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Posts Tagged ‘virtual worlds’

I have had Second Life friends who frequently suffer anxiety attacks – I can think of four people off the top of my head but there may be more. I always encouraged them to be open about the way they were feeling so I could reassure and comfort them. I did this primarily out of friendship, but I also did it because I understood what they were going through: I’ve suffered anxiety attacks during my life that would incapacitate me with bodily fear, shaking, my heart racing, and often without anything at all to have brought it on (well, nothing I was aware of anyway). The worst of these attacks occurred when I was on antidepressants about a decade ago – they put me on the wrong medication and it almost killed me.

The problem with virtual worlds is that they lend themselves to paranoia. Usually we use facial expressions, body language, eye contact etc, to figure out what people think of us and what’s going on around us. Without any of this in Second Life we look for other cues – eg long silences, unexplained disappearances. The number of times I’ve had perfectly calm rational people ask me if I had a problem with them just because I took a few minutes to reply to an IM or because I TPed away when they arrived somewhere, is more than I can count, but somedays would happen many times over from different people, reading unintended messages into my behaviour because they lacked other cues I’d normally provide in the real world – like a smile or eye contact to quickly let them know that we were all good.

As humans we naturally look for patterns in the behaviours of those around us – especially in the people we think we know well. We establish expectations and when behaviours and words from others start varying from those expectations we want to know why, and when it happens with a lot of people all at once we get rather paranoid. This looking for patterns and trying to understand them is a survival instinct and perfectly rational – we need to identify and respond to threats before they become something too big (or too “real”) for us to deal with.

When you try to verbalise what’s bothering you though you will more often than not get the response of “oh you’re just being paranoid”. Well, yeah. But that response doesn’t help, what is required is proper and meaningful reassurance or a possible explanation for the behaviours that are causing the concern. When people aren’t open about the reasons behind their actions, your mind will try to create an explanation in its place. And being only human we will often think the worst because we need to be prepared to deal with threats – both emotional and physical – as they arise. As you try to sort out in your head why things are changing around you, you start to doubt yourself, you start to wonder if you’re seeing patterns where there are none, you start to wonder if you’re going “mad”. And while those around you brush off your concerns as “paranoia” or refuse to communicate at all, the paranoia and anxiety feeds into itself and becomes a monster in its own right.

So do me a favour, next time someone says or does something that you think reveals they’re just being paranoid, sit them down and ask them what made them get the impression that someone or something was out to get them. And if there really is something that grounds the paranoia, help them cope with the situation and the threat. And if there isn’t, then reassure them, give them a big huggle and tell them you’re there if they need to talk. Sometimes paranoia is rational, sometimes it is a mental illness, but always it is something that you should care enough about to help your friends through it.

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Replies to my recent post about Virtual Illegalities, and reading this very entertaining item (“Vaginas with teeth and other sexual myths“), got me thinking about what we can learn from Second Life about sexual “perversions” and “deviance”. This post brings together a lot of thoughts I’ve expressed over previous blog entries, specifically as they relate to sexualities and adult freedoms in a virtual world. I find the more you write and get feedback on such topics, the more it helps you understand both the reality, and your own view of that reality, so as usual I’d love to get your feedback on what follows.

In Second Life adults find a safe outlet for experimenting with sexual acts and preferences they may have never followed through with in real life. In turn, it also provides a way to live out sexual preferences that you may have always had in real life but not been able to take part in due to your own or others fears and prejudices. Those may include acts which are still deemed illegal or immoral in the real world – the extremes being bestiality, paedophilia, and rape. What makes those the taboo extremes is the lack of meaningful consent by all parties involved. And that seems like a very reasonable and logical line to draw.

A world like Second Life though provides a way to overcome that moral and legal restriction, because the consent of the other party is either irrelevant (because it isn’t a sentient being playing the role of the dog etc), or because it is a consenting adult after-all who is going along with the act (the rape, for example).

The consideration that always feeds into this debate is whether allowing such things either encourages it in the real world, or stops the act being followed through in the real world. Beyond those interesting questions though, you have to be ready to ask if the answers even matters, since the virtual act itself is just that: virtual. And between consenting adults.

There are plenty of other sexual “perversions” though that people find sick and disturbing for reasons apart from missing consent – usually because they deem the act as degrading or mentally harmful. For example, the sub and dom culture that thrives in Second Life, is seen by many as a distasteful and disturbing pass-time that reveals either cruelty or deficient weakness in the participants. It is not surprising that those sexual cultures defend their activities, but at the end of the day it’s nothing to do with everyone else anyway since they are, after-all, consenting adults.

Another piece of the puzzle when trying to work out how we feel about and respond to such “deviances” is whether the people involved “chose” the preference. For example, the fact that many homosexuals didn’t choose to be attracted to their own sex, is seen by some as the “redeeming” feature that means we must learn to accept it. However this strikes me as completely the wrong focus. I have discussed in a previous post that whether you choose your sexuality is irrelevant – as long as the act is between consenting adults, everything else is people getting their sticky-beaks where they don’t belong. It is not up to us to criminalise or condemn people for doing what they want with their own bodies.

Which brings us to the question of harm. Most liberals ascribe to a theory of paternalism – trying to protect people from themselves. They either claim to know what is best for you and therefore deny you the right to choose it yourself (and that hardly requires me to point out how flawed it is, I hope!). Or they claim that the very fact you choose to do an act with is harmful (physically or mentally) means your consent is vitiated and deemed flawed in some essential way; that you have thereby already provided proof that you are not mentally sound or competent to make such decisions for yourself.

The beauty of Second Life is it degrades at least some of these paternalistic complaints – particularly in regards to physically hurting yourself (say through bondage). People will still try to tell you you are mentally damaging yourself but at least in-world  they can not stop you by physical force or by threatening your real world reputation. Second Life provides a haven from the do-goody paternalism which deems free consenting acts between adults as morally repugnant, which forces people in the real-world to live in denial and have unfulfilled sex-lives.

My hope is that through Second Life we can come to accept the huge variety of sexual acts and preferences, and realise that what matters is the consent between adults. That we can reflect on the really very large numbers of people who do what we have labeled perverse or deviant in the past (be it masturbation, sub-dom, scat-love, etc), and start to realise that it is too wide-spread to be given such labels, that in fact it is just part of our repertoire of sexual experiences that help us explore and enjoy our own and others bodies.

We’ve come a long way from seeing sex as something dirty, and masturbation as something that will make your palms hairy and make you go blind. The anonymity from our real world selves that we find in virtual worlds, helps us explore and discover not just our true selves, but others too. We don’t have to personally like and partake in the huge varieties of sexual acts out there – allowing such acts doesn’t mean anyone’s going to force you or your child to become or do something they don’t want to. Taking part in what we currently may still view and label as deviant acts, doesn’t make you different or evil or stupid, and as we interact and talk openly with such people who have different tastes than us, in the international adult universe of Second Life, that becomes clearer. One hopes.

Issues such as how we feel about Linden Labs cleaning up the adult world in Second Life – sanitising it to accord more with our dominant real world morals and laws – forces us to think about where we stand on these issues. So what about you, where do you stand on such issues, and how has Second Life changed your attitudes towards sexual perversions and deviances..? Has it perhaps cemented your hatred and intolerance of such deviance and perversion? And either way, why has that change in attitude happened..?

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One of the great joys of Second Life is the ability to try-out and live-out things that you can’t do in the real world. It allows you to safely experiment with activities that you might otherwise be too afraid or unable to attempt. And it lets you do things that might be considered illegal in the real world. In the virtual world – since you’re not actually “doing” them – they aren’t illegal activities, right..? Maybe it’s not quite that straight-forward. I’m going to approach the issues of virtual illegality through three test cases: Drugs, Prostitution, and Paedophilia.

Let’s start with prostitution – one of the most wide-spread and well-known occupations in Second Life. Prostitution should be legal in the real world when it is the consenting transaction between two adults. So I find it beautiful that its presence in Second Life reflects so well what we should be seeing in the real world: An acceptance that it exists and happens and that it’s not morally wrong to the point that we must wipe it off the grid. People don’t like it being shoved down their throats (um, so to speak) – in their faces and in “inappropriate” places like the centre of a pub floor, but neither do people like having anything for sale shoved down their throats all the time – sex or a car or a plot of land. That’s not anti prostitution so much as anti rude behaviour. So prostitution is a good starting point for the discussion; showing that the virtual world can help us live in the free and ideal society that we still struggle to create in the real world.

Paedophilia pushes the boundaries, but at the same time clarifies the issue of virtual illegality. Despite the fact that it is not “real” – it is actually two consenting adults with at least one playing as a child – there is still strong and wide-spread outrage at it’s practice in-world. The concerns leak-into and are reflected in the varying attitudes about people playing as child avatars at all.

So why do people not tolerate it in a virtual world? Perhaps it is because the virtual world allows the limits of legality as the real world should be – that is to say, that things like prostitution and drugs should be allowed in the real world because they are actions between or by consenting adults, but paedophilia is something we would never allow because a child cannot give meaningful consent. Or perhaps it is because we think things done in the virtual world might encourage or normalise those actions for the real world, so despite the fact that it is not “really” paedophilia, we are concerned about it becoming such in the real world as a consequence (and that we feel that much more strongly about pedophilia becoming a reality than drug and prostitution use becoming realities).

My personal view on allowing paedophilia in-world should align with my view of pornography in the debate against the feminist movement which says it “encourages” people to treat women as mindless objects, and thereby encourages real rape. The facts go in the other direction – that the increase in pornography online has coincided with a drop in violent sex crimes (I’ve done a previous post on that point). Maybe because it satisfies the desire in the person safely at home so they don’t go live it out in the real world. So can’t we follow the same reasoning with sex crimes against children – that by living it out in the virtual world with people who are actually consenting adults – they are relieving the otherwise destructive fantasy that might have got lived out in the real world..?

Even if it did not have that flow on effect for the better, isn’t it just adults playing around with other adults, and since when did we (legitimately) put a limit on adult fantasy play?

It’s a difficult topic for me, because my “gut” says it’s disgusting – even between consenting adults in the virtual world, and shouldn’t be tolerated. But I think that’s exactly that – just my gut talking. I should be able to step back and assert the position I assert for other almost-crimes (in the real world too): If it’s not an actual crime – people doing something that is not actually illegal since it’s in a virtual world – then don’t punish them as if it was.  Murder is the most serious crime imaginable but people can “kill” each other in Second Life, so why can’t we allow all other role-playing too..? I suspect my gut reaction is in large part a reflection of my view that Second Life is the closest I’ll get to my libertarian utopia – where the only things we are not allowed to do are the actions which do not accord with our legitimate rights, and to me paedophilia (unlike prostitution and drug use) could never be OK in such a society.

Drugs is an interesting area that I think beautifully reflects the idiocy against drug use in the real world too: Let’s be clear at the out-set, drug use in Second Life is silly to me because it is in the same category of eating and drinking which I’ve never taken seriously in-world either. I don’t really get into pretending that my avie is hungry or thirsty or on drugs – if real me is hungry or thirsty or on drugs then I might say so. It’s not like dancing or sitting in a well structured animation which is aesthetically pleasing and (very importantly) doesn’t create constant green spam about how you sip the drink, chew the food or wobble from the drugs. Those other activities also don’t create huge puffs of marijuana smoke, lagging the sim and ruining your view. So my initial annoyance at drug use in Second Life is purely an anesthetic and superficial one. Beyond that – like in the real world – I have absolutely no desire to interfer with your personal drug use.

There are plenty of people who think drug use in Second Life is distasteful though and don’t like its presence in their bar or on their sim. More wide-spread is the very typical allowance and provision of legal drugs – caffeine and alcohol – in places like bars, but not the same ready provision of the drugs that should be legal in the real world: Conforming to the limits of real world legalities when they don’t have to. Of course I understand that to an extent they’re trying to recreate the feel of a real world bar, but then why allow alcohol but not provide toilets, why provide food but not a kitchen area, etc. If I was setting up a bar in-world I wouldn’t bother with the whole fake food and drink thing, but if I did I would go further to my ideal and also make available all the other drugs that should be available over a counter in the real world.

When you ask people why they don’t like seeing or allowing virtual use of illegal drugs, you get the same lines of arguments as those I mentioned above for paedophilia, but without the logical foundation behind them: It encourages or normalises drug-use, and drug use is bad… but wait, why is it bad again? Paedophilia is bad because it’s not done between consenting adults, but why does drug use fall outside those bounds? The arguments for making drugs freely available to adults in the real world are very strong ones, all the way from personal choice down to the crime drug lords that would lose their hold over the black-market if it went legal. In fact people are so blinded by what governments label “legal” and “illegal” drugs, that they overlook the immense amount of harm that alcohol for instance (as a legal drug) causes. The focus on whether you’re abusing drugs or not is just that – are you abusing them, not are you simply using them. Anything in excess can be bad for you (you’re all familiar by now about my attitude towards Second Life in that consideration).

So here’s where we end up on the topic of virtual illegalities: Trying to understand what we tolerate and what we draw the line at, as legal and allowable in a virtual world, does not appear to simply be a recognition that it is “virtual” and therefore not real. It appears to reflect the ideal society where basic rights and freedoms are allowed but we want to draw the line at things that should be illegal in every single society of the world (such as paedophilia). Some of the bad reasoning and thought-patterns of what should be legal and illegal in the real world, gets dragged into the virtual one too. Trying to understand the three examples of prostitution, paedophilia and drug use, helps us examine and understand where we draw the line and why. I’d be really interested to hear your thoughts on all this as well.

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