Digital life - what is all the fuss about?

Virtual worlds could be the future of the internet.
 
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  • Updated:13 Sep 2007
 

01 .Introduction

Toy figurines

In brief

  • Virtual world platforms run on your computer over the internet.
  • There are free and paid platforms.
  • There are many unresolved legal issues, plus other dangers and threats.

The internet has brought us many things — email, videos, games, shopping, Google, Wikipedia and the list goes on. Now there’s a new phenomenon: an opportunity for you to participate in a life-like world with a character — a digital version of yourself, which can work, socialise, shop and do many of the other things you do in the real world.

  • Your character is known as an avatar and you can personalise its name and appearance.
  • Your avatar can interact with other characters through an instant messaging-style window.
  • You must register to create a character and usually download a program that runs on a computer connected to the internet.

There are different types of virtual worlds — some are more like games, some are chat forums and others simulate a life-like world. Second Life is probably the most well-known virtual world platform, but there are many others.

Virtual worlds encourage interactions between people and aim to mimic the real world. Avatars can socialise, shop, own property, trade and create new objects, such as artworks and clothing.

However, a virtual world, like the real world, needs rules and regulations. Right now there are more questions than answers when it comes to issues such as copyright, crime, money, property, rights and responsibilities, abuse, privacy, security, body image and the protection of children. But it’s not all bad; there are some interesting developments in virtual worlds as well.

Please note: this information was current as of September 2007 but is still a useful guide to today's market.


Virtual opportunities

Virtual worlds provide a space for communication, interaction, fun and education. Users can meet others in any part of the ‘world’, sample entertainment and art and communicate with others in a more interactive, immediate environment than email, instant messaging or social networking.

Virtual worlds are also being used in educational and commercial ways. Educators, for example, are looking to virtual worlds to extend multimedia and interactive teaching. Some universities are starting to hold seminars or conferences where participants from all over the world can attend through their avatar in the virtual world. Virtual worlds are also being used to create simulation environments for practical training exercises in education courses.

Nic Suzor, board member of Electronic Frontiers Australia, an independent organisation devoted to protecting internet users’ rights, sees huge potential in virtual worlds. “These environments are currently able to provide engaging experiences and, as the technology improves, they will grow in importance for all types of communication — from business meetings to public forums to education programmes,” he says.

Virtual worlds may open up avenues of study previously restricted by space, time and cost. Sheryle Moon, chief executive officer of the Australian Information Industry Association, the representative body for the industry, thinks that the educational opportunities are virtually unlimited. “Imagine being able to take a semester course at any university in the world. Imagine turning up as an avatar to a lecture room for a Harvard course or a language course at the Sorbonne, in Paris,” she says.

It’s no surprise that businesses are looking at virtual worlds as advertising opportunities, with the ability to attract customers beyond physical boundaries. They also see the chance to save money.

“Virtual worlds provide potential access to new products anywhere in the world. Rather than companies having to ship stock to multiple countries for a simultaneous launch, they will be able to launch in one virtual place where everyone can purchase or download the product instantaneously,” says Sheryle.

Microsoft’s Windows Vista launch, Sony music releases, and the ABC’s and IBM’s virtual shopfronts are just a few examples of the way business has moved into the virtual world.

 
 

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02.Legal issues and dangers

 

Virtual carFor all their benefits, virtual worlds also raise serious legal and social questions. As they get more complex they also become prone to the same problems found in the real world, such as crime, copyright breaches, financial disputes, privacy and security.

But the law is yet to test many of these issues.

“With virtual worlds, there’s a need to create an entire body of law with a serious system of enforceability to protect members,” says David Vaile, director of the Cyberspace Law and Policy Centre at the University of New South Wales.

“It’s a bit like the early days of the internet, where so many things had to be sorted out. There’s potential for great opportunities — and exploitation.”

End User Licence Agreements

Most online services have an end user licence agreement (EULA) that sets the parameters for interaction within the virtual world platform. However, EULAs may not be able to adequately cover the myriad of issues that could arise with complex behavioural, financial and social interactions between avatars.

David Vaile says that EULAs offer some help, but many questions remain unanswered.

“The EULA purports to be the basis of all relationships and procedures within the platform. It looks like a legal system in a box, but will it expand to cover more and more interests? It’s a huge task to replicate the legal system.

“As disputes emerge, could the EULA say where disputes are to be dealt with? Or is a dispute resolved according to where the player resides, where the money originates or by local law? And what about the issues not covered by the EULA contract? They may not be tied down to one country and you may find yourself subject to foreign law.”

There are specific areas of law that may or may not be enforceable in the virtual world. Customary law, for example, could create conflicts of interest between users about cultural objects. Do traditional owners have a say over how their sacred sites, such as Uluru, are treated in the virtual world or does the creator of the platform have the final say?

Threats and dangers

Virtual monsterAs with any online activity, there are risks and dangers posed by getting involved in virtual worlds. Privacy, viruses, financial security, identity fraud and suitability for children are just some of the areas of concern.

In real life, you have a right to a certain degree of privacy and have safeguards in relation to the collection, use and disclosure of personal information. The National Privacy Principles cover the rights that each person can expect and the obligations of organisations and others to respect those rights.

However, virtual world owners have access to vast amounts of private information about members. Users need to know that their personal details are protected and they can trust the company’s security procedures.

  • Using avatars in a virtual world obscures the real identity of participants and that can make it hard to know who you’re communicating with.
  • As with all online transactions, you must use discretion if you choose to disclose personal information and you should never disclose credit or banking details.
  • There is also the risk of unknowingly downloading viruses and trojans that expose your computer to hacking attacks.

Some users have been infected by trojans and keyloggers (see Dictionary) when installing third-party software. “Only a small proportion is likely to be malicious, but it is important to only install software you trust,” says EFA’s Nic Suzor.

Financial risks

Monetary transactions frequently occur in virtual worlds between users and the world owner, and also between users themselves. Virtual transaction accounts help shield users from revealing personal account details when making transactions. However, transactions between players may not always be carried out using online accounts.

Nic Suzor says this is an area of risk to users. “Some virtual environments … have secondary markets where players can purchase items from other players … and players must be careful when giving their payment information to sellers when not conducted through officially sanctioned channels,” he says.

Legal experts see the clash of legal jurisdictions creating problems when trying to ascertain what laws apply to the activity or transaction and how or where it should be settled. Nick Abrahams, partner and national leader of Technology, Media & Telecommunications Group with Deacons Lawyers, sees some potentially serious legal issues.

“There are legal problems to do with the ability to generate money … the Australian Taxation Office says that there are GST implications of earning money in virtual worlds. Is there anything within the world to make resolutions between two avatars? There’s the issue of different laws around the world and how they relate to certain things. There have also been examples of groups of users manipulating the in-world economy for their own gain.”

Children's safety

There's a possibility for children to come across adult sites within virtual worlds. Some platforms have restrictions, but it doesn’t guarantee that children won’t be exposed to adult content and conduct. There’s really no way to be sure about the age and intentions of users in virtual worlds. And it may not be practical or feasible to monitor children at all times while they’re on the internet to stop them from coming across pornography or unsuitable material.

Like internet advertising aimed at kids, advertisers and marketers are quickly taking up a place in the virtual world to spruik products to kids and teenagers. Some junk food companies, for example, have created a shopfront within virtual world platforms to promote their brands and products.

03.Your avatar and you

 

Body image

Virtual womanIn many virtual worlds, there’s an emphasis on the physical appearance of the avatars. You can change your avatar’s hair style, colouring, clothing, size and body shape. You can choose an avatar that closely mirrors your real-life self, or you can choose to embellish or improve the look of the avatar or give yourself a completely different look.

More often than not, avatars ‘improve’ the physical features of the real-life users. Why not make yourself look like the supermodel or body builder you can never become in real life? But the emphasis on body perfection may influence people, especially children and teenagers, who are more susceptible to body image issues.

Kathy Cleland, a lecturer in digital cultures at the University of Sydney, has conducted extensive research into virtual worlds. Kathy says that, despite the availability of creative tools, most avatars tend to be human and reinforce existing stereotypes.

“It’s surprising how much avatars reinforce the ‘hunks’ and ‘babes’ stereotypes from popular culture. Rather than be interesting examples of human or non-human … very often avatars take on idealised and glamorous identities.”

The reasons avatars become ‘improved’ examples of human beings could be explained in a variety of ways: people’s desire to be physically perfect, the novelty of seeing themselves differently, the ability to do it without expensive plastic surgery, the desire to attract an in-world partner or the power of media images of perfection. Unfortunately, as Kathy observes, “in virtual worlds, there’s a huge drive to be good looking”.

Future paths

Virtual beachThere seems to be no stopping the development of virtual worlds and some speculate that they may eventually absorb the internet to the point that we access much of the internet through a vivid, virtual world platform that brings websites, internet searches, shopping and communicating beyond static pages and text-based interactions.

And yet complex issues arise about settling disputes, the limit of legal jurisdictions, property and ownership rights and the degree of responsibility that the owners of the platform assume for what happens in-world.

And it’s more than likely that monetary transactions will be at the centre of many disputes. Some sites charge users to access all the features, while other sites are ‘free’ to use, but users must pay for extra items, such as clothing for their avatar. Already, there’s an economy that trades in real estate, artworks, clothing and even stock markets in some virtual worlds. The risk for rip-offs and fraud increases as users put real money into buying virtual items. There needs to be a secure payment mechanism and safeguards to protect against scams.

With increasing virtual freedoms and expressions comes complexity and responsibility. The EFA’s Nic Suzor speculates on the fine balance required. “These environments must be allowed the freedom to set their own rules and develop, but we are still under an obligation to ensure that participants are neither exploited nor unreasonably harmed.”

These are some of the 'virtual worlds' currently available on the Internet. Note: some of these charge a regular membership fee and/or setup costs.

PlaydoActive Worlds is a virtual world that offers free visiting and chatting. Access to a citizen name, property privileges and an instant messaging service attracts a fee.

Cybertown is a futuristic virtual world.

DigitalSpace Traveler uses avatars and the real voices of users to communicate with other members.

Dubit is an online chat forum that features message boards and member blogs.

Gaia Online was founded in 2003 by a few comic book fans in a garage and is aimed mainly at teenagers.

Habbo Hotel is aimed at teenagers. Users can create their own groups through membership and a home page.

IMVU is a virtual world platform for chat and messaging.
Second life
Moove is an online virtual community that features teams, business clubs, message boards and a matchmaking service.

Play Do is an online community with a gaming focus.

Second Life is a virtual world built by participants. It has more than 7 million registered users.

Sims Online requires a paid subscription to join the online community that’s a spin-off from the Sims computer game.

There is an online hangout. You can get basic membership (free) or a premium membership with a full range of features.

Virtual Ibiza models itself on the island of the same name and is geared towards music and clubbing.
Dubit
Voodoo Chat is a graphical chat community that uses web pages as a backdrop.

VZones is a virtual world where you pay a fee per month or per half-year for an avatar.

Whyville is a virtual world for young teens that promotes educational activities.

World of Warcraft is an online role-playing game set in a fantasy universe.

Dictionary

  • Gaia Keylogger: a program or device that records keystrokes to capture passwords or email addresses.
  • Trojan: a malicious program hidden in a benign application. Often used by hackers to enable access to the victim’s computer.
  • Virus: a software program, script or macro that has been designed to infect, destroy, modify or cause other problems with a computer or software program.