Violence In The Virtual Community

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Engaging in the virtual community can be both mystifying and relaxing. Users can be whoever they want to be and act out any desire they have; desires they wouldn’t act out in real-life. Some of these desires that users may act out in virtual communities can be violent and perverse. In “A Rape in Cyberspace”, Julian Dibbell describes a cyberrape in the virtual community of LambdaMOO.

LambdaMOO is a subspecies of multi-user dimensions known as MUD object oriented. It is a database designed to give users the impression of moving through a physical place. Within LambdaMOO, users are able to program their avatars to interact with objects, go to different locations, and interact with other avatars. The user by the name of Mr. Bungle, an avatar of a sadistic clown, created a voodoo doll subprogram that allowed him to command other avatars to perform actions. These actions he was able to get the avatars to perform were sexual acts that went beyond LambdaMOO’s community norm. The cyberrape aroused outrage among the users and raised the question about the boundaries separating real-life and virtual reality.

In Art and Obscenity, Kerstin Mey states:

“The digital realm has not only stimulated the sexual imagination in ‘more futuristic ways’ by making possible relatively low-risk experiments in virtual reality with ‘sex without sex’… It has also fueled fantasies of violence in the virtual domain, whether they involve simulated humans, aggressive animals, monsters, out-of-control robots or extraterrestrials and other figments of the imagination” (148).

The user of the Mr. Bungle avatar was able to act out his fantasies in the virtual community. Not only was he able to engage in “sex without sex”, he was able to do so without initially experiencing the consequences that he would have to face if he'd committed this act in real-life. The notion of not having any real consequences drove him to feel that his actions were okay. It’s just a game and nobody was really getting hurt.

Just like there are consequences for acts of violence in real-life, there are also consequences in virtual communities. In “Hierarchy and Power: Social Control in Cyberspace”, Elizabeth Reid shows the different forms of social control found in virtual communities. These included:

“Eliminating commands in the system that chronically lead to objectionable behavior, providing commands that allow members to filter out objectionable behavior, temporarily restricting the rights of transgressors, shaming and humiliating a transgressor in public rituals banishing a transgressor from the community, instituting stricter criteria for admission to the community, increasing accountability by registering identities, regulatory committees, and moral entrepreneurs and vigilante groups.”

The users in LambdaMOO were appalled by Bungle’s actions and wanted him to be punished for his crime. In the MOO message board, *social-issues, users were able to give suggestions for how Bungle should be dealt with. One of the users that he attacked called for his “virtual castration”.

Since LambdaMOO didn't have a set code of conduct to abide by within the virtual community, Bungle’s fate was up in the air. Even though the victims of his attack spoke out in the message board, all the users had to be in agreement. They all came together and collectively decided that for his crimes, Bungle should be “toaded”. The act of being toaded in a virtual community is the same as being exiled in real-life.

Looking at the case of Mr. Bungle, those who aren't engaged in virtual communities may not see what the big fuss was about. Even Mr. Bungle was unsure why the users in LambdaMOO were in an uproar. Bungle states:

“I engaged in a bit of a psychological device that is called thought-polarization, the fact that this is not RL simply added to heighten the effect of the device. It was purely a sequence of events with no consequence on my RL existence.”

This statement made by Bungle when he was confronted, shows how some users feel about actions they make in virtual communities. They use it as a means to play out violent fantasies that would have devastating consequences in real-life. Although Bungle may not have felt he should have to answer for his crimes, other users did. They were able to take the forms for cyber control that Reid discussed to help them come to the conclusion of deleting Mr. Bungle’s avatar. They were able to implement a system to prevent cyber rape and other acts of violence from occurring again.

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