April 24th, 2007 by Benjamin Duranske
Belgian newspapers De Morgen and Het Laatste Nieuws reported Friday that “the Brussels public prosecutor has asked patrol detectives of the Federal Computer Crime Unit to go on Second Life” to investigate a “virtual rape” involving a Belgian user of Second Life. (Translations from FreeTranslation.com’s web page translator.)
Those who know Second Life a bit probably wonder how this was possible though. Sure there are modifications that you can make to your Second Life character in order to be able to rape other characters (these modifications can actually be purchased in-game from other players who develop them), but normally such modifications require consent from the other player. In other words: you can only get raped if you want to.
WTFsrsly is (while sort of crass) technically correct, which raises some interesting questions — most importantly, what is “virtual rape” anyway?
The question isn’t as simple as it might seem — and it is at the heart of what makes virtual worlds different from other forms of interaction.
Many would argue that sexually-oriented harassment that takes place in a virtual world is not “virtual rape.” In other words, if someone causes his avatar ‘Bad Max’ to regularly say sexually explicit things to his avatar’s neighbor ‘Jane Nicegirl’ he’s definitely a contemptible sleazeball, he’s almost certainly in violation of the Terms of Service of his virtual world, he’s probably guilty of several harassment and stalking crimes, and he might be liable in civil court for intentional infliction of emotional distress. But, some would argue, no matter what the user has ‘Bad Max’ say to ‘Jane Nicegirl,’ it doesn’t really make sense to call that “rape.”
On the other hand, there are objects (it’s all code, of course, but “objects” are how that code gets represented) within some virtual worlds that give one user control over another user’s avatar. In early text-based virtual worlds, such objects were known as “voodoo dolls,” and they have been used to perpetrate something that many would call “virtual rape.”
The most famous case of involving a voodoo doll took place in LamdaMOO, a text-based multi-user environment, and was brilliantly covered by Julian Dibble. The Dibble piece is well worth reading in its entirety, but in sum, a voodoo doll was employed by one user to make it appear that several other users were participating in explicit, violent sexual acts in an extremely public part of the environment.
Voodoo doll-type objects exist in modern virtual worlds too. In Second Life, for example, scripted collars that allow one user to take control of another user’s avatar are regularly used by the BDSM crowd in purely consensual online relationships and encounters. The code that makes these devices work, however, could be built into anything from a teacup to a tennis bracelet. And in theory, at least, these objects could then be given to an unsuspecting avatar as virtual roofies.
Although software controls in Second Life are supposed to require that an object obtain permission before animating an avatar, it is not difficult to imagine a situation where a combination of skillful scripting and social engineering could lead to one user’s control of another (unwilling) user’s avatar, particularly if the victim is new to virtual worlds and unfamiliar with the often bewildering array of controls, dialog boxes, and objects.
It is not known what occurred here that lead to the Belgian investigation (and it may well never be) but the questions that are raised by the allegation are certain to arise again.
What is “virtual rape?” Does it even make internal sense as a term? Is it control of an avatar against a user’s will, a textual or graphical depiction of a forced sexual act, or something else completely?
Can virtual rape occur without even the appearance (in a graphical world) or description (in a text-based world) of physical contact, or is that “just” harassment — essentially the equivalent of an obscene phone call?
How should crimes perpetrated only in a virtual space be punished? Is it just harassment (of the user), no matter what the crime (against the avatar)?
Should there be a sliding scale of punishments — where virtual rape would likely be punished more severely than other types of virtual assault?
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