Virtual Heartbreak Hotel

I’ve been reading and watching with interest a UK Channel 4 report on the popular virtual world Habbo Hotel. For those unfamiliar with the story, Channel 4 News got a female producer to pose as an 11-year old girl for 2 months, who complains that she was subjected to extreme sexual contact from other users. The report also hints strongly that some of the contact came from groomers and possibly paedophiles, and highlights the case of two teenagers who were contacted in Habbo Hotel, and later sexually abused.

The video is disturbing to say the least, some of the exchanges leave nothing to the imagination, and it seems clear that Sulake, the makers of Habbo Hotel, have a serious problem with supervision and moderation on their hands. However, I have been rather puzzled by the coverage. This has clearly brought out the “Think of the Children” and “Ban This Filth” crowds, all baying for virtual blood. The game has been universally condemned, and even the European Union has warned Sulake that they must take action, or face regulatory intervention.

Moral panic indeed.

So, is it possible to control virtual environments? Can policy-makers regulate spaces like Habbo Hotel?

Habbo Hotel is not really a game, it is a gathering place, a virtual chat room with 230 million users worldwide where teenagers and children choose avatars and interact with one another. That in itself makes it tremendously difficult to regulate, the site has 70 million lines of conversation every day, which makes even the most basic attempt at moderation an expensive and impossible task. Software could perhaps help flag some inappropriate conversations, but with that amount of volume, it could prove to be impossible.

What is happening with Habbo Hotel is not new, it is as old as virtual spaces. Some of the descriptions of virtual sex acts in the video reminded me of Dibbell’s famous “Rape in Cyberspace“. The question of moderation is at the heart of online spaces. In my experience, many unmoderated spaces online usually descend into abuse, porn, misogyny, homophobia and racism. The perception of anonymity really tends to bring out the worst in some people, proving once more Penny Arcade’s Greater Internet F*ckwad Theory. Moreover, many game companies and virtual world designers are caught in what could be called the moderation dilemma, if they ban too many users, that will affect their profits. So for many years now I have witnessed game chartrooms where no moderation exists. In some cases, this makes gaming experience rather painful, and normal people either migrate, or turn it off completely, which leaves all public spaces to the trolls, perpetuating censurable behaviour.

I am also interested to try to find out how much of the objectionable chat in Habbo Hotel is the norm, and comes from the teenage users themselves, or if it is a journalistic exaggeration. I have never liked virtual gathering places such as Habbo or Second Life, I find them boring, but Channel 4 must have kept records of what transpired, perhaps chat logs, or something similar. If the site is filled with filth as they present, then I would not be surprised, but it would certainly merit some sort of action.

The problem here is that even if Habbo gets its act together, it is perfectly possible that teenagers will migrate to other free spaces. A large percentage of male tweens and teenagers already inhabits completely distributed games such as Minecraft. In Minecraft, people who have bought the game can run their own server, making it literally impossible to control. For a generation that is growing up suspicious of all control, such distributed solutions are the way of the future.

Whatever happens, virtual world regulation is back with a vengeance. I sense a Gikii paper.

ETA: I have asked experts in the field (my nephews) about their perception of Habbo Hotel. They laughed in derision, apparently it is well known as a lame place to go.

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