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New world with old problems

It is time the virtual world dealt with some 'real' issues and activism, writes Mayank Tewari.

india Updated: Oct 15, 2006 03:47 IST
Mayank Tewari
Mayank Tewari

So you are set for a life in the virtual world. But did you know there is activism, gambling and suicide happening all over the virtual world? Read on.

Virtual Suicide Pacts

In the virtual world, death comes easy — and often. A mild digression from the concept of Internet suicide pacts, a virtual suicide, enables a resident to look for people interested in ending their lives, meet them and watch them kill themselves. Six months ago, a group of residents in Second Life, belonging to China in the real world, committed mass suicide to protest against their country’s closed policies towards the Internet. All those who died woke up the next day in Second Life as a different avatar. Death, however, comes for a price. A resident gets the choice of multiple avatars also for a price.

Teen Grid

Catch them young — and how? Battling paedophilia and mature content directed at children, Second Life has created an isolated universe exclusively for teenagers on the Internet. Called the Teen Grid, the universe is where teenagers can make friends, create stuff or start a new business. As soon as a member turns 18, he is automatically transferred to the adult grid with all the money (in Linden dollars) he earned and the goodies he created for sale. Overage users found to be fraudulently accessing the Teen Grid by lying on the registration form are banned from all areas of Second Life.

Since nudity is not allowed on the Teen Grid, Teen Residents are unable to remove their underwear. However, Teen Residents can use textures with transparent sections for clothing — just as Main Grid Residents can. This way, by using completely or partially transparent underwear in combination with skins featuring genitalia, their avatar can appear to be nude. However, such actions are against the Teen Second Life Community Standards and may invite a censure.

The Linden Exchange Rate

Many residents of Second Life have raised their voice against the Second Life economy, in both ‘in-world’ — inside the virtual universe — and in reality. The problem arises from the fact that the actual economy of Second Life does not correspond to a self-contained country.

A large proportion of the residents have no way of earning money other than buying it with money from outside, and those who earn large amounts of money often only do so in order to sell it for money from outside. Thus: consumers and those with less money within Second Life have no limit to how low they would wish the exchange rate to fall, and sellers and the rich have no limit to how high they would wish it to rise. Conspiracy theories abound when the exchange rate (Linden Dollar vs US Dollar) remains stable in the short term. Currently the exchange rate going is L$285 for one US dollar.

The Hallucination Clinic

Peter Yellowlees, a professor of psychiatry at the University of California, Davis, has been teaching about schizophrenia for 20 years, but was never really able to explain to his students just how their patients suffer. Then he discovered the metaverse (metaphysical universe) of Second Life and created hallucinations. Yellowlees leased an island on Second Life and created something close to his real world clinic and research centre. A resident might walk through a virtual hospital ward, and a picture on the wall would suddenly flash the word ‘Devil’.

A reflection in a mirror might have bleeding eyes and die. In an interview to The Economist, Yellowlees claimed most of his students benefited instantly, but some were “upset”.

Citizens vs Commercialisation

For many residents of Second Life, it is a lost battle: a fight against the forces of commercialisation. In Second Life, or any other similar metaverse, one needs to lease land and create services. Now, people who created parks, monuments, vistas, libraries, clubs and meeting places do not earn any money unlike the gambling dens and pubs that have sprouted all over the virtual world. This has placed Second Life in a situation where the builders of such artwork or social areas are left bearing the entire hosting cost, while commercial areas are able to recover the cost. Therefore, there has been a fall in the size and number of non-commercial areas.

First Published: Oct 15, 2006 03:47 IST