Second Life, Free Realms, and Parenting in 2013I know what the lot of you are already thinking just from the title alone, and don’t worry, I get it. The stigma attached to Linden Lab’s whirlwind success is one of those uneducated stains that you have to really live with if you’re going to be a citizen of Second Life. When the most media attention people get from the “First Life” world comes in the form of furries, sex perverts, and expectations of low graphics and sad, sad people, you come to expect folks see the worst. On the contrary, my time spent there all grew from an article I was writing years and years ago. I dove in with the understanding that this place was built up from the ground floor by “residents,” and that was a fascinating concept. Linden Lab gave these people the tools, taught them how to make their world flourish, and stepped back.

More than likely, I could go on for days about the good and the bad of a place like Second Life. I’ve run a successful store, wrote for an in-world magazine, became a fashion “photographer,” and became a part of the creative writing, rich roleplaying community there that still, to this day, fascinates me. Sure, all of those things sound glorious, but that’s because I dance in and out of that place from time to time and I never linger very long; that’s mostly due to who I am and the fact that my personality is not what comprises the Grid at all. No, on the contrary, Second Life stays vibrant and alive because people are there. Often. Whether they are in circumstances that leave them at home often, gamers who want to socialize, or they’re the types who just want to reach out and feel good about themselves by living through an avatar, Second Life thrives.

First Life Problems from a Second Life Perspective

It’s not all creativity and people reaching out to softly and innocently embrace meeting new friends, though. No, the amount of “catfishing” that goes on in Second Life is stunning and it’s hit me at least a few times. People who escape to Second Life because their First Life (Real Life) is complicated enough and who tangle their lives up with people and sometimes truly, truly hurt them. Every online situation has the potential for that though, but Second Life gives these fictional stories a face and sometimes that’s dangerous for the mental health of its residents. Mesh identity issues with the rampant oversexuality and Second Life becomes a playground for the whims and curiosities of not just the healthy-minded and responsible, but the macabre and disturbed.

As someone who saw the good and the bad of Second Life and knew what it was all about, I feel that I’m a decent person to talk to about it. Within my circle of friends, a smattering of them are ones who I originally met there but were introduced to my real life with some success. You find through introducing Second Life residents into your First Life that, well, some of them aren’t good at it. They’re there, on that Grid, for a reason and they can handle things there as long as they’re logged on, but that’s where it ends. Out of hundreds of people I’ve met there, I can only list maybe five or six who had full-time jobs and/or successful relationships.

I wish I was exaggerating.

Now I mention this place because it’s the only experience I truly have with social games on the Internet. If there are more that offer such a broad scope of human interaction online, I don’t know about them. To me, Linden Lab’s free-to-play game is about as real as I’ve needed it to be; I wouldn’t have sought out others. Why would I, right?

Then it happened.

It’s Not You. It’s Them.

I was in the kitchen with my daughter, who generally sets her laptop at the dining room table to listen to music and play games, when I looked up from what I was doing to ask what she was up to. She was happily bobbing her dark curls about, earbuds in her ears, and she tugged one free and answered quite simply: “Listening to music and dancing.” which made me laugh. I asked her how, dried my hands off, and walked over to see that she had an avatar dancing on her screen. The avatar was tall and anime-eyed with bright purple wings and a tight, yet floor-length gown on and she was, indeed, dancing — in a club with other avatars inside, and the music was being projected throughout, with people chatting there in the room, and my heart sank into my stomach.

What the hell is this?

As a parent, which I’m sure a lot of you know, every single thing that you say in regards to parenting has to be scrutinized. I’m the oldest of five and I have to say that watching my mother parent has been a blessing and a curse in these situations. My daughter looked up at me with her big, innocent brown eyes and smiled, pointing to the screen. “See? I’m dancing. These are my friends.” and while she pointed out what I had already seen, I was listening to her words and searching all over the screen. This wasn’t Second Life, but it was a damned close facsimile and it was definitely too damned close for my liking. When I caught the name of the simulation on the corner of the screen, it said “IMVU,” and then I thought to research it myself. I know I looked concerned, because she then started pointing out all of the things about it that made it not “bad” in her eyes. For example, she went into the “Teen” area since she felt that meant it was safe and appropriate for her, despite the fact she’s a year off and she left rooms if she felt people were discussing things that weren’t right for her to be a part of. Showing me a listing of the rooms she had gone into and even her messages proved that she was looking to socialize and seek attention, but this wasn’t the right place for it.

I panicked.

Kick off Your Sunday Shoes

I take pride in a lot of things when it comes to my kid and I trust her to know when to come get me. She’s in no hurry to truly grow up because she knows there’s a hell of a lot of responsibility and hormones on the cusp of that and she showed me that by studying my face while I mulled over the things she was showing me. At first, her concern was that I thought she was engaging in inappropriate behavior, but that actually wasn’t it at all. I calmly sat down and stroked her stomach (she’s like a cat in that way — it calms her down) and explained that this wasn’t like Facebook; I couldn’t make sure nobody would get to her here. That it was other people I didn’t trust — not her. I also asked her what it was that she liked about this IMVU place and what drew her there to begin with.

The answer was almost too sweet and innocent to handle, really.

“I just wanted to play dress up and meet people. To go somewhere that I could talk to people and get to know them because I don’t have a lot of friends here who like the things I like,” she explained, and dear God, how I understood that. It’s rough growing up when you’re not on the same level as other kids and I could definitely sympathize. Just like my daughter, I grew up with video games, comic books, anime, and a massive imagination that made me stick out when lined up next to the other kids. Girls, more than boys, couldn’t relate to me at all as a child because the majority of the girls to whom I was local were not like that. My daughter was struggling to connect and express herself, but this IMVU place, which appeared to be a Second Life for young adults, was not where I wanted her to go.

It was then that I listened to the things she liked about it and the constant furrowing of my brow made her worry. She told me if it scared me that she was spending time there, she would uninstall it. That no silly online game was worth my concern and fear and that she, admittedly, might not know what is going on there, but I obviously do. Without my prompting her, she uninstalled the game herself and I told her how proud I was that it was her decision and I explained, again, that it had nothing to do with her and everything to do with the people there. The Internet just can’t be trusted with the innocence of a child, sad to say. I stand by that.

Something had to be done though, because I didn’t want to tear my child away from socializing online, but she had to have a safe place to do it. I absolutely refused to be that parent who bans everything because they don’t want to put the time in and explore options, because that puts a severity and a dangerous appeal to things. My house isn’t going to become the town from Footloose, and I don’t want her to think that socializing is the problem. So I got online and searched for solutions with which I was comfortable. I wanted something that would be engaging, but monitored enough to let her feel safe, though not over the top to the point where she wouldn’t have fun.

Free Realms

I found Sony Online Entertainment’s Free Realms and breathed a sigh of absolute relief. Now I didn’t just charge into it and go “This, this, and this!” and start signing her up, but I did do quite a bit of research into how it’s run, the price point, and the overall appeal to someone Bella’s age. I recalled when looking it up that I had been at Sony Online’s booth during E3 when the company was trying to get people excited for it, explaining that it was the first real frontier meant for all ages to play. It was designed to be an MMO for the Nickelodeon generation to embrace, where members can do any job they imagine, play dozens upon dozens of games, earn currency, buy clothes, furniture, and houses, and engage with friends in the safety of a brightly colored landscape.

Granted, I’m sure there have been problems with harassment or whatever, but the setup seems just too flawless not to enjoy. I installed it on my PS3 and took it for a spin, creating a name like “Candace Silenthill” from the three rolling options to create an approved name that keeps everyone on the same page there in Free Realms. You won’t see Dumptruck McDogfart or anything that would make you cringe because Sony took care to keep an eye on the possible youth that could fill its servers. It’s a place where I can easily play games with my daughter and know that if I log off, she’s still safe. As a parent in this digital age, you hold onto those things and you don’t let them go.

As we speak, my daughter is excitedly chirping about how many coins she earned and the dragon she wants to buy to show her friend and about the pet show that is being set up at someone’s farm to show off pets and their fancy gear. This, thankfully, is a far cry from twenty-four hours prior in which she was dancing seductively in purple wings in an online landscape that would make Dateline NBC giddy with purpose. I seriously dodged a bullet.

Do you as parents worry about the online interaction your children have? Do you ban all possible forms of expression online because of the audience it could draw? What do you seek when it comes to finding safe havens online for your children to stay children? Sound off below and make sure to share links!

Image: Shared by FreeRealms with modifications by author