Monday, May 21, 2007

Virtual Violation

Brandon offers 'Some Disjointed Thoughts About Rape', including the following:
Virtual violence is not violence; but virtual violation is violation... The disanalogy between violence and sex arises from the fact that violence is a physical activity whereas sex is a physically expressible mental activity.

I'm not sure about this. It seems like there's also a mental component to violence, that could potentially be separated from its typical physical expression. This should capture the kind of violation that also occurs through, say, verbal bullying. Since it's possible for virtual (non-sexual) violence to still be violating, the posited disanalogy seems a bit artificial.

What we really need, I think, is to disambiguate two senses of "virtual violation":
(1) A real violation that occurs within a simulated, or 'virtual', setting.
(2) A merely simulated/'virtual' violation.

The distinction generalizes. Consider the example of "virtual bullying". In the first case, one could genuinely bully a fellow game-player whilst inside the game, if the bully intended to use the game to (emotionally) hurt the other player. But in the second case, I might merely simulate it, i.e. role-play having my character "hassle" another, whose real-life player understands that no real animosity is meant. In the second case, but not the first, it's just a game.

Similarly, two people might have (real) sexual relations within a virtual world, or they might merely simulate it -- depending (at least in part) on their respective intentions, I suppose.

One can imagine a game, then, where "virtual rape" occurs purely in the second sense. Perhaps it's part of the rules of the game that if you lose to the boss monster, it will "rape" and "kill" your avatar. If that's a normal part of the game, I assume no-one would feel violated by it. (Especially if the boss monster is just a computer program, rather than another player. But even in the latter case. Real-world sexual roleplaying provides a vivid example of this -- handcuffs, anyone?)

The distinction, I suppose, concerns whether real consent is given for one's avatar to be acted upon against its (merely virtual/represented) "consent". By playing a game, one gives a sort of global implicit consent to all the normal happenings -- getting killed by monsters, and so forth. (Even though in the "local" moment of a game you try your best to survive, of course!) So we can also imagine cases where a player gives a similar global consent for their avatar to be virtually "raped" in certain legitimate circumstances. The problem with the Second Life virtual rapes, of course, is that no such global consent was given. Virtual rape is not a "normal" or legitimate kind of interaction within the world of Second Life; it is not what the players signed up for. So when their avatars are violated in these ways, so -- to a degree -- is the player.

The virtual violation was a real violation, because not only was virtual consent missing -- so was real consent. This general principle applies to non-sexual virtual interactions too, e.g. virtual bullying. The difference we see between this and normal cases of "virtual murder" isn't so much in the type of act, but in the type of consent.


  1. I think you're right that there's a distinction between violation in a virtual setting and simulated violation, but I don't think the example you chose is a good one; since, for one thing, I think there are quite a few people who would feel violated (albeit not in the degree of a more direct sort of virtual rape, such as found in the Second Life case), and would not be unreasonable in feeling so. The real distinction comes out in contrasting the Second Life case with, say, a group of feminists creating a simulation of rape for the purposes of consciousness-raising, i.e., in order to help people better understand the importance of the topic and the severity of the crime. The difference, if the latter is done properly, is that (1) steps are taken to prevent the simulation from becoming an actual violation and (2) nothing is done except what is appropriate to the particular end in view. Even consent is not enough to prevent the simulation from being violation by simulation, however, since you can have violation with consent, as rape by fraud cases show. Indeed, I would argue that you can have violation with global consent, although none of my more immediate conclusions here or in the original post depend on it.

    Verbal bullying cases are, I agree, a better parallel in some ways to virtual rape than virtual physical violence. But this is partly because verbal bullying exhibits the same problems with consent that sex does, albeit on a much smaller scale, because it is possible to consent to verbal abuse without thereby making it OK. (This happens often in abusive relationships.) And it's partly because virtual non-sexual violence can only be violating in a broad sense by being a form of bullying or abuse. It is abusiveness that is the closer parallel, and this is very different from making violence the parallel.

  2. Super interesting post...

    I am interested in some of the relationships between the virtual characters and the real people behind those charaters, and thought I might ask you, Richard, what you thought. Feel free to ignore parts or the whole of this comment.

    Is every case under your (1) a case where a real person is violated, do you think? Perhaps only real people can be violated, in which case it would be obviously yes. But perhaps not, leaving it an open question whether there might be an instance of a real violation though no real people are violated? (I tend to think not, but would like to hear why I am wrong.)

    Similarly, is every case under your (1) a case where a real person is the violator. Or might there be cases where a merely virtual character violated a real person? (I tend to think probably yes, something like a glitch in the game or some unfortunate merely virtual miracle.)

    And lastly, what do you think the relation is between a game-player and her virtual character? Do you think it is identity? ownership? representation? It seems to me that the relation between the the player and the character would have vast consequences on some of the legal matters of virtual violation. Punching someone's property is defacement or vandalism, but punching someone is assault.

  3. Hi Jack, interesting questions! It seems plausible that only people can be truly 'violated' in the relevant sense (of disrespecting their autonomy, or however we spell it out). A fictional character only has fictional autonomy, so there's nothing there to really violate.

    Your second question is trickier. Just off the top of my head, I'm inclined to think that violation implies mens rea, or bad intentions on the part of the violator. You can't really be violated by a falling branch, for instance, though of course it may injure you. At least, this seems to follow if we analyse violation in terms of disrespect, but maybe I'm barking up the wrong tree there. Another possibility is that a sufficiently complex virtual character might be considered to have the prerequisite intentional states after all. Can you expand on your thoughts here?

    Your last question is even harder! Very interesting, though. I don't have any well-defined view here. I do like the "avatar" metaphor though: like a god's worldly incarnation, our virtual character is our embodiment in the virtual world -- it doesn't exactly represent us (due to the role-playing aspect -- the whole point is to play at being someone else!), but in another sense it does more: it grounds our agency in that world. We project our being into the avatar, as we act in the virtual world. So perhaps "identity" comes closest. (But in the quirky way that trinitarians think that Jesus and God are identical, which may be far removed from our common-sense understanding of the term!)

    In any case, due to the vast differences between the physical and virtual worlds (and our interests in each), our physical and virtual bodies will inhabit vastly different ethical frameworks. So I wouldn't want to be too hasty in drawing legal consequences from any of this.

    What's your take on it all?

  4. Brandon -- agreed. (I'm not sure my idiolect distinguishes 'violence' and 'abuse' so cleanly, but given your use of the terms, I agree that 'abuse' is really the idea I had in mind.)


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