In “A Rape In Cyberspace” (Village Voice, 1993), Julian Dibbell discusses a virtual world in which a virtual person (representing of course an actual person) used the tools of that world to force another virtual person into an unwanted violent and graphic sexual encounter and how that encounter and its victims created a community out of an electronic database known as Lambda Moo. He does this by first relating what actually happened, as objectively as possible recounting the facts of the so-called assault as it occurred within the virtual world, then discussing the ramifications of the virtual world on the real world that it mimics and questioning where virtual crime falls on the moral scale of society, and finally discussing the after-effects of the events in both the virtual and real worlds, in both the public sphere and in his own philosophical musings. Dibbell attempts to determine the nature, purpose, value, morality, and importance of virtual worlds and virtual communities in order to explore the hazy line between thought and object, between physical and mental. He keeps a narrative tone throughout the piece, but the depth of his philosophical musings make it less than appropriate for a general audience; it seems to be aimed primarily toward philosophers interested in examining the nature of physicality versus mentality with respect to online communities, but to also attempt the inclusion of the average well educated member of an online community.
Having been a participant in many online communities of the type foreshadowed by Lamda Moo, and indeed, having visited Lamda Moo itself on occasion, I find it interesting to note the evolution that has occurred in these virtual communities since the time that this article was written. Primarily, there has been a stratification of virtual worlds, into those in which a community, much like that which evolved in Lamda Moo, self regulates through some form of semi-governmental process, and those in which there is a strange combination of anarchy and dictatorship where one or more “wizards” hold absolute power and occasionally make use of it to mete out arbitrary and capricious “punishment” on “wrongdoers” but in which there is otherwise no enforcement of any moral or legal standard. These latter types are often what is known as hack and slash MUDs, in which interaction between characters is limited to virtual fighting, and of course the perennial virtual sex. In the former on the other hand, players tend to form relationships with the other characters in the virtual world, and in fact, invest much of their emotional well being into that characters persona and life experiences. Much as the real-life woman who presented as Legba in the story above was literally in tears in real life over the experiences of her virtual persona, so many players invest themselves so deeply in the online world that virtual marriages have been known to lead to real life marriages, and virtual slights to lead to real-world retaliations. What the ramifications of all this are is beyond me, except to say that as the real-world gets uglier, and as interfaces move from text to graphics to true virtual reality, I think it likely that more and more people will find it important, therapeutic, and even vital to retreat into a fantasy world, where at least you can kill the villains.