As gamers already know, virtual worlds that aim to provide "freedom" to users like Second Life can devolve into dens of villainy, sin, and exaggerated digital genitalia, but soon, the U.S. Congress will know as well. An appropriations bill passed by Congress in March called for the Federal Trade Commission to "submit a report to the House and Senate Committees on Appropriations discussing the types of content on virtual reality sites and what steps, if any, these sites take to prevent minors from accessing content."
I'm sure your own forays into "virtual reality" sites would provide enough info for the government to chew over, so if the report is fair, I'm sure it will note that "adult" content in MMOs pretty limited in most popular games and worlds. While I'm sure there are some deviant Nigh Elves out there in WoW, they are, by far, the exception as opposed to the rule. World of Warcraft is just too interesting for players to spend much time on creating carnal pursuits -- those epic shoulder pads are a much more noble pursuit.
In my opinion, the only time sexual content becomes prevalent in an online world is when the game isn't that interesting. Because Second Life isn't actually a game, there's no plot or framework to guide players, so people have time to create automated genitalia, rape rooms and other forms of digital nastiness. Providing excellent gaming thus acts as an elegant method of preventing kids from accessing adult content.
I imagine the FTC will find that sites geared specifically toward children (Habbo, Gaia Online, Meez, WeeWorld) have a vested interested in providing players with a "clean" atmosphere, so they use tech and age-gates to keep everything age-appropriate and probably do a pretty job of it. But worlds for adults, like Second Life, are a different story. How do you keep kids away from places where deviant adults practice their deviance?
Lately, Second Life has begun working hard to "rate" their content and keep minors out of non-minor-friendly areas by creating age verification systems and whatnot. How that's working out remains to be seen, but one thing is for sure: Determined teenagers will find ways to access material they're not supposed to. Luckily, compared to the huge amount of adult material on the web at large, Second Life and its ilk really don't offer much, and they seem to be better protected than most "real" adult material on the internet and in real life. If the FTC's report is fair and honest, it will likely reflect that.
Here's my own personal solution to keeping children from accessing inappropriate material: Put all adult content behind filters that require you to solve very complicated algebra problems in order to access it. This won't keep kids from seeing naughty bits, but nothing really will, and at least they'll get really, really good at math.
What do you think? Are virtual world makers doing enough to keep kids from accessing adult material? If not, what can be done to keep everyone safe?