This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
Sex, Work and Money in a Virtual World
Chris Perry Qualitative Field Methods Introduction At first glance, Nicole is a fairly typical woman in her early thirties. She teaches
science at a middle school a small town in Mississippi, where she lives happily with her husband and two children. She’s never gotten into trouble, and has never broken the law. From all appearances, she’s living a normal, admirable life. Nicole has a secret, however. Unbeknownst to her family, she works at a sex club called Club Erotica on a nearly nightly basis. Unlike the modest, professional attire she wears in the classroom, here she dons a skimpy, revealing outfit that often has a hard time staying on. She dances on a poll on the crowded dance floor, flirting with patrons for tips, and stripping off articles one by one. You’d never guess for a moment what her day job might be; she couldn’t be a more different person from the one her students see in the afternoon. Most teachers in a conservative Southern community would tremble at the thought of being caught in the act of such a socially proscribed profession, risking their job, their marriage, and their reputation. Nicole doesn’t worry about a thing, however. Moreover, while most practitioners like Nicole would have to construct elaborate excuses to their spouses to explain their nightly absences, she doesn’t have to say a word. Nicole and her many patrons don’t have to do much at all, in fact, to live their secret lives, because unlike a real sex club, Club Erotica is no farther away than their computers. Every night, approximately 23,000 people from across the globe meet and interact in a virtual world called Second Life. Second Life is home to countless places of ill repute, Club Erotica included. While nothing forces players to participate in the sex scene, and indeed, many have nothing to do with it, it’s the raison d’être for thousands of in-world residents, and an extremely compelling perk for thousands more. Romantics and lovers play a part in this world, certainly, but so do escorts, strippers, and avid fetishists of myriad dispositions. Content here is often explicit enough that it would shock one’s friends and family, and ironically, it’s right under these people’s noses that most players are doing it.
Part One: A Walk in the District Second Life is a world made possible because of the Internet, but it’s different from the Internet most people know. It’s not part of World Wide Web, where twodimensional web pages sit before us inertly. It’s also unlike chat rooms or instant messages, where users enter lines of text that appear in a window. Second Life instead is a dynamic, immersive three-dimensional environment commonly referred to as a Massively Multiplayer Online Game (MMOG), run by a small San Francisco-based company called Linden Lab. It’s populated by players from across the globe who enter the world as “avatars,” customizable human-like figures that can be changed and modified at will. And in Second Life, you not only can you look however you like, but you can do whatever you want, with little to stand in your way. This is one of the major reasons why the game has given rise to what may possibly be the most realistic and advancely developed virtual sex industry that the world has ever seen. I decided to title my paper “The Red Pixel District” to evoke a particular industry and a sense of place, but the place is only a “district” in the loosest of terms. Sex, both solicited and voluntary, goes on all throughout the world, or, to be more specific, “the grid,” a sprawling array of approximately 500 identically sized 16-acre areas known as “sims”. A lot of the sex occurs between two players in the comfort and privacy of their virtual home or apartment. These players tend to be in relationships, or at the least, on equal terms with each other. Some of the sex, meanwhile, occurs in small gentlemen’s clubs or brothels, between paid escorts and paying customers. These establishments are small, obscure, and few and far between, though, and don’t attract more than a side following. Instead, the hotbed of sexuality lies in one of Second Life’s most popular institutions, the club. I knew about clubs from my previous knowledge and experience with the game. Out of curiosity for what seemed like a fascinating world, I entered Second Life once or twice a week for about five weeks in spring of 2004, each time playing for a couple of hours. The world was smaller then than it is now, with fewer clubs, and less of a sex scene. That, and virtual sex was never the reason for my interest in the game to begin with, so I tended not to explore the options too deeply. My experiences in-world didn’t
consist of much more than meeting a few interesting people and hosting a few small events (at the time these were subsidized by the Lindens), but even with this limited exposure, I was nonetheless fascinated by the possibilities of such an open and dynamic world. After this brief introduction to the game, I accepted a job working in Portland, Oregon, in a canvassing position for the Democratic National Committee. For five months I found myself with a 60-hour workweek and a lack of Internet connection, so at that point I said goodbye to any virtual spelunking. Back at school for winter quarter, I had the means to go back in, but decided to put off any serious involvement due to a demanding course schedule and intense involvement with a theatre production. That is, I made the decision to stay away from Second Life until I took a particular class called Qualitative Field Methods, and quickly realized that I could go back in and get credit in the process. Out of fourteen people in the class, I was the only one who chose a nonphysical site to investigate; from the start, however, I felt justified in my choice. After all, a lot of people are interested in the virtual world, and, let’s face it, everyone is interested in sex. Additionally, while I could have chosen a number of other areas to look at in the game – the world runs amok with gambling parlors, shopping malls, lotteries, games, and a number of creative and artistic endeavours – I was particularly intrigued that such a sensuous industry could exist in a completely virtual environment. Going with the saying that the brain is our most powerful sex organ, I felt Second Life might be one of the most powerful testaments to that yet. Before you can get into the world, you have to register your character on the game’s website, www.secondlife.com. Your character is from this point onward identified as your “avatar.” The word derives from Sanskrit Avatāra, a word originally referring to a divine being’s descent into mortal realms. It’s perhaps interesting that in Second Life, the same term now makes gods of the mortals: it’s now we who descend from the physical world, entering the ethereal realm as something close to a deity. After all, in Second Life, there’s no hunger, no pain, and no aging; you can transport yourself to the far end of the world in an instant; you can even fly. Then again, the overwhelming presence of capitalism and consumerism, seen by the endless array of clubs, malls, and gambling parlors, makes this seemingly divine world a particularly American one. The game, in
fact, has a highly developed market-based economy that shapes much of the content within it, the sex industry included. I decided on the name Durkheim Edelbrock. The first name was of my own choosing; I made my selection with homage to Emile Durkheim, one of the great sociological thinkers. Edelbrock was among a list of roughly 100 last names one could choose from. This aspect, like many others in the game, is meant to evoke a parallel quality with real life, referred to diminutively by residents as “RL.” Once I had my name decided on, I downloaded a small application, opened it up, logged in with my name and password, and there I was, standing atop a virtual grassy plain, with a virtual cobblestone path set out before me, leading the way to my virtual adventure. Appearance is one of the most important aspects of your avatar, especially in a world where you’re offered so many opportunities to customize it. It’s also, like in the real world, the first thing people see, and the means by which many a first impression are formed. You can adjust just about every aspect of your body you can think of, from foot size to eyebrow shape to skin tone. Women can flatter themselves with a popularly dubbed “boob slider,” and gender benders can move from “male” to “female” or viceversa with the click of a button. Since all clothing and avatars are designed by players, the possibilities just get better. There are a number of androids in the game, living out aspirations toward science fiction grandeur. Side by side with them are the “furries,” a group who integrate the versatility of anthropomorphism with, well, whatever the term is for giant talking zebras. Subculture-influenced fashion makes an appearance, too, with goths, punks, and vampires joining the fray. The game can even feel at times like a pop culture exhibit: in my experience, I’ve enjoyed the company of an astronaut, a hobbit, a David Bowie lookalike, a Totoro, and a giant blue smurf, among many others. Of course, this isn’t to say the world is one giant parade of eccentrics; jeans and t-shirts are just as popular as any of the options above. Choosing an outfit for myself was a tricky matter. I didn’t want something too irreverent such that I wouldn’t be taken seriously, and I also didn’t want something too mainstream or oversexed. I wanted a way to distinguish myself from the rest of clubgoers while at the same time not making my appearance too much of a distraction. So, after a bit of contemplation, I decided to make my avatar look like a professor. It was a neutral
enough image, and furthermore reflected on my in-world goals as a researcher. At this point I was ready to jump into my research site, so I clicked on the “Popular Places” window and headed for the clubs. Fun, Flirting, and Fornicating: Second Life Clubs in a Nutshell Clubs in real-world America have a structure that many people are at least vaguely familiar with. They tend to be large gathering places with a young, attractive clientele, a live band or DJ, a big dance floor, and plenty of overpriced alcohol. The intent of most patrons is either to socialize with friends, discover potential sex partners, or come to hear a particular musical performance. While these functions make their way into Second Life, clubs are a far more prevalent phenomenon compared to their relatively marginal presence in the real world, and unsurprisingly, they serve a much broader social role. A look a Second Life’s map shows a broad, sprawling world interspersed with “telehubs,” where players materialize when they’re on their way to a particular destination. The best way to think of the telehubs is like a subway system, only the stops aren’t on a line, but instead spread out semi-evenly across the world; also, it takes an equal amount of time to go to any which one (that is, a split second), regardless of how far away one may be. The effect of this layout is a world without a center, especially as new sims appear on the map each week. You might think of it as a virtual Los Angeles. Since there’s no natural “core” where people might gather to socialize (the reason why many join the game in the first place), players have stepped in to fill the void to create vibrant social spaces. For the most part, this need has been satisfied in the form of clubs. While no one sat down to write guidelines for what a club should and should not be, almost all of them have markedly similar traits. Specifically, they’re distinguished by a particular spatial arrangement, certain general forms of content, and even a highly stratified division of labor. Club Spaces Spatially, clubs tend to be big — some of the biggest single buildings in the game.
Most clubs take up at least half a sim, and many a whole one. Some club owners have even purchased private island sims from the Lindens to support their activities. Each club looks and fiels different, but their general spatial structure generally falls into the following areas: dance floor, VIP rooms, and optional retail and gambling space. The dance floor stands at the center of almost every club, both literally and figuratively, and hence occupies much of its space. A club without a dance floor is like a library without books: mostly useless, and probably unattended. The dance floor is where patrons come to congregate, socialize, flirt, and, of course, dance. During the course of an evening, when clubs are at their busiest, a dance floor lures between ten and fifty players at once, while sims without clubs may only have a handful present, if anyone at all. Dance floors are thus among the most popular social spaces in the game, if not the most popular outright. Almost anything important happening at a club, in fact, is probably held on the dance floor. At least, that is, if a club-hopper gets bored with dancing and decides to get a little action. This is typically where clubs sport their second feature: VIP Rooms. With the exception of the smallest and prudest of establishments, VIP Rooms are just as universal as the dance floors. These are places where two or more people go for a fairly simple purpose: sex. The sex can be completely consensual, or, just as commonly, between a customer and paid professional, commonly referred to as an “escort.” (Words like “prostitute” or “whore” are almost never used, in fact, except in a joking or selfdeprecating manner by the workers themselves.) VIP Rooms often set a particular sexual tone by featuring a certain theme or motif. Romance and sadomasochism top off the list; I’ve also seen a “girls only” room, a number of dungeons, and plenty of more generic spaces. One club even features a sex-themed room, with a looped porn video playing on a screen on the wall. The last addition to clubs is an area for shopping, gambling, and entertainment. This isn’t a strict requirement for clubs; some have it, some don’t, and either way, it doesn’t seem to make a difference. The incentive for gambling and shopping areas, it seems, lies mostly in the financial benefits for club owners, rather for any altruistic benefit towards the attendees. When people come to clubs, owners have found that they’re also prone to do other things, like, well, shop and gamble. Thus, owners partially
offset the costs of labor and landownership by renting vending spaces to merchants and profiting off people’s poor grasp of statistics. Entertainment, meanwhile, brings in less money, but attracts more people. These include games, contests, and other group activities. On January 19, when I compiled a list of the world’s top ten most popular locations, “The Ice Dragon Resorts,” number six on the list, was the one club (out of six on the list) that offered “bingo” as one of its main attractions. Where else but in a virtual world do people play bingo in one room and solicit sadomasochistic sex in the next is completely beyond me. Forms of Content Clubs feature a unique combination of content that serves at least one of two purposes: bringing people in, and keeping them there. Competition runs fiercely between clubs, who often vie for the same limited base of customers. As a result, they host and feature a number of promotions and events with which to lure in visitors. Many of these promotions involve money and prize giveaways, such as raffles, lotteries, and so-called “money trees,” player-programmed trees that randomly generate clickable dollar bills every few minutes. Contests are another popular attraction. In the past, when contests were subsidized with prize money (more on this later), it was hard to scroll through the daily event listings without seeing half a dozen “sexy avie [avatar[” contests, if not more. Now that that money is gone, the most popular kind of in-world event revolves around Tringo, a competitive and purportedly addictive in-world game that combines elements of Tetris and Bingo, and rewards players with winner-take-all jackpots. Whatever reason players have to attend a club when they first arrive, they’re given plenty of reasons to stay. The events in particular keep people occupied for some time after they show up. In addition, most clubs hire DJs to stream dance grooves onto the dance floor. A DJ with a good reputation often has a following of his or her own, and tends to bring in fans. Music tends to vary with the theme of the club, from mainstream dance grooves to underground industrial metal. The sex, shopping and gambling described above all serve the same purpose of keeping people occupied and entertained for as long as possible. One club I visited also had a “theatre,” evidently for
exhibitionists, but this doesn’t appear to be a common attraction. As implied by the variety of music, some clubs differentiate themselves by serving to a niche audience. Inevitably, these catered-to subgroups tend to fall into two major categories: punks, goths, and vampires on the one hand, and furries on the other. One goth club, Lestat’s Dark Erotica, is the most popular establishment that serves the dark, evil, and undead sectors of society, while Paradise Island caters to the animalistically inclined. There’s been a recent attempt to found a gay club, Throb, but despite the gay community’s notable in-world presence, no one establishment for this crowd has a regular, well-attended following. Division of Labor As you might imagine, running a club is a serious business. In a crowded, competitive market, it takes an entire team of paid workers to serve the needs of a picky and demanding clientele. Owners continuously advertise for paid positions, which break down to five major occupations: dancers, hosts, DJs, security guards, and escorts. Dancers. No one wants an empty dance floor, least of all an owner trying to bring in the crowds. One of the solutions to this is hiring floor dancers, social players who tend to be young, attractive, and predominantly female. Essentially, dancers are paid to have a good time, welcome and chat with the patrons, and show themselves off. They often go topless and flirt mercilessly, but their job is still, to the dismay of certain patrons, just to dance. In this sense they function as something like interactive eye candy, adding variety and life to the dance floor. Sometimes they'll go farther and perform individual lap dances and stripteases, but again, it always stops short of sex. Dancers typically make between L$50 and L$150 an hour (US $0.20 to $0.60), plus tips. Hosts. These people make sure that clubbers are entertained, which they do in a variety of ways. The most popular option for hosts is, as the name implies, to host an event. These events tend to involve trivia or competitions, particularly Tringo, with a generous prize pot to entice players into joining. Hosts are among the most generously paid non-sex workers in a club, making an average of $100–$250 ($0.40–$1.00) per hour, sometimes more for popular events. DJs. As the name implies, a DJ keeps a club hopping with fresh, carefully
selected music. Sometimes the DJ streams music live, and even hooks up a microphone to speak to the players through the club-wide broadcast. Other times, the DJ will simply broadcast an Internet radio stream, and spend most of their time doubling as an event host. DJs typically make around $250 ($1.00) an hour, but the rate can be double that, if not more, for the most popular ones. Security Guards. Guards, not too different from the real world, make among the least of any club worker. At the same time, their role is crucial in moments of conflict or disruption. Because of clubs’ popularity and licentious content, they’re one of the most popular targets of griefers (players who make a habit of harassing players and disrupting order), religious fundamentalists, and organized in-world gangs with ties to rival establishments. When people like this show up on the scene, security guards are the one barrier between business as usual and total mayhem. Despite their important role in maintaining order, a security guard makes a mere $35 to $75 an hour ($0.14–$0.30), a figure that surprised me for its lowness when I first discovered it. Escorts. On the opposite end of the financial spectrum, escorts are expected to perform virtual sex with clients, and are handsomely rewarded for it. A good escort, according to my interviews, makes a point of giving their client exactly what they want, and thus takes on a number of different roles and personalities in the course of an evening. There are, to my knowledge, no other professions in the game with as high an hourly pay rate. An escort can make between $500 and $2500 an hour ($2 – $10), and tips of course are extra. At the high end, then, escorts make nearly twice the amount of an American worker earning minimum wage, and get it for little more than typing sexually charged prompts on a keyboard. At one club, Club Erotica, I was given a notecard describing the services and prices offered by escorts. Prices vary depending not only on time, but on how real the simulation becomes.
The prices below are the minimum prices we require for our services. If you would like to tip our escorts, please feel free to do so. Above all, enjoy! -------------------------------------------------------+ Cyber + Anims [animations] + sexual situation - this includes dirty talk, roleplay, 'anything' kinky - SL only
1/2 Hour = $500L 1 Hour = $1000L -------------------------------------------------------+ Cyber + Anims + sexual situation + RL - this includes either of us getting off (cumming) irl [in real life] - SL & RL 1/2 Hour = $800L 1 Hour = $1300L -------------------------------------------------------+ RL Recordings - recordings can be done and uploaded or can be sent by file transfer over aim/yahoo/msn/icq - this can be 'anything' - IM [omitted] for info - prices vary according to what you want --------------------------------------------------------
Interestingly, despite the relative large amounts of money transacted, there’s little financial interest in all this for the club itself. Most of the time, escorts receive the entire sum themselves, not owing a penny in compensation to the club. From the extensive time that customers spend in VIP rooms, clubs may receive a small amount in Dwell, a Linden subsidy that rewards popular locations. For the most part, though, escorts are a draw to bring in customers and patrons (who may then shop or gamble), rather than explicit sources of income in and of themselves. The club job market is notable for several reasons. First of all, it’s the only institution in the game with such a highly defined internal division of labor. Second of all, in the limited Second Life economy, these jobs consist of almost the entire service industry. Only a few other opportunities exist for hourly service work; most of the money in the game is made from selling and renting land, creating content, or providing financial services. (A more detailed discussion of the economy, and its pertinence to the sex industry, comes in Part Three.) In other words, for people who have neither the capital nor skills necessary to pursue other endeavors, working at a club is one of the few ways to make a significant income in the game.
Part Two: In Their Own Words Work, Sex, and the Player Experience Clubs in Second Life are fascinating places, modeled on their real world equivalents, but turning into something new in the transition. They’re grounds for a number of activities, from flirty socialization to casual shopping to solicited kinky sex. The previous section discussed a club’s structure and function, but left out what may be the most important factor of all: the people inside. Clubs are, after all, about bringing people together, and so, along with asking what a club looks like, I asked why people go to them in the first place. In my time in-world, I formally interviewed eleven players, and held many more casual conversations. From the start, I was overt in my academic intentions, presenting myself as a researcher with an interest in Second Life’s sex industry. I felt that maintaining an open, honest relationship with the community would make people more comfortable speaking openly, since they’d know I had no ulterior motive for asking rather personal questions. Additionally, while I arrived at this position naturally, I in fact was given no choice in the matter, being legally bound by Linden Lab to work in an explicit fashion in accordance with their outside research policy. Most of my interviews were with owners, dancers, or escorts of clubs. I also spoke with a club security guard, a gay couple, and the publisher of an online tabloid that covers Second Life’s seedier elements. Through the words of the players themselves, here I’ll try to capture the experience, appeal, and politics of sex work in Second Life’s club scene. The Experience: Life as Club Worker Julie (name changed for privacy) owns and works at a popular club serving a fairly mainstream crowd. In real life, she’s 30 years old, and has spent the last six years playing in a number of virtual worlds. She was one of the people who contacted me after I posted a message on the official forums, run on Second Life’s website, where I explained my research project and asked for interested interview subjects. As an incentive, I offered to compensate participants L$100 for an approximately one hour conversation, although this didn’t seem to work as much as a snag. I soon realized that
striking up conversations right in the clubs was the most successful method to meeting new people and forming good connections, and not to mention was cheaper, too. At the time, however, I was still early in my research, and I figured posting a message was at least worth a try. I didn’t end up doing it again, but at the least, it was a way to reach out to people who I otherwise might not have had the chance to meet. Julie was an interesting subject to me, because she had the double experience of both owning a club and working in it. She began escorting after she started her own club; as a practical measure, since she was unable to find any escorts at first, she took on the task herself. This was the first time, Julie told me, that she’s ever worked in the sex industry in a virtual world. Playing previous games, she said, “was more fantasy roleplay, medieval, almost all text-based while you moved a weird looking character around.” In Second Life, however, she started making the transition from role play to sex play before long. I asked her how, in this sense, Second Life was different to her than the other worlds she had played.
Julie: [It was different] with how you could create yourself… if you compare avie customization to Everquest’s or any other game, it just doesn’t compare Julie: i can be anything here. Julie: including a sexy lil girl that works in a club and offers sex :P Julie: or i can be a purple monster Me: lol, indeed you can Julie: sl is so in your face with people… and interactivity and socialization Julie: you can’t help but be attracted to the way someone looks, its like in rl, when you meet someone, you remember how they look
Then I asked why, from this, she chose to escort.
Me: I’d be interested to know why, since you can be anything, you would want to be someone in the sex industry Julie: because its exciting to me :) Me: How so? Julie: irl [in real life] i am very normal, I’m 30 years old, married for 6 years (getting divorced but that’s besides the point), i have a normal job just
like everything else, have an awesome upstanding family, i was raised to be a good girl Julie: here i can let go of all those naughty thoughts i have Julie: and be who my fantasies are Julie: plus i love sex… and i can’t deny that :) Julie: virtual or real, it’s a lot of fun
She told me how the experience of virtual sex in SL evolved with technological changes introduced to the game over time.
Me: so, when did you decide to pursue this side to you in SL, and what were your first experiences like? Julie: well back in beta, sex was very weird, and it was mostly cyber... text, like in the old roleplaing days Julie: when animations came, it opened up a whole new world in sl and new industry Julie: my first experiences were very very different Julie: i remember trying to cyber while sitting on a box with a guy i was with ;p Julie: it was very silly Julie: when animations came, it changed everything Julie: people could show what they wanted to do Julie: instead of describing it Julie: tons and tons of clubs were made Julie: and the sex industry was born
Seeing as I last played before animations were introduced into the world, this may be why I never remembered clubs as a prominent phenomenon. The animations Julie referred to are custom, player-designed sequences of body motions that are created with a professional modeling application called “Poser.” Like everything else, they can either be designed oneself, or purchased from other players. An animation changes your normal standing pose into any imaginable physical motion: performing a karate sequence, dancing a waltz, or, yes, screwing someone doggy-style. After designing the animations and importing them into the world, they can be triggered at any point, often by clicking on small balls that hover inconspicuously on the screen. (These are popularly called “sex balls.”) Animations can even accommodate more than one participant simultaneously, so that two partners can have sex in different positions (such as top and bottom) while
moving in sync. When the Lindens introduced animations into the world (they first arrived in version 1.4, released in June, 2004), they might have ushered in a new culture along with a new industry. Prior to animations and the resulting growth in sex clubs, Second Life was mostly inhabited by a creative community, popular among designers, programmers, and virtual world veterans. Sex might have occurred, but not nearly as explicitly as it does now, and certainly not for money. Julie’s story, in fact, reflects on just how different things used to be. Julie, it turns out, is an “alt,” a supplementary avatar created by an already playing resident. Alts are not only common in the game, but are tacitly endorsed by the Linden’s billing policy, which allows up to seven registered avatars per credit card. In Julie’s case, as with many others, alts allow a degree of freedom that a single avatar may not enjoy.
Julie: when i made this avie [avatar] Julie: i actually made her to escape my other one Julie: i can’t say her name....but she was into building, knew lots of the old players, and was respected Julie: i felt guilty going to clubs even Julie: in case someone saw me ;p Me: why would you feel guilty? Julie: cause sex is something to joke about with a lot of the older players Julie: specially avie sex Julie: and using all the lil balls Julie: really it felt like i was going against the norm and not doing what i should be doing Me: do many older players not engage in it, then? Julie: a few do Julie: but not any that i know Julie: sl was all about building and creation when it first started Julie: not about sex Julie: people cybered of course...but it was something to be hidden and giggle about
At the time of this writing, the most popular location in-world is “The Edge,” whose more wholesome attractions of gambling and shopping go hand and hand with the
lap dances and escort services that give the place its broad appeal. Sex clubs, in fact, dominate six of the top ten locations on the grid, including all of the top four. In less than half a year, then, “avie sex” has gone from “something to be hidden and giggle about” to one of the biggest draws of the game. Shortly after my interview with Julie, I spoke with Terra, whose name I have also changed for privacy purposes. When I asked how her personality contrasted with her real life, she answered quite strikingly.
Terra: well here in SL I portray a personality I am not in RL. In SL I am sexy, seductive, gay, and a prostitute. Me: How about RL? Terra: In RL i am happily married with 3 children and my own business with my hubby.
Terra, like Julie, had a great deal of experience in MMOGs before coming to Second Life. She was “sick of the hack n slash of all other MMORPGs,” she told me, “so this place really offered something different.” Most other virtual worlds encourage players to follow a role-playing path, spending most of their time locked in battle with either computer-generated monsters or other players. The oft-used term, “MMORPG,” adds the words “role playing” to “game,” referring to a genre largely dominated by combat-heavy swordplay and sorcery, hence, “hack n’ slash.” Unlike Julie, who entered the adult industry after spending a long time as an upstanding resident, Terra started working as a topless dancer on her second day. New to the world, she had struck up a friendly conversation with a passer-by, and started asking about ways to make money. This passer-by, who later became a friend, knew just the solution. She just happened to work at a club as a dancer, and soon helped Terra find a job there doing the same. While Second Life can be fun on a budget – it’s free to attend almost any club or event, for example – the world’s myriad shopping opportunities come only to those with the means to afford them. Players receive a weekly stipend from Linden Lab, either L$50 for standard members, who merely pay the one-time $9.95 registration fee, or L$500 for premium members, who pay $9.95 per month. Even with a premium account, the stipend isn’t enough to buy more than one nice outfit, at most. Terra didn’t want to keep walking
around in a blank t-shirt and nondescript jeans, or wait weeks to afford a decent wardrobe, so it quickly occurred to her that a well-paying job was the best way to change things fast. For this reason, she started dancing on a regular basis. I asked Terra what her first experiences were like.
Me: how did you feel about the idea at first? Terra: actually I was nervous.... lol... even tho these are only Avis you still feel like they are representing you. Me: smile i understand completely Me: would you mind telling me what your first experience was like? Terra: dancing topless? Durkheim Edelbrock: nods Terra: well was just at the club n someone came in... the owner asked me to go down and entertain the person. Terra: so I did just that... went and danced a bit with my basic dances took off the clothes... got some money for doin it. Terra: easy way to make a few bucks I figured. Me: Now... you said you felt a little nervous beforehand. What was it like for you during the dance and after? Terra: during the dance I was nervous still...but more concentrated on makin small talk with the patron. Terra: afterwards, I was kinda excited/nervous feelin...bit of a rush i guess...:P
Once she became more experienced dancing, she applied for a position at The Edge, one of the game’s most popular nightspots. She responded an advertisement they posted, asking for dancers and escorts. When she arrived, she was told that there was a waiting list for dancers, but that she could start immediately as an escort. Eager to work at one of the hottest clubs in the game, she agreed. Terra’s character is shaped by many layers of sexuality. In the real world, she’s happily married in a heterosexual relationship. In Second Life, she plays a lesbian when not working. On the job, her clients are mostly male, owing to market conditions. Her first customer as an escort, reflecting this, was in fact the customer of her in-world
girlfriend, who wanted to hire three girls simultaneously. The pay, at the time, was L$600 per person for roughly an hour of work. “I honestly found it comical,” she said. “I really couldn’t get over someone spending so much to do that here.” While less than $3 in US dollars, L$600 is nothing to sneeze at. Terra said it best herself: “What I can make in an hour some people have a hard time making in a week.” I asked Terra what her work as an escort was like, and how she interacted with her customers.
Terra: with a customer I just kinda follow the lead of the customer. I honestly have a good idea of what that person is doin on the other keyboard while he/she is with me. Terra: so I try and make it worth their time... Terra: but really there is not excitement on my end for this person Me: hmm... okay, so it really is more like a job then Terra: yes...for the money...here I am providing a service
Her answers came in sharp contrast to her experiences with in-game relationships.
Me: okay, i think i understand. How about with relationships? You mentioned you were gay in world, right? Terra: Yes...I guess I went that way as an exploring side of me. Me: Did you make this choice from the time you started here? Terra: no Terra: I really don’t know how or when the change came about Me: nodding Terra: I just began to find it easier being with women than men here. Me: wow... that’s really interesting.. Terra: hehe...no kiddin ... Terra: i even mentioned this to a friend that in RL I would never be with another woman Me: and you still feel that way? Terra: oh yes...I’m a bit more understanding about it, but I don’t think I could be with a woman
Terra: and be confortable with it
Rather than for money or pure gratification, then, her online lesbian relationships serve instead as a means of exploration and experimentation. In Second Life, Terra can express a part of her self that she cannot, or would not, express in the real world. I found similar answers from Nicole, whose story I told in the introduction. Nicole is a veteran from The Sims Online, a similar virtual world, where she spent two years before coming to Second Life. Nicole works solely as a dancer, rather than an escort. I chatted with Nicole while she was working on the floor; she answered my questions while spinning and gyrating on a nearby metal poll. I first asked her why, as an MMOG veteran, she chose Second Life over other worlds.
Nicole: when i left sims...i had found this game, what attracted me to it is the fact that u have much more freedom to be a side of u that no one has to see Nicole: the naughty side u never get to be Me: What kind of avie did you have in TSO? Was it similar to Nicole? Nicole: as u can see from my profile i am not ugly so i could go out in the real world and have fun Nicole: no my avie in tso was totally different Nicole: blonde, but just as sexy Nicole: i was there to have fun, i just didn’t dance on a pole Nicole: lol or strip Me: so then, what you do in SL is different then, correct? Nicole: yes this game is an adult version of sims
Second Life’s freedom allows Nicole to be the fun, sexy girl she could only dream of otherwise. “If I did this in RL think about it,” she said to me. “I would lose my job and be considered a slut.” Instead, she’s given free reign to express herself however she chooses, and nearly becomes a new person in the process.
Nicole: like for instance in rl i am kinda shy and find it hard to date Nicole: just hard to find anyone i am interested in to date Me: do you feel different as Nicole? Nicole: yes
Me: how so? Nicole: Nicole is my inner self that lets me get out and meet people and be bolder doing it Nicole: she is the sexy confident girl who loves to party and have fun Me: Hmm... I guess what I wonder then is, do you feel more natural as Nicole, or as the person you are in real life? Nicole: i think i feel more natural as Nicole Nicole: i can be me without being judged
For her and many others, Second Life is an escape into one’s fantasies and inner desires, especially ones without a real world outlet. Here, no matter what you do, there’s no worry about losing your job, being exposed in your community, or otherwise facing isolation and reproach. “That’s why this is a fantasy life,” Nicole told me. “We get to be beautiful, sexually wanted and not in trouble for the nasty side of us.” For Love and Money: Why They Do It Every sex worker has a different set of reasons that factor into their decision to work in the industry. For the most part, though, they come down to two major incentives: self-expression and financial gain. Money is the easier one to figure out. Escorting is one of the highest paid service professions in the game, and the highest for people who don’t have specialized technical skills. The amount some workers earn escorting is comparable to a low-end real-world job, paying up to $10 an hour. Julie once received a L$10,000 tip for an hour of work, worth approximately US $40. This kind of money affords players just about all the material benefits the game has to offer, including boutique clothing by top in-world designers, customized skins and tattoos, luxurious houses and condominiums, and, if they wish it, custom cars and vehicles. These luxuries (particularly the clothes and skins) enable one to further enhance their appearance, increasing their appeal to clients. For someone who wants to shop till their avatar drops, escorting provides one of the most reliable and accessible means of living the high end of the virtual lifestyle. This can either be the primary reason for working, as in Terra’s case, or at the least, is an influential side benefit, as for Julie.
Money influences dancers as well. Though at most reciving a quarter of what escorts make, they still earn a respectable income. A dancer who a few hours a day, several days a week, earns enough to afford many of the goods that would otherwise be out of their reach. The same can be said, in fact, of any club employee, which is perhaps why most clubs have few problems recruiting staff. For a significant segment of the population, then, not only do clubs provide an exciting place to socialize and meet new people, but they also provide one of the few means of earning an in-world income that doesn’t involve specialized knowledge or capital investment. The other major appeal to working in the sex industry comes in the feelings of self-expression and empowerment that many purportedly experience. Second Life is in many senses a fantasy world, yet unlike the fantasies in one’s head, these can be shared with people across the world. For many it’s the perfect place to experiment with sexuality, particularly its more deviant forms. Many others use their avatars to express a side to them they can’t show in real life, either due to physical reasons of age and stature, or to social reasons restricting personal conduct. (Where else, after all, might a science teacher like Nicole have the chance to wear garter belts and give lap dances?) One of the things that I heard over and over was that in Second Life, you can be whoever you want. So much is this the case, in fact, that a number of people told me that they felt more like themselves behind the screen than while living in the real world.
“Avie Sex” and How It’s Done The actual process of having sex with another avatar involves a few steps that don’t typically enter into the real world equivalent. Three factors in particular must combine to make “avie sex” possible: animations, text, and “accessories.” Animations let an avatar employ an endless variety of sexual positions. To trigger animations, a player clicks on a “sex ball,” a small, inconspicuous ball that hovers on the screen. Their partner clicks on a corresponding ball that launches them into an accompanying position. Two people, then, can enjoy a sexual simulation together, each playing a unique and supplementary part. In one animation that’s situated on a pool table,
for example, a man takes his partner from behind while she writhes and claws on the green felt beneath her. In another, this one taking place on a chair, one participant sits down, with the other lying on their lap. The sitting one then proceeds to spank their partner, and each thwack even triggers a corresponding sound effect. Not all animations are kinky, however, or even particularly sexual. Plenty of animations simply let two players snuggle and kiss, allowing for a tender moment of virtual romance. After animations comes the importance of text. As varied as animations may be, they’re still nothing more than evocative looped sequences. To fill in the details, both players commonly “cyber,” that is, textually depict the specifics of what they’re (imaginatively) doing to their partner. These can be elaborate enough to sound like prose from a romance novel, or as abrupt as an exclamation of “oh baby.” Because of the advanced visual capabilities of the game, some people omit text altogether and simply enjoy the display before their eyes, semi-pornographically. However, most partners tend to supplement the visual with the verbal, filling in details to evoke a particular mood. Escorts, who deal with a wide array of demands, adapt themselves to individual’s tastes primarily through the use of words. Julie told me about her first night on the job, which shows how different clients’ demands can be, and how an escort copes with them.
Me: so, personally speaking, what was it like the first time you had sex as an escort? Julie: oh gosh hehe, the first day Julie: i actually had two customers Julie: the first was really sweet Julie: and wanted to use the balls to go into different positions Julie: he wanted me to tell him i loved him Julie: not sure why but i did anyhow Julie: i'm sure he was doing something too irl Julie: it lasted about a half hour Julie: and he paid me and he was gone Julie: the second one was the complete opposite Julie: he has fantasies of being with a....and please pardon my language Julie: whore...slut etc, so i switched roles to that Julie: to be honest...i believe they pay just so they can get off in real life :) and not hae the hassle of trying to find someone special
Julie: every guy is different :) Julie: and has their own reasons Julie: and own fantasies Julie: sometimes its almost sweet Julie: and other times its sad Me: i can imagine Julie: part of me i think just likes being there with them at that moment Julie: when they are feeling good
The final addition to sex involves “accessories,” which, if you haven’t guessed from the quotation marks, are naughty additions that make avatar sex more realistic or evocative. Interestingly, when you take off a male avatar’s clothes, you’re left with a middle region prudishly bereft of any genitalia. This omission has led to the creation of one of the world’s most bizarre commodities: virtual penises. Penises come in various shapes and sizes; most, due to their typical usage, are erect. You “add” a penis to your body by purchasing one from a shop selling sex goods (often available in clubs), finding it in your inventory, and clicking “attach.” Instantly, an excited new organ pops up right where it’s supposed to, and from here on, the fun begins. Other goods and add-ons include sex-themed toys, vagina-like tattoos, and a wide array of bondage gear. The market for these products is considerable, and sex goods manufactures often enjoy weekly sales reaching into the thousands of Linden dollars. Alts, Identity, and Reputation Julie’s aforementioned choice to exist as an alternative to her other character, a pruder, more established member of the community, reflects on the importance that Second Life places on identity construction. I see three major reasons for this: the customizability of personal avatars, the need to express different sides of one’s self, and the tightness of Second Life’s community. First, Second Life allows for a near-unlimited degree of personal customization that then merges with a more finite set of institutions and groups. As a result, avatars have the ability, one that they often use, to adapt themselves to the context of their environment. Someone who works at a dance club can easily assume the role and appearance of a dancer; someone who’s a security guard can do the same. Even a student,
as I quickly found out, can present himself as a professor with minimal expense. Second, the ability to own multiple avatars means that players can present different sides of themselves without fear of ostracism or reprimand. The feisty escort you hire, in other words, might also come into Second Life as a fat, bearded architect dressed in a platypus outfit. There’s no way to tell whether one avatar is the “alt” of another, meaning that you can experiment with multiple, disparate identities without fear of discovery. It’s hard to envision a place in the real world where you can put on and take off different facets of yourself like so many outfits in a closet, but in Second Life, not only is possible, it’s more or less the norm. Third, the need to maintain multiple avatars might also reflect on the size of the world. Second Life has 23,000 residents, though the core community of daily or neardaily players is much smaller, by my estimate no more than one to three thousand. Similar to a small town, then, it’s easy to earn a reputation, sometimes one that’s hard to shake. The degrees of separation between players are few, and it’s a common practice in conversation to drop names of well-known residents. While Second Life grows steadily, with new residents showing up daily, the social structure in many ways still resembles that of a tight-knit village, where alts become an escape not only from the confines of the real world, but from the constricting nature of the in-world social web, too. Identity is not something one abandons when they enter Second Life, then; it’s simply something that they change. Unsurprisingly, then, working in the sex industry brings along certain implications for one’s identity, and few of them are flattering. Certainly, there’s much less shame associated with the profession than there is in the real world, but as with Julie’s case, certain players still feel the need for a separate avatar in order to express their sexual side. Furthermore, despite the imaginary nature of what goes on here, many players nonetheless conceal their activities from real life friends and family. Terra, for example, says nothing to her husband or children about the escorting she does on a nearly nightly basis, and sees no problem hiding it. “As long as what happens here stays here,” she said, “and doesn’t affect my RL, I don’t see it being an issue.” The sex industry in Second Life has allowed a number of people to express a sexual side of themselves in a safe, controlled environment, and for many has been
cathartic and eye-opening. Participating in the industry can be done with much less fear of ostracization or criticism, yet at the same time, I still detected slight undercurrents of shame and inhibition. The Sex Indsutry and its Discontents At this point, the sex trade is an integral part of Second Life’s economy. Plenty of players happily participate in it, and many more endorse it by patronizing the clubs where most of it occurs. Others, however, are less happy about it, or at the very least, with the implications it has for the world at large. For one of my interviews, I spoke with Urizenus Sklar, publisher of the Second Life Herald, an Internet-based tabloid that covers the underbelly of Second Life’s society. Because the publication is published online, anyone can read it, whether a member of Second Life or not. His site employs a team of reporters who routinely present news in a direct and explicit fashion. It was this kind of muckraking reporting, in fact, that got his player account banned from The Sims Online, the virtual world from where he originally wrote. While exposing mafia-like organizations and covering allegations of corruption and intimidation, the straw that likely broke the camel’s back was in his role uncovering an in-game prostitution ring run by what turned out to be a 17-year-old boy. I originally assumed that since his site published detailed and candid stories about individual players, most of the site’s controversy would come from these targeted individuals. Instead, it turns out, the tabloid’s interviewees rarely voice complaints; it’s the game companies and player communities at large who stir most of the ire.
Me: i've read a number of stories on your newspaper that cover the industry in fair detail, and perhaps i'll ask first, what kind of response have you received, especially for articles that cast a less thanfavorable light on certain individuals or places? Urizenus: its very rare that the subject of an article is upset. Urizenus: I only know of one case Urizenus: the criticisms comes from others in the game and in the game industry You: what kind of criticisms do you tend to receive? Urizenus: from the game industry: we are just trying
to make an honest buck and you are going to bring congress and the moral majority down on us. Urizenus: from the people in the game: you are emphasizing the seedy aspects of the game and making us look bad by extension Urizenus: but the subjects almost never complain
So, while Second Life’s scene is far less regulated than in real life, gives many people the sexual gratification they’re looking for, and for plenty others is a safe and mind-opening environment to explore a submerged part of themselves, many are less happy with the way the industry has exploded and, in their view, wrested hold of the game’s creative culture. This change in culture was articulately described by a veteran player, Artemis Fate, in an op/ed published in the Herald on January 9, 2005.
After some time Club Elite was made, and after the controversy of his land holdings was washed out by a wave of incoming new players, it began to prosper. Now here, to me, is where things started going bad. Two clubs of course, isnt entirely that bad, but little by little, new players came in seeing the prosperity of Club Elite and decided that they too wanted a piece. So little by little, new players put away their creativity, their originality, their sense of adventure in the new world, and instead of seeing what they could do with their land in the new world, they instead turned to the idea of profits, plopping down a slipshod doppleganger of the latest prosperous club. So SL went from a game that catered to the creative element of the technical community, programmers, engineers, and technicians, as well as just the everyday person with the rather risque areas of M areas, (at that time less than 25% of the entire land mass) to a lame imitation of Las Vegas life – a landscape speckled with gaggles of near-identical people boxes, religiously frequented by an evergrowing community of new players.1
On top of complaints about the sheer number of clubs in-world, some also question the ethical policies of what goes on within them. Of the workers I spoke with, none personally criticized their employers or talked about exploitive working conditions. Indeed, it seemed like they were treated quite fairly, enjoying flexible hours and respectable compensation. However, other workers have on occasion told different stories, and certain clubs have employed infamous labor practices that many have decried. Urizenus referred me to an article on his site entitled, “As Dancers Defect Club Elite for The Deck, Big John Jade Vows, ‘The Deck Will Burn’.” The article itself discussed a new club, The Deck, that had attracted many frustrated employees of Club
Elite, one of the game’s earliest clubs. The article’s most interesting part, however, came from the public discussion thread that followed it. In this thread, Urizenus told me, “a lot of dancers spilled their guts.” The comments from dancers mentioned excessively long hours and low levels of respect. One dancer commented that she couldn’t enjoy the rest of her second life because “BJ wanted us at the club ALL THE TIME.2” Another says she “was wanted at the club for 24/7. That is not a SL life but slavery.” A few others chimed in with similar complaints, as well. Despite these isolated comments, though, it appears that the industry as a whole involves much less exploitation than one might expect. Aside from complaints surfaced by Club Elite dancers, which even then were mixed, few have spoken about unfair or abusive working conditions. In fact, when I viewed the comments from the Herald article, what Urizenus called “a lot of dancers” turned out to be no more than three or four. Many workers, in fact, say they share meaningful relationships with their employers, patrons, and fellow workers, tied together by community-like connections. Further, economic exploitation seems a moot point, as escorts remain some of the highest paid workers in the game, and dancers and other club workers receive compensation that they rarely complain about. Many clubs, in fact, willingly lose money, with the owners paying workers out of pocket. None of this rules out exploitation as a possibility, but for the most part, workers seem happy with their work, free with their schedule, and adquately compensated with their pay. Second Life is also, notably, the only MMOG that requires users to be over eighteen years old to play. As such, they’re the only one to have a hands-off approach when it comes to avatars’ private lives. The only restriction they make is on a sim-by-sim basis. Each sim has a rating, either PG or M, for “mature.” PG sims prohibit establishments that advertise sex, and are thus mostly filled with residential and shopping areas. An M sim lets avatars do essentially anything they want. This simple bifurcation effectively creates a self-policing society where the sex industry is contained within certain areas, yet freely tolerated within them. The underground prostitution rings that caused such a stir in The Sims Online could have no equivalent here, since a prostitute has no reason to conceal her services. She could even, in fact, post a message advertising
her rates and services on the game’s official forums, without fear of reproach. Since the industry is so overt and open, workers have no reason to rely on a shady and potentially abusive employer. If they are, in fact, mistreated, they can easily find another place to work by searching for clubs in the public places directory, or just as easily work on their own.
Part Three: Why It All Came to Be There are many reasons for why Second Life and its sprawling sex industry came to be. First, because of its technical and structural capacities, Linden Lab has created a world whose visual realism, near-unlimited customizability, and moral permissiveness have formed the groundwork for avatar sex to be realistic, customized, freely allowed. Second, the game’s embrace of free-market commodification has transformed a simple aesthetic practice, avatar sex, into an entire industry, with a wide infrastructure of physical and human capital to support it. And finally, the game enables the construction of identity and the semblance of interaction so vividly that while this “world” is nothing more than moving pixels on a screen, players find within these pixels a seductive sense of interaction that keeps many coming back for more. But before all this, it’s important to look at the rise of virtual worlds and how Second Life emerged from them. The Rise of Virtual Worlds, and Life Imitating Art The notion of a proprietary, immersive online world began with text-based precursors slightly more than a decade ago, emerging as a genre called Multi User Dungeons, or MUDs. In a MUD, a player created a name, forged an identity, roamed the lands, fought monsters, acquired gold and items, and, most importantly, formed relationships with fellow players. All this was done through the use of descriptive language, meaning that a room could be nothing more than the word “Room” written on the screen, with a few lines of code on the server to differentiate it from other rooms in the game. A player’s appearance would be a paragraph or two; a battle would be a frenzied array of lines perpetually advancing on the screen, indicating who attacked whom and with what result. While primitive by current standards, MUDs were the first virtual environments to simultaneously bring together dozens, sometimes hundreds of players in a single, seamless world. They’ve largely disappeared by now, but a few of the most popular ones still remain. On September 30, 1997, a small software development company called Origin Systems changed everything when they released a game called Ultima Online. While similar to MUDs in content – players still interacted in a themed, fictional world,
following the predefined goals of fighting monsters and acquiring goods – the game added one additional element: graphics. While they were relatively simple and twodimensional, the ability to see yourself marked a milestone in what virtual worlds could offer, and with the tens of thousands of players it soon attracted, the game soared to a level of popularity that blew most MUDs out of the water. A swarm of competitors quickly joined the fray, including popular contenders like Everquest, City of Heroes, World of Warcraft, and many more. Out of the 25 or so worlds presently run in the United States, six of them have more than 100,000 paying subscribers. Lineage, in Asia, has more than a million. While still an Internet subculture to a large degree, virtual worlds are not only growing in complexity, but in gross popularity as well. Second Life falls into the same broad category of game, but most of the similarities end there. There are no predefined goals here, no monsters to kill, no levels to gain, no built-in system of rewards to give players a sense of what to do. The theme is neither explicitly fantasy nor science fiction, but whatever players want it to be, which is often a slightly surreal version of the modern. In Second Life, the players, referred to as residents, are the ones who create the world, deciding for themselves what their goals are. The only real limits are what the game servers themselves can process, which turns out to be an extraordinary amount. These are some of the reasons why the medieval taverns of other games have given way to dance floors and strip clubs, although explanations go much farther than this. Second Life’s differences, in fact, go to the core of the philosophy that brought it to life in the first place. Second Life, in fact, resembles much less a “game” in the traditional sense, and comes much closer to a virtual rendition of the real world. In fact, in a stroke of a life imitating art, Second Life’s vividly represents the “Metaverse,” a concept penned by author Neil Stephenson in his 1992 cyberpunk novel, Snow Crash. Considering that he was writing at a time when even MUDs were in their infancy, he looked into the future of virtual worlds with remarkable insight, at least in the case of this particular one. Consider the first passage he writes on the Metaverse, when Hiro Protagonist, the story’s hero, enters it.
As Hiro approaches the Street, he sees two young couples, probably using their parents' computers for a double date in the Metaverse, climbing down out of Port Zero, which is the local port of entry and monorail stop.
He is not seeing real people, of course. This is all part of the moving illustration drawn by his computer according to specifications coming down the fiber-optic cable. The people are pieces of software called avatars. They are the audiovisual bodies that people use to communicate with each other in the Metaverse. Hiro's avatar is now on the Street, too, and if the couples coming off the monorail look over in his direction, they can see him, just as he's seeing them. They could strike up a conversation: Hiro in the U-Stor-It in L.A. and the four teenagers probably on a couch in a suburb of Chicago, each with their own laptop. But they probably won't talk to each other, any more than they would in Reality. These are nice kids, and they don't want to talk to a solitary crossbreed with a slick custom avatar who's packing a couple of swords. Your avatar can look any way you want it to, up to the limitations of your equipment. If you're ugly you can make your avatar beautiful. If you've just gotten out of bed, your avatar can still be wearing beautiful clothes and professionally applied makeup. You can look like a gorilla or a dragon or a giant talking penis in the Metaverse. Spend five minutes walking down the Street and you will see all of these.
It only takes a few minutes in Second Life to see them as well. With minor differences, in fact, Stephenson’s world could hardly have predicted Second Life more accurately. The only real difference is that the Metaverse, so far as we know, has little to do with its its inhabitants’ sexuality. At the least, Stepehenson never mentions any sex clubs, virtual penises, or avatars who get it on. Players in Second Life have other ideas, however. While the technology and capabilities afforded by Linden Lab to its players have unleashed a fascinating array of legitimate, family-friendly creations, they also, like the VCR or the World Wide Web, have allowed people to experience sexuality in a fascinating and radical new way. An Overview of Second Life’s Mechanics Most MMOGs require an exhausting amount of work on behalf of their creators. To start with, there’s the programming and scripting required to make things work in the first place. Then, there’s a tremendous amount of art and design needed: of the land, towns and villages, weapons and armor, monsters, clothing, and the player characters themselves. Since most games entice players with new expansion packs and updates every few months, it means that the work is never done. It also means that by the time a player enters the world, much of it has already been created. The contributions a player can make to change the world are often set and limited. They can fight NPCs (nonplaying characters) and possibly kill them; they can (in some games) own property and build simple structures, typically houses; they can go on quests (also offered by the game
company); they can form groups and alliances; and sometimes that’s about it. The relationship between a player and the world is often similar to that of an observer looking at a painting in a museum. This notion of a fixed world stems from the days of MUDs, whose text-based nature and limited capacity made player-initiated structural changes extremely difficult to implement. Also, the organization of MUD worlds drew most of their influence on the popularity of the pen-and-paper game, Dungeons & Dragons, which itself encouraged campaigns in fixed and preconceived settings. Just as modern worlds require the work of dozens of highly skilled artists and programmers over a period of years, the D&D world often requires a tremendous amount of preparation on behalf of the game master. It thus becomes a place that players are in, but not truly of. This notion has moved remarkably well from the tabletop to the screen, hardly different more than thirty years after its initial inception. Second Life, however, defies this structure down to its core. The top-down model that most other games employ has no place in the Lindens’ world. Rather, Linden Lab plays a role similar to what a Libertarian might define as an ideal government, regulating basic institutions, but not the players themselves. The Lindens have a minimal presence in the game is minimal, and generally occupy themselves by maintaining the following services: property; currency; avatars; LSL (an in-world programming language); and prims (versatile building blocks that form the basis of buildings and objects). The Lindens also preside over a number of more background functions, for example, responding to technical difficulties and glitches, adding new sims as the old ones become filled, and maintaining the server infrastructure that makes travel in the world so seamless. They also enforce a set of behavioral guidelines, which mostly involve verbal harassment of fellow players or disruption of public events, which they punish with warnings, suspensions, and in the rare event, expulsions. Otherwise, with these basic functions established, Second Life hands control of the world over to its inhabitants. It’s no surprise that the game has the motto, “Your World, Your Imagination.” Players have a degree of agency unprecedented in any other virtual world, as they build, create, and control almost every aspect of the game. New features are added with every version, and so far, residents are afforded the nearly
unlimited creative reign over the following areas: clothing; skins; textures; buildings; objects; scripts; sound; music; and animations. It’s important to mention all these features, because not only are they integral for the presence of the sex industry, they more importantly create a fundamentally different environment than the likes seen in similar worlds. While players in other games come into an environment that’s been designed for them in advance, in Second Life, the world without its player creations is nothing but a blank canvass. Not only that, but in a particularly permissive policy, players actually own the intellectual property to the inworld objects they create, providing further incentive to fill the world with customized, creative goods. Show Me the Virtual Money: Economics and Commodity Culture While sex itself would easily be possible in Second Life without half its features, the sex industry requires the influential presence of one aspect in particular: money. Fortunately, Second Life has one of the most advancely developed virtual economies out there, and with it has created a commodity market for almost everything in the game. Clothing and objects, of course, come with a price, just as in the real world. Skins, a popular luxury item, might be seen similarly to cosmetic surgery. Second Life goes farther than this, however, commodifying things that are hard to compare to any real world good. Animations, for example, are nothing more than looped sequences of particular body motions, and sometimes go for thousands of Linden Dollars. The game even charges a $9.95 registration fee; it costs money, in other words, for the simple right to exist. A Linden dollar, at first glance, is nothing more than a meaningless number inside a small, proprietary world that doesn’t even really exist. However, the game’s advanced infrastructure and robust internet integration has enabled a fascinating phenomenon: currency markets. Similar to a foreign currency, players regularly exchange Linden dollars with real ones. A number of sites, run by companies or wealthy players, buy and sell currency at predetermined levels, acting like brokers. One site, called Gaming Open Market, takes a different approach, allowing players to exchange currency at prices they set themselves, effectively allowing the market to determine the currency’s value. At the
time of writing, their site alone has facilitated the exchange of over US $1.2 million worth of game currency in the year plus that it’s been in business. In other words, when demand rises for an in-world commodity (clothing, cars, penises, etc.), designers have a real-world monetary incentive to fill the void. Combine this with the fact that Second Life creates a natural market for almost everything in the game, and you have all the indications of a dynamic, robust, market-driven economy with a real world value. More than clothing or any single other player-made commodity, the largest market in the game is for land, the one resource that the Lindens restrict. Millions of Linden dollars change hands every day in the land market. A number of players have made a pretty penny in real-estate speculation and resale, some earning thousands of real world dollars each month. Just as the grid is divided into sims, each sim is divided into any number of individual parcels. These can be joined, subdivided, and resold to any player at any time. As of this writing, the value of land hovers between L$4 and $5 per square meter, making a sim worth between $1048 and $1310 in real dollars. Multiply this by the approximately 500 sims in-world at this time, and you have a map of virtual property worth over half a million dollars. Most of the expenses associated with owning land, however, don’t come from the initial purchase. They come from monthly land fees that the Lindens charge all property owners. Players pay in real dollars for “land tiers” that determine the maximum amount of space they may own at any one point. The smallest increment is 512 square meters, for a $5 monthly fee. The largest is for an entire sim, 65536 square meters, for a fee of $195. The test of most commercial ventures, then, is to earn enough income to offset the mothly costs associated with ownership. Understandably, for clubs, whose nature demands spaces as large as a whole sim, land fees become a significant expense that many have difficulty accounting for. To compensate for land expenditures, Lindens inject currency into the game in several ways: dwell, stipends, bonuses, and event support. Dwell, mentioned earlier, is a fixed daily payout of L$48,000 (~$192), divided amongst all locations in proportion to their popularity. Stipends are paid on a weekly basis for all players, either L$50 for standard users, or L$500 for premium users who pay a $9.95 monthly fee. Bonuses are
paid to Second Life residents of high regard: residents can rate each other “positively” or “negatively,” and the higher one’s net positive rating is, the greater a bonus they receive. Bonuses are rarely significant, often falling between L$50 and $250. The top-rated players receive a fair amount more, up to L$1500, while half the players don’t get anything at all. The limited weekly stipends and bonuses are a likely reason why so many players turn to clubs to make more money. Finally, Lindens offer financial support for certain events, now restricted to educational and instructional classes. Until recently, however, they supported events of a far broader variety. While a seemingly innocuous policy shift, the change spelled out dramatic consequences for clubs. Before, the only stipulations for receiving Linden support were that 1) the event had to last at least 30 minutes, and 2) it had to include some sort of contest or competition. In return for this, Lindens offered the event host L$250, with an additional L$500 in prize money to distribute. Since clubs draw in their biggest crowds through popular events, they ended up hosting the majority of them. When events were subsidized, then, they offered clubs a form of self-promotion that essentially cost them nothing. Event subsidies factored integrally into a club’s business model, providing a zero-cost means to bring in large crowds and keep them entertained. Early in my ten-week study, the Lindens renounced this support for all but educational activities. Club owners decried the changes, predicting an end to clubs as the world knew them. Within a few weeks, in fact, a few prominent clubs did close their doors, unable to afford the thousands of Linden dollars now required for a single night of activities. The Lindens’ change underscored an important truth: many clubs are financially unsustainable without extensive subsidization. Of course, money isn’t the only reason that keeps clubs alive: a number of owners voluntarily pay up to hundreds of dollars a month simply for the gratification of hosting the social space of their dreams. Still, the Linden’s decision cut out one of the largest sources of club cash flow, leaving many without a means to keep their doors open. It’s difficult to estimate the exact number of clubs in-world at a given point, but when limited to places hosting daily events and offering a range of dancing and escorting services, fifteen to twenty-five seems like a reasonable amount. This doesn’t include smaller clubs with more sporadic events, or defunct clubs that have yet to disappear from
the map, which both exist in reasonable quantities. For a long time, clubs have predominated the social setting, popping up in unending succession. While many tribute their rise to the social needs they fulfill, I personally feel that the extent of the club explosion came in large part because the Lindens made running one so easy. By throwing considerable money at the 50 to 100 events occurring every day, they enabled the rise of an institution whose income essentially depended on artificial supports. The Lindens, therefore, may have unintentionally provided the impetus for the club scene now so heavily permeating the game. Virtuality: Realness and Transformation Despite all its capabilities and economic value, there’s still nothing more to the world of Second Life than moving dots on a computer screen. The world doesn’t take up an inch of real space; it can only be “experienced” and “entered” in a purely psychological sense. And even then, one doesn’t enter in as their self, they enter as an avatar, a human-like form bound only to the will and self-image of its player. Nonetheless, players experience Second Life not only as a real place, but often find that through it, they come closer to expressing their true selves. Often this comes from in-game relationships that feel far more deep and meaningful than ones formed in the flesh. Nicole indicated this to me when she mentioned her previous in-world boyfriend.
Me: what was the feeling of being with someone who you knew was both real and not at the same time? Nicole: a persons mind is behind their avie so it is real Nicole: the real feelings are there Nicole: u get to know a person for who they really are inside
I also asked her how real she felt the world to be as a whole.
Me: how real do you consider it to be? Nicole: hmmm it is real but i do know i have a rl... feelings here are real Nicole: there are real people behind each one u see here Me: what kind of felings have you felt here?
Nicole: i have felt love, sadness, these people are just like my best friends Nicole: they know more about me than anyone
People not only form friendships and relationships with people who “know more about [them] than anyone,” but often discover something about themselves in the process. As I mentioned earlier, Terra is an avowed heterosexual in the real world, but plays a lesbian in game. She expressed her choice ambiguously at first, as if unsure why she made the transition herself. After some time spent talking, however, she told me the following.
Me: *Smile* it's funny, you know, the more i try and understand this world, the more puzzling it becomes =) Terra: hehe... Terra: well I think I maybe went gay here Terra: because my RL brother admitted to me he was gay Terra: so I think this kinda became my way of understanding him a bit better. of what was goin there Me: and do you think it's helped? Terra: I think so... Terra: I have lost a few friends here because I decided to play as gay Me: are you serious? Terra: some ppl here don't talk to me...often straight women won't talk to me as they would another woman Terra: so you see it has helped me become more understanding of what he must go through.
Terra’s in-world sexuality, then, not only enables her to express a part of herself, but to deeply empathize with a loved one. I was touched when she told me this, and moved at how deeply her desire went to experience first-hand what her brother was going through. She wasn’t the only one whose sexuality was changed, either. During one of my later interviews, I spoke with a gay man introduced to me by a friend who presided over a now-defunct club. He asked that his comments be used anonymously, so I’ll refer to him simply as Mike. Mike is 27, from Georgia, and gay. All this he knew before coming into Second Life, and while he didn’t have much prior sexual experience, he had dated a real life man in the past, and was now in an open relationship with someone in-world. Mike’s sexuality
itself hasn’t changed—he was gay before, and is just as gay now—but he has experienced changes in a more subtle way. In particular, it was through Second Life that he first discovered his identity as a sexual submissive.
Me: what i've noticed is that there's often a difference between someone’s practices here and in RL Mike: yes, people seem more sexually active here and adventurous. Me: How about with yourself? Mike: you mean what various kinks have i tried, etc? Me: sure, tell me all about it =) Mike: well, BDSM for instance. I am a submissive, I have known it all my life, but it took SL to be able for me to give it a name. Mike: Dave [name changed], the guy down stairs, well the one with the shorter hair, is the one who got me seriously thinking about it. Me: How so? Mike: Well he had shown me a club, and we had seen the devices and all. I was intrigued, and we talked a little about being submissive and the like. Mike: Dave helped to make it click for me that the Dom/sub lifestyle is what i needed in RL, that I was a submissive
Through experiencing the virtual, then, it’s become possible to discover more about one’s very real self. What’s ironic is that the formation of such deep, personal realizations comes in a world that’s so amorphous and artificial.
Conclusion The Infrastructure, The Economy, and the Player Second Life has a number of elements that make it both unique and powerful. This includes an infrastructure supporting an advanced property system, a real-value currency, a powerful in-world scripting language, highly customizable avatars, and customizable prims. Through this infrastructure players can make clothing, skin, textures, scripts, buildings, objects, sound, music, and animations. The Lindens’ ban players under eighteen years of age, and can thus create sims where explicit sex is fully tolerated. Not only is this an impressive laundry list of features for any MMOG to have, but it explains how the Lindens’ so perfectly laid the structural grounds for a viable player-run sex industry to emerge. First of all, most solicited sex takes place in clubs. Clubs, like everything else, are built with prims, then modified by textures to evoke a particular mood or theme. They’re located on large, privately owned parcels of land. Clubs require a number of workers, who are compensated with in-game currency. These workers include dancers, escorts, DJs, hosts, and security guards. Dancers are hired because of their shapely bodies (player-customized) and, particularly, the enticing wardrobe of skimpy, sexy clothing that they (optionally) wear. Many also wear player-designed skins that enhance their physique. Dancers and escorts are in wide availability because Lindens place no restrictions on adult content in M-rated sims. These sims are in no short supply, either; they comprise about half the sims on the grid. DJs enjoy the benefits of live music streaming, and often take live requests for songs. Event hosts often feature games like Tringo, using prim-based consoles fixed with built-in scripts. Security guards look out for malicious guests, who they can kick out using a “boot script.” When a customer hires an escort, they typically go to a VIP room that’s part of the club compound. Because these rooms may be a modest distance from the dance floor, getting to one often requires the use of a teleport script. These scripts are stored within specially designated balls or signs (made from prims), and are triggered when someone clicks on them, instantly sending them to a specified destination. Once they’ve reached
the VIP room, the couple is ready to go. The room is typically decorated to fit a motif, with prim-based furniture and objects helping set the mood. A VIP room is also littered with a number of sex balls, prim-based objects that contain a script that triggers an animation. The animation launches its participants into any number of imaginable positions, and may even feature built-in sound effects. To add a further degree of realism, male clients typically attach an erect penis to their midsection, again made from prims and textured to look realistic. Along with the technological infrastructure, players must bring to the game their sexual desire, and have a way to feel gratified by an ersatz simulation of reality. For most people, however, this is never a problem. Players often experience a tremendously immersive sensation when playing as their avatars, blurring the line between the real and the virtual. Even though what they experience isn’t as photorealistic as, say, an online porn video, it has the incredibly powerful quality of being experienced with another human being. You can’t instruct a porn video to act out your deepest fantasies, but in Second Life, all you have to do is say the word. For those with the appropriate fantasies, then, and the financial means to gratify them, Second Life offers a rich, compelling, and deeply seductive environment with which to explore the limits of one’s imagination. Tied to the existence of clubs is the condition of their financial viability. For expenses, they have wages paid their workers, prize pools for events, and land fees owed the Lindens. For income, they rely on dwell, gambling parlors, and shopping areas. These sources of income are often insufficient to account for wages and land fees, especially following the Lindens’ cut in event support. In addition, none of the major clubs charge admission, ruling out one of the largest potential revenue streams. The expenses for a large club, with events, a full staff, and a sim-wide parcel of land, amount to approximately US $400 per month before any revenue comes in. When expenses overtake income, many owners voluntarily pay for part of the fees out of pocket. Clubs, in fact, are some of the most risky and least profitable institutions in the game, but despite this, they often satisfy the dreams and desires of its owner, who willingly pays the difference. Indeed, a large part of Second Life’s appeal is that it satisfies desires unattainable in the real world. This is just as true for unprofitable club owners as it is for its attendees
and staff, who literally work for pennies an hour. Second Life in many ways owes its existence to the power of fulfillment; it's a place whose residents spend hours in-world every day of the week because they want to, not because they have to. In Second Life, many residents find a sense of satisfaction with their virtual lives that’s far greater than with their first lives. So, when looking at any institution here, it’s important to remember that while profit and commodification play a significant role, deeply personal factors are at work, too. In other words, the player creations of Second Life come from a balancing act. Doubtlessly, greed, consumerism, and desire certainly factor in on the one hand. But on the other, they’re met just as strongly with creation, exploration, and dreams. Since gratification and wish fulfillment, in this sense, factor so strongly into the player experience, this may be why clubs continue to be so popular, despite the support that was cut from them almost two months ago. It may simply be worth the investment by players to keep their clubs alive. It’s also why, whether looking at a sex customer satisfying a basic human need, an escort letting her wild side run free, or a club owner propping up a money-losing endeavor, both the sex industry in particular, and the community as a whole, reflect a place not only shaped by economics, but by the deeply meaningful search for a more ideal world. People indeed lead second lives here, and whether they strike you as sad, touching, intriguing, amazing, or simply and utterly perplexing, it’s hard to deny just how deep and real they seem.
Appendix: Photographs from the World
My Avatar, Durkheim Edelbrock
A Club Dancer at “Wet Dreams”
Two Female Avatrs Enjoy Each Others’ Company in the “Romance” VIP Room, Wet Dreams
“Wet Dreams” Club Owner Samatha Samiam invites me to investigate the effects of ‘sex balls”
Urizenus Sklar, Second Life Herald Publisher, sits on a pillar atop his private island
This action might not be possible to undo. Are you sure you want to continue?
We've moved you to where you read on your other device.
Get the full title to continue reading from where you left off, or restart the preview.