A few months ago, Second Life was no more familiar to me than the afterlife. I had heard about virtual worlds, but never felt inclined to explore them, having enough on my plate in the real world. As a crime correspondent, however, I was curious to find out whether virtual life had inherited any real-life vices.
My avatar was created for me by the equivalent of a virtual plastic surgeon, who did his best to recreate my features and was kind to my waistline. With a few basic lessons in how to navigate, teleport and fly, I took my first strides across the frontier of modern technology.
There seem to be infinite places to explore and people to meet. If you get bored of that, or want to escape from it all, you can simply create your own island. That’s the thing about Second Life – everything in it is made by the people inhabiting it. The original creators of the platform have merely provided the canvas and the materials for people to paint a new world. The imagination is the limit.
My first two reports looked at the potential dangers of virtual fraud as well as questions of the enormous amount of sexual content in Second Life and the age of people accessing it. This led me into discussions with more active members who helped me to delve deeper and eventually obtain the coordinates to find Wonderland.
At first sight, Wonderland looked like a real life playground, but here child-like avatars were offering sex. They were probably controlled by grown men, but the fantasy they created was nothing less than a virtual paedophile ring. The avatars were all members of clubs, so I joined their fold to find out more. From these associations, I was directed to a mock high school where women were tortured in dungeons below the classrooms, and from there to a virtual club where the house rules were to rape the girls.
Anti-abuse groups and the police say these kinds of fantasies can have real world consequences. In Second Life, real people gain approval for their actions and desires. They gain confidence to act this way in life.
Home Secretary Jacqui Smith told me she was concerned that computer-generated images could be used by paedophiles to break down their inhibitions.
Following my report, the Second Life creator, Linden Labs, had Wonderland wiped off its virtual planet. But returning to the emptied area in a new disguise, my character made friends with a small girl who handed me a key to something much bigger – a list of more than 30 virtual child sex and grooming areas, with instant links to teleport me to whichever one I wanted.
At one area, I was finally confronted by someone claiming to be head of security. His avatar was that of a tiger, and his presence, though virtual, was deeply unsettling.
We switched to voice chat and it was as if he’d stepped into the room. I decided to come clean and front him up. I asked him whether he would act this way towards real children. ‘No, Sir’was his stilted reply.
But it’s wrong to think that this is just harmless fantasy. On the walls of one virtual classroom, I stumbled upon a real photograph of a child exposing herself in a sexual pose. Finally, confirmation that real children were suffering for the gratification of these virtual clubs. The details are now with the police.