As we build new worlds to inhabit online, such as Minecraft and Second Life, can we avoid re-creating the problems of our real lives?

By Gillian Terzis.

Second world problems

Quantum physicists speak of the Many-Worlds Interpretation, which holds that our universe splits into separate and distinct spheres to accommodate each and every mathematically possible outcome. The science may be confusing but it may help to consider that this happens, to some extent, in virtual worlds. 

For some, the idea of leading multiple lives is existential bliss, even if it is the same life being reiterated in different environments. 

Online environments and games such as Second Life (launched in 2003) and World of Warcraft (2004) first highlighted the seductive force of self-invention. A timid, brunette mouseburger in this life could transform herself into a pixelated buxom blonde goddess or a hulking orc in another. 

Yet it’s likely that the significant successes of those games will be eclipsed by Minecraft, which has accumulated more than 100 million registered users, ranging from primary schoolchildren to fully fledged adults, in its five years of existence. For the uninitiated, think of it as a never-ending game of online Lego. You can literally and figuratively construct your own utopia, limited only by your imagination and lurking monsters. 

There are many ways to play Minecraft. You can play solo, or on a server with thousands of others; you can play in survival mode (and battle zombies and monsters), or in creative mode (building pretty dwellings). When empire building, many Minecraft players choose to re-create ancient Rome or Greece. But there are plenty of pop-culture shoutouts, too, with tributes to the kingdoms of Game of Thrones, The Lord of the Rings and Hogwarts rendered with dizzying specificity. I am a spatially challenged person, but even I enjoyed playing in creative mode, building small houses out of obsidian (for defence purposes), stained glass (for aesthetics) and emerald ore (for bling). But I mostly enjoyed being a Minecraft tourist, ambling around various servers, admiring everyone else’s grand designs while pitying the shabbiness of my own.

Jane Loutit, a 20-something moderator of Australia’s largest Minecraft server MCAU, says the game’s flexible narrative is central to its appeal. “You can play a real warrior character and spend your time building weapons and designing your base for combat,” she says. Children between eight and 14 years “really enjoy the social aspect. They build townships solely for roleplaying, and build schools and pretend that they’re students.” 

It’s enjoyable for older users, too. A core group of 30-something guys use MCAU as a virtual tool shed, with some of them spending six or so hours to perfect their replica of the Eiffel Tower. Loutit tells me that an older woman on the server (a rare breed) has built a nature park with replicas of the world’s endangered species. 

1 . Social experiments online

A number of Minecraft servers have lofty aims to turn game-play into a real-time social and political experiment. Civcraft is one such example. Its moderators explain that their vision of the game is “not just about surviving the elements, but about surviving each other, where players can work together to create and shape civilisation or to watch it crumble”. Similar to the various political experiments that have preceded it, Civcraft players are bound by triumphant platitudes: “This is the great pastime and challenge of mankind: civilisation.”

Online interactions are the epitome of this challenge, where wading through a comment thread can often seem like a de-civilising process. Virtual worlds have naturally upped the ante. In late April, a group of four Minecraft players on the Civcraft server had enslaved a player as part of the game (virtual slavery is seen as part of the experiment). They had demanded the girl, who turned out to be a minor, simulate in-game sex acts (fellatio and penetrative sex) in exchange for her freedom. The incident was documented through screenshots that were uploaded to an image server and Reddit. 

The images, which have since been taken down, weren’t graphic in a conventional sense. Minecraft avatars have a rigidly geometric appearance: their bodies are made entirely of rectangular prisms, like a blocky Gumby. This cubic symmetry is also apparent in the avatars’ physical movements and gestures, which are seemingly bound by right angles. 

It is impossible to remove items of clothing in Minecraft. But the violence and intent are implied through the position and movement of avatars and the accompanying chat logs, where actions are spelt out. Some of it was fairly explicit in this incident, and the dialogue that can be repeated seems weirdly clinical but possibly pubescent: “Apply the penis to the mouth”, “move head up and down”. One of the perpetrators later referred to the incident as a “parting gift” for the newly emancipated slave.

The reaction from the Minecraft community was mostly one of outrage. Civcraft’s moderators decided to ban the players from the server, explaining to the community that the group’s actions existed “solely in an attempt to sexually harass and degrade the real-world individual and made no contribution in the context of a political experiment”. Of course, the nature of virtual rape and sexual harassment raises questions over Civcraft’s legal and moral liability; the moderators admit as much. But the law has long been outpaced by technological change.

2 . Legal minefield

The Civcraft server is based in Montreal, which makes it subject to the Canadian Criminal Code, but players come from all corners of the globe. Current legislation doesn’t yet account for acts of virtual violence, only real-world ones. But while a real-life law may not have been broken in the Civcraft incident, the moderators’ statement indicates that there is the potential of additional legal and moral liability given the victim’s under-age status. 

Virtual events can have real-life significance: Second Life suffered the collapse of in-game bank Ginko Financial the same year as the global financial crisis, resulting in losses of up to $US750,000 in fiat currency. Emotional distress, however, is difficult to quantify. How can we know whether the laws are no longer fit for purpose, or if they are attempting to make a definitive (but increasingly difficult) demarcation between our virtual selves and real life?

Unsurprisingly, the ban prompted a desire among some Civcraft players to simulate the First Amendment. One user of social news site Reddit, Shamrock_Jones, wrote a dispatch that typified a strain of free-speech dogmatism that pervades the internet. “I’ve been very vocal against harassment,” he wrote. “But to now say that we have to ban thought and speech crime in-game would go against the entire concept of the server.” 

For Loutit, the number of players under 18 on her server means that maintaining a safe space is paramount. “You get automatically kicked for really graphic swear words, and we don’t tolerate anything racial. And you can’t use ‘gay’ as a pejorative,” she says. “For the internet, that’s like, whoa! There aren’t many places on the internet where someone says something racist or sexist or homophobic, and there’s someone else to step in and say, ‘Actually, that’s not okay.’ ” 

A virtual world may not grant you an alternative mode of being. Scarcities are still exploited, desires are manufactured, social hierarchies assert themselves, people consume and sell stuff as always. But it might expand your conceptions of the human experience. Owing to journalistic curiosity, I visited the infamous Minecraft anarchy server 2b2t to experience a world where there are no rules or moderators. As it turns out (somewhat predictably), it was as if society’s collective id was unleashed. Some might call it a nihilist’s paradise; one player described it to me as a “giant clusterfuck hellhole”.

A number of swastika-shaped buildings had blotted the landscape, which was festooned by crumbling edifices and other signifiers of man-made urban decay. At times, the public chat room seemed to be commandeered by white supremacists. Glimmers of hope among the molten lava, like a lake or a spot of greenery, revealed themselves to be dead ends. I was morbidly fascinated and appalled by the server’s celebration of wilful destruction, and would have explored it further, but a message from the server alerted me to my untimely death: my lungs had been punctured by another player’s knees a few minutes in. 

The experience on 2b2t was unedifying, but it did little to deter me from playing Minecraft afterwards. I decided I would stick to playing in creative mode, where I tried (and failed) to improve my architectural skills, and I made small talk with young people. Here, it was possible to embrace bold aspirations without acquiescing to the compromises and grievances imposed by ourselves and others. There may not be a guarantee of a happy ending in a virtual world but, as in real life, I was happy to settle for a brief but harmonious interlude.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 24, 2014 as "Second world problems".

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Gillian Terzis is a San Francisco-based writer.