April 12, 2010
Watching the Watchers: Power and Politics in Second Life

In early 2007, I ran an interview on this blog with Peter Ludlow, who teaches in the Philosophy Department at Northwestern University, and who has emerged as a key observer of how people are interacting within virtual worlds, such as The Sims Online and Second Life. Ludlow, along with his coauthor, Mark Wallace, wrote a book for MIT Press, The Second Life Herald: The Virtual Tabloid Which Witnessed the Dawn of the Metaverse, which I am planning to teach as part of a course I am developing this fall for the USC Journalism school on civic media.

Ludlow emailed me recently with news of some fascinating new developments in Second Life. It was a story which raised such fascinating issues about fantasy and play, about the shifting borders between pro-social and anti-social behavior, about rights and responsibilities, and about the governance of virtual worlds that I felt like I had to share it now. Over the next two installments, I will be sharing Ludlow's account of what's been happening in Second Life, an account which places it in the context of the larger history of virtual worlds. Afterwords, I will share a joint statement which emerged from our conversations together about what this all means.

Watching the Watchers

By Peter Ludlow
Dept. of Philosophy
Northwestern University

People who have spent time inside virtual worlds are familiar with griefers - game players (stereoptypically adolescent males) who engage in transgressive online gameplay to disrupt the online experience for others. The transgressive behavior might range from profanity, scatological behavior and racism to the writing of programs (scripts) that tax the servers of the virtual world to the point where it goes offline.

If you are familiar with griefers, then you are probably also familiar with user created virtual security operations that have emerged to counter griefers. For example, Ludlow and Wallace (2008) describe a case inside of (the now defunct) virtual world The Sims Online. Fed up with the behavior of a handful of griefers, a group of players formed a virtual paramilitary organization called "The Sim Shadow Government" (SSG). Organized into an executive branch, an intel branch, and a "war department", the SSG monitored the movement of griefers inside of The Sims Online, followed them in the game, warned other users about them by using negative reputational tags, and often filed "abuse reports" with the game company (for example, reporting players for violations of the terms of service of the game company).

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SSG Intelligence Branch, organizational chart.

Some players inside of The Sims Online felt that the SSG went too far in their operations. Members of the SSG were quite capable of hounding people out of the game without benefit of fair hearing or trial, and they were also very close to the game monitors of the game company, yielding charges of favoritism. Protest organizations with names like "Freedom Gameplay" and "The Lightsavers" (dedicated to casting out the shadows) emerged and pushed back with anti-SSG propaganda and with griefing attacks against the SSG itself.

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Freedom Gameplay organizes against the SSG

This might seem like an odd and fleeting phenomenon, but in fact it is replicated many times over in virtual worlds. Trouble makers enter the world, and antibodies form to fight the trouble makers, apparently as a completely emergent phenomenon. The only difference is that as virtual worlds become more important and visually rich the intensity of the battles has risen dramatically. A recent episode from Second Life illustrates just how dramatically.

Second Life, of course, is a virtual world in which the developers provide users with robust tools to build and "script" objects, ranging from clothing and homes to vehicles and weapons. The result is that there is much user created content - some of it very edifying, some of it junk, and some of it obscene. For example, a Second Life griefer group known as the W-Hats had a property featuring giant penises, swastikas, and a "build" with a Death Star blasting the World Trade Center.

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The W-Hat "build"

Another griefer group, called the Patriotic Nigras (PN) routinely engaged in racist and transgressive behavior, targeting clubs inside of Second Life and took credit for griefing the Second Life political campaign headquarters for John Edwards (The W-Hats also took credit. The Edwards campaign blamed Second Life Republicans).

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John Edwards' virtual campaign headquarters griefed. PN take credit.

The PN in turn had been spawned by an infamous internet web site known as 4chan - an online site famous for its adolescent hijinxs that included spamming their enemies with famous scatological internet content like "Tub Girl" and "Goatsee". More specifically, the PN had been organized on /b/, a section of the 4chan site dedicated to transgressive behavior.

The PN actually came into existence in 2005, when members of 4chan ("channers") decided to raid Habbo Hotel, a virtual world aimed at younger children. The channers created black presenting avatars with afros, and surrounded Habbo's virtual swimming pool warning the children that "the pool is closed because of aids." Thus were born the PN, and their slogan (still used) "Pool's Closed". A griefer organization like that with a permanent presence inside of Second Life was bound to be the virus from which a virtual vigilante group emerged.

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Pool is closed: 4chan invades Habbo Hotel, 2005

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Channers get transgressive.

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The PN comes to SL and attacks the Gay Yiffing Club (GYC) with self-replicating Marios

In 2006, a Second Life avatar by the name of Kalel Venkman decided to create a vigilante group to fight the likes of the PN, and he decided it would be fun to do it in the guise of comic book superheroes. He donned a Superman skin, and he named his group the "Justice League Unlimited." Other familiar superheroes soon followed, including The Green Lantern, Batman, Wonder Woman, and others.

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A New Sheriff in town: the JLU

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JLU Members in happier times.

In real life, Kaleel was a late middle aged technical writer living in Simi California. He apparently had flex time, and he also appeared to have sufficient charm and gravitas to attract members to the Justice League and to keep them well organized and on mission. Their Justice League headquarters had a marvelous NASA quality control room, with monitors that displayed constant updates coming in from sensors all over the Second Life grid. The updates also informed the League members what representatives from the game company were online. As with the SSG, the Justice League had close contacts with employees of the game company (Linden Lab), and utilized those relationships in filing abuse reports against other players.

What perhaps began as a fun exercise in roleplay soon began to go awry. Overzealous Justice League members began abuse reporting heavily, and also began picking fights with unlikely groups within Second Life. For example, the Justice League was banned from Furnation (an area inside Second Life dedicated to players that like to don anthropomorphized animal costumes), because of their excessive vigilantism.

The JLU of course clashed with the PN, but the problem became determining who was really a member of the PN and who was simply in the orbit of the PN. Matters took on fractal complexity when some students of Woodbury University (a real life University with a virtual campus inside Second Life) became associated with 4chan and the PN. In what seemed like a bizarre case of guilt by association, the members of the Justice League took on the students of Woodbury University, at one point successfully getting Linden Lab to shut down Woodbury Island (the virtual campus). Naturally matters quickly escalated.

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Someone (presumably from the Justice League) contacted the administration at Woodbury University to complain about the faculty supervisor of Woodbury and to argue (in effect) that he was corrupting innocent youth and inspiring them to griefer ways. In turn, the students, led by the avatar Tizzers Foxchase (Jordan Belino in real life) turned up the heat on Kalel, to the point where a number of Woodbury students went trick or treating at Kalel's house on Halloween. Kalel wasn't home, so the students told his wife to tell him that Woodbury had been there. Kalel naturally flipped out.

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Tizzers Foxchase

Tizzers herself was not a member of the PN; she seemed to have not much more of an agenda than to fight the Justice League and defend Woodbury. For Kalel, however, the Woodbury claims of innocence were nothing more than Eddie Haskelling ("lovely hair Mrs. Cleaver"). Tizzers was a griefer in spite of her nice young lady rap, and that was that. The problem was that more and more people were starting to look like griefers to Kalel, including people who were his competition in the virtual world security business - or at least this was the claim of Intlibber Brautigan, a Second Life real estate mogul, famous for posting libertarian manifestos on the forums. If Intlibber was to be believed, the harassment from the Justice League had been financially motivated and astoundingly heavy handed.

"How about the meanness of the JLU in getting countless innocents permabanned from SL for the mere act of being a black avatar, or saying an internet meme in chat, or being falsely abuse reported with impossible charges (like "copybotting a megaprim owned by Michael Linden"), or participating in public protests.

Yes, these people deserve a lot more than "a little meanness". Lets get it straight, they are snitches, rats, stool pigeons, LIARS, defamers, collaborators, trespassers, and instigators. Siobahn McCallen, who resided in my sims with her girlfriends yet worked with JLU in defaming me and encouraging my residents to leave. These sort of people don't deserve niceness."

Intlibber also complained that the tactics of the JLU worked to get innocent gamers banned:

"Anybody who teleports into a monitored sim within 5 minutes before a sim crashes gets logged to their db as a suspect, and given a score. The number of times this happens jacks up your score. Your score is further handicapped by how young your avatar is and what your payment status is (helps to catch throwaway alts quickly)."

Any account that scores too highly on this system gets automatically abuse reported by a bot to Linden Lab, no further investigation done by human hands.

The JLU contended that IntLibber had hired the PN to grief his enemies in the virtual real estate business, but no evidence was brought forward.

It wasn't just their competitors that were marked as griefers; the Alphaville Herald, which had been reporting on griefers in virtual worlds since 2003, was a griefer media organ in Kalels eyes. The Herald's editor, an avatar Pixeleen Mistral was therefore also a griefer. Kalel came to falsely believe that Pixeleen was identical with me, and so I must be a griefer too. There were griefers everywhere, it seemed.

In 2008, a member of the Justice League quit and gave an interview to the Herald, detailing the operations of the Justice League, claiming that they were keeping massive intel on Second Life users, were abuse reporting people capriciously, sometimes successfully getting them banned without cause, and that members of Linden Lab were complicit in these operations. These charges were dismissed by the League. Tizzers Foxchase and the Woodbury kids needed the smoking gun if their charges were going to stick, and so they began to plot an infiltration operation.

Infiltrating the Justice League would not be easy. Clearly any friend links to Woodbury would raise red flags. Nor would it work to just create a new avatar and ask if it could join Woodbury. New avatars are dangerous for obvious reasons. What one needed was a clean avatar with a reasonable age on it. Kalel certainly knew that it would be a nightmare if details of his operations ever made it into the wrong hands. So whoever took ran the avatar would have to be special - someone who had a reasonable rez date on their avatar, no friendship links to Woodbury, and who could disarm the seemingly paranoid Kalel and pass as an anti-griefing do-gooder. In 2009, the Woodbury kids found just such a player.

Haruhi Thespian was an avatar without an agenda, and a certain kind of élan. As it turns out, she was a thespian in real life and an award winning improv actor. Perhaps she had just the right stuff to infiltrate the Justice League. One day she was chatting with the Woodbury kids and they asked if she would be willing to undertake the operation. Harui decided that it sounded like fun and Operation Wrong Hands was born.

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Kalel shows Haruhi the JLU "command center"

Haruhi was quickly admitted into the Justice League, but there were lingering suspicions. One day it seemed to Harui that her cover had been blown:

13:57] Kalel Venkman: I have to admit I'm having trouble figuring you out.

[13:57] Kalel Venkman: You just seem like the perfect applicant, and that's just uncommon.

[13:58] Haruhi Thespian: hehe, is that a compliment?

[13:58] Kalel Venkman: Every now and then we get a really good one that hits all the marks.

[13:59] Kalel Venkman: Anyway, it's just so rare, it takes me by surprise when it happens.

[13:59] Haruhi Thespian: I dont know what to say hehe

[13:59] Haruhi Thespian: >.<

[14:00] Haruhi Thespian: I'm so good its Criminal? (quote from the anime Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya)

[14:01] Kalel Venkman: Sort of.

[14:01] Kalel Venkman: We've got a pile of people from Woodbury trying to sneak their way into the JLU, and on the whole they're not very clever.

[14:01] Kalel Venkman: If somebody did get in, it would have to be somebody who looked like as good an applicant as you do.

[14:02] Haruhi Thespian: it seems I've applied at a bad time >.<

[14:02] Haruhi Thespian: thats unfortunate

[14:02] Kalel Venkman: And at the same time, we've just gone through an episode with JB Hancroft.

[14:03] Kalel Venkman: Now he was a problem, because nobody trusted him, and everybody was afraid to say so.

[14:03] Kalel Venkman: And I had nagging doubts too, but I suppressed them, thinking it was just me.

[14:03] Haruhi Thespian: Its understandable I guess

[14:03] Kalel Venkman: Always listen to your gut feelings, Haruhi. They'll never steer you wrong.

[14:04] Haruhi Thespian: I'll take that advice to heart

While in chat with Kalel, Haruhi was also in skype with Tizzers Foxchase and other Woodbury students. Haruhi told them she thought her cover was blown. Tizzers suggested that Haruhi talk to Kalel about boy troubles. The misdirection worked.

[14:04] Haruhi Thespian: So... this is kinda awkward? hehe, I'm sorry

[14:06] Haruhi Thespian: Hey Kalel, can I ask you for some advice?

[14:06] Haruhi Thespian: its about RL boy troubles

[14:07] Kalel Venkman: Sure.

Days later, Haruhi downloaded the JLU wiki and posted it to the Woodbury IRC channel, and from there it was reposted to numerous locations on the Internet. Within days it had been reproduced all over the internet.

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Haruhi gets access to the JLU database

In an interview given to the Herald after the fact, Haruhi described Kalel as a kind and loving man who thought he was doing good. How Haruhi was able to maintain the disconnect is far from clear. In comments to the interview a disgusted reader summed up his feelings about the act of betrayal: "this makes for really unappetizing reading. Ick.". Another reader offered that this is simply the price one has to pay for being a spy:

It's the nature of spying that those who find themselves in that role have to go to unpleasant places and do things that in normal circumstances they would balk at. ... Personally I take my hat off to Haruhi for being willing to carry out this role and to then show a sense of morality and decency in her subsequent actions.

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Haruhi informs the JLU of her actions

Whatever the moral standing of Haruhi's actions, one thing is clear: Haruhi had opened a Pandora's Box.

The Justice League did not merely have a data base on Second Life users. It had a massive data base on Second Life users. It contained 1,700 pages of information and misinformation on users, ranging from chat logs, to presumed real life identities of avatars (including real life information), to a history of the abuse reports that they had filed -- and many many abuse reports had been filed.

Predictably, the content of the Justice League data base was posted on various web sites. Kalel, understandably furious, responded in a scattershot fashion by filing Digital Millennium Copyright Act take-down notices, bizarrely arguing that the chat logs etc were his intellectual property. When some Internet service providers complied, the materials were moved to safer havens in Canada and ultimately Montenegro. Woodbury sympathizers organized the material into a searchable database.

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Meanwhile Herald editor Pixeleen Mistral began combing through the database and found example after example of disturbing revelations. Not only was she surprised to learn that she had been declared a griefer, but the claims of Linden complicity appeared to be supported. One particularly telling Wiki entry seemed to suggest that Linden employee Plexus Linden was revealing the real life identity of avatars.

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Pixeleen published a series of stories to the Herald, including passages like the above. Then the other shoe dropped. Kalel filed a DMCA take-down notice against the Herald! Six Apart, which owns the Typepad blog hosting service used by the Herald, removed the material, apparently without giving any thought at all as to whether the charges were frivolous. Pixeleen would have to counterfile.

This was going to be no simple matter. Counterfiling would require Pixeleen to reveal her real life information, and she had guarded her privacy for years. Understandably so. Crossing people in Second Life can lead to real life stalking. As previous Herald editor Peter Ludlow had learned, angering someone with an article could lead to real life confrontations that ranged from angry phone calls from the United Arab Emirates to orchestrated campaigns by users to call his university and try to get him fired (not unlike what had happened to a Woodbury University instructor).

Pixeleen Mistral was a petite 20 something female avatar with a sharp fashion sense and a bit ditzy on technical matters. Her typist, turned out to be Duke University computer scientist Mark McCahill, who in addition to being male, 6'5'' tall, and having no apparent fashion sense at all, had been team leader in the development of the Gopher search program, team leader in the development of POPmail, and had worked with Tim Berners-Lee on the protocols for the World Wide Web. He was one of the gods of the Internet. He was also going to have to out himself.

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Tizzers' alt and Pixeleen Chat (Intlibber Brautigan stands behind Tizzers)

Legally, if you file a DMCA counter notice, the service provider is required by law to restore the missing material in 14 working days. Several weeks after filing the counter claim McCahill contacted Typepad and asked them why they hadn't restored the material. They responded that they had lost it and couldn't restore it. McCahill of course had backed up the material, but disgusted, he moved the Herald from Typepad to another service.

As of today, this is where matters stand. Second Lifers continue to pour over the leaked materials, Kalel continues to file bogus DMCA actions, and feeble service providers like Typepad continue to enforce them.

It's a sad state of affairs on many levels, not least because of what it says about our future in both the real and virtual worlds. How does this keep happening to us? Even in play are we condemned to be "defended" by institutions that overreact to evil and effectively become a greater danger than what they are trying to defend us from?

One cannot help but think of George W. Bush when reading Haruhi's account of Kalel Venkman. A good hearted guy who "trusted his gut", and decided he needed to protect us from some distant and obscure and poorly defined axis of evil, constructed out of a kind of guilt by association. A guy who would turn the place he cares about and wants to protect into a massive surveillance state. A guy who would recklessly apply laws in ways for which they were not intended, and a guy who just did not no how to back off or change his mind when it was clear that the only sane thing to do was to stop digging. And must it always be the case that the institutions that we rely on for communication and other infrastructure needs will roll over at the drop of a hat, forever opting to side with the censor whatever the legal position of the censor?

And then too one has to wonder how much more dangerous our world is because of people like Kalel and George W. Bush. Tizzers once confided to Pixeleen that the only way he kept the Woodbury crew together and engaged was by giving them an enemy to fight against: Kalel. Is it not at least equally plausible that what enemies we have are held together and galvanized by enemies like George W. Bush? - people with no sense of proportion and who fight blindly, not caring about the effectiveness of their methods or the innocents that are harmed along the way.

In the end, this isn't a story about the virtual world imitating the real world, nor is it a story about how the real world imitates the virtual world. The problem is that neither the real world nor the virtual worlds are prior. They both seem to bubble up from some deep dark corner of the human mind. These events aren't really about games or virtual spaces. The events are really about us and who we are.