Virulence in the Virtual

Virulent power dynamics manifest in games specifically designed to simulate rape, as well as games that have been modified to include it 

IN December 1993, Julian Dibbell published a groundbreaking article in the Village Voice, entitled, “A Rape in Cyberspace.” The first extensively printed account of virtual rape, Dibbell’s article describes the attempts of LambdaMOO, a text-based online community, to process and adjudicate the in-game rape of two of its players, legba and Starsinger. The culprit was an avatar named Mr. Bungle, self-described as “a fat, oleaginous, Bisquick-faced clown dressed in cum-stained harlequin garb and girdled with a mistletoe-and-hemlock belt whose buckle bore the quaint inscription “KISS ME UNDER THIS, BITCH!” (Dibbell). Mr. Bungle used a voodoo doll subprogram to control his two victims like puppets, forcing them into unwanted sexual encounters with other players and acts of self-violation and self-mutilation. Although this crime occurred in a virtual space, its traumatic repercussions extended into the private emotional lives of those involved, revealing the impossibility of drawing a clear line between real life and “virtual reality”. As Dibbell writes, the “meaning lies always in that gap” (Dibbell).

Although Dibbell’s essay was the first to highlight rape in an online space, rape has historically been an issue in gaming outside of the computer screen. Anne C. Moore, online moderator of a late 90s Sixdegrees forum, entitled “Women in Gaming,” documented women’s discussions of gaming-related feminist issues, focusing mainly on traditional tabletop RPGs and LARPs. Among other topics, women on the forum discussed their experience of rape narratives in gaming, with mixed opinions about its ethical use as a plot and character development device. Most gamers agreed it was an emotionally fraught issue, which could result in deep psychological disturbance and even destruction of the gaming group, especially when introduced without a player’s prior knowledge and consent (Thorn 45). The subjects chosen for these rape scenarios were usually female players or players with female characters, indicating that rape is a gendered crime, not only because “the majority of rape survivors appear to be female,” but also because rape is “popularly imagined as something men do to women” (Thorn 11).

This gendered conceptualization of rape, coupled with the prevalence of male-designed, male-dominated gaming spaces, is one of the factors that sets virtual rape apart from other types of in-game violence. Patricia Hernandez, a gamer and writer for Kotaku, felt shock and self-betrayal when she attempted to use the Gears of War “raping” tactic against a group of male opponents. The tactic involves crowding and pretending to rape a player in a weakened “down but not out” state, where they must crawl around on all fours. Throughout the battle the group of male players took every opportunity to “rape” Hernandez’s character, taunting her and asking how she liked it. Eventually, with only herself and the ringleader remaining, infuriated and unnerved, Hernandez, who is a survivor of rape, decided to rape her final opponent’s character. To her dismay, the player was un-phased and continued laughing as she triumphantly declared “I raped you. I fuckin’ raped you.” She realized that, as a woman and a rape survivor, she would never access the rape/dominance rhetoric that her male opponents enjoyed.

That power struggle is culturally understood to be a man-versus-woman thing, even though rape doesn’t just happen to women. Most of the slurs of choice point toward the same thing. Someone is a bitch, they’re a faggot -- feminine -- and if you beat someone, then you raped them. The imagery there for most of us will be the same: a man physically assaulting a woman, not the other way around (Hernandez).

The gendered language of domination forces women into a paradoxical and troubling situation where they must denigrate femininity in order to feel empowered. Hernandez’s victory became her disenfranchisement, and she felt intense guilt at being “complicit in the rape culture that has taken so much away from [her]” (Hernandez).

These virulent power dynamics manifest in games specifically designed to simulate rape, as well as games that have been modified to include it. Custer’s Revenge, the first rape-simulation game, created in 1982 for Atari 2600, features a white cowboy raping a Native American woman as the main gameplay, reflecting the racist, misogynist, colonialist outlook of the American culture that created it. Grand Theft Auto 5, on the other hand, does not include rape by default, but cultivates a misogynist atmosphere where sexualized violence against women is encouraged. It’s therefore unsurprising that an anonymous player introduced a “mod” (modifying script) allowing players to virtually rape each other, among a variety of other forced sexual commands such as “make player pole dance” and “make player fuck air.” The rape simulation, which proceeds by freezing a victim in a bent over position, removing one’s pants, and playing a thrusting sex animation taken from elsewhere in the game, has been received with varying amounts of disgust, outrage, and amusement.

The often technologically crude, even comical, manner in which rape is simulated, along with the perception of virtual spaces as “make-believe” playgrounds, suggests that virtual rape may be easily dismissed. How can something be a crime if it doesn’t really happen? In his paper, Real wrongs in virtual communities, Thomas M. Powers writes that morality in cyberspace immediately brings up two questions. First, are interactions in cyberspace real? Second, are harms suffered in cyberspace real moral wrongs? Powers argues that interactions in online text-based communities like LambdaMOO can be defined as speech acts -- performative utterances that have both illocutionary force (the intended meaning) and perlocutionary force (the psychological and behavioral effect on others). “The agents of the virtual community act in this performative way much as people do in any social realm when, by means of language, they flirt, cajole, honor, promise, chastise, and so on” (Powers 193). Players also engage in “reflexive performative” speech acts, such as changing their character’s appearance, which facilitate self-expression and character identification. Once “controller-character identification” is firmly established, harm done to a character may count as wrong done to the character’s controller.

In a puzzling turn, Powers goes on to state that harms in 3D online RPGs do not constitute genuine moral wrongs. He argues that many RPGs follow a libertarian ideology and that “it is a reasonable expectation, upon signing up to play the game, that your avatar at some point will be abused, violated, dismembered, and exterminated” (Powers 197). Furthermore, the user is free at any time to simply leave the game, preventing the possibility of any crimes against their avatar. Here Powers’ argument breaks down -- the first part is a broad generalization, while the second part avoids the problem. Telling a harassed individual or group to simply exit the environment where abuse takes place is often unrealistic and moreover, not a viable means of conflict resolution.

In My avatar, my self: Virtual harm and attachment, Jessica Wolfendale refutes Powers’ claims regarding the “anything goes” lawlessness of virtual worlds. Wolfendale asserts that “all virtual worlds make [a] distinction between legitimate and illegitimate forms of avatar violence and have ways of managing players who use their avatars to harass and kill other avatars” (Wolfendale 113). While some forms of deviance may be tolerated and even encouraged, communities often establish tacit codes of conduct and enforce them via social sanctions and reciprocity. Furthermore, Wolfendale lists several ways that members of virtual worlds have taken communal action against avatar violence: creating a virtual church to promote non-violence, posting reward notices for player-killers, and designating kill-free zones.

Wolfendale views avatar attachment as morally significant, like attachments to property and loved ones, and scoffs at Powers’ suggestion that players can always “opt out,” stating “after all, we do not tell someone whose house has been robbed that they should just ‘unravel their psychological investment’ in their possessions” (Wolfendale 115). Avatar attachment involves “a self-chosen and self-created object; an object that you control, that you act through and that you use to interact with others” (Wolfendale 116). In this way, the avatar becomes a legitimate tool for self-expression, communication, and social recognition -- part of the “shared symbolic order,” rather than a mere imaginary object. Avatar attachment gives players pleasure and opportunities for friendship, achievement, and exploration; it helps build stronger communities and enriched virtual worlds. Wolfendale asserts that the detachment attitude is the exact one that virtual criminals tend to have toward other participants and, in contrast, “avatar attachment enables a greater awareness of and empathy with other participants as real people who can be hurt by virtual harm” (Wolfendale 118).

The actuality of virtual rape and its harms -- shock, humiliation, degradation, loss of control, psychological trauma -- forces the question of what constitutes rape in general. The Seattle woman who controlled legba was taken aback by her own intense distress after the Bungle event. She has described how “posttraumatic tears were streaming down her face,” as she typed “aggrieved and heartfelt calls for Mr. Bungle’s dismemberment” (Dibbell). The event caused Dibbell to question the classification of rape, stating “since rape can occur without any physical pain or damage, I found myself reasoning, then it must be classed as a crime against the mind” (Dibbell). Clarisse Thorn, who writes on new media and sexuality, agrees that “rape is as much a psychological crime as a physical one…rape [is] real violence that is genuinely traumatic, even when it doesn’t leave any marks” (Thorn 10).

Conceptualizing rape as a crime against the mind allows for its easy import into the realm of the virtual. Theorist Richard C. MacKinnon explains that “in this way, rape becomes an assault not against a persona, but against the person behind the persona. It is a virtual violation that passes back through the interface and attacks the person where it is real” (MacKinnon). MacKinnon warns against the importation of rape, however, arguing that it is a mutable social construction, and can therefore be consciously reimagined and defanged in a virtual context. He posits that it is better to claim, “You can’t rape me. I don’t have a body,” than to say, “I believe rape is an assault upon the mind, and so, even though I don’t have a body, you can rape me anyway” (MacKinnon). MacKinnon proposes that a recoding of the virtual body and communal rejection of virtual rape is the best way to empower virtual citizens and prevent their further victimization.

Although MacKinnon’s efforts to disempower virtual rape are laudable, rethinking virtual rape is a task much more easily said than done. As noted earlier, certain virulent patterns are deeply ingrained in virtual communities and have perhaps become inextricable. Behavioral and cyber psychologists have noted that nonverbal social norms (such as interpersonal distance and eye gaze transfer) persist in online virtual environments, illustrating the difficulty in creating sharp distinctions between virtual and real-life behavior (Yee et al). MacKinnon’s call for a break in how rape is conceived online assumes that there is a clear difference between what is real and what is virtual. This boundary will become increasingly blurred as VR technology advances and begins to incorporate the human body in virtual worlds, through immersive environments, haptic body suits, remote-controlled sex toys, etc.

Nonetheless, the flexibility of virtual reality allows users to confront and experiment with uncomfortable and dangerous situations. Gamers who are explicitly warned of rape as a game feature are better-equipped to handle the experience, as they may abstain or consent beforehand. Sociolotron, a raunchy MMO designed to break social conventions and explore sexual taboos, provides a case study in successfully incorporating and warning players of rape as a feature of gameplay. Thorn writes that while gamers reported some distress at their character being raped, most did not feel psychologically traumatized by the experience (Thorn 92). In the case of Sociolotron, the illocutionary force (intended meaning) is the same as any other virtual rape, but the perlocutionary force (social effect) is distinct. Some players compared the gaming experience to the unfolding of a risqué erotic novel or a demented social experiment. Similar to a BDSM scene, Sociolotron provided a virtual safe-space for consenting users to explore their fears and darker fantasies.


Custer’s Revenge. Mystique. 1982. Video game.
Dibbell, Julian. “A Rape in Cyberspace.” Web log post. Julian Dibbell (dot com). Julian Dibbell, n.d. Web.
Hernandez, Patricia. “Three Words I Said to the Man I Defeated in Gears of War That I’ll Never Say Again.” Kotaku. N.p., 30 May 2012. Web. 15 June 2016.
Joho, Jess. “Autumn, the Oculus Rift Experience Tackling the Post-traumatic Stress of Surviving Rape - Kill Screen.” Kill Screen. N.p., 05 Jan. 2015. Web. 20 June 2016.
Mackinnon, Richard. “Virtual Rape.” Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 2.4 (2006): 0. Web.
Powers, Thomas M. “Real Wrongs in Virtual Communities.” Ethics and Information Technology 5.4 (2003): 191-98. Web.
Thorn, Clarisse, and Julian Dibbell. Violation: Rape in Gaming. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.
Sociolotron. Sociolotronics LLC. 2005. MORPG.
Wolfendale, Jessica. “My Avatar, My Self: Virtual Harm and Attachment.” Ethics and Information Technology 9.2 (2006): 111-19. Web.
Yee, Nick, Jeremy N. Bailenson, Mark Urbanek, Francis Chang, and Dan Merget. “The Unbearable Likeness of Being Digital: The Persistence of Nonverbal Social Norms in Online Virtual Environments.” CyberPsychology & Behavior 10.1 (2007): 115-21. Web.
Other virtual media, such as the video game Autumn by Tusmorke and the immersive VR movie Perspective; Chapter I: The Party by Morris May and Rose Troche, offer alternative ways of handling rape in virtual spaces. Autumn allows gamers into the world of a survivor dealing with post-traumatic stress from sexual assault; it follows her recovery process in reverse chronological order, through four seasons. Marta Clavero, one of the two designers, conceptualized the game as a way to communicate the hyper-vigilant reality of women in constant fear of sexual assault, stating “games have the power to deliver human experiences and evoke empathy unlike any other media” (Joho). Perspective also promotes empathy, showing a campus rape from two perspectives -- the male culprit and the female victim (both insecure freshman trying to reinvent themselves). Autumn and Perspective handle rape with sensitivity and psychological gravity, showing us that virtual media can broach rape in a constructive way.

Regrettably, we may not successfully reimagine or do away with virtual rape anytime soon. The virulent patterns of gendered domination and sexual violence are deeply embedded in our present culture and inevitably reassert themselves in virtual spaces. To argue that we can separate our virtual and “real life” conceptions of rape is to assert, fallaciously, that the boundaries between virtual and real are firm to begin with. The slippage between virtual and real occurs in both directions, however, and instances like the Bungle affair can instruct our ideas about rape in general. While the increased freedom of virtual reality may open novel opportunities for abuse, it can also offer powerful new ways for us to communicate, cope with, and understand rape as a society.