Tuesday, July 8, 2008

A Rape in Cyberspace (or TINYSOCIETY, and How to Make one) by Julian Dibbell

The article/recount A Rape in Cyberspace (Or TINYSOCIETY, and how to make one) by Julian Dibbell concerns the account of a “virtual rape” in the internet society of LambdaMOO. LambdaMOO is a text based online virtual reality that involves mainly a house and a community of users. The story is told from the point of view of Dr. Bombay. Dr. Bombay is, for most of the article, a newbie to the world of LambdaMOO. However, most of the story concerns a sadistic player by the name of Mr. Bungle. In the beginning of the article Mr. Bungle’s horrible crime against other LambdaMOO users is described. In essence, Mr. Bungle used a text-based program to commit a virtual rape on several other characters. A player named Iggy was summoned during his virtual attack, and trapped Bungle in a cage of words.

After the virtual rape, the community of LambdaMOO was forced to decide how to punish Bungle. Many called for his “toading”—for all intensive purposes, a death sentence on LambdaMOO. His character would be turned into a toad, thereby wiping all of his character traits. The only users able to make this happen are known as wizards. The wizards are not only users, but they are also programmers. One problem stood in the way, however. The wizards had recently shelved their judicial powers in LambdaMOO. They decided to relinquish any powers they had that could affect the social lives of the MOO. Now, members of the community would be forced to fend for themselves. In effect, this forced the users to create a kind of social system, complete with laws and rules, in regards to the conduct of LambdaMOO members. The need to punish a crime created the need to make a system for punishing crimes.

The different kinds of social structures varied, and there were arguments on all sides. Many wanted to see if Bungle could be tried under RL (real life) laws. Still others didn’t believe that LambdaMOO was about ultimate imaginative freedom. These users take a very anarchist look at the society, and instead of “toading” Bungle they instead wanted to see him banished from LambdaMOO. This discussion prompted many larger questions poised by the narrative. Many ask if it is not better to release violent fantasies in an online environment than in real life. Even others began to point to the way that this kind of virtual crime was really a crime of the mind, leading to the question of “Where does the body end and the mind begin?” (22). While the form of virtual government continued to be discussed in a forum called *social, a large meeting was finally called. Almost all the members of the community showed up to the online debate, including Dr. Bombay and eventually Mr. Bungle himself. When Bungle shows up to the meeting the tension is palpable, almost as if this were a RL community meeting about a criminal. However, Bungle answers for his actions only in sociopathic ramblings, so he is quickly ignored. While no concrete form of social law was settled upon, in the end a wizard named Tom Traceback made the decision to toad Bungle.

The aftermath of Bungle’s toading is both felt by many and felt by none at all. That is to say, very little had changed in LambdaMOO after, but many still remembered the horror and question of Bungle. There was however, a new system set up, wherein wizards would only act according to a series of votes and petitions put forth by users. Therefore, the action of the wizards became dependant on the will of the users. Yet Bungle was not dead. A few days after his initial departure, Bungle returned under a new name—Dr. Jest. Through a loophole he managed to set up a new, totally clean account. A guilty user now became a new, clean name.

This drives the narrator, Dr. Bombay, to seek out Dr. Jest and try to get some answers from him, which he never does. Bombay then dips back into the argument for rape as a “crime against the mind,” since even in RL it is classified with other “crimes against person or property” (27). He goes into saying that the actions you command into a computer don’t so much “communicate as make things happen, directly and ineluctably, the same way pulling a trigger does” (28). In the end, Bungle’s ultimate trick is revealed: Bungle was not a single user, but instead a community account of an entire NYU dorm floor. On the night of the rape it wasn’t just one user acting, but one user typing while a room of others encouraged the action and suggested new, twisted ways to torture the other LambdaMOO users. The new user, Dr. Jest, was just a fragmentation off from the original group that was Bungle. From this Bombay is left questioning the essence of LambdaMOO and other online virtual community spaces, the difference between appearances and the “realities” of a virtual reality.


Adrian said...

One of the things that this draws out is the ability of groups to act in ways that individuals might not. Studies have already born out that (roughly homogenous) groups tend to further polarize their members' beliefs and actions. The actions of the avatar, directed by a group, show just another (if bizarre) example of that.

Eric M said...

This article was before it's time as I believed it was written in the early 1990s as mentioned in class. With this sort of thing becoming more and more common online with sexual harassment online and even leading people to commit suicide, this is a pretty serious issue. However, I think it's a harsh reality we're going to have to face as online interactions continue to expand.

Jasun said...

I had a hard time with this article, as the obvious blending of self and ones digital representation worried me to a large degree. I am a proponent of exploring potentialities and facets of personality, and feel that the net is a wonderful tool for this, but worry about dissolution and a loss of "reality".

And in terms of the tools used to enact this "crime", who was the complete moron who developed the "voodoo doll" program (which even one of the victims recognizes as a tool used for jokes)? The creation and acceptance of such a blatantly abusable tool strikes me as somewhere between naive and idiotic.

Nick S said...

This was a very interesting article and a serious issue, but the one thing that stuck out at me was that there was an "ignore" feature in the chat. I know what Bungle did was bad and horrible regardless of in what context it took place, but the players should have just ignored him and the group of students would have lost interest in the event.

Marlon Heimerl said...

What's most interesting about this article is it's account of the virtual rape itself, the repists methods and the types of effects it had on those at the recieving end of this horrible crime. Should we consider digital rape an actual crime. I would argue yes, at least in hopes of curbing this type of violence in the future. Especially because, if, say, someones dog was kicked by another person, the victim could call the police on said offender, as the dog is considered a part of their property, etc. Should we consider an Avatar any differently? Is life the limiting factor for rights? And what does this say about the possible future of artificial intelligence. Will they too be subjected to any insults man can muster or would they be given rights like everyone else? This is an interesting debate to explore.

Sarah. R. said...

"nd in terms of the tools used to enact this "crime", who was the complete moron who developed the "voodoo doll" program (which even one of the victims recognizes as a tool used for jokes)? The creation and acceptance of such a blatantly abusable tool strikes me as somewhere between naive and idiotic."

The whole point of a MOO (as opposed to a MUD) is that it had an open programming system. So, you could download the manual for their scripting language, use it and create your own objects. Some people were _really_ skilled at this and could make amazing things. It's totally Snow Crash-esque, honestly.

Anonymous said...

This article is really interesting when comparing it to recent articles in the news about chatroom abuse and sexual predators. While Bungle's acts were offensive and morally depraved, it does seem that the developers of this online game world made their software conducive to this type of behavior. Whether they envisioned the possibility of online rape I don't know, but it is definitely something that is going to be releavant to todays virtual worlds.