The Cyberspace Game of Life

JANERIK HENRIKSSON/AFP/Getty Images

The Cyberspace Game of Life

People are using the Internet to improve their lives. Well—their fantasy lives, anyway.
From the April 2007 Trumpet Print Edition

Without question, the Internet is a bold witness to the inventive genius of man. It is amazing that what started out as an all-thumbs kind of gizmo for the Department of Defense now operates the Worldwide Web. The Information Age brainchild has morphed right before our eyes. Silicon Valley experts speak of the new Web as Web 2.0 as if it were a better release of outdated software. People are more hyped about the Web than ever before.

Why so much buzz? It is all about how people are using the Web. Time magazine went so far as to name Web users as person of the year for 2006. Why? Lev Grossman reported, “It’s a story about community and collaboration on a scale never seen before.” Web 2.0 makes it possible for massive numbers of people from all over the globe to provide the content of the Web. Experts tell us that the Web is no longer a library—it’s a conversation.

Cyber Socializing

Essentially, Web watchers extol the social networking opportunities on the Web. We are led to believe that the social networking sites are empowering people to make great contributions to our world.

One of the pioneer social network sites is MySpace. MySpace defines itself as “an online community that lets you meet your friends’ friends.” Teenagers use the site to hang out in cyberspace. The service allows members to share personal information such as photos and thoughts with others in a network of up to 1,000 people. MySpace users topped 50 million in May 2006. There are other websites similar to MySpace. Linkedin, for example, caters to business professionals.

YouTube is a more recent social networking site with a unique twist. Founded in February 2005, YouTube makes it possible for users to post their own video clips on the site. Anybody worldwide can watch the clip and write a review. YouTube’s philosophy is “broadcast yourself.” Many people use the site like a video journal or diary. YouTube creators state that 70 million people a day access the site. Unexpectedly, it has become a source for news. Since the cell phone industry has made videophones as common as watches, quick-thinking individuals have filmed breaking news events and then posted them on the site. Everyday people have become star photo-journalists outscooping the mainstream media.

Some of the greatest praise for Web 2.0 comes from its having opened up the means for any individual to have a voice on anything. In the beginning of the Internet, people marveled when a new webpage came online. Today, everyone can have his or her own webpage called a web log, or blog for short. A blog is user designed—an electronic statement of the owner. It is a personal diary—without the lock and key. Blogs cover as many different topics and express as many opinions as there are people. While some blogs are maintained by influential journalists and politicians and are read by thousands, most are kept up by everyday people and are read by only family and friends. Although it is difficult to get an accurate count, it is estimated that over 70 million blogs exist.

Mainstream media moguls fear that Web users are gaining control of the flow of information. In many ways, bloggers have rocked the foundation of the established media. The new Web has empowered everyday people to become reporters and political pundits.

Conversation Quality

The Web is a sophisticated, powerfully potent tool placed in the hands of millions and can certainly be used for much good. This magazine and other news sources use the wonderful advancements of the Web. But we must be honest. Web 2.0 is also being used for incredible evil. While the Web’s advancement is praiseworthy, we must not fail to beware its incredible dangers. If Web 2.0 is a conversation, don’t we have the responsibility to evaluate its quality?

MySpace presents an innocent-enough face. Unfortunately, it is potentially anything but innocent. Major news networks have featured reports on MySpace’s user-generated content. Here is what nbc’s Dateline reported after surfing MySpace: “[W]e found scenes of binge drinking, apparent drug use, teens posing in underwear, and other members simulating sex, and in some cases even having it” (msn.com, April 5, 2006). Not great conversation, is it? It is MySpace’s policy to not prescreen postings. Should we be shocked that sexual predators have used the site to trap unsuspecting teens?

YouTube also does not prescreen video clips posted to the site. Pornography is not allowed, but this does not necessarily mean porn does not appear. YouTube guarantees that any porn that users flag will be removed. Still, many video clips appear on the site that most people would not consider worthwhile conversation. In fact, there are a lot of weird, way-out-there videos on the site, the subjects of which are not fit to print. YouTube is beginning to draw fire from law enforcement, psychologists and concerned news reporters. Teens are making extreme videos to get their 60 seconds of fame. Recently, teens have been posting video clips with graphic violence; one showed five girls severely beating another girl. Another recent rage on YouTube is known as “fence plowing”—teens running headlong into fences to destroy them while being videotaped. Besides the destruction of property, some teens are getting critically injured.

While Web 2.0 freely gives a voice to every blogger, some voices have nothing useable, sensible or meaningful to say. People rant and rave about trivial things using a lot of foul language. Does this kind of user-generated content deserve praise? Truly, there is little collaboration and community. Reading through most blogs, they are more about me than we. Bloggers are free to write anything—including lies. It is clear that some blogs exist only to attack institutions and organizations with the single goal of spreading venomous slander. Even the U.S. president’s life was threatened by a teenaged blogger.

Jesus Christ says we should judge the real value of things by their fruits (Matthew 12:33). He condemned idle words, and extolled worthwhile conversation that truly builds up community and collaboration (Matthew 12:36-37). He stated, “[O]ut of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaketh” (verse 34). This scripture means that a good-hearted person speaks good things, but a person with evil motives speaks evil. This principle can be applied to all aspects of our society.

Taking an honest look at blogs, we have to admit there is a lot of rotten fruit in cyberspace.

Second Life

Web 2.0 may be a conversation, but it is better described as a mirror. It reveals a lot about us—our global society. Of course, we can see good. Regrettably, we also see much evil. Look, for example, at Web 2.0’s newest thing: Second Life.

Second Life is considered the first of the future generation of social-networking sites. Technically, this site is known as a massively multiplayer online role-playing game (mmorpg)—though in Second Life, there is no specific goal and the game never ends. Statistics show that an average of 20,000 people are logged in at any one time. Simply described, Second Life is a virtual world where gamers travel through 3d environments using digital alter egos called avatars. Anonymity is assured with the assumption of a Second Life alias. Those playing the game interact through their avatar—they chat via text message, go to virtual restaurants, attend virtual concerts, and shop for virtual clothes in elaborate landscapes.

Second Life is the brainchild of Philip Rosedale, founder and ceo of San Francisco’s Linden Lab. Rosedale got his inspiration from Neal Stephenson’s sci-fi novel Snow Crash. The novel describes a future in which people spend much of their time in a “metaverse,” or metaphysical universe—Stephenson’s idea of the Internet of the future. Rosedale, with the help of members (called residents), wants to bring that future to reality today. Second Life’s website boasts: “Second Life is a 3d world imagined, created and owned by its residents.” This philosophy represents the ultimate for those who admire user-generated content on the Web.

Since its launch in 2003, Second Life’s popularity has grown rapidly. In February, the number of Second Life residents approached 4 million. This number is projected to reach 9 million by June—more people than live in New York City. The large number of residents may be attributed to curiosity, but for a core group of people, Second life is more than a game.

Second Life is sparking a revival of commercial interest in the Web. The game has a virtual economy. All business is conducted in Lindens, the “in-world” currency. While joining is free, buying land and currency requires an account with monthly fees attached. Residents purchase Lindens at roughly 250 per U.S. dollar (exchange rates can fluctuate). Linden Lab makes its profits from currency exchange fees and sales of virtual land leases. Residents make money by selling goods or services they have created in-world. Using Second Life software tools, residents have created digital houses, clothes and jewelry. Some are earning part of their income in Second Life; others are making their fortunes. Linden Lab estimates that users exchange $1.2 million each day within the game. One individual claims to have earned $1 million in income. This is truly amazing considering that, for the most part, people are essentially buying and selling nothing. However, governments such as the United States and Australia see real-life income tax issues.

Large corporations such as Adidas, American Apparel, Sony, bmg, Dell Computer, ibm and Toyota are making their presence known in Second Life. Even Starwood Hotels and Resorts Worldwide, which manages hotel chains like Sheraton, St. Regis and Westin, plans to open a virtual hotel there. Although most corporations are getting involved in order to advertise and test-market their real-world products, some are selling virtual goods like clothes and cars.

Reuters has opened up a virtual news bureau in Second Life. Mark Warner, former governor of Virginia, was the first politician to give an interview in Second Life. Support groups for stroke and cancer patients are established. College instructors are conducting classes in Second Life. Professional librarians are building a virtual library. Weddings and funerals have been conducted in-world. The possibilities seem endless.

Why is this digital fantasy world so attractive to people?

A Better World

To put it simply, people want a better world. In 2006, Rosedale told cbs: “Our goal with Second Life is to make it better than real life in a lot of ways.”

We need to think deeply about this. Our world is in crisis. There is sadness and sickness, tragedy and war. We may all want to escape it, but we must face reality. Although we don’t like to admit it, human beings are responsible for creating the real world we live in. Isn’t it fair to ask: Are we capable of creating a better virtual world?

Second Life reveals what most people think a better world would be: one with no laws and no repercussions. In Second Life, there is a thin presence of government. In a sense, Linden Lab governs the 3d world. There are a few simple ground rules banning vandalism, harassment and other antisocial behavior, punishable by suspension or loss of registration, which means expulsion. Other than that, anything goes. And anything does go.

Wired magazine featured a travel guide to Second Life. “Second Life is a world of endless reinvention where you can change your shape, your sex, even your species as easily as you might slip into a pair of shoes back home,” it said (October 2006). Though residents must be over 18, Linden permits nudity, sex and profanity on private land and “mature”-rated areas. Since some game players change their sex or choose animal-like avatars, deviant sexual behavior is in vogue. Prostitution is an active business in Second Life.

Time’s Joel Stein wrote that Second Life “functions as a therapist’s couch on which you learn about yourself by safely exploring your darkest desires” (Dec. 16, 2006). Honestly, does that sound like a better world? Is it possible to safely explore our darkest desires without serious repercussions?

The Bible’s teaching on sin shows us emphatically that any dark desire explored, even in a virtual world, will have disastrous consequences. The Apostle James taught, “But every man is tempted, when he is drawn away of his own lust, and enticed. Then when lust hath conceived, it bringeth forth sin: and sin, when it is finished, bringeth forth death” (James 1:14-15). These verses carry critical instruction. Depraved human lusts are not to be toyed with. All human sin begins in the mind. When we entertain a thought long enough, physical action is sure to follow.

Second Lifers can joke about committing harmless adultery or other sex perversions in their virtual world. The truth is, adultery in the virtual world is still adultery. Jesus Christ stated, “Ye have heard that it was said by them of old time, Thou shalt not commit adultery: But I say unto you, that whosoever looketh on a woman to lust after her hath committed adultery with her already in his heart” (Matthew 5:27-28). Those people in Christ’s day who were lusting for each other without committing a physical act, Christ still held guilty of that heinous sin. We shall not escape the same judgment. All humans must learn this most important principle if we truly want a better world.

Second Life feeds incredible power to human thought. Are we so naive as to believe that some Second Life residents will not eventually begin to explore their darkest desires in the real world?

New World Coming

Even though our world is a wretched mess, should we just dump it for an electronic daydream? There is a lot of drive, creativity and effort behind Second Life. Some entrepreneurs spend vast amounts of time there. Isn’t there something truly tragic about that? Some see this virtual world as the new frontier for commercial venture. Isn’t it rather a wasteland of lost manpower that could be devoted to solving the problems of the real world?

Consider the vast amount of time being swallowed up by essentially fruitless activity on the Web today. This reflects the fact that our human nature wants to escape problems and difficulties. But let’s be honest: Facing problems and solving them makes us stronger. The Apostle Paul taught, “See then that ye walk circumspectly, not as fools, but as wise, Redeeming the time, because the days are evil” (Ephesians 5:15-16). Paul’s world was one of grave crisis. Instead of getting into foolish lusts, Paul encouraged people to redeem the time. This phrase literally means to increase opportunity. Although this world is tragically falling apart, individuals do not have to. In fact, we can improve ourselves by not getting caught up in foolish, time-wasting activities. The most overlooked way to improve ourselves is to learn to serve the needs of others. This world provides plenty of opportunity for that.

Sadly, Rosedale’s goal for Second Life is doomed to failure. It is not a better world. It is a recreation of our own sick, chaotic world. We do need a better world—but Second Life and the Web will never deliver what we desire most: true freedom, happiness, health, safety and success. Our human nature must be changed first.

The truth is that in the not-too-distant future, a new world filled with community and collaboration is coming. It will be a magnificent world founded on a government that administers a law of outflowing love. Jesus Christ is coming back—for real! He will establish the Kingdom of God on Earth. Human nature will be changed. Every man, woman and child will be given the freedom to grow and develop into an incredibly happy and successful human being. Write for our free publication The Wonderful World Tomorrow. It explains thoroughly how our world will be permanently changed into a utopia far exceeding anything a human being can now imagine.