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Prof. Peter Ludlow

Photos sourced from Creative Commons and The Alphaville Herald.

Prof. Peter Ludlow and his virtual alter ego Urizenus Sklar, whose name was taken from William Blake's 1794 "Book of Urizen." According to Ludlow and his co-author, Blake's book is "the story of a conflicted antihero who is cast out of the heavens and into a chaotic void then rises to create a new world there."

The 'double life' of Peter Ludlow

by Laura Bradley
Mar 6, 2014

Who is Peter Ludlow?

Before the Northwestern University philosophy professor became the target of a recent sexual harassment suit filed by a former student, he had long established an otherworldly persona in the realm of virtual reality via "The Sims Online" and "Second Life."

In these worlds, he exposed cyberbrothels. So intertwined are Ludlow’s real and virtual selves, he used "Second Life" avatars in class, and according to the female student now suing him and the university, “would show videos of virtual characters having sex to the students during classes,” according to her suit.

In the persona of virtual journalist Urizenus Sklar, Ludlow made international headlines in 2004 when he was banished from "The Sims Online" after investigating the game’s darker side: virtual mafia rings, scammers and cyberbrothels allegedly run by an underaged girl. Sklar (featuring Ludlow’s photo) also writes for Huffington Post, musing on everything from justice for Bradley Manning to Charlie Sheen and the philosophy of Julian Assange of WikiLeaks infamy.

In a civil suit filed Feb. 10 against NU, the then-underaged journalism major stated that in February of 2012, the tenured philosophy professor coerced her to drink alcohol and made unwanted sexual advances at bars, art exhibitions and his apartment. The student followed up with a Feb. 26 suit filed directly against Ludlow.

A university investigation found that Ludlow, 57, in fact, had “engaged in unwelcome and inappropriate sexual advances,” including initiating kissing, French kissing, back rubbing, and sleeping with his arms on and around the student. In the elevator to his apartment, the student alleges Ludlow told her it was “inevitable” they would have sex, and that she had been drifting in and out of consciousness.

Following a planned student protest this week at a class he was teaching on the school’s Evanston campus, Ludlow’s class now will be taught by the chairperson of the philosophy department for the rest of the quarter that ends this month, university spokesman Alan Cubbage announced Wednesday.

Neither Ludlow nor his attorney returned calls or emails seeking comment.

Eleven years ago Urizenus Sklar was “born.” In August 2003, Ludlow joined "The Sims Online" as his alter ego Sklar, and in 2007 published “Second Life Herald: The Virtual Tabloid That Witnessed the Dawn of the Metaverse,” with Mark Wallace. After familiarizing himself with "The Sims Online," Ludlow established The Alphaville Herald, an online newspaper mainly covering issues and personalities in the virtual world. Interviews featured people answering in the voices of both their human and virtual selves.

Early on, the Alphaville Herald dove into the game’s underbelly, investigating and interviewing powerhouse players and entities. These included a cyberbrothel madam and prostitute who claimed to be under 18 in an interview Ludlow published in December 2003. For example, Evangeline, the self-professed underage virtual madam, spoke in the guise of “Voleur/Van,” “Dorian,” “Tori,” “granny” and “franki” during the course of the interview.

Ludlow also interviewed members of a sadomasochism community who used a combination of chats and action commands, as well as scammers exploiting new gamers and members of the Sims “shadow government” formed by players.

People who create online identities often make their avatars “idealized versions of who they want to be,” said Nick Yee, a gaming industry research scientist. But some people create characters that vary drastically from themselves and do things they would never do.

For those who create these separate identities, “anonymity, freedom from consequence and deindividuation play a role,” said Jamie Madison, a writer who looks at links between psychology and video games. “You don't suffer any real consequences from doing it, so you can more easily get caught up in it.”

Ludlow’s book describes the experience of creating an avatar:

“The avatar simply becomes an extension of yourself that enables you to interact with this new world, much like a new pair of eyeglasses that require some getting used to but that fast become so much a part of you that you don’t even notice they’re there.”

When it booted him in mid-December, 2002, video game developer Electronic Arts Inc. claimed Ludlow had violated the terms of service agreement. But the Herald’s “about” page says the company’s real objection was “Sklar’s” coverage of “scams and cyberprostitution that were taking place within its game and the company’s indifference to reports of real-world violence.”

The Alphaville Herald now covers other massive multiplayer online games, including "Second Life." Its most recent article appears to be from December 2013. The “murder” of Sklar, as the Herald describes the deletion of Ludlow’s account, on "The Sims Online" got international attention, and got people talking about potential issues virtual communities could raise in the real world.

In a 2004 New York Times article, “A Real-Life Debate on Free Expression in a Cyberspace City,” writer Amy Harmon asked: “Is it all right for teenagers to slaughter other characters in EverQuest but not for them to engage in sex chat in Sims Online? Is it fine for adults in Sims to engage in private sex chat, but not acceptable to advertise virtual bondage and discipline services, as dozens of Alphaville's virtual residents now do?”

Several students who took Ludlow’s class with the plaintiff in 2012 said, although the videos depicting virtual characters were graphic, in context they were not offended.

Gabe Bergado, 21, said although the videos were “weird” at times, he did not find them exceedingly offensive — possibly because as one of his majors is gender studies, Bergado talks about explicit subjects and behaviors a lot.

“There was nudity with some of the characters, and some of the topics were kind of risqué,” Bergado said, adding later, “We also talked a little bit about people who kind of make 'Second Life' sex toys, and sex dungeons and whatnot.”

Bergado said the videos and topics covered were part of a larger conversation about identity, “gender and sexuality within these virtual spheres, and how people have even commoditized and monetized off sexual goods within these virtual worlds."

Merry Xiao, 22, said although she would certainly say the class watched “graphic sexual acts” in class, it was not off-color.

“It was definitely weird for me,” Xiao said, “but I didn’t think it was that inappropriate because I knew going in that that class was going to be an ethics class … it was going to be talking about stuff like that.”

Jonathan Landis, 22, said the videos were aimed at demonstrating the kind of business that exists within the “Second Life” environment, including one person who sells sex beds to be used in the virtual world.

“There were some that were discussing people’s online sexual interests or whatever, but I didn’t think it was obscenely graphic or really out of place for a class of people who are older than 18,” Landis said.

In the lawsuit, the student stated Ludlow’s actions toward her on the night of the alleged sexual assault in 2012 caused her to require ongoing professional treatment. She claims NU was negligent in handling her case. For example, she said she repeatedly crossed paths with Ludlow on campus, causing her severe anxiety, triggering panic attacks that hurt her academic performance.

In a response filed Feb. 21, NU officials described how the university disciplined Ludlow. The school says it denied him a pay raise for 2012-2013, rescinded his appointment to an endowed position, told him to avoid one-on-one social contact with undergraduate students, prohibited him from dating or attempting to date them in the future, prohibited him from buying alcohol for underage students, mandated individualized sensitivity and harassment prevention training, and forbade contact with the plaintiff.

Northwestern University’s Title IX Coordinating Committee responded to an online petition and a resolution passed by Northwestern’s Associated Student Government Tuesday with an announcement that it was taking both into consideration, and agrees that the school's new policy on consensual relationships between faculty, staff and students "could specify that discipline for violation can include termination, including termination of tenured faculty.”


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