The seedy underbelly of Second Life

September 21, 2007

Virtual worlds can be valuable teaching tools but consider the risks, says David Grundy

"Virtual persistent online worlds" - better known in forms such as Second Life - are bringing enjoyment to millions of active subscribers (and in some cases, vast wealth). They are also being used in teaching subjects from applied leadership to history and are being seen as a future cornerstone of "immersive education" techniques.

Somewhat disturbingly, however, these worlds have recently been highlighted by the Fraud Advisory Panel and consultancy Deloitte as having the potential for a number of criminal activities, including money laundering.

With universities in the UK and US rushing to establish virtual presences in these online spaces, and so many academics proclaiming the boundless learning potential, it's surely time to examine why a number of reputable commentators have expressed concerns over the "darker side" of this technology. Are these virtual worlds a safe learning environment for our students?

Certainly, in such publications as The Economist , there has been speculation regarding the possible use of Second Life by jihadists. Indeed, the entire economy of Second Life itself, where you can change real money to virtual linden dollars and back again, has been questioned in several quarters.

These things, despite being worrying, are not the main concern for me as a lecturer. It is the actions of other players that provide the darker, and unfortunately very seedy, human side. In my first jaunt into Linden Labs' online creation, it took a mere couple of hours before I'd been propositioned for "cybering" (cybersex) and, according to other users, my experience was not unusual. In such a hugely popular online game, I suppose the development of a seedy side could be seen as inevitable. However, I have to ask: do I want my students to be exposed to this? What responsibility do I have to protect them from this seedy underbelly? And in the end the answers are: No, I don't; and I have a serious responsibility.

Certainly, as a lead contributor to the online virtual world security blog, metasecurity.net, I've come across stories of "age play" in virtual worlds (adults pretending to be children and engaging in adult activities); users having experiences that traumatically affected them; child-grooming by adults (as happens in chat rooms); and bullying and verbal assaults. Of course, these issues are nothing to do with the mechanics of the games or the intentions of their creators, but rather the environment created by the players. It is, though, an environment largely without checks and balances to prevent such behaviours and abuses.

It would be rash for educators to be deterred by such issues though, as they can be worked on. Indeed, educators are becoming more aware of the significant contribution these virtual third spaces can make. In 2006, for example, the Harvard Extension School and the Harvard Law School launched CyberOne: Law in the Court of Public Opinion, and at least 125 colleges, universities and schools worldwide have presences in Second Life, including the UK's Coventry, Leeds Metropolitan and Bournemouth universities.

At Newcastle Business School at Northumbria University, we shall be experimenting with the use of a virtual world (in this case, World of Warcraft) to teach leadership and teamworking skills. With all these projects, it is important to be open with teaching staff and students. Things may be going on there that we do not want students exposed to, and they should be forewarned and forearmed to deal with them.

At the higher education level, it is easier to explain to students the steps they can take if they are verbally abused online (reporting the abuse, and how to place a person on "ignore" so they won't receive messages from them anymore) or what measures they can take if they are seeing things they consider inappropriate. When working with younger students, despite the fact that many of them might go home after the class and log on to these worlds, a much greater degree of care should be shown, and questions should be raised as to whether the medium is suitable and safe for them.

Virtual online worlds offer a vast amount of potential, particularly in distance learning, and in attempting to engage our tech-savvy and online students in ways they comprehend and relate to. Unfortunately, the very nature of "massively multiplayer" in these worlds means that huge numbers of people, some of them undesirables, are out there, and the "controlled environment" of the classroom quickly disappears.

David Grundy is business studies programme leader at the Newcastle Business School at Northumbria University.

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