It was not a good day for the virtual world. It was the next-to-last Sunday in October, a day before a major new patch for Second Life, a 3-D online environment that boasts 70,000 residents in the same, non-sharded world. It might have been a day like any other – except for the small spherical object one resident added to the stock of user-created content that makes Second Life almost unique among virtual worlds.

Adorned with an image of the G-Man from the Half-Life FPS games, the object had soon rezzed a copy of itself, and then there were two, floating side by side, low above the landscape of one of the 1,000-plus servers that make up the Grid that is Second Life. A moment later, each of those had replicated again, and there were four. Soon after that, there were eight, and then there were 16. Like the cell division that marks the beginning of life, the exponential growth continued. The spheres multiplied, overflowing the boundaries of the server in which they’d started and spilling over into neighboring regions, then into the regions that bounded those.

Eventually, according to some reports, there were 5.4 billion of them.

Who knows how long it took or what the exact sequence of events was, whether the servers went down one by one or spectacularly crashed out all at once. But by some point on that Sunday, they had all winked out. All of them. Second Life was no more.

Second Life gives its residents a great deal of freedom. They can create not only fantasy castles and other marvels, but scripted objects that can interact with each other, with avatars and with applications outside the virtual world as well. From time to time, an ambitious builder or scripter may overreach his or her talents. Create a linked chain of objects that need to be manipulated by SL‘s physics engine and you can strain a server’s resources to the breaking point. Accidents will happen in such a world. Servers will crash.

What kind of “accident” hit Second Life on October 23, though, is open to interpretation. Was it an “accident” that the self-replicating objects had been named GriefSpawn by their creator? Was it mere coincidence that this creative mind was a member of a Second Life group long renowned for its inflammatory builds and harassment of other residents?

Signs point to “no,” that what happened on the day the Grid disappeared was not an accident at all, but the most effective denial-of-service attack Second Life had ever seen, one that came from within the world itself.

Residents, needless to say, were dismayed. Many of them spend hours a day there; for some it is a full-time job. Though there’s no comparison in terms of loss of life and other damages, having Second Life flooded with GriefSpawn spheres was a bit like having your city flooded by a hurricane: Businesses were forced to close, residents were forced to evacuate and it would not be for days or weeks that the full extent of the damage would be known.

That’s a figure that will be difficult to calculate, though, for the GriefSpawn attack has had lasting effects, effects that go beyond whatever immediate destruction and business loss was caused. The code-meisters over at Linden Lab, the company behind Second Life, were obviously not very happy campers on GriefSpawn day. But they must have been relieved that it came the day before a major patch, for they took the opportunity to sneak a change into Second Life‘s new version that was designed to prevent such attacks in the future.

To many residents, however, the cure was worse that the disease.

To create a self-replicating object on the scale of the GriefSpawn that crashed all of Second Life, it’s necessary to have the parent object give a copy of the replication script to the children it creates – like cells passing along their DNA. So, to prevent such attacks in the future, Linden Lab coded new limitations into the function that passes inventory from one object to another, making it impossible to do so unless the objects you’d created were located on land you owned. The change slipped in just under the wire for the new release. And by Monday, residents were outraged.

This was virtual homeland security at its finest. One resident had crashed the Grid; all 70,000 of them now had their hands tied. Many of the most robust builds (SL slang for artifacts created by residents) and business applications in Second Life had relied on the transfer ability to work anywhere in the virtual world. Now you could play around with such functions in your backyard, but that was about it. To protect against future attacks, the new release actually rolled back functionality. And not just any functionality, but one of the key features that had allowed Second Life to become, for a great many people, the only virtual world that matters.

The perpetrator was punished too, of course, reportedly given a permanent ban by Linden Lab. But there’s almost no doubt he or she will be back. A borrowed credit card and a new IP address is all it would take. Perhaps they’ve learned their lesson, perhaps not. But the gods had spoken, the new laws had been passed down.

Fortunately, those laws were reversed soon after they were put into place. In this case, popular outcry had its effect. But if they’d stayed on the books much longer, the world of Second Life might have been in for far greater losses than any caused by the occasional griefer’s global attack.

Second Life stands or falls on what it’s possible to create there. The Grid contains almost no content created by the company that runs it. Linden Lab provides only a landscape (and sometimes not even that); the residents effectively constitute the largest content-creation team in existence, and one that pays for the privilege. In return they garner fun, fame and, in not a few cases, fortune.

But to make such a place truly fascinating and vibrant, much more must be possible there than simply the creation of shiny dream palaces. In fact, more must be possible than the creation of only the fine, attractive or even tediously dull things that many residents add to the Grid. Real life works the same way, after all. It may be possible to build a briefcase bomb, but that doesn’t mean it enriches society.

What’s different about cyberspace is that the men and women behind the code control the physics of their worlds. The avatars of Second Life are free to fly around at will. But a few keystrokes on the part of the coders would change that. Until late October, the physics of Second Life allowed object-to-object transfers. Because of a crime, those physics were briefly changed.

And that’s where things get tricky. Real-world crimes, of course, don’t lead to changes in the physical laws of the world in which we live. They lead to changes in the civil and criminal laws. That’s why we have such laws, because “bad” things are possible. Criminalizing murder doesn’t eliminate the threat, it simply raises the risks associated with committing murder.

Murder, of course, is something most people would agree should be eliminated from the world, if only it were possible. But incarceration is also possible under the physics of our world. Most people wouldn’t want to change this, as it’s one of the threats we use to convince people not to do things like commit murder. It’s a tool of social engineering that makes our society a comfortable place to live. But if Joe Psychopath next door were to lock away your attractive neighbor down the street, it wouldn’t be called incarceration, it would be called kidnapping. If you could change the physics of our world, would you want to get rid of jails just so you could get rid of kidnappers?

Because in a sense, that’s how Linden Lab chose to deal with the GriefSpawn. The criminal laws of Second Life haven’t changed; global attacks were strictly a no-no before October 23 and they remain against the “rules” today. But rather than put more cops on the street or find a better way to register and ban individual users, the company chose to eliminate a good in order to eliminate an evil.

It should be said here that the code-wrangling team at Linden Lab is looking for a fix that would result in the best of all possible worlds, i.e., that would allow the good while still eliminating the evil. But that’s not the point. Because no matter how foolproof the physics of your world are, there will always be a way to grief it. Ask any coder and they will tell you the same thing: There is no application without a bug, and no security system without a crack in it. The limited time and resources of a development team simply can’t compete with the nearly unlimited curiosity and commitment of those who hope to find those bugs and cracks. And once found, of course, someone will eventually exploit them, whether your physics likes it or not.

Philip Rosedale, the founder and CEO of Linden Lab, says he is not building a game, he is “building a country.” If so, it is at this point a country whose citizens have no voice, and which is run suspiciously as if it were, in fact, a game. Second Life‘s 7,000-word Terms of Service document (about three times as long as this article) contains all the same caveats as that of any game company’s: Although users retain the IP rights to their creations, Linden Lab or anyone else on the Grid can use those creations as they see fit. LL can kick you out or delete your stuff “for any reason or no reason.” And the Terms of Service and Community Standards, the documents that effectively constitute the civil, criminal and constitutional laws of the world, change so often and with so little notice that it’s impossible to know exactly where you stand at any given moment. As a virtual world, Second Life is the coolest thing going. As a country, it sucks.

Any other country would have seen the GriefSpawn coming long before it hit. The griefer in question had been associated with a group in Second Life long known for its startling builds and its troubling antics. Refugees from the forums at SomethingAwful.com, the W-Hat group is also filled with creative and talented people. But their activities over the past year have put them at or near the top of the chronic griefer squad. At the Second Life Herald, where, as Walker Spaight, I serve as Editorial Director, we’ve been covering these guys for months.

That they inhabit Second Life only means their griefing takes the form of their world: They define themselves by what they build. Highlights include apparent attempts to drive neighboring landowners off their land, builds featuring huge swastikas and enormous detached penises, a model of the World Trade Center in flames (complete with Death Star added for effect), harassment of other groups in Second Life, a graphic depiction of a murdered prostitute, and back in July, a client hack that gave them access to the private scripts and objects that run many of Second Life‘s businesses.

Given that it was widely known that crashing the Grid would not be all that hard, how could you not have seen the GriefSpawn coming?

What Linden Lab should have done about it is a different question. No one wants to live in a police state, even a virtual one. But a state with no policing is almost as bad. Code may be law, as Lawrence Lessig points out, but law is not the same as enforcement, and to expect the code to be not just the law of an online world, but the police force as well, is to put too great a burden on designers and programmers, and to limit what’s possible in cyberspace.

Second Life is in an interesting position. With no competitive structure, it’s not really a game. With no line between creators and consumers, it’s not really a development platform. With no real laws and no government, it’s not really a country. And even if it were all these things at once, it would still have to find some better definition of all these pieces and how they fit together if it’s to avoid the kind of two-steps-forward, one-step-back moments – like the nerfing of object-to-object transfers – that have marked its development thus far.

Perhaps we should thank the W-Hats, though. Perhaps it’s people like them who will push Second Life‘s society to take shape. Where griefers are concerned, the question is, where will Linden Lab draw the line? And, perhaps more importantly, how? Will the code remain law, and the enforcement remain at the whim of SL‘s administrators? It’s hard to see a robust world, one that looks like an online country, developing from that. Or will policing the world be left in the hands of its residents? If so, Linden Lab will have to make clear what is ban-able and what is not – they will have to make laws that go beyond the code, or allow their residents to do the same. Already, vigilante groups have sprung up that seek to punish avatars they perceive as criminal; the problem is, their techniques usually amount to little more than griefing the griefers, and many of them get banned, too.

Letting residents affect each other’s reputation through the kind of rating system found on eBay will only go so far. Bad reputations don’t bother the W-Hats or the Something Awful goons; bad reputations are their lifeblood. At some point, enforcement is needed, enforcement of laws that are stable and clearly laid out for all to see, including in their application, and hopefully with substantive input from the people those laws are meant to govern. That may be a lot to ask of a virtual world, but if Philip Rosedale is serious about building a country – and it often looks like he’s not, other than for marketing purposes – that’s the kind of thing that will have to happen.

Meanwhile, the Grid continues to grow. And let’s hope it continues. In many respects, Second Life is, in fact, the only virtual world that matters. The fact that you can create something that can make the Grid disappear for a day is only evidence of how much freedom its residents have – or did, until late October. Striking a balance between freedom and restraint will be difficult there; but then, it’s difficult in any country. Here’s hoping Second Life can manage it with a minimum of grief.

Mark Wallace can be found on the web at Walkering.com. His book with Peter Ludlow, Only A Game: Online Worlds and the Virtual Journalist Who Knew Too Much, will be published by O’Reilly in 2006.

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