Way back when the internet was first learning to walk, we didn’t have MMOs like we do today. Our characters were not graphically represented by millions of pixels in full color detail. No, we had to write them in to existence. We had to write their actions in to existence as well. We were doing it all on something called a MUD (Multi-User Dungeon). One particular MUD called LambdaMOO was shaken to its core by a deranged individual known by the not-at-all creepy name of Mr. Bungles.
That was the basis of Julian Dibbell’s A Rape in Cyberspace. What happened was Mr. Bungles used a sort of backdoor program called a “voodoo doll”. This program attributed actions to characters that the owners themselves did not consent to. Obviously by the title these actions were sexual in nature. The community was outraged. Conferences were had and emotions ran wild. People truly felt as if they had been somehow violated. In the end, all they could really do ban the devious Mr. Bungles.
I think this event raised some very genuine issues. Where is the line that separates our online characters from our real life counterparts? Is there even a distinction? For some people, I would argue that their online presence is just as, if not more, important to them. As I stated above, at that time you didn’t just click through a few preset customizations for your character. No, you created them. Often times they were created to represent not necessarily who you are, but who you wanted to be. They could be someones hopes and dreams. They could also be a mirror of how you view yourself.
If that’s the case then a violation of the character could easily be seen as a violation of the self. Perhaps even worse, it could be an attack and a molestation of another persons hopes and their dreams. Something like that could indeed have very serious emotional consequences.
While it would be easy to dismiss these people as investing too much time in to a “fake” character, it is important to put it in to perspective. People become emotionally attached to non-living or entirely made up entities all the time. How many times have you cried at the end of a sad movie or book, been mad at a devious character on a television show, or felt sorrow when a celebrity or popular politician died? I would argue that our attachment to those things is no where near as strong as the users of LambdaMOO had to their characters.
The most important thing I got out of all of this is that the more important our online presences become to us, the better care we need to take when dealing with one another. It’s not an easy issue to deal with. What are your thoughts on the issue?