I Am, I Am, I Am Superman/And I Know What's Happening


Peter Ludlow has a pair of guest posts at Henry Jenkins' site about some battles that broke out in Second Life, a well-known virtual world. The short version: Pranksters and vandals, known in gaming circles as griefers, make trouble for other players; a vigilante group forms to battle the griefers; paranoia sets in, and the vigilantes start to see griefers everywhere. Eventually the conflict spills out into the outside world. There's no substitute for reading the whole thing, but here's an excerpt:

Kal-El is no stranger to advanced technology.

In 2006, a Second Life avatar by the name of Kalel Venkman decided to create a vigilante group to fight the likes of the PN [a griefer group that emerged from 4chan], and he decided it would be fun to do it in the guise of comic book superheroes. He donned a Superman skin, and he named his group the "Justice League Unlimited." Other familiar superheroes soon followed, including The Green Lantern, Batman, Wonder Woman, and others.

In real life, Kalel was a late middle aged technical writer living in Simi, California. He apparently had flex time, and he also appeared to have sufficient charm and gravitas to attract members to the Justice League and to keep them well organized and on mission. Their Justice League headquarters had a marvelous NASA quality control room, with monitors that displayed constant updates coming in from sensors all over the Second Life grid. The updates also informed the League members what representatives from the game company were online. As with the SSG, the Justice League had close contacts with employees of the game company (Linden Lab), and utilized those relationships in filing abuse reports against other players.

What perhaps began as a fun exercise in roleplay soon began to go awry. Overzealous Justice League members began abuse reporting heavily, and also began picking fights with unlikely groups within Second Life. For example, the Justice League was banned from Furnation (an area inside Second Life dedicated to players that like to don anthropomorphized animal costumes), because of their excessive vigilantism.

The JLU of course clashed with the PN, but the problem became determining who was really a member of the PN and who was simply in the orbit of the PN. Matters took on fractal complexity when some students of Woodbury University (a real life University with a virtual campus inside Second Life) became associated with 4chan and the PN. In what seemed like a bizarre case of guilt by association, the members of the Justice League took on the students of Woodbury University, at one point successfully getting Linden Lab to shut down Woodbury Island (the virtual campus). Naturally matters quickly escalated.

Someone (presumably from the Justice League) contacted the administration at Woodbury University to complain about the faculty supervisor of Woodbury and to argue (in effect) that he was corrupting innocent youth and inspiring them to griefer ways. In turn, the students, led by the avatar Tizzers Foxchase (Jordan Belino in real life) turned up the heat on Kalel, to the point where a number of Woodbury students went trick or treating at Kalel's house on Halloween. Kalel wasn't home, so the students told his wife to tell him that Woodbury had been there. Kalel naturally flipped out.

I should note that some people have disputed Ludlow's account of events; you can see some of their critiques in the comment thread below Ludlow's first report. There is also a follow-up post, co-written by Ludlow and Jenkins, that puts the events in a broader context of fantasy narratives and online worlds.

Elsewhere in Reason: I wrote about another case of gameplay spilling over into the outside world back in 2005. And in 2004 I interviewed Ludlow for a story about some somewhat similar griefer wars in The Sims Online. The latter article is notable for containing the most self-indulgent opening sentence I have ever written.