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Risks and Ethics of Training and Educating in Second Life

2010 March 5

Several pieces have been floating around in the last week or so on virtual crime.  GamePolitics discussed a paper by the Australian government’s Institute of Criminology discussing the nature of criminal activity in virtual worlds.  It centers around a basic question: is interpersonal crime committed in a virtual space really crime if there is no real-world corollary?

The question of whether real-world notions of interpersonal harm apply to virtual assault or sexual assault is unresolved. This complicates the question of regulation within virtual worlds.

There is some precedent for virtual crime that also occurs in the real world to be considered criminal activity.  For example, if you were to illegally extort another person out of Linden Dollars in Second Life, you could be prosecuted for that crime in the real world because Linden Dollars have a real-world monetary equivalent (currently, roughly L$260 = US$1).

But criminal activity that occurs only in a virtual space is a gray area. Consider the cases described by Inside Higher Ed of “avatar rape.”  I put that in quotes because there is some disagreement on what specific term should be used.  You see, it’s possible for one avatar in Second Life to sexually assault another avatar.  Because consent is required to participate realistically in any activity in Second Life, the mechanics of this activity are kind of odd:

  • Example 1: An avatar might equip a male genitalia add-on and then walk into another person.  There is no forceful penetration, and in many cases, the victim avatar doesn’t necessarily experience anything physical – it is more of a symbolic attack.  It can be remedied by either walking away or teleporting elsewhere.
  • Example 2: In Second Life, there are objects called “pose balls.”  When an avatar right-clicks and selects “Sit” on a pose ball, it loads an animation for that avatar.  Sex in Second Life occurs when two avatars are sitting on two pose balls, the animations of which are synced together to simulate some sort of sexual activity.  One way that virtual rape can thus occur is by tricking another (usually new) user into sitting on a pose ball that engages them in an unexpected sexual activity.  It’s easy to stop such an activity – simply click “Stand Up.”

The commenters provide some interesting perspectives on this piece:

Calling this rape is sensationalistic, yellow journalism. Exposure to unwanted sexual imagery (which is the closest you might call this) is sexual harassment, at worst. This is certainly a non-trivial issue, but to call it rape is irresponsible. In doing so, you are implying that actual rape victims have similar feelings and reactions to Second Life “rape” victims, and that is frankly insulting. Psychologically, I expect this sort of behavior’s effect is closer to flashing/exhibitionism.

Regardless of the specifics, it is clear that Second Life is to some degree an untamed frontier, where the specific rules of law and order in relation to “the real world” are not clear.  Is it ethical to expose students or employees to such an environment?

In my research laboratory, where we are currently testing Second Life-type training interventions, we never allow research participants onto the open Second Life grid.  It’s too dangerous for two reasons.  First, the Second Life environment is difficult to control unless you have a private island – any random jackass can come by an interrupt your experiment, although this is uncommon.  Second, we would be exposing participants to everything in Second Life, and I don’t believe it’s necessarily appropriate/ethical for researchers to make that decision for them. Or at the least, it’s not a risk that I want to take yet.

But the classroom is a different environment.  To some degree, isn’t it the responsibility of instructors to expose students to new ideas and ways of thinking?

The training room is a different story, which I think is the impetus for Linden Lab’s behind-the-firewall product, which allows companies to run their own Second Life grid inaccessible to the Internet at large.  Exposing your employees to material not controlled by your company is seem by many companies simply as an unnecessary risk.  The only problem is that this product appears to be ridiculously expensive.

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