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.


>>For instance, Becker proposed in his original JPE article “Crime and Punishment” liberal use of fines to deal with crimes

With all due respect, I thought that the book Freakonomics' section on arriving late for day-care pick-up showed that a fine did not constitute a disincentive to crime as much as it did a price.

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

That's like saying if you don't like what the newspaper printed about you, don't read it.

>>Will a person someday be a criminal for having pedophilia dreams?

No, but it is quite likely that if they go to the local elementary school and relate the dreams to the 9 year olds, they will.

I once read a couple of people posting on a bulletin board happily fantasizing (describing?) raping a frat boy, abusively ascribing the stupidest attention-seeking motives to the poor fellow. That is reprehensible behavior, and communities would be wise to stamp it out, whether that effort is assisted by law enforcement or not.

and to me the most interesting...
>>Is it silly to treat acts in a game like acts that happen in reality?


>>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.

Whether you want to consider the case of the law students whose f...-ability was described in endless detail with pictures copied from the internet and fantasy rapes attached, any hollywood celebrity unnerved by the writings of a stalker, Carol Burnett's suit against a tabloid 31 years ago, (my god, who ever would have thought that 'arguing with Henry Kissinger' could be included in a legal matter about whether one was drunk in public?!), or some other old case of people standing up and declaring, "you cannot do that to my public persona", there has been a long-standing tradition in law that what you do to a person's image matters.




Anyone who claims that rape is about sex and not about power, domination, and control should take a hard look at what's happening in Second Life.

David in NYC

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

>>That's like saying if you don't like what the newspaper printed about you, don't read it.

Yes, it is. And your point would be what?

It's a game, people. Get over it.

heather barr

With all the truly tragic happenings in this often bitter, earthly, real life, I cannot imagine that anyone would waste their precious time worrying about what goes on among fake people who choose to waste their time playing games in an ersatz virtual second life. If real rape really bothers you, you can actually volunteer to help authentic rape victims in Rwanda, or even in your own actual, physical home town. There is more than enough genuine suffering that needs your real life, human attention. We only get one life, why waste it playing games ? Why not try something bold and unique, like taking a risk and being useful on earth?


I've been frequenting SL for about 3 years now, am unashamedly sexually active there, and in all that time I've never heard of anything like this. In fact, I really don't understand how a 'cyber-rape' is even possible in Second Life. Unless you've voluntarily turned over control of your avatar to someone else (in which case you really have no cause to complain), you *always* have the option of just transporting out of any unpleasant situation with a simple click.

And if for some reason that shouldn't work, you can always just turn off the damned computer and walk away. How difficult is that?

How, then, is rape possible?

There does exist a software modification called the Restrained Life Viewer which intentionally restricts autonomy for the avatar who wants to play at being owned and controlled by another, but the RLV is entirely voluntary and can still be overridden by the user or turned off with a simple click.

Harassment ("griefing") does occur in SL, both in adult and non-adult venues. But forcing an avatar to do something "against its will"?



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.