a say in the running of the world," an SLLA spokesman named Cahill proclaimed to the Los Angeles Times.

But not all virtual assaults claim to be so high-minded.

This month, John Edwards' in-world presidential campaign headquarters was hit, and the Edwards campaign quickly blamed Republican operatives for the attack.

"They plastered the area with Marxist/Leninist posters and slogans, a feces spewing obscenity, and a photoshopped picture of John in blackface, all the while harassing visitors with right-wing nonsense and obscenity-laden abuse of Democrats in general and John in particular," Edwards' campaign blog reported.

But a few days later, the attackers revealed themselves as nonpartisan vandals intent on defacing in-world establishments just for the fun of it.

Still, some Second Lifers, bloggers and media outlets have labeled these attacks acts of in-world terrorism and have called for greater policing of offenders.

Others scoff at such notions and say that a little perspective is in order.

"This is the modern-day equivalent of hippies freaking out the squares," wrote Wired blogger John Brownlee. At the very least, it's a reminder that Second Life is no haven from the chaos of the world.

troy.mccullough@baltsun.com

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