The widespread belief that virtual worlds like Second Life have no impact on the real-life behaviors of youth is dangerously inaccurate. If play is just another pedagogical tool through which lessons about everyday life can be projected, then immersive worlds like Second Life are just as influential on a child’s behavior as any book or homework assignment, if not more so. In his article, Blackless Fantasy: The Disappearance of Race in Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games, Tanner Higgin discusses how the exclusion of race in MMORPGs can reinforce certain notions about black stereotypes in real life, noting: “what is being imagined and performed in the fantasy world can then be learned and exported into the physical world” (12). Skewed ideas about race are incorporated into fabric of video games themselves, which then strengthen and encourage the behaviors even more, creating a self-perpetuating cycle. The virtual world’s influence over real-life treatment of race and class also extends to more personal categories, like personal self-worth. Twelve-year-old Loli-Chan epitomizes this fact.
When Loli was 12 years old, she relayed a set of nude photos of herself to a stranger on the internet in exchange for 12,000 virtual gold pieces on the site Go-Gaia.com. In an interview, Loli explained how she “wanted little digital clothes for [her] little digital person, so [she] sent someone pictures of [her] boobs and vagina” (Jezebel). After discovering the message board site 4Chan, Loli’s behavior escalated as she began posting images of herself to the site in order to gain Internet popularity. The flurry of media attention that derived from Loli’s virality drove her, literally, to insanity: after dropping out of college (due to unstoppable voices in her head) and involuntarily entering a psych ward, the girl resorted to online strip sites like MyFreeCams to pay off her massive hospital debt and has since moved back in with her parents.
In the case of Loli-Chan, her participation in the virtual world Go-Gaia.com (rather, her desire to be financially successful in that world) resulted in a destructive real-life decision that ultimately snowballed into the girl’s permanent emotional damage. What exactly caused Loli’s psychotic break? The answer is not so simple. While Loli’s vulnerability may easily be attributed to her age, the forces behind Loli’s Internet popularity – that is, her fans – reveal a more unsettling pattern. After discovering Loli’s sex-cam work, many of her 4Chan followers expressed their disappointment, not so much at the desperation of this young teenage girl but rather, at their own disillusionment. Loli’s Internet stardom stemmed not from any particular display of talent but from her status as a “character” that users of the website could fantasize over. In other words, the separation of Loli’s image from her character, no doubt a result of the Internet’s conduciveness to “detachment,” caused her to become fetishized. In turn, the fans’ disillusionment caused by the deconstruction of Loli as a fetish object merely amplified the girl’s behavior (she went on to create an Amazon wishlist where fans could buy her tools for her sexual exploits as well as MyFreeCam sessions) (Jezebel).
If we extend Higgin’s argument about the influence of virtual worlds, we find that the supporters of such behavior are at fault just as much as those who participate. While Loli’s drive to be successful in the virtual world of Go-Gaia.com impelled her to exploit her body for attention, the “fans” that fed off her behavior also reinforced certain beliefs about the appropriateness of her actions. So, while Loli gained certain ideas about self-worth through her participation in virtual worlds and cultures, her supporters learned that it was okay to encourage her to do so.
In the end, one larger question remains: if users are encouraging Loli’s sexualized image in the online world, and the Internet is merely a projection of real-life attitudes, then is the fetishization of Loli-Chan a direct result of society’s desire to sexualize and fetishize the female image?