In Second Life, no jail time for fictional crime

In a virtual world, punish misbehaving avatars, not the people behind them.

There are digital worlds out there that most of us have no idea about. One of them is called Second Life (SL), and it's got 6 million residents. These residents are avatars – animated cartoon-like characters – created by ordinary people who register to take part in Second Life. These ordinary people buy their avatars houses, open bank accounts for them, take them out to bars, and let them throw parties. All the things we all do in our first lives.

Occasionally things get out of hand, as often happens when cartoon characters get together. Recently, an avatar was allegedly raped, and some people want the perpetrator brought to justice. And I don't mean the avatar.

They want the real person who created the rapist avatar to be punished in real life for what his character did in Second Life. The Washington Post recently reported that police in Belgium are investigating whether a crime had been committed.

I think I can help with their investigation. And I'd like to. The answer to whether a crime was committed is no. Because if the answer were yes, we'd have to start prosecuting authors who create characters that commit crimes against other characters. We'd have actresses on "Law & Order" who play rape victims filing charges in the real world against the writers who created the characters who assaulted them. See how obvious the boundaries are when applied to fictional worlds we're familiar with such as those in literature and TV? But boundaries are not so obvious when applied to digital worlds.

Officials in Germany are looking into an incident involving sex between an adult and a child that occurred in SL. German laws against child pornography are so strict that many reasonable people believe they apply to acts that occur in digital worlds such as SL. The FBI has also been called in to SL to ensure that casinos there comply with US law.

Apparently, the line between fantasy and reality isn't so clear anymore. And I think I know why. It has to do with a phrase you may have last heard in English class, "suspension of disbelief."

For thousands of years, storytellers have created fictional worlds, which we enter through our willingness to suspend our disbelief. This is a uniquely human sort of thing, a psychological and emotional contract that allows us to spend several hours caring about characters and events that aren't real.

The contract works beautifully as long as there is a creator who does the creating and a reader or viewer who does the suspending of disbelief. But digital worlds such as SL have made us all creators and suspenders simultaneously. And that changes everything by creating a fictional world with two key characteristics of the real world.

One is randomness. We can't control everything that happens to our character. And the other is time. Traditional fictional forms have a built-in escape hatch: the final curtain or the words, "The End." But the digital fictional world of SL, like real life, is 24/7. Maybe if you suspend your disbelief for too long, it's difficult to return to disbelief. Maybe at that point, suspension of disbelief + time = reality.

Studies show that a similar thing happens to kids when they watch too much violence on TV. It's not necessarily that the violence causes them to be more violent. It's that it causes them to lose the line between reality and fantasy. So they might pull a real trigger not expecting real results. In essence, their mechanism for suspending disbelief is stuck in the "on" position.

One of the hallmarks of fiction is the quest for justice. And so I hope justice is done to the SL avatar if he did, indeed, commit a rape. The solution will no doubt require police investigators, lawyers, and judges. As long as they're avatars, all will be well. In fact, this gives all those would-be cops and lawyers out there an opportunity to be what they always wanted to be. It gives them a second chance – and a second life.

Jim Sollisch is creative director for an advertising agency.

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