22 June 2012

Virtual Ethics, Pt. 4: Virtual Cause, Actual Effect

Note: I apologize for not posting in some time. I took a much needed vacation, which was immediately followed by an increased work load and a 4-hour class 4 nights a week. I'm hoping to be a little more consistent with posts going forward.

While many participants in virtual communities seek to avoid the pressures of the actual world by escaping into virtual ones, there is no real assurance that crossover between the virtual and actual does not exist. In truth, the two could never fully be isolated. As was described in the David DiSalvo quote in a previous post, the brain cannot exclusively separate the two worlds, and thus, humans acting in virtual environment are inherently influenced by their actual world experiences, and vice versa. The same can be said of the various environments in which we find ourselves throughout our actual world experiences: experience gathered in one role in one environment can, and likely will, influence the roles we take on in other environments. For example, our work lives and our social lives are constantly impeded upon by each other: stress from work is brought home and directed at our spouse; family health problems impact our attitude in the workplace; a previous sexual assault incident increases discomfort with a touchy co-worker, etc. Similarly, undesirable actions against a virtual world participant while in their virtual environment, or involving their virtual environment, can manifest actual world effects.

The first thing to consider is the attachment that a person has to their avatar. The avatar is not simply a character that one plays in an unattached arcade game. The avatar is a representation of that person, or a part of that person. As Boellstorff experienced, avatars “were not just abstract anchors of virtual perspective; they were the modality through which residents experienced virtual selfhood” (Boellstorff 129). The interactions and experiences that people enjoyed while in Second Life were enjoyed through their avatars. Early on in their experience, the feelings may be more nurturing, such as with a parent-child or creator-creation relationship, but as involvement in the virtual community increases in volume and importance, the feelings can become more intimate and personal. In short, “people have a very proprietary feeling towards their image. What happens to it happens to them. What touches it, they feel…” (Boellstorff 127-128). As expected, then, when an avatar is abused or harassed, it is felt by the person who is controlling the avatar, if not on a physical level, then on an emotional one.

Julian Dibbell recalls one famous case in his essay “A Rape in Cyberspace,” available on his website and originally published in The Village Voice in 1993. The assault took place in a text-based virtual world known as LambdaMOO, where an avatar called Mr. Bungle used a malicious program to control the actions of other users, “forcing” them to perform sexual acts on him, themselves, and others (Dibbell 11-32). While it is difficult to draw physical similarities between real world and virtual world rape, it is not unlikely that users experienced real psychological and emotional trauma as a result of Mr. Bungle’s actions. Granted, this kind of activity is probably not very common, and when users do attempt to control others’ avatars, the governing bodies, such as Linden Labs, are likely quick to regulate such behavior. In reading Boellstorff’s descriptions of communities, however, it becomes clear that virtual sexual assault is not the only problem.
Sexual and other forms of verbal harassment are common problems. In virtual worlds, the term “griefing” is used to describe the act of disrupting other players’ in-world experience (Boellstorff 187). Griefing comes in many forms: harassment, homophobia, racism, misogyny, the above-described sexual assault and more. Because most, if not all, of these actions involve the use of language as a weapon, it is important to note that the use of language, both good and bad, does not, and by its nature, cannot stay in the virtual world. It transcends into the actual world lives of those who take it in. As Boellstorff notes, language “has always been virtual; it is thus a key element…that both constitutes and bridges the gap between virtual and actual” (Boellstorff 151). Thus, when a user comes across hate speech or homophobic slurs in virtual worlds, the psychological effects impact their actual psyche.

Unfortunately, there is no shortage of this kind of material in virtual worlds. Boellstorff explains that “one could find events like ‘Slave Auctions’ where residents could sell themselves into slavery” and that a user could come across the “construction of an ‘SS Training Camp’” (Boellstorff 146). The phenomenon is nothing new: Colin Beckles wrote of racism targeting black people on the Internet back in the late 90s in “Black Struggles in Cyberspace: Cyber-Segregation and Cyber-Nazis,” published in The Western Journal of Black Studies (1997). In terms of homophobia, Boellstorff claims that it “is far from unknown online (one study found over 80 percent of gamers encountering homophobic speech [Glover 2007]),” despite the existence of a “long tradition of cyber-libertarian tolerance” (Boellstorff 165). None of this is particularly surprising, given that race-, gender-, and sexual orientation-related crime and intolerance are rampant in the actual world, even in the West.

As the above information purports, the fundamental element of virtual world ethics is that there is a strong crossover to the actual world. Through the use of language, the attachment of a person to their avatar and the simple fact that our brains are not capable of discerning between what is virtually real and what is actually real, the link between the two worlds has been built and continues to be buttressed. Furthermore, the emotional connections between virtual world users and the psychological investments into in-world interactions may be more intense than the average actual world connection. “As one resident put it: ‘in real life, you get to know someone from the outside in, but in Second Life you get to know them from the inside out’” (Boellstorff 159). This reverse relationship-building encourages users to operate with their vulnerabilities exposed—a prime target for assailants.

Dibbell, Julian. 1998. “A Rape in Cyberspace.” My Tiny Life: Crime and Passion in a Virtual World. New York: Henry Holt and Company.

Beckles, Colin. “Black Struggles in Cyberspace: Cyber-Segregation and Cyber Nazis.” The Western Journal of Black Studies, Vol. 21, No. 1, 1997, 12-19.