I’ve heard a lot of frustration and disappointment from Second Life residents lately about problems caused by griefers–people who hack the system or purposely create problems in-world. Very often, the conversation quickly gets around to people with unpaid, unverified accounts. It’s a hard discussion, because two things are certainly true: first, the great number of people who have come to Second Life with unverified accounts recently has certainly included some griefers. And second, the great majority of those people are not griefers–and wouldn’t be in Second Life if they had to pay for or verify their accounts at the beginning.

One suggestion I’ve heard in several places, including here on LiveJournal, is to ban users who don’t have verified accounts. If this were done, I think it’s fair to assume griefing would go down substantially, and it would seem as though verified Residents would be unaffected. But there are some other things going on. I’ll kind of list the things I see happening, and you’ll probably understand right away that I don’t support the idea of banning unverified users. I do understand that the situation is frustrating and painful to many verified residents, though. I know that Second Life problems and down time can really hurt.

So, some things to know about unverified members…

1) Full disclosure: I was an unverified, unpaid member until a few days ago. I was pumping money into the economy at a pretty steady rate (probably $35 before I got a paid account), but doing it by paying a friend with a verified account to buy me Lindens. The talk of banning unverified users frightened me, because I did not want to get verified (I’ll say why in a moment) and Second Life quickly came to be an important part of my life.

My not getting a verified account right off may make more sense if you consider that I joined just a few days after the September 8th hack in which a lot of confidential information was accessed. This brought it immediately home to me that if I joined Second Life and gave them enough personal information to track me down, I might be giving that information to anyone. There are two problems with that: first, I keep my real life and my Second Life separate. In RL, I have relatives and a profession, and both of those might be damaged if the people involved logged on and saw that I was writing up cheerful instruction manuals on having virtual sex. I think that the things I do and talk about in Second Life are healthy and wonderful, but not everyone feels that way about it.

The other problem is the usual one, that if hackers got into my credit card information, I might spend years trying to get free of the problems they could cause to me financially.

In the end, knowing that I was in Second Life for the long term, I went ahead and got verified. It took me about three weeks to go from one step to the other, and I was very close to not doing it, because I’m still worried. But it’s like anything else: ya pays yer money and ya takes yer chances.

I’m taking a long time to make my points, aren’t I? I’ll try to forge ahead more briskly from here on in.

2) We can’t really know whether griefers are more common among unpaid accounts than paid accounts. It seems logical that they would be, but I haven’t seen any direct evidence. In other words, it’s possible that the increase in griefing is just part of an increase in population.

3) There’s a difference between unpaid (not a premium account) and unverified. Members who are unpaid but verified are tied to real-world information that should be just as much insurance of safety as the same information is for paid members. And unpaid members are often pumping money into the system, participating in events, creating things in-world, renting space and stores, and otherwise adding to the system just like a premium member. Even some of the unverified Residents are doing some of these things, like I was.

4) Unverified memberships allow international people to participate more easily, which is not only cool in general, but also makes great use of what would be down time for a lot of us Americans. When we’re sleeping or working, people in Spain or Thailand are playing in Second Life and creating new things for us to see when we log back on. Both verifying identity and currency exchange can be a problem for international members if they’re forced to verify or not participate.

(Later edit: I don’t know for sure that people in places like Poland and China have trouble coming up with a credit card for validation, but I believe it’s true. In any case, my understanding is that international membership shot up after unverified memberships were introduced.)

5) I don’t know this for sure, but I think Linden Labs has made the decision that they want Second Life to be huge, the single definitive virtual reality (or one of a very few). And if they have, it’s not just for profit: if you’re in Second Life, you probably expect, as I do, that virtual reality is not only here to say, but that so far we’ve just scratched the surface. It may be the cell phone of the 2000’s. Remember when cell phones were curiosities and only a few people had them?

So down the road, probably one virtual reality world, or a very few of them, will become incredibly common. I think it will be only one in the end, because after a certain point people will become frustrated that they can’t go to their friend’s VR club with their own VR avatar because the club is on a different system. Then the market will respond to consumers and one world will swallow up the others–or the others will just die.

I don’t want Second Life to just die, especially not eight or ten years from now when I’ve built myself up so much that I’m practically queen of the freakin’ faeries. (Note: I am not actually a faerie; that’s my friend Eris. faERIeS = fae + Eris. Neat, huh? It just happened by accident.)

The way for Second Life to win or survive in this future Battle of the Metaverses is for it to be huge and important to a lot of people. That means that both the Lindens and we Residents have a vested interest in expanding the world and its population. And to that end, a $10/month fee or even credit card verification will prevent a lot of people from joining. I know, the great majority of legitimate users could get verified–but they’re not going to. Like me, they would have to become strongly attached to Second Life and want something out of a paid membership. Prior to that, it’s not worth the heartache.

6) Griefers can hurt us even if they don’t have accounts. The grey goo was awful, but worse than that was the hack that got at our confidential information.

7) I think (can anyone remind me of this for sure?) that when you sign up for a free account, it specifically says “for life.” I bet this is to prevent people from assuming it’s a free 30-day demo, which a lot of people wouldn’t go for (see point 5). I believe this means that the Lindens are contractually obliged to continue the accounts of current unverified members, although of course they could stop the practice of offering those accounts.

8) Banning unverified members won’t get rid of griefers-it will just slow them down.

So that leaves me, at least, feeling like our problem is more complicated than could be solved by any single task, especially one that has as many problems as banning unverified members. I wish it were that easy! And I wish we could easily sort the people who use Second Life considerately from those who don’t, although “considerate” may be hard to define (*Kate looks at can of worms, carefully sets it down, and does not open it*).

As it is, I think we’re stuck with this: the Lindens need to keep up or step up efforts against griefers, to get so far ahead in the system-versus-hacker arms race that people feel reasonably safe about their Second Lives. They’re not there now.

The worst thing about this is that there isn’t much of anything we Second Lifers can do about repelling griefer attacks. (Is there? Ideas, please!) We have to depend on the Lindens, and with so many problems lately, I think a lot of us are feeling kind of hurt and mistrustful.

So I’d like to recast the picture of this in our minds. This may not help you (although I hope it does!), but maybe we can imagine ourselves at a point in history. Think of yourself IMing your grandchildren 30, 40 or 50 years from now and saying “Oh, I remember when virtual reality was just a sort of lit-up screen and a pair of speakers! Now, in those days, we had what you call “griefers”. Not the small-time kind you see today, no, these people were villains! Horrible! Why, did I ever tell you about the day I was attacked by gray goo? Marios were falling from the sky, and I was getting anonymous inventory offers so fast I couldn’t click them away!”

*Kate tiptoes away, not wanting to interrupt your conversation with your grandchildren.*

Cross posted to the Winged Girl Blog and the Second_Lifers community.