Peter Ludlow has uncovered a lot of scandals most journalists could only dream of: thieves preying on innocents, demonstrable governmental indifference and even a teenage prostitution ring.

Angela Cesere
(Courtesy of Peter Ludlow)

But because Ludlow was reporting on events in an Internet community The Sims Online, he wasn’t given a Pulitzer, he was kicked out of the world entirely and his online persona, Urizenus, was deleted by Electronic Arts, the game’s owner, a response Ludlow said was clearly censorship.

That was a few years ago, when Ludlow was a professor of philosophy at the University of Michigan. The resulting debate over the laws of cyberspace landed Ludlow on the front page of The New York Times, and though his tenure in The Sims Online ended, he began to study Second Life, a similar virtual world, where he contributes to the online newspaper, the Second Life Herald.

Today, Ludlow teaches at the University of Toronto and has written several books about what online communities can tell us about the real world. They’re as close as we’re going to get to examining the timeless philosopher’s question of how government forms out of a state of nature, he writes. And while prostitution there may only involve racy online chat in exchange for virtual currency, it’s still only dubiously legal. Ludlow’s most recent book of many, “The Second Life Herald: The Virtual Tabloid that Witnessed the Dawn of the Metaverse,” came out last month.

Here’s what he had to say in an e-mail conversation about the University of Michigan’s presence in Second Life, Internet fashionistas and the future of virtual communities.

– There’s no end to the weirdness in Second Life. At the Second Life Herald, we recently ran a story on how Second Life fashionistas were all carrying cute baby unicorns. We discovered, however, that in order to get the baby unicorn they had to do it with an adult male unicorn statue. That story was picked up all over the world.

– In that vein, we also ran a story about moms who were adopting virtual babies then leaving them at home when they went our clubbing at virtual clubs. A landlord we talked to complained that he had to return the crying babies to inventory because neighbors complained. But worse, some of the moms were banned from the game while out clubbing so the landlord had to delete the little innocents.

– Online platforms like The Sims Online and Second Life can be laboratories for studying the emergence of governance structures, what happens when governance structures collide and what kinds of governance structures are optimal for diverse and geographically scattered communities. They are like little Petri dishes; sometimes the result is interesting and promising, and sometimes the result is toxic but no less interesting.

– I don’t have much time to go into Second Life these days – maybe an hour a week total. I tend to monitor it via blogs and discussion boards. I haven’t been on The Sims Online for over a year.

– On Second Life, my character name is Urizenus Sklar. Urizenus comes William Blake’s character Urizen. I quote:

“What are his nets & gins & traps. & how does he surround him

With cold floods of abstraction, and with forests of solitude,

To build him castles and high spires, where kings & priests may dwell.”

That seemed apt for a virtual world like Second Life, where we build virtual castles and high spires for virtual kings and priests. The last name Sklar was available from a preset list of names. I grabbed that one in honor of Larry Sklar, who teaches philosophy of science at the University of Michigan.

– One of the most amazing things is the rise of the Gorean communities, which were several communities in “Second Life” that have adopted a subculture based on some really weak science fiction novels by John Norman, e.g. “Slave Girl of Gor.” The basic premise is that there are sexual masters (mostly men) and sexual slaves (mostly women). They construct all sorts of laws and rituals around that, including an attempt at developing the Gorean Language, which is basically Romance syntax with north Germanic phonology, as far as I can tell. They have libraries and archives where they keep slave ownership papers. Now you see this and your first thought is WTF! And then you think about if for a while and your reaction is still WTF!

– To me, the most interesting dynamic always involves the conflicts between groups. For example, the groups that object to the commercializing of cyberspace and want to keep it weird, and those that want to tame it and make it safe for IBM, Ben and Jerry’s and the University of Michigan, which has a small presence there.

– The sex ring I wrote about in The Sims Online definitely wasn’t an isolated incident. Cyberbrothels were commonplace. There was a virtual BDSM community, which included many Goreans, with 100 homes at one point. I haven’t been to The Sims Online in a long time so I don’t know what the situation is like there now, but of course “erotic clubs” are the most popular destinations in Second Life and by some accounts they constitute 30 percent of the economic activity in that world. Perhaps the cybersex fans in The Sims Online moved to adult platforms like Second Life, which would be a good development for The Sims if true.

– When asked about the future of online gaming communities, I’d say first that you need to strike the word “gaming” from that phrase, because virtual communities like Second Life aren’t really games. The only thing they have to do with video games is that the physics engine is a Halo game engine and the visuals render like those in a video game. They are really chat spaces with graphics – just a more robust version of AOL Instant Messenger. I’ve been tracking virtual communities for over 20 years now, and they definitely have their limitations, but on the other hand it’s possible to productively meet in these spaces for business and socializing. I guess I’d say that as our work lives and social lives continue to move online, these online communities will become more and more important, and the way they are governed will become more and more important. I do think it will be a slow and steady migration into these communities, however.

– As told to Anne VanderMey

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