De-Incentivizing Virtual Rape

As reported by Wired’s Regina Lynn: Controversy is brewing in virtual reality world Second Life over the occurrence and potential illegality of online rape. The 3-D virtual world, built and owned by its more than 6 million users, currently allows members to engage in a wide range of sexual activities. You can buy S&M gear and solicit strippers, escorts, and prostitutes (all of whom are in fact other SL users). While individual avatars are supposedly prohibited from taking control of other avatars without permission, savvy users can still use scripts to force submission. As a result, Belgian police are now investigating an SL user’s allegations of a sexual assault that took place entirely online. Here’s what Lynn has to say on the matter:

If it is a criminal offense to sexually abuse a child on the internet, how can we say it is not possible to rape an adult online?

But I have a hard time calling it “rape,” or believing it’s a matter for the police. No matter how disturbed you are by a brutal sexual attack online, you cannot equate it to shivering in a hospital with an assailant’s sweat or other excretions still damp on your body.

Meanwhile, Salon‘s Broadsheet reports that SL rarely and barely punishes abusers, while noting that most U.S. states have enacted statutes calling for real-life punishment of extreme online harassement. Crime in Second Life isn’t a new phenomenon, and users have criticized SL’s slow response to complaints of “illegal” activity, while SL creator Philip Rosedale has reportedly been reluctant to start policing the virtual world. Still, when issues like sexual assault start sparking real-life police action, it sounds like a case for some necessary introduction of retribution to remove incentives if ever there was one.


I think harrassment is more appropriate than rape. Regardless, it raises an intereting question.

Why, if SL has too much freedom, and users want a more policed experience, doesn't someone just make an alternative that where "illegal" activity is punished/prevented etc?

Why would you want to modify SL if you can offer something superior? Just offer the superior product.

"Introducing retribution?" Since when is tampering with or rigging a market a good idea?

kyle we're up to reason #884 not to waste your time in second life


Fascinating. Clearly, the utility lost from SL rape is less than the utility lost from first life rape. But nonetheless, there's some utility foregone. Maybe this is a great place for economists to recommend alternative forms of criminal punishment than imprisonment. For instance, Becker proposed in his original JPE article "Crime and Punishment" liberal use of fines to deal with crimes, as opposed to imprisonment. That the former was more efficient in many cases (though I think rape and murder were instances where fines seemed less approprate, but it's been a few years since I read the article). Maybe Levitt, Becker and other crime economists should advise SL on efficient ways of policing. Sounds like it's become an environment where "natural experiments" can become real experiments, too.


This doesn't raise an interesting question. This is stupid.

Getting beat up in a video game isn't an assult and getting killed in a video game isn't murder.


amit - I think most video games I'd agree. I've not played SL, but what I hear is that it becomes a virtual home to people. The cries from users for help (for more on this) speaks to the fact that this is not really like other video game environments. It's not really clear what a "video game" is anymore with products like SL and WoW. No one was complaining about getting killed on SUper Mario Brothers when I was a kid, so I'm inclined to believe there's more going on here. Like that article I just liked to notes, apparently people have somewhat lucrative businesses in the SL world. WIthout rule of law and policing, of course there's going to be crime.


Some time last year, Richard Posner made an appearance in second life. In an interview on NPR, he explained that his interest in the virtual world was it its enormous potential as laboratory for ideas that are too costly to test in the real world. I think this "rape" is a hugely important test of that theory. Will the virtual world respond by top-down policing and regulation? Or will the market work its magic? If there is a need for safety (which now we see there is) and incentive for crimes without policing (again, made clear by the virtual attack), how will an unregulated world respond?


This isn't the first time the topic's found its way into the media. In 1993, Julian Dibbell wrote an article for the Village Voice about a "cyber-rape" that took place on LambdaMOO -- a text-based role-playing environment. It got a lot of play at the time, and the discussion was very similar: "is this really a rape," "how can online environments police themselves," etc.

The Wikipedia entry for the incident is here:

And Dibbell's article is here:


I think the intriguing aspect of this for me is the notion of evolution of future social interaction in particular with the variable of technology. I remember playing CastleWolfstein (or whatever) on a black and white Commodore computer. In the last couple decades mainstream gaming has made huge perceptual strides . . . there are moment I believe I am in game.
Will technology, market forces and social motivations create even more realistic virtual worlds to the point where what is considered "virtual" today may be considered real tomorrow. The core of this phenomenon is human perception. Reality to us is all processed perception. And who is to say that the tea cup I'm seeing on my desk is any more real than the letters I am reading in this post? They create real experiences. If virtual assault causes real perceptual emotions and trauma will society regulate that too?
I suppose this is really not new . . .Matrix and other media have represented it before. Will a person someday be a criminal for having pedophilia dreams?



There have been massively multiplayer online games for decades, most of them allowing sexual behavior or murder to occur (without consent of the other party). This is hardly a new phenomenon. The only change is that there is a graphical user interface, and that more people use them than ever before. Maybe things would be better if users maintained a healthy level of detachment from this virtual world. It is still only a game.


ng no one is going to do anything about the illegal activities on SL, maybe it should be left to the few who are willing to step in themselves. There should be some sort of financial incentive right IN SL that would reward "good Samaritan" behavior. I could see someone programming them selves as a virtual "Super-Hero". Going around in SL as a superman, or batman, would be exciting and fulfilling. I think.


I liked comedian Demetri Martin's take on violent video games. "I'd like to make a video game where you take care of all the people getting hurt in real video games. What are you playing? Super Busy Hospital. This guy was shot in the head 347 times with a grenade launcher."


I find if offensive to use the term r*pe in this context. It is such a loaded and painful term that I believe should be used very carefully. Having known women who have been traumatized by the real thing I feel sick to think that people can throw this term around with such ambivalence. These Second Life'ers are proof positive that living in a dream world void of real human interaction all social skills and compassion for others is thrown out the window.

Half Sigma

This is so dumb. If you don't like the game, log out.


1) This is abhorrent and the people who commit these acts are despicable - virutally and in reality.

2) There is a definite distinction between this and rape - real life rape victims can't turn off the computer to instantly stop the aggression.

3) It seems that a lot of people who are concerned about this want the game provider to police behavior by banning accounts, etc. I think it would be more in keeping with the virtual life experience to allow players to participate in virtual justice - be it virtual police, courts, etc, or more likely vigilante protection schemes. It seems that game providers who offered such capabilities would have an advantage in the market over those who attempt to police as administrators (too inefficient) or those who rely on the actual police and courts (inappropriate and unlikely to be consistent.)


This is insane! We are talking about a game. It is not reality. Spend more time in the real world. This a total waste of time. It is very sad that for some people a computer game, however complex and sophticated, is a substitute for real life.

tim in tampa

Is it silly to treat acts in a game like acts that happen in reality? Yes.

Are we being forced to confront the diminishing barrier between these definitions of reality? Absolutely.

Like it or not, we are moving in a direction by which there IS no delineation between the two.


It's sad that there is even an article on this topic. It is a bigger shame that living out your life in a computer game is becoming more and more acceptable, to the point of setting laws, and that these shut-ins can direct so much attention to this creepy hobby. How about they start paying more attention to their first lives before they bring this crap before us.

Sara Washburn

I believe we need to punish those who terrorize others in any form without their consent. It doesn't matter whether it is in an online medium or not. The fact it may occur within a “game” does not change the requirements people should be held to.

That said, on another note, the viability of online accountability is another issue. I believe it is THE issue, not merely whether it should be punished. A Second Life Avatar can have their account suspended, and merely open up another one under a different name... I am certain Linden Labs has been struggling with this. There is no way to regulate whether a real life person enters in accurate identity information when creating an account. Second Life does not require payment to participate; requiring a credit card for payment would be the only option, and then that may be impractical as well, as many people have similar names, etc.

Second Life is an excellent medium for many fields and contrary to some commentators' thoughts is not something only "shut-ins" participate in, etc. I myself started a philosophy club that has regular meetings dialoguing on varying strands of philosophy. Compliments of my Second Life philosophy club, I can gather regularly with fellow philosophers all over the world, an unimaginable feat in real life. Most hours of the day, you can find at least one other philosopher online, ready to pursue deep discussion. Many of the philosophy club members are college students majoring in philosophy. The philosophy club gives them a convenient place where they can toss around ideas they're studying.

I purchased virtual land in Second Life for my philosophy club, which I maintain with monthly dues. I am only one of many Second Lifers who own virtual land. Land ownership, along with participation in many outstanding groups, are strong reasons why safety concerns matter significantly to Second Life users.

And, sharing personally, I never much like it when Second Life is referred to as a game! In how many other games can users come together to have intellectual discussion while building international relationships? Second Life is what you make of it. To dog it without being familiar with it seems unwise…



Virtual crimes in virtual worlds should be punishable by their respective virtual police.

It's only a matter of time before people will be going to their virtual work within their virtual world and putting in a solid 8-1/2 hour work day sitting at a virtual desk on a virtual computer (maybe taking breaks to sneak off to a virtual virtual world).


Thanks for bringing some perspective to this, Sara. I know a few people at my work who participate actively in online gaming, and they are hardly shut-ins. They have no trouble with actual human interaction and have vibrant social lives. They also happen to spend some of their time engaged in online gaming. So stereotyping in this situation is not a step toward understanding.

Speaking of, it is clear from this discussion and related articles I've read that I have no idea what Second Life is or what the complexities and possibilities of online gaming are. And I don't know if I want to step into that world, at least not too deeply. Is there a primer somewhere that would give me an idea of what is involved with these sorts of online gaming, short of my having to experience it myself? I'm intrigued given that this is clearly not an issue simply for "shut-ins" but that it has broad ramifications for society in general.