Mr. DeVries is a teacher in Covenant Christian High School and a member of Hope Protestant Reformed Church, Walker, Michigan.

“And of the children of Issachar, which were men that had understanding of the times, to know what Israel ought to do.” 

I Chronicles 12:32

The Cyberspace Age 

Each age in history has its own spirit, flavor, or zeitgeist. The zeitgeist of today is such that people, young people in particular, are increasingly retreating into the imaginary world of cyberspace. We all have heard of the various social networking sites such as Facebook, andMySpace, which are very popular with many of our youth, but now we must also add online virtual worlds in which one can “live” a second life. In an attempt to keep with the theme of this rubric, an effort will be made to help the modern-day men and women of Issachar to understand more fully the times in regard to the issue of virtual lives, so that they will better know what Israel must do.

These virtual worlds already abound on the Internet, and it is my opinion that in the near future everyone will become aware of their prevalence. As an example, usage on one virtual world site, Second Life, continues to climb dramatically. In 2006, total usage on that site was 51 million hours. By way of comparison, in 2007, users spent over 220 million hours, with as many as 58,000 people logged on at once, and over $78 million has been transferred in and out of the system.¹

In just the past year, according to the trade organization Virtual Worlds Management, companies, venture capitalists, and media firms have pumped a billion dollars into developing virtual worlds, and have invested more than $425 million dollars in 15 virtual worlds companies during the fourth quarter of 2007 alone.²

Our parents’ generation probably never dreamed that there would be virtual worlds created for people to conduct a virtual life in. Being a man or woman of Issachar today means being able to apply unchanging biblical principles in a rapidly changing world. We must spend some time to gain an understanding of these novel topics and prayerfully consider the consequences of the activities that modern technology affords.

What are Virtual Worlds?

There are many examples of virtual worlds that exist in the ether. These could includeWebkinz, Club Penguin, and games likeWorld of Warcraft. There is a close relationship between the online game industry and the virtual worlds industry, as they are financed by similar entities and served by the same software companies. For the purposes of this article I am going to focus on one virtual world that has been getting a lot of press lately, Second Life, created by Linden Labs in San Francisco.

Second Life is a free Internet service that enables you to create and take control of a character that represents yourself (called an avatar).³ Second Life provides the software that enables you to guide your avatar through a 3-D landscape, chat with other avatars by text or audio, and build objects with tools. Second Life is not a game; it’s more like an animated version of real life. There is no way to win and no specific objective.4 Popular activities inSecond Life are changing your appearance, buying upgraded clothing, hanging out and talking to other avatars, building a house, creating or shopping for things to put in your house. You do pretty much anything in Second Life that you can do in real life. You could go fishing, bowling, watch TV, or even get a job in-world. Remember, there is a real person behind every avatar in Second Life.

Uses of Second Life 

Touted as a “virtual world,” Second Life is more than a game or social-networking site; it’s also a venue for financial transactions. The casual user will have many opportunities to spend money and make money while participating in Second Life.

There is also a lot of money to be made by talented programmers who are setting up a virtual presence for large corporations online in Second Life. Sibley Verbeek, founder and CEO of Electric Sheep Company, has reported that his company has been hired to build in-world presences for such clients as AOL, Major League Baseball, the NBA, Nissan, Pontiac, and Sony.5 Corporate staff meetings and training sessions also seem to giveSecond Life an aura of legitimacy. IBM and Sun Microsystems are two of the big players that have recruitment centers and locationless employee meetings in the virtual world of Second Life.

There has even been an attempt by many to re-create actual cities in Second Life. For example, the city of Dublin, Ireland has been re-created in Second Life, and you can visit it the same way you would in real life. Many other cities are getting on board and attracting avatars to their city in hopes of creating interest and having that interest turn into a boost for real tourism.

One notable trend is the recent attempts at converging virtual worlds with reality. An example would be the juxtaposition of a real meeting with a virtual one. Some observers think that virtual worlds may soon merge with 3-D representations of the real world, such as Google Earth or Microsoft Live Search Maps, thus creating a synergistically fused paradigm in which the virtual world would seem even that much closer to the real world.

Increasingly people are logging on toSecond Life to work, shop, or go to class. Philip Rosedale, founder of Second Life, claims that over 100 colleges and universities are holding classes insideSecond Life.6 If a rival university recruits prospective students on Second Life or hosts seminars, there is pressure on others to do so too.7 Also, many churches have touted the winning of souls onSecond Life. Numerous churches have developed sophisticated presences inSecond Life with a building that you can navigate to and participate in a service if you so desire. There is even a SLbible (Second Life Bible) available that you can purchase and have attached to your avatar. This feature would automatically post parts of the Bible into the chat that you are having with another participant.

The Appeal of Second Life 

Despite all these supposed legitimate uses for delving into a virtual world likeSecond Life, the most often cited reasons people give for foraying into cyberspace is to fulfill their desire to live out their dreams, fantasies, and deepest feelings, all the while remaining anonymous and thereby hoping to suffer no consequences. Equally pernicious, the people behind the avatars feel little or no responsibility for the actions that they take in the virtual world. Second Life players can be anyone or anything, and do nearly anything.

“Among whom also we all had our conversation in times past in the lusts of our flesh, fulfilling the desires of the flesh and of the mind; and were by nature the children of wrath, even as others” (Eph. 2:3). This passage describes how children of wrath are given over to the lustful desires of their flesh. We want to make sure this isn’t our motivation for a virtual life in cyberspace.

In the Old Testament, when the people wanted to give themselves over to their own lust, God said that they “lusted exceedingly in the wilderness, and tempted God in the desert. And he gave them their request; but sent leanness into their soul” (Ps. 106:14, 15). Those who are engrossed in living out their desires online in a virtual world could best be described as ending up with “leanness in their soul,” just as those in the above passage who were given over to these lusts.

At the extensive World Gospel Mission Website, there is a section devoted to virtual worlds. They state this about the appeal of having a Second Life:

Many spend time in Second Lifebecause, for one reason or another, they are happier in this “second” life than they are in “real” life. They leave the struggles of life behind momentarily when they go online and interact with others using a fictional persona they have created in this alternate world. They are searching for purpose and trying to create it for themselves there. After all, at the same time it offers “near unlimited freedom,”Second Life claims that “this world really is whatever you make it, and your experience is what you want out of it.¹

Others are attracted by the possibility of making money, harassing and assaulting others, promoting their products, and pursuing virtual sex. Much of what goes on in the “mature” areas on Second Life has to do with meeting others for a possible virtual sexual experience.

Some claim that cybersex, not being “real,” isn’t damaging or immoral. This demonstrably is false. Marriages have broken up over virtual infidelity, friendships have been destroyed, and the Bible clearly states that thought is as real and as subject to moral examination as action.² “For this is the will of God, even your sanctification, that ye should abstain from fornication” (I Thess. 4:3).

Problems Encountered in Second Life

With its emphasis on anonymity and living out your life with “no consequences,” it is not too hard to imagine that a “Second Life” can be wrought with problems.

A common occurrence in Second Life is what is referred to as “griefing,” when players harass another for the sake of doing it. This “griefing” can be as simple as someone running into your avatar or as severe as someone trying to “kill” your avatar, although it is not possible actually to kill an avatar in Second Life.

Even worse is the prevalence of all manner of sexual deviance. Pedophilia became so rampant that Linden Labs eventually banned it. Currently, that and gambling are the only two things banned in Second Life. It is possible to stay away from sex and violence in Second Life by not traveling to regions designated “Mature Content” or by staying in private sectors set up by an institution, say a college, in which a password and verification are needed to enter. However, if you wander around areas marked “mature content,” you will come across just about anything.

The felonious nature prevalent in Second Life was elucidated recently in an article in the Grand Rapids Press entitled, “Virtually Losing Your Shirt.” In that article the Ginko Financial scam is described, in which several thousand Second Life participants lost the Linden Dollars (currently 270 Linden dollars are equal to one USD) that they invested in a fraudulent virtual investment program on Second Life called Ginko Financial. Reportedly the total lost was around $75,000USD.³

Another vexing issue is the possibility of addiction. The virtual world of Second Lifecan captivate the users to such an extent that many forget their real lives. It is wise to be cognizant of this eventuality when considering if our young children should spend time in something that could lead to the estrangement of our youth.

Focus on the First Life

There may be justifiably good reasons for delving into the whole milieu of the virtual worlds, such as academic simulations, training, business meetings, marketing, and such like, in which we would represent ourselves just as we would in real life. Unfortunately, however, it seems that for many, the motivation is not for education or business, but to live an alternate life to the one God has given.

The separation between the virtual world and real life can become increasingly tenuous. As become increasingly tenuous. As Mansfield writes in his book, How to do Everything in Second Life, “After you’ve been a resident for awhile, you sometimes catch yourself blending Second Life into your real life…. Your dreams are aboutSecond Life.” As a person becomes more and more involved in this realm, the deeper he will slide.¹

Eventually our conscience treats the symbols on the computer as if they are real. One’s “avatar” symbolizes the deepest wishes, aspirations, and vices of the individual. The inappropriate actions in which one engages via his or her “avatar” will cause great spiritual harm to his own spiritual character.

The specific danger that was faced in the age of Issachar was individualism, each tribe going its own way. This divides the church of God. The modern-day men and women of Issachar should be careful to keep their own young people from isolating themselves in the anonymity and false world of cyberspace to a degree that could diminish real fellowship in the body. I believe Simon Chan, a Singaporean theologian, puts it well in this quote:

Technology has created what we call virtual reality. It can give you a sense of intimacy. But whether it is real intimacy or not is quite another matter. I think this is where the Christian understanding of community enables us to look beyond what modern technology can offer, because the Christian understanding of real communion is embodied communion. Communion means bodily presence. That’s at the heart of our incarnational theology, God coming to us in person; it’s the meaning of the resurrection of the body. So no matter what virtual reality technology can create, it will never be an adequate substitute for communion.²

“Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brethren to dwell together in unity!” (Ps. 133:1), expresses that kind of embodied unity called for by God in the church today.

We are commanded to walk in truth, and one can safely assume that walking in truth means living in reality before the face of God, and not finding refuge in some imaginary world. False, anonymous worlds then, by their very nature, would hamper the molding of one’s own spiritual character and the putting on of the new man of Christ.

On the contrary, those who habitually “live” on Second Life, some as much as twelve hours a day, cannot possibly be living a life of truth and embodied fellowship.

CRC pastor Leonard Greenway wrote that some Christians “believe that God has given every individual his own unique creatural distinctions in life, and that it is sinful for anyone habitually to reshape his individuality and to twist his personality for dramatic purposes.”3 We are uniquely and wonderfully created by God, curiously wrought as distinctive individuals. We are set apart from any other person, and God has a purpose for us with the intent of accomplishing it. Therefore we must live our real lives in such a way as to be in constant communion with God, determining His path for us as the modern-day children of Issachar.

“I am crucified with Christ: nevertheless I live; yet not I, but Christ liveth in me: and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by the faith of the Son of God, who loved me, and gave himself for me” (Gal. 2:20).

¹ Kirkpatrick, D. Second Life Still Living Its First One.
² Virtual World News. $425 Million Invested in 15 Virtual Worlds Companies in Q4 2007.
³ Kirkpatrick, D.

4 Newitz, A. Your Second Life is Ready.
5 Rose, F. How Madison Avenue is Wasting Millions on a Deserted Second Life.
6 Kirkpatrick, D.

7 Bugeja, M. Second Thoughts About Second Life.

¹ World Gospel Mission. A Handbook for Representing Christ in Second Life.
² Mansfield, R. How to do Everything with Second Life. New York: McGraw Hill Company, 2008.

³ Semuels, A. Virtually Losing Your Shirt. Grand Rapids Press, January 27, 2008

¹ Mansfield, R.

² World Gospel Mission.

³ Gritters, B. Renewing the Battle: Drama, Television, and Movies (5).