|Cybermen: A gay hook-up in Second Life Virtual realities may be the next stage of the Internet revolution - so what do they hold for us, good or bad?
For the uninitiated, I should explain that virtual worlds are elaborately structured online environments where one can assume an artificial persona, or avatar, which is able to interact with other avatars. It got its start in gaming entertainment circles, but then the range of social interactions proliferated, and more women started to get involved when that became the case. They cater to a wide range of age groups, and while some are definitely PG-rated domains, others permit online gay sex and sex work, like the highly popular Second Life. There have been some hiccups en route, like World of Warcraft and its gay players, who got annoyed at what they saw as an overly prescriptive appropriate use and community standards policy.
Corporate proprietory ownership is one of the downers- virtual worlds may keep their participants on long leashes sometimes, but there are limits. For obvious reasons, online drug addiction is impossible, although the proprietors frown on child avatar sex work for understandable reasons, even if this occurs in R18 virtual worlds. Meanwhile, there are apparently virtual worlds entirely reserved for sexual interaction of various kinds.
For some, participation can be liberating. Tim Guest's book on virtual realities opens with an inspiring vignette about a group of people with compound and motor disabilities who were experiencing mobility freedom for the first time in their collective lives, and they found the experience empowering. I daresay the same is true of pre-LGBT individuals who log on, try out virtual lesbian, gay or transgender identities, and later come out offline. Same-sex marriages can occur online, unlike in some jurisdictions.
Speaking of online gay sex, it's intriguing that HIV prevention hasn't spread to the virtual arena as yet. I haven't heard of any HIV prevention organisation that is holdinglive virtual safe sex practice demonstrations, but I wouldn't be surprise if enterprising prevention efforts were occuring in that quarter.
As well as that, virtual worlds can be a setting for virtual enterprise and property transactions, although there is also the unpleasantness associated with cybervandalism. Freedom of expression is the rule, within the boundaries of appropriate use and community standards, which are fairly widely interpreted. If it's consensual and adult, then it tends to be unregulated, although there are online churches. Speaking of which, I can't say that I've ever heard of a fundamentalist Christian themed virtual world as yet, but I wouldn't be surprised if some of the more robust US conservative Christian media corporations were to establish one or more in the intermediate future, recession recovery pending.
Here's where things might get complicated. At the moment, corporates can hold virtual conferences in Second Life, with participants accorded various avatars. I'm not sure that this is wise, given that there's always a first time for potential industrial espionage or hacking, and involuntary disclosure of one's forthcoming product and service plans to competitors. While this hasn't happened yet, I would also advise against LGBT organisations transacting political plans within similar settings, unless they are absolutely sure of firewall security in their conference facilities.
And then there's flaming. It can get heated enough on bulletin boards and chat rooms, but imagine what would happen if in the forseeable future, a fundamentalist Christian-oriented virtual world was found to be 'executing' images of LGBT folk online. I abhor cybervandalism and destructive hacking, but it's not difficult to imagine a co-ordinated attack on such sites, leading to a 'flame war.' I'd leave well enough alone. It's also probable that US military combat simulation virtual environments will be visited by peace activists, irate at their offline role in training troops for what they consider to be destructive and immoral US Afghan and Iraqi War involvement.
As yet, there isn't total sensory involvement within virtual worlds, apart from sight and sound. There are some moves afoot to simulate tactile impressions, which would definitely jazz up virtual sex somewhat. That leads to another downside- too much time in virtual environments can lead to destructive cardiovascular consequences, like deep vein thrombosis and death from embolism. Tragically, this happened to one South Korean virtual world participant.
Virtual reality can be empowering and liberating for many of its participants, although in other cases, it can lead to nightmares of various magnitudes, and offline political conflicts aren't censored there either. Happily, however, it does seem to be Phelps proof... for the time being.
Recommended: Tim Guest: Second Lives: London: Hutchinson: 2007. Craig Young - 5th May 2009