Wednesday, January 21, 2009

And the wall comes down. End of the teen grid.

If you haven’t heard, recent comments by LL CEO Mark Kingdom (M Linden)and chairman/founder Philip Rosedale (Philip Linden) indicate that second life plans to merge the current Teen Grid into the main grid. No firm plans for implementation or dates of course. As usual we hear about these things with no details so people’s minds can run wild. What will it mean? Expunging all adult content from the main grid? Thousands of lawsuits involving 13 year olds wandering into the wrong area? Reliance on the broken, and will never ever work, age verification system? Hell anything is possible right?

So why would the lindens want to merge the grids in the first place? The lindens are big on promoting education as in getting real world educators using the platform. Merging the grids makes it much easier to implement classes and makes it all the more attractive for educators. There is also some want for families to be able to meet up on the same grid. Some parents are unhappy that the teen grid is so closed that they can’t even check up on what their children are up to in world.

The other argument with merging the grids is that teens can just lie about their age and get on the main grid anyway so why bother with running two grids. While this is true I’m not happy with this as a reason. This logic leaves out the fact that some teens and certainly their parents want a level of protection. It simply isn’t right to suddenly turn the “good” teens over to the wolves. So how can they be protected from the Adult content?

Purging the main grid of all adult content is a joke. If that’s the plan then they might as just shut down the main grid and only run the teen grid. Even if they scrubbed the grid Disney clean they would have to approve all new content uploads as well as deal with chat, IMs, and Voice. So with Adult verification broken beyond all hope how can they protect minors in the new combined grid? By verifying the minors rather than verifying the adults.

If a teen with their parents’ permission wants to access a safer combined grid, they will need to give their real age and be classified as a RL teen in second life using the same methods to secure access to the teen grid now. This could allow areas of SL not verified as safe to be blocked to minor access. It could also allow a way for the rest of us to know a teen when we see one, either by looking at their profile or some sort of avatar marking like the white dot we have over people in voice chat now. 
While imperfect this would allow for the kind of protections one would expect in RL. As an adult you would know when they are around teens and would at least have the choice of acting appropriately.  A teen might work around the system by camming beyond where they are allowed, but at least they will not stumble into an adult area. Beyond this the imperfect nature of teen/adult interactions would rule.

Tuesday, January 20, 2009

More than skin deep?

Although I do not make my living in SL as a skin designer I found myself having a guttural reaction while reading Nexeus Fatale’s post “Frustrations of an Ethnic Avatar in Second Life”. It was the same type of reaction I had over a year ago when I read parts of Mean Girls Orchard’s post “SL Racism”. In her post she states that, “…content creation isn't about creativity at all - its about money. Content creators don't make things that make them happy .. they make things that the droning masses will buy. Sally Skinmaker doesn't care what color you WANT to be…” dragging skin makers in to her arguments about SL Racism and disappointment in skin options in general. 

While Nexeus does not claim racism specifically he does claim ignorance in general and believes that “…designers need to re-evaluate what they have and work on creating more items and content that is more diverse and of equal quality or don’t do it at all…” To me that feels pretty harsh considering how much work goes into a single skin. 

The biggest issue with skins and skin makers are the economies of scale. SL gives skin designers a single layer in order to all of their work. In the case of a men’s skin offering 4 facial hair and 4 skull hair styles making 16 variations for a single shade skin. If you doubled the number of facial and skull hair styles suddenly you are at 64 skin variations to be uploaded, photographed, and packaged and rezzed out, for one shade of skin. It’s the same issue women have finding a skin with makeup options they like. Until the lindens give us multiple skin layers this issue stays. Then there is the issue of vertical markets. What are you going to go after in SL? Nekos? Furries? Elfs? Demons? Vampires? Zombies? Cybogs? The SL rainbow does not begin and end with earthly humans and no designer can do it all. So choices are made limiting the options offered. 

Now are skin designers missing out on untapped vertical markets out there like targeting more specific human races and even combinations of these races? There is much talk about how glutted the SL skin marketplace is. There may be a huge market advantage to a skin designer to come up with very specific racial skins. Not just to cater to that specific race wanting to look like themselves in SL, but to cater to those that would like to Role Play as that race. 

So what is the solution here? I’m not going to suggest that anyone that can’t find what they want needs to just “make it themselves”.  Try and work with skin makers rather than just be frustrated with them. Many designers are having a hard time of it with the global recession and may be open to detailed and specific suggestions, rather than just a short list of actors, of how they can make designs to more specific tastes. Let them know that there is a market out there that is clamoring for more than what is available and show them that it will be worth the effort to go in a direction they may have never considered. 

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

Taxation of Virtual Worlds, Not.

Ok so the hype is on about the US "National Taxpayer advocate's 2008 annual report to Congress" because of the section called, “The IRS Should Proactively Address Emerging Issues Such as Those Arising from Virtual Worlds”. This has lead to stories from various sources with titles like Get Ready for Virtual Income TaxTaxes Coming To Virtual Worlds?, and my personal favorite The taxman cometh? IRS urged to tax virtual worlds, economies. What all of these articles fail to mention is that there is NO actual recommendation to start taxing virtual worlds in the report at all. 

The section in question states that there is no IRS code about what goes on inside virtual worlds and that it should be addressed in some way including the statement that, "IRS guidance could improve taxpayer compliance even if it simply clarified that in-world transactions are not taxable". It would not be the first time that the IRS deemed virtual monetary systems not subject to tax. Frequent flyer miles are not subject to tax even thou they can be used to purchase real world items of value.

All the pro tax virtual worlds arguments revolve around the perceived real world value of these transactions. In the case of second life, yes there is an exchange rate between lindens and real life currency. Even then the report points out that "...statistics suggest that most transactions on Second Life are for less than $1 and would not be subject to information reporting, even if the IRS treated Second Life as a barter exchange." 

Its only the real world valuation that the IRS is ever going to care about. When I play Dead Space on the PS3 I'm in a virtual world.  There is a money system, and stores, and items I buy and sell. I generate value when I upgrade my weapons, it's valuable to me while I'm playing the game anyway. But if I can't cash out where is all this value when I eject the disk? If you play WOW all day and get this great weapon but never sell it on E-bay who cares? If you do sell it, that money is considered reportable income, and is already covered by IRS laws. Think of it like this, if you grow corn in your back yard and sell it that income is taxable. But if you just eat it yourself or let it rot, you haven't profited financially from it so there is nothing to tax so the IRS doesn't care about it. 

Of course there are grey areas like IMVU Music where you can use virtual monies to buy real MP3s and this wacky notion of buying pizza with lindens that seems to have never happened. (at least I couldn't find it in world) If things like this become the rule and not the exception it will be more likely that the IRS will really take notice. Or I could be wrong and the next update to Dead Space will include a sales tax upgrade to the ships store.