Oct 13, 2013

Mostly Harmless

There’s No Rehab for Virtual Worlds.



Internet Addiction


Police Say Parents Accused Of Starving Daughter Lived In Online Fantasy World


TULSA, Oklahoma -


From a fake wedding to a virtual DJ gig, we're learning more about the activities of the Tulsa parents accused of starving their toddler.


Police say Elizabeth Pester and Mark Knapp were arrested for child abuse and neglect when their nearly 3-year-old daughter was found weighing only 13 pounds.


An affidavit filed Thursday shows police are now looking into whether the couple's computer time could be a factor in the alleged neglect.


Police say Elizabeth Pester and Mark Knapp lived in a fantasy world.


Detective Danielle Bishop said the two were severely neglecting their nearly 3-year-old daughter.








Video game addiction is an excessive or compulsive use of computer games or video games (including virtual environments), which interferes with a person's everyday life.


Video game addiction may present as compulsive game-playing; social isolation; mood swings; diminished imagination; and hyper-focus on in-game achievements, to the exclusion of other life events. In May 2013, video game addiction was added to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders in the Conditions for Further Study section as "Internet Gaming Disorder".


Gaming as well as virtual worlds offer an escapism and compelling fantasy scenario that often rewards the users. If gaming compulsion is an addiction, then virtual world environments are twice as dangerous. The reason it is more dangerous is that the in-game achievements are agnostic and socially defined, ambiguous and not seen as the same as a game achievement. This is more-so when the reward is the ability to earn real money from virtual activities, such as seen from places like Second Life.


Tateru Nino - Addiction


The biggest disclaimer I hear from people acting as an apologist for virtual worlds is that it's just a technology and in no way influences addictive behavior or is responsible for it. This is about as true as saying that Casinos are just quality entertainment and have nothing to do with Gambling Addiction, or that Drugs and Drug Dealers have nothing to do with people who are addicted to drugs.


Virtual worlds, and games, are a mental sort of drug. That isn't to say they are entirely bad or entirely good - they have qualities where both situations can manifest. After all, not everyone who goes to Las Vegas for a vacation ends up a gambling addict, and not everyone who uses virtual worlds or plays video games ends up compulsively addicted either. There are plenty of instances where the entertainment is there, and brilliant works of art and education exist in the virtual world.


But by no means should anyone be nonchalant about the other side of that coin, and the severely detrimental effects that also manifest just as (if not likely more) regularly than all the good things that come of it. There isn't a single person who regularly uses Second Life who is going to say (with a straight face) that SL isn't full of damaged goods and people immersed in escapism.


If they did, they would be lying through their teeth.


The difference is that Casinos who advertise also include the phrase "If you or somebody you know has a gambling problem, seek help via the following hotline". Casinos know people can become addicted, it's part of their business model just as a drug dealer knows addiction is their business model. You get an adrenaline rush and a dopamine high when you win a jackpot or a bet on the Roulette table. In gaming and virtual worlds, the same model applies in gamification - the purpose being to make it compelling to keep coming back and spend exorbitant amounts of time immersed and driving the economy or spending money. But you never seem to see any virtual environment company taking a high moral ground about this situation like a Casino, and saying - “Internet and Gaming addiction is a serious issue. If you or somebody you know has a problem, you can find help here - [insert number].”


Instead, you see people (usually with the rose-colored blinders) trying at every turn to act like it's all harmless and even beneficial. When we’re staring down a starving 3 year old kid as a result of virtual world addiction and neglect – it’s not even remotely something to be proud about to find an excuse for the dealer or the addiction while blaming the addicted in entirety.


In this case the dealer is Linden Lab and the digital drug of choice is Second Life.



Technology as Enabler


That isn’t to say it’s all bad, either. I need to make this point clear and concisely. What I’m saying is that it can be both good and bad depending on the circumstances and that the end-user isn’t entirely to blame for it. Now, I don’t mean we need to go out and hold Linden Lab or any other virtual world company liable for being virtual world addicted (though I suppose in part we could, but I’ll get to that later).


Virtual worlds are also a wonderful enabler for good things, and this is crucial to understand before anyone accuses me of going off on a “virtual worlds are evil” tangent. People with physical disabilities or illnesses find liberation in a virtual world. Artists create breathtaking masterpieces of immersion. Educators find countless possibilities in the open space of virtual worlds and it benefits children through adults alike.


This I will never dispute, because I see all the good it can do and continues to do.



Technology as an Addiction


There is a yin and yang to all of this, and surprisingly David Halloway did a comprehensive article on this subject in 2008 around the height of Second Life covering Virtual World Addiction. At the time, it was more jokingly referred to (Virtual World Addiction) but as of May 2013 it’s being taken a lot more seriously, at least by those who should be taken serious.


The ultimate question is whether or not simply spending a lot of time on a computer is enough to qualify, and the answer is “Not at all.” The real differentiation is spending a lot of time on a computer to the exclusion of real life and others in a detrimental manner. This would hold true for any addiction, really. Gambling, sex, and so on.


There is a lot revolving around this post which puts it into much better context, so let me explain:


1. I come from a family that has (and in some cases continues) to struggle with drug addiction.


2. I’ve seen first hand the dark side of virtual world addiction through broken marriages, and countless other scenarios just like the one listed here from Oklahoma.


3. I actually did have contact with Elizabeth in-world.


She isn’t just some nameless statistic to me, and in fact during the time I spent in-world around her, the amount of time she spent in-world and completely obsessed with DJing and other activities became a massive concern to me. So much so that countless times I recall the proverbial shit hitting the fan whenever I brought it up. Just like any addict, she would play it off like she was in control of it all and nothing bad was happening, when I knew better.


It’s not some isolated incident, either. Time and again I’ve met people in-world who spend ungodly amounts of time chasing their virtual business or escapism and near completely neglecting real life obligations. I’ve run into countless people caught up in the fantasy because their reality sucks ass and it’s far more compelling to keep pretending otherwise. This excludes people who cannot change their situation – disabled or whatnot. This applies to the people who damned well can change their real world situation and choose escapism to ignore it in a virtual world instead.


It’s compelling and it’s addictive, plain and simple.


This has been a major concern to me for years, and on multiple occasions I’ve had conversations with Dr. Richard Gilbert on the subject. The more I see the detrimental situations that are a result of extensive virtual world compulsion, or are the escapism for real life situations, the more it worries me.


It’s not funny anymore when it’s real.


That’s why listening to people trivialize the situation as entirely on her as an addict while whitewashing the image of Second Life and Linden Lab is nothing less than reprehensible to me.


It’s reckless, it’s irresponsible and it’s disgusting to hear. It’s appalling to me to listen to people who immediately try to shift any and all culpability to the addict while making excuses for the dealer and the drug. Make no mistake – Virtual worlds are a drug, and the companies that operate them are the dealers.


Saying virtual worlds have nothing to do with virtual world addiction or the consequences is delusional.


Of course, I’m also of the mindset that says spoons don’t make you fat and guns don’t kill people. However, they are both enablers of detrimental behavior. On their own they are harmless until taken to an extreme – just like you can be addicted to eating, and you can be a mass murderer. Do I think spoons need a warning label, no. But there’s countless options for help to those who have eating disorders or are compulsive eaters. Weapons deserve warnings and safe handling instructions, and even comprehensive classes and background checks because there is always a potential for bad things just as much as good.


In the same light, I don’t believe Second Life needs to be stigmatized, but it definitely needs to understand the ramifications of it’s technology and how it can have detrimental effects on the real world as a result of addiction. This is where even Nintendo and Linden Lab differ -



Nintendo Break


The first step to fighting addiction is admitting you have a problem, and this goes for virtual worlds just as much as the addicts. Casinos acknowledge that gambling addiction is a problem and take a moral high road in acknowledging it publicly while offering ways to get help. Nintendo Wii even shows a warning after a few hours of game play reminding the player to take a break.


There are no such concessions on the part of Linden Lab nor really any virtual world system.


Quite the contrary, we see people like Bernhard Drax saying that Second Life had nothing to do with such a situation and that the addicted was just mentally unbalanced, going on to promote all the good things that Second Life offers in a sickeningly screwed up whitewashing of the situation to paint the virtual world in the best light possible while entirely demonizing the parents.


Dude, get a grip. A 3 year old kid was nearly starved to death because the parents were addicted to online habits and Second Life predominantly.


Turning that into a PR opportunity and acting like Second Life had nothing to do with it is sickening at best. Now, did I come right out and say this originally? For once you’d be proud of me, dear readers... What I did say was nothing more than pointing out the analogy of the casino and gambling addiction, and left it at that.


However, what came next took the cake. For so much as stating an opposing thought in a (alarmingly) respectful nature, Mr Bernhard Drax booted me from his little Facebook clique list for not drinking the Kool-aid and blaming the addict while praising Second Life.


Ok, I’m fine with an opinion... even if it’s just asinine. But when you start acting like a little indignant dick over it, we’ve got a problem.


No, this isn’t about being “unfriended” – it’s about the circumstances and principle that led to that decision. Honestly, if that is really his opinion and he thinks it truly was justified, then I’d rather he did crawl to the other corner of the Internet and stay in whatever sleazy PR dripping hole he emerged from. When you’re publically using the starvation and near death of a 3 year old kid as your opportunistic self-congratulatory public relations for the Second Life platform while demonizing the addicts – you are something that I can’t find proper words for.








“Being honest may not get you a lot of friends but it'll always get you the right ones" – John Lennon



You know what is respectful? Acknowledging addiction and that while what those parents did wasn’t right, they aren’t entirely to blame in the situation. It’s only right to use that as an opportunity to explain to people that virtual worlds can indeed be addictive and to promote a moderation and healthy balance, while stating technology can be both a positive or negative depending on how it is used or abused. To explain that gamification is a rewards system that is inherently built to drive engagement and even hyper-engagement for the benefit of the company behind the system (whether that is a game or a virtual world) and that it is built to be addictive.


It is only responsible, as a public figure, to be honest about the situation. 


That’s what I’m doing with this post today... because that’s what it means to be somebody worth looking up to, who isn’t trying to sell you a line of bullshit. I don’t care if I don’t get to hang out with the cool kids or certain circles as a result (I’ve always said that even in the disclaimer on this blog at the top). Because I’d rather hold my head high, and keep my integrity as a public figure than sell out and tow the line. I’d rather be honest and not willing to sell a line of bullshit, and I’ll be the first to open my mouth when people are trying to sell that bullshit or sell out others.


That’s why my respect for Bryn Oh arguably went through the stratosphere when she decided to walk away from the LEA recently, and I why I absolutely lost my shit on Metaverse Week in Review when LaPicean tried to use that show as a platform to imply Bryn had betrayed the LEA and done the wrong thing.


I said it then, and I still mean it – that’s absolute bullshit.


To say that Linden Lab has nothing to do with LEA is also a lie. They may not govern LEA and instead let the artists do as they please, but those simulators are running courtesy of Linden Lab, and Linden Lab took it upon themselves to write a Terms of Service that is absolutely detrimental and hostile to content creators and artists in-world. A TOS that every content creator and artist in Second Life is bound to, which means that Linden Lab is very much involved in the LEA or at least ultimately governing how it operates.


Being on the LEA, whose stated purpose is to enable and entice artists to utilize Second Life as a platform, is directly contradictory and absolutely hostile to the artists when what you are supporting is a situation (due to your benefactor Linden Lab) that is absolutely detrimental to the very artists you’re pretending to support. It’s a conflict of interest and disingenuous at best.


I’m actually appalled, to be honest, that Mal and Tara didn’t say a damned thing except to let him keep talking – later on going on about the LEA and the new machinima they’re shooting like not a damned thing that was said was anything but an attempted smear tactic on their show against an artist that decided not to sell a conflict of interest or endorse it disingenuously. Attempting to paint himself and the LEA as victims of Bryn Oh, while later continuing on like the LEA is just business as usual.


Bryn Oh chose integrity and to stand for what is right in the interest of the very artists and content creators she supports. She could not (nor should she) in good conscience knowingly be disingenuous in promoting the arts in Second Life when Linden Lab are openly and unrepentantly being hostile to those very same creators and artists through the TOS changes.


That’s not what being a respectable public figure is about... it’s about standing up for what is right and being a leader. It’s about being somebody to look up to. It’s about opening your damned mouth when people are being disingenuous and looking out for their self-interest at the expense of others.


It’s about rocking the f-ing boat when it needs to be rocked. Because it’s the right thing to do.


‘Cause the only people who are afraid of rocking the boat are the people who can’t swim.



  1. Anonymous4:06 PM

    I certainly agree that human brains have problems to handle some of the new tech. But virtual worlds is a small problem atm compared to smartphones and tablets. Look around you. You see parents looking at their iphones more than they look at their kids. So yes of course virtual worlds can be addictive but that is not a mass market. We have a lot bigger problems than Second Life. Daily i see parents neglecting (mildly) their kids and choosing their phone or tablet. They are playing with their phone when they are taking a walk with their dogs and they are plaing with their phone or tablet at work. Second Life is a small small problem compared. Tho I feel sick when i read this.

    But I wonder, if those parents hadnt "played" Second Life, would they have been good parents? :(

    Take care Will

    1. That wouldn't guarantee them being good parents - but it wouldn't be virtual worlds sucking them in.

      In actuality, virtual worlds and gaming are more of a threat and not less than tablets and other technologies because they are built specifically with gamification in mind - which inherently exploits addiction by rewarding it. Tablets and such aren't built that way...

    2. Anonymous8:27 AM

      I dont argue with virtual worlds being addictive. Just atm very few ppl uses virtual worlds compared to social media as facebook and such. And as i said, daily i see parents ignoring their children and focuses on playing with their phone or tablet instead... I think they are addictive enough.

    3. I agree with you that technology can be addictive on its own, but they aren't inherently built on purpose to exploit that addictive nature. Games and virtual worlds are as part of the design specification. That's what increases the effectiveness as "gamification". Do I think SL is to blame, only in a sense - in that gamification is inherently and purposefully the act of exploiting addiction and fostering it far more than a tablet on its own is designed to do.

  2. I don't doubt the addictive nature of virtual worlds especially where sex is concerned and, to a degree, competitiveness in young males particularly but to try and blame virtual worlds in this case of child neglect is, in my view, over the top and likely an attempt by the police to strengthen their case against the parents - certainly, it is a gift to the media who love to hype things like this. But, when you read more of the story and look at it a bit more objectively you find more than a case of child neglect on the part of the parents alone. You notice the child had a history of medical and eating problems and had spent time in hospital. The social service agency was well aware of the case and activity monitoring - supposedly - the child's condition and weight, and yet failed to raise the alarm in good time. They visited the home on many occasions yet only checked the child's weight twice from what I read so maybe there was neglect on their part too. In the UK we have seen known child neglect going un-monitored by social services which has lead to tragic consequences. And those case had nothing to do with virtual worlds. Thousands of people with children use virtual worlds and never neglect their children!

    1. With roughly a million registered accounts in Second Life, a few thousand isn't comforting.

      Secondly, I'm not blaming SL *entirely* nor at any point am I trying to say the parents are blameless victims. There's culpability on both sides, though a virtual environment is more likely to enjoy the benefit of washing their hands of the situation.

      Gamification is a nice way of saying "Exploiting Addiction". Games use it to massive degree, and virtual worlds do as well - except that in a sandbox virtual world it's not in your face obvious - which makes it more dangerous.

      But of course, I wouldn't expect somebody who heavily uses Second Life to take the outside objective view of it. It's not a "young male" thing or a "sex" thing. It's just instant gratification and reward, a level of escapism on all levels. And most importantly it's a dopamine rush reward (the hallmark of addiction) for those rewards.

      Does that mean SL is wholly to blame - no. I didn't say that. I said they share some level of culpability and it's not entirely on the parents - any more than you'd blame an addict while praising the dealer and the drugs.

  3. Good blog post Will, especially for me as it was food for thought after I landed in hospital last Monday with angina resulting in a heart attack. Somewhat ironically it started while reading several new posts here :)

    Though the reference is to the neglect of an innocent 3 year old girl, it struck me that those of us who might have a bit of obsessiveness regarding virtual worlds it is all too easy to neglect not only our loved ones but ourselves also. Though in some ways I do not closely match the profile of one who would be prone to a heart condition, I had to acknowledge to myself this week how often I have neglected to cook a healthy dinner rather then grab something fast to munch on because I was busy with something either inworld or or related to it. How many times did I stay up a bit longer then I should have to just get that one more prim/texture/script setup? Moderation of both coffee and cigs too often go out the window when I sit down for some of the extended inworld spells I am prone too. My treadmill sits forlornly against the far wall loaded with promises that tomorrow I am going to start back on it.

    I no longer have to worry about small children placing demands on my time but will acknowledge that there are some close to me who have on occasion had to suffer a bit of my impatience when they needed my attention while I wanted to have my full attention on some aspect of my virtual experience.

    I am somewhat fortunate in having been closely involved with the addictions field for many years in other areas of my life. The trip to the hospital has ripped the veil of denial away from me regarding my virtual life and forced me to realize that if I wish to be involved in real or virtual much longer, I will need to start taking care of myself better. No more "I will start tommorrow".
    We have a saying in one of the groups I attend. An addict isn't a bad person who needs to get good but a sick person who needs to get better.

    I do not wholly agree that S/L or Opensim grid operators etc need to take responsibility for the recovery of those obsessed with their platform. Perhaps raising some awareness would be helpful but ultimately each one of us needs to be responsible for our own recovery if needed. This I believe could be done through the same medium that created the problem in the first place. An inworld community group to raise awareness of the problem as well as some solutions to finding a degree of balance between real and virtual time. A group striving for the same goals is so much more powerful then any individual by themselves.
    Perhaps a list of 20 questions similar to Alcoholics Anonymous has that gives some indication of whether one is perhaps a bit more addicted then they are willing to admit would be a good starting point.

  4. Comparing gaming or whatever to Heroine or Cocaine, build under the real blood of thousands murdered till it reaches the consumers is shocking to say the least!

    1. It's a comparison of various addictions. Gambling, drugs, sex, - they all share many of the same triggers and circumstances just as any addiction does. Since we see the same exploitation of addiction (innocently called Gamification) built inherently into gaming and virtual worlds, and virtual worlds are far more gamified by default because it allows a non-linear progression of personal goals, it becomes the full spectrum of addiction by being agnostic with real rewards. It caters to all manner of addiction right out of the gate - Gambling (Gaming), Sex Addiction, and more.

      “The computer is electronic cocaine for many people,” says UCLA's Peter Whybrow. “Our brains are wired for finding immediate reward." Which is why we can't stop.

      Source: http://www.psmag.com/health/manic-nation-dr-peter-whybrow-says-were-addicted-stress-42695/

      Dr. Whybrow is the director of UCLA’s Institute for Neuroscience and Human Behavior.