Virtual Worlds Get Real About Punishment

In the online community Cellufun, troublemakers found guilty by other users get their virtual alter egos placed behind bars.
In the online community Cellufun, troublemakers found guilty by other users get their virtual alter egos placed behind bars. (Cary Torkelson)
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By Kim Hart
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Virtual worlds have often been called the digital equivalent of the Wild West, where animated alter egos can live in a fantasy frontier. But in some of these universes, a sheriff has come to town.

Slipping a four-letter word into an instant message now could land a user in a virtual timeout. Repeated attempts to make friends with an uninterested character could result in a loss of blogging privileges. And if convicted of starting a "flame war," or an exchange of hostile messages, a user may endure the ultimate punishment -- permanent exile.

A virtual world for mobile devices, called Cellufun, has established a courthouse, where rule-breakers are indicted by their peers and tried by a jury of other community members. If found guilty of a charge, such as using profanity, users must carry out varying levels of sentences, from being mute for 20 minutes to being banished.

For the duration of punishment, a user's avatar -- a cartoon version of his or her real-life self -- is pictured behind bars.

At least one user has been convicted of a crime every day since the Cellufun courthouse opened two weeks ago, said chief executive Arthur Goikhman. Every day, dozens of members are indicted.

"It's really affected the tone and tenor of the site," he said. "People are much, much, much more careful now."

Virtual worlds such as Second Life and Cellufun began with few rules and little oversight. Avatars can create their own societies and carry out realistic activities, such as buying land, building houses and forming social groups. But as the worlds' populations grow, some have developed more sophisticated legal codes and justice systems to police members' behavior. Many virtual worlds hope that creating an orderly environment will entice more users -- and prevent the need for real-world legal intervention.

There are scores of virtual worlds, and nearly all make users agree to certain policies when signing up The companies reserve the right to suspend or delete a user's avatar and seize virtual assets that have been accumulated. Most also allow users to report abusive behavior and provide a tool to let members ignore bothersome avatars.

For example, Lively, a virtual world by Google, prohibits users from spamming others with unwanted messages or displaying racy images. Repeat offenders run the risk of having their Google accounts deleted or, in extreme cases, being reported to real-world authorities.

Some worlds have devised their own versions of jail, where boredom is the punishment. In Second Life, the largest virtual world, where about 60,000 residents are logged on at any given time, misbehaving avatars used to find themselves stuck in the Corn Field, an eerie place with nothing but endless rows of corn, a decaying tractor and a black-and-white television. The Corn Field still exists but is no longer used as a penalty box.

Another site, called VZones, created the Void, a dull-colored last-chance holding cell where delinquents are sent before getting a final warning or being removed from the world entirely.

"Very rarely does it get to this point," said Justine Reichman, chief executive of VZones.

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