Is the current alarm about crime in Second Life and other virtual worlds a flash in the pan of “Web 2.0” hype, or a harbinger of disturbances to come?

As a lapsed Luddite, I was in the former camp until a recent forum by CAMLA (Communications and Media Law Association), and this week’s Belgian paedophile image jurisdiction case.

It’s not just that big players like Big Pond, the ABC and a host of global corporates are lurking, sizing up the emerging commercial opportunities, risks and angles at the new frontier of virtual existence.

Nor is it just the Pandora’s Box of legal and regulatory problems opened by creating a literal archipelago of virtual territories, each potentially with their own ‘law’ and jurisdiction based on the incomplete precepts in an evolving End User Licence Agreement (EULA) from the host, Linden Labs. (All of this floating on the premise that somehow the shoppers, voyeurs, vice queens and real estate speculators trolling by will spontaneously create a fair rights and disputes system themselves.)

Nope, it’s the potential collision of a critical mass of components in technology, gaming, virtual reality and social projection that changed my mind.

Consider a melting pot of the following factors:

  • The granting of real and intellectual property and exchange rights in the rather clunky-looking Second Life.
  • The emergence of roaming gangs of real people playing barbarians, mercenaries and fight buddies in (the paradoxically more sociable) ‘World of Warcraft’.
  • The addition of photo-realistic 3D graphics to the new generation of games machines like XBox and PS3 so Second Lifers can eventually hope to move into a High Definition version of their alternate plane.
  • The cheap-as-chips spatial interface of competitor Wii (with its simple movement sensor on your hand, you can roll a virtual bowling ball mimicking real physical responses down a virtual bowling alley, possibly enticing those glazed youths off their thumb-only-RSI couch-potato sacks and into an active physical relationship with the fantasies on their massive new plasma screens).
  • Mainframe computer-makers like IBM grafting virtual 3D photo-realistic chips onto the front end of former accounting transaction mainframes so the ‘Big Iron’ can emerge renewed as hosts of infinitely more convincing back ends for the new virtual worlds of networked users buried in those little games machines.
  • The rapid exploitation by nasty kids of each new wave of communications technology to create new forms of harassment and privacy disaster.
  • The perfection of the design machinery of cognitive addiction for computer games as simple as Solitaire.

These bits have not yet all come together, but converge they will.

And at that point we may learn the results of creating a mass escape-route into a seductive shared hallucination of wishful thinking, anonymous vice, routine murder, commercial genius, micropayment surveillance, and whatever the Hackers from Hell (or senators from Tasmania) want to throw into the mix.

Can’t wait for the extradition hearings to start.