Brave New World

Online fantasy worlds put our democratic ideals to the test

By Steven Johnson|Sunday, April 02, 2006
RELATED TAGS: COMPUTERS

Most of the time, Second Life (virtual population 125,000) is a place where everyone is made to feel welcome. People who join this rapidly growing online community at www.secondlife.com create fanciful animated representations of themselves called avatars and are free to explore a vast 3-D landscape gorgeously rendered with oceans and mountain peaks and teeming with eclectic structures designed and built by residents. But when a Second Lifer who calls himself Nimrod Yaffle tried to log in to the community earlier his year, he discovered his avatar had been sequestered in a surreal, isolated landscape: infinite rows of corn, spread out under a dark sky, with nothing else in sight except a small red tractor and a black-and-white television set playing the 1940 film Boy in Court. Yaffle was completely baffled. "At first I thought it was a joke," he says. "But I realized that I could not teleport out of that area, and I wasn't sure what to do."

After Tony Walsh, a self-described "virtual reporter," broke the news of Yaffle's cornfield confinement on his Web site Clickable Culture (www.secretlair.com), rumors spread that Yaffle was being punished because he had attempted to crash Second Life's servers. That was an exaggeration. Crashing Second Life's servers would be like sabotaging the power supply to a smallish American city and would have undoubtedly resulted in Yaffle being banned from the community for life. In fact, Yaffle was exiled to the cornfield for three days for reverse engineering a bit of computer code to steal virtual items from a vendor in Second Life. "The cornfield is not used often, and it is only for white-collar crimes," explains Catherine Smith of Linden Lab, the San Francisco–based company that created and maintains the Second Life site. "It is supposed to be funny more than anything."

Indeed, a virtual pilferer being sent off to purgatory on a red tractor is an absurdist drama that brings to mind Samuel Beckett and Eugène Ionesco rather than Samuel Alito and John Roberts. But the cornfield incarceration scenario also points to potentially greater import: The rules and structures of governance in Second Life and other virtual communities are entirely up for grabs. Most of the legal values that Americans depend on in the real world—private property, representational democracy, law and penal codes—can't be taken for granted in these online worlds. Cyber settlers encounter everything from feudal guild systems and unbridled clan warfare to modern authoritarian regimes and idealistic socialist communes. Many evil deeds go unpunished, while a few trigger the online equivalent of capital punishment: elimination of your avatar.

To be sure, there are constraints. Most virtual communities are created by businesspeople and programmers who possess sovereign-like power to pull the plug on the entire enterprise or to eject members who cause too much trouble. But in practice, the day-to-day events of communities in the virtual world are far too multifarious for any company to monitor in an economically efficient way. So avatars are left to themselves. "The typical governance model in synthetic worlds consists of isolated moments of oppressive tyranny embedded in widespread anarchy," writes economist Edward Castronova in his book Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games (University of Chicago Press, 2005). "There is a tyrant in place from the beginning, but an extraordinarily inactive one."

The closest virtual communities get to a constitution is the user agreement that members click on when they join the service. At first glance, most of these look like the tedious legal documents one sees when installing new software, but a closer read reveals some striking differences. The Second Life terms of service, for instance, forbid racially offensive behavior and stalking other avatars. But beyond such broad, general restrictions on social behavior, it's pretty much anything goes. And as the last 5,000 or so years of human civilization make clear, any time large numbers of human beings gather together in one shared space without laws governing their behavior, problems inevitably arise.

Consider Second Life's recent troubles with a resident who calls himself Lazarus Divine (a name that could have come straight out of a Thomas Pynchon novel). First, a little background: The internal economy of Second Life is divided between two primary spheres of commerce. Unlike many other virtual worlds, Second Life allows its residents to own the goods that they create. So if someone spends a month building a detailed virtual replica of Hugh Hefner's Playboy Mansion or Frank Lloyd Wright's Fallingwater, they are free to sell their handiwork to another Second Lifer. Technically, the transaction involves in-game currency—called Linden dollars—but those virtual dollars can be readily exchanged for real ones, currently at the rate of roughly 250 to 1. An average day in Second Life sees transactions worth hundreds of thousands of actual U.S. dollars—for goods that exist purely in imagination.

The other primary sphere of economic activity is land. All real estate in Second Life is originally the property of Linden Lab, the company that runs the service. Linden Lab sells off plots of land to members, who are then free to build on their property or sell it to other members. The real estate market in Second Life obeys many of the principles of real-world markets. For example, centrally located lots are more valuable than remote ones, and properties with attractive views command higher prices. Cycles of boom and bust have appeared, fueled by land speculation. Parcels regularly sell for thousands of U.S. dollars.

This is where Lazarus Divine comes into the picture. A few months ago, Divine began buying up small slivers of land near other Second Life residents and erecting on them giant, garish billboards emblazoned with the text: "SUPPORT OUR TROOPS. End the Illegal War in Iraq. Restore US Credibility. IMPEACH BUSH." The towering blue signs ruined the views of nearby residents and consequently threatened the value of their property. The billboards are ugly, to be sure, but as more than a few members of the Second Life community have remarked, it's in no one's interest for the authorities to start regulating aesthetics. A few residents vented their frustrations by erecting "Impeach Lazarus Divine" billboards. Others joined forces and sent Divine endless instant messages complaining about his actions, but to no avail.

Conflicts like these have convinced a number of online citizens that virtual space requires a new set of governing rules, ones created by the avatars rather than the developers. A source of inspiration for these governance pioneers is the influential game designer Ralph Koster's Declaration of the Rights of Avatars, a document that is a fascinating hybrid of real-world constitutional law and high-tech lingo: "The principle of all sovereignty in a virtual space resides in the inalterable fact that somewhere there resides an individual who controls the hardware on which the virtual space is running, and the software with which it is created, and the database which makes up its existence."

In the discussion forums for Second Life, numerous proposals have emerged for avatar-created legal codes. Some are targeted at solving specific problems in the Second Life world; for example, the absence of legal corporations makes it difficult to pool capital for large-scale projects, and contracts for future services have no legal status. Others have focused on creating a jury system to settle disputes among avatars. A Second Lifer named James Miller recently put forward an exhaustive conflict-resolution proposal featuring about 50 separate articles, sections, and clauses. The prose reads like a mix of boilerplate statutory code and scenes from an Ian Fleming novel: "SECTION IV A jury will meet on a hidden, off-world island, owned and maintained by Linden Lab. The island will be equipped with a number of simple Jury Meeting Rooms, suitable for a jury of 7 to meet, as well as interview parties in disputes."

Online communities have conventionally trafficked in folkloric history evocative of J. R. R. Tolkien's Middle-earth or the distant future of science fiction. But when you read through Ralph Koster's declaration of rights or James Miller's conflict-resolution proposal—and the hundreds of thoughtful critiques posted in response to each—the online world suddenly feels closer to 1776 in America or 1848 in France, when ordinary citizens struggled to make their revolutionary visions of social organization a reality. Radical utopias are out of fashion in the 21st century, but if they ever do reemerge, I suspect it will be thanks to the open-ended nature of software, because virtual communities can serve as a proof of concept for ideas that might seem implausible were they merely described on paper.

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