GPT-4’s self-written evil story about deception and unfair gains

Virtuville was a peaceful town until money came into the discussion.

How biases and social norms persist in metaverses, and factors to consider before implementing a virtual world.

A screenshot from Second Life. A 3D rendered man with tan skin, wearing round, rose coloured glasses, white shirt and a blue and white striped vest. His hair is short, brown and tousled. On his shoulder sits a small white rabbit. He is sitting on a luxurious red brocade chair and looking off into the distance. The room looks to be a personal library, with timber fittings and stacks of books on bookshelves.
“Second Life — DOF” by Victor1st Mornington is licensed under CC BY 2.0.

Early in my tech and design career, I was tasked with “exploring Second Life.” My employer, a university, was considering purchasing virtual “land” to conduct classes and host events. They wanted me to road-test the platform, and give my opinion if it was a worthwhile investment.

I entered the platform without much understanding of it, except for what I had heard in the media.

If you haven’t heard of it, Second Life was (and still is) a multiplayer virtual world that launched in 2003. Classed as a cross between an MMO and Virtual World, it resembles what “The Metaverse” is today, 20 years later.

Since this was an experiment in a different life where the current rules didn’t apply, I decided to create an avatar that was very different from what was conventionally considered ‘attractive’ at that time (2004-ish).

My avatar was maxed out horizontally, and minimised (minned?) vertically. Her skin was bumpy and purple. She was bald and wore a string bikini adorned with the stars and stripes of the US flag. Picture a fusion of Divine, Ursula and Baron Harkonen with Paris’s fashion sense.

Upon entering Second Life, I was surprised to see that there were no avatars resembling mine.

Now, I don’t mention this to brag about how “woke” I was or to imply that “I’m not like other people”. I was there as an investigator and experimenter. I approached the situation with a different perspective than other players who were there solely for entertainment purposes

In a world where we had the freedom to be almost anything, the vast majority chose to be the same as real life, but “better.”

The avatars were uniformly tall. The female avatars were slim, while the male avatars were either muscular or equally slim as their female counterparts. Tanned skin and shiny, straight hair were abundant. All of them were fashionable, wearing low-rise jeans and slip dresses of the time.

Other players seemed to spend their time in cliques, chatting with occasional breaks for flights and dances. I spent hours trying to join these groups and find people to interact with.

What I found particularly interesting is the reception my character received. She was almost completely ignored. When she initiated a conversation, the topic would quickly turn to her appearance.

She was chastised, teased, and ostracised. She didn’t have the same experience as others because they created an environment where she was unable to participate.

As a result, my experience was lonely, somewhat tedious, and painful. Not unlike my social experiences in real life.

Context: I was not popular as a kid. At my suburban school, I was known as “Erin the Weird Girl” and outside of it “Erin the Space Cadet.” Having different interests from my peers meant my friendship groups were small and at times, nonexistent. Being different was generally frowned upon… and here I was, wanting to become an entomologist when I grew up (what a nerd). Sure, I may have been crowned the President of the school’s “Spider Club,” but I was also its founding and only member.

Fast forward to me, a web designer (this was the closest I ever got to entomology) in the early 2000s. “Thin was in” and I was anything but. Although my avatar’s body was exaggerated, to me, it resembled mine more than the bodies of other players’ avatars. When my avatar’s appearance was criticised, it felt as though the criticism was directed at me in real life. That criticism hurt.

After completing my task, I quit Second Life and never returned. The experience was enough for me to vow never to use a MMO again. 20 years later, I still haven’t done it.

What I learned

Professionally, my recommendation was that buying virtual land within Second Life was not a good investment for my employer. Showing their deep respect for my advice, they went ahead with it anyway.

Personally, what I learnt from this experience is:

This was not a scientific study by any means.

Like most people, I brought my hangups and mental models with me into Second Life, which influenced my experiences.

That being said, I am documenting this experience at a time when Metaverses are being seriously considered as tools for socialising, working, and learning. My experience is just one of many. My hope is that by sharing our individual experiences, we can enhance our collective understanding of the effects and value of Metaverses and virtual worlds.

Before we subject ourselves to a much bigger experiment than mine and use Metaverses for work or education, let’s consider the following:

Finally, there is another option, which I think is equally valid. Just don’t use Metaverses for work or education altogether.

It has been 20 years since this technology was introduced, yet it still hasn’t become mainstream. Could that be because it doesn’t solve real problems? Or could it be as simple as no-one wanting to sit in a Metaverse all day to learn or work?

Virtually unpopular: lessons From Second Life was originally published in UX Collective on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.






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