Does Virtual Reality Need a Sheriff?

More than 6 million people have registered with Second Life to create characters that can respond to keyboard commands. Some characters look like their real-life alter egos, while others can take on otherworldly appearances.
More than 6 million people have registered with Second Life to create characters that can respond to keyboard commands. Some characters look like their real-life alter egos, while others can take on otherworldly appearances. (Linden Research ©2007 Via Associated Press)

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By Alan Sipress
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, June 2, 2007

Earlier this year, one animated character in Second Life, a popular online fantasy world, allegedly raped another character.

Some Internet bloggers dismissed the simulated attack as nothing more than digital fiction. But police in Belgium, according to newspapers there, opened an investigation into whether a crime had been committed. No one has yet been charged.

Then last month, authorities in Germany announced that they were looking into a separate incident involving virtual abuse in Second Life after receiving pictures of an animated child character engaging in simulated sex with an animated adult figure. Though both characters were created by adults, the activity could run afoul of German laws against child pornography, prosecutors said.

As recent advances in Internet technology have spurred millions of users to build and explore new digital worlds, the creations have imported not only their users' dreams but also their vices. These alternative realms are testing the long-held notions of what is criminal and whether law enforcement should patrol the digital frontier.

"People have an interest in their property and the integrity of their person. But in virtual reality, these interests are not tangible but built from intangible data and software," said Greg Lastowka, a professor at the Rutgers School of Law at Camden in New Jersey.

Some virtual activities clearly violate the law, like trafficking in stolen credit card numbers, he said. Others, like virtual muggings and sex crimes, are harder to define, though they may cause real-life anguish for users.

Simulated violence and thievery have long been a part of virtual reality, especially in the computer games that pioneered online digital role-playing. At times, however, this conduct has crossed the lines of what even seasoned game players consider acceptable.

In World of Warcraft, the most popular online game, with an estimated 8 million participants worldwide, some regions of this fantasy domain have grown so lawless that players said they fear to brave them alone. Gangs of animated characters have repeatedly preyed upon lone travelers, killing them and making off with their virtual belongings.

Two years ago, Japanese authorities arrested a man for carrying out a series of virtual muggings in another popular game, Lineage II, by using software to beat up and rob characters in the game and then sell the virtual loot for real money.

Julian Dibbell, a prominent commentator on digital culture, chronicled the first known case of sexual assault in cyberspace in 1993, when virtual reality was still in its infancy. A participant in LambdaMOO, a community of users who congregated in a virtual California house, had used a computer program called a "voodoo doll" to force another player's character to act out being raped. Though this virtual world was rudimentary and the assault simulated, Dibbell recounted that the trauma was jarringly real. The woman whose character was attacked later wept -- "post-traumatic tears were streaming down her face" -- as she vented her outrage and demand for revenge in an online posting, he wrote.

Since then, advances in high-speed Internet, user interfaces and graphic design have rendered virtual reality more real, allowing users to endow their characters with greater humanity and identify ever more closely with their creations.

Nowhere is this truer than in Second Life, where more than 6 million people have registered to create characters called avatars, cartoon human figures that respond to keyboard commands and socialize with others' characters. The breadth of creativity and interaction in Second Life is greater than on nearly any other virtual-reality Web site because there is no game or other objective; it is just an open-ended, lifelike digital environment.


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© 2007 The Washington Post Company

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