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RedLightCenter.com is more than your typical high-power adult dating site. Sure, there are lots of photos of women and men in various states of undress, and there’s e-mail, ratings, an events calendar of band parties, open nights at bars, and sex-talk Internet radio shows. Besides all that, Red Light Center also has a multiuser virtual-reality system filled with naked and semi-naked avatars, bar scenes, pickup lines, and places to sneak off and have virtual sex.

Yes, virtual sex. The kind of virtual sex for which you type on your keyboard and your animated graphics character gets animated in 3-D with other characters right there on your computer’s screen (provided you’re running Windows, of course).

But Red Light Center caters to other pleasures, or vices, too. Starting today, you’ll be able to use your PC to enter a virtual rave and take virtual ecstasy, smoke a virtual joint, and even munch on some virtual mushrooms. The target market is illegal-drug virgins who want to find out what’s going on without upsetting their brain chemistry (or risking failing a drug test).

Curious, I signed up for an account at Red Light Center and conducted an e-mail interview with Brian Shuster, CEO of the website’s parent company, Utherverse.

Technology Review: Why do you believe that virtual drugs will make people less likely to experiment with drugs in real life?

Brian Shuster: First drug use rarely occurs in a vacuum. Rather, it is a social phenomenon brought on by peer pressure. In a virtual environment, the pressure shifts from trying actual drugs to experimenting with virtual drugs. Thus, users have a safe platform to explore the social aspects of drug use, without having to risk doing the actual drugs.

By separating the social pressure from the real-world application, users have a totally revolutionary mechanism to deal with peer pressure, and actually to give in to peer pressure, without the negative consequences.

Moreover, users of virtual drugs have reported the effects of these virtual drugs to be surprisingly realistic and lifelike. To the extent that users can enjoy both the social benefits of virtual drugs as well as the entertainment associated with drug use, all with no actual drug consumption, the value of taking actual drugs is diminished.

Hopefully the people who are making these reports are not one-time drug virgins for whom Red Light Center was a “gateway” to the real stuff, but longtime users who are now using technology to help kick their chemical habits.

TR: Do you have any evidence to back this up?

BS: To this point, the evidence is, as Albert Einstein might say, all the result of thought experiments. Virtual ecstasy has not been released to the public and is making its world debut on April 20. Virtual marijuana and mushrooms have only recently been introduced for users to try, so there has not yet been an opportunity to perform studies.

Utherverse is, at this time, however, investigating a study to determine if smoking virtual cigarettes can enhance traditional stop-smoking measures to assist smokers in their efforts to quit. We hope to run a scientifically founded study later this year.

TR: Wouldn’t virtual drugs make users more likely to want to try out drugs in real life?

BS: We hope that by preparing people to deal with peer pressure by allowing them to go through a virtual dry run, they will be better equipped to make rational decisions if the situation later occurs in their real life.

Just as with the sexual experimentation within Red Light Center, users will have the ability to decide for themselves whether using drugs is an enhancement or detriment to their life experience, even before ever using drugs in the real world. Armed with that information, they can then make more-rational decisions if they are confronted with that choice in the real world because they will have already gone through it virtually.

That said, it is critical to recognize that users who develop a full social circle within Red Light Center will have an online support structure of friends. Being accepted into a social community and having genuine friends are defenses that can be called on to prevent substance abuse in the real world. There is no reason to believe that this wouldn’t hold true for online users, and thus provide them with additional deterrence to ongoing real-world drug use.

Finally, as users attend more events and social functions online, the exposure to situations that arise in the real world, whereby the user may be pressured into trying or using drugs, will naturally diminish. Thus, by reducing the real-world exposure to peer-pressure situations and moving those situations to a safe, online environment, first-use [experimental] drug use resulting from peer pressure would naturally decline.

Of course, opponents of virtual drugs would counter that by providing a positive drug experience online, users would then be inclined to have a positive feeling about drugs and would be more inclined to experiment with them in the real world. To that I would respond by saying that if it is true that getting a positive reward for virtual behavior inclines someone to that behavior in the real world, well, drugs aren’t the big problem. Violent video games would be much more of a concern. Unspeakably violent video games have been rewarding players for violence for decades in the name of good old-fashioned entertainment. If opponents believe that giving users a nice high in a game will make them want to do drugs in the real world, how could they permit games that give users a high from killing and maiming other users? The answer is that they must believe that in-game rewards don’t really result in real-world actions. We feel the same logic holds true for virtual drugs.

TR: RedLightCenter.com states that it is only for adults, not for children. Will there be a virtual drug area for children? My best friend in high school turned on to pot, cocaine, LSD, and psychedelic mushrooms when we were in 10th grade. If we follow your logic, it seems to me that if virtual drugs are a good intervention, waiting until someone is 18 is too long.

BS: For various reasons, Red Light Center will not be made available to minors, nor do we have any plans or intentions to permit minors to use our software at any point in the future.

Although as an intervention tool Red Light Center would probably be valuable as you imply, real-world politics and situations simply make this an unrealistic option.

However, to the extent that many drug users have not used destructive drugs before they are 18, and to the extent that Red Light Center can provide an alternative outlet to real-world drug use beyond deterring first experimentation, there is still a lot of value, even if it is limited to [those] 18 years or older.

And, of course, we aren’t putting this product out as a way to stop drug use. That’s simply a side effect. We are putting out virtual drugs because they are fun and because they make our parties much better!

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