Punishments in Virtual Environments

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Punishments in virtual environments are penalties taken in response to virtual crimes or perceived grievances that occur in a virtual environment such as virtual gaming communities, social networks, and online forums. Since the virtual world is not reality, and has a completely different set of rules and consequences, it is difficult to set the punishments within these settings. Deviant behavior is determined by societal standards, but what sets these standards becomes confusing and understanding the degree of punishment exhibited is a complicated issue[1].

Online user's may be called out by other users for breaking the rules.


Whether punishments should or should not be enforced virtual environments stems from the discussion that only physical beings can commit and be punished for moral wrongdoings. A machine or virtual representation cannot necessarily be considered a moral agent and therefore be punished for wrongdoings. This article discusses possible virtual punishments if punishment were appropriate.

Arguments in favor of punishments in virtual environments are based on two Kantian ethics and consequentialist theories suggested by Philip Brey [2]

  1. The argument from moral development states that cruelty or moral wrongdoing in virtual reality strengthens the disposition to be cruel outside of virtual reality. Harmful actions taken inside a virtual environment where repercussions might not be as severe could lead to similarly harmful actions in the physical arena.
  2. The argument from psychological harm suggests that the psychological connection between a virtual representation and the person controlling it means that the virtual representation can also be held to morally accountable. Because the actions of a virtual representation is controlled by some person, the two are thinking and acting with one mind. (See also Online Identity)

Approaches to Punishment

In his 2009 paper "Why unreal punishments in response to unreal crimes might actually be a really good thing" Marcus Johansson makes four arguments in favor of punishing an avatar A in multiplayer virtual environment or, by his suggestion, a multi-user interactive environment where participants are represented by avatars in a computer-generated setting.

  1. Consequentialist Approach – This approach follows that to punish A Is morally required since it is the best way to maximize positive consequences. In this case, since A and the person controlling it are psychologically connected, the offense committed by the real-life person can be and should be followed by punishment.
  2. Appropriateness Approach – This approach follows that since the moral wrongdoing was committed in a virtual environment, the punishment should be dealt with in the virtual realm as well. This is an extension of the “an eye for an eye” approach to punishment when one harmful action is punished by another.
  3. Organic Whole Approach – This approach argues that the A and the person controlling A are a moral agent together, an organic whole, and therefore are liable for a punishment; the two cannot be separated because of a loss of moral agency. This approach would overturn an argument that a virtual being is not a moral agent.
  4. Indeterminacy Approach – This approach assumes that the boundary between A and its controller is undefined. The base example for the approach assumes that if a person with a prosthetic arm gets his arm slammed in a door, then they as a person was slammed in a door—the boundaries of the mind extend beyond that of the actual being.

Types of Punishment


Johansson offers the below definition of a punishment in virtual reality against the avatar that committed a wrongful offense, deemed X:

P is said to be a punishment in the moral sense (although not necessarily a morally justified punishment) if all of the following criteria are fulfilled:

  • i) P involves an alteration of, or a withholding of something from, the situation within which X is situated,
  • ii) P is intended,
  • ii) P is intended to be perceived as negative by X, and P is supposedly justified with a reference to X having violated a moral norm.

Possible Punishments

Johansson further describes eight possible punishments, as defined above, for wrongs committed in virtual reality.

Type Definition Example
Confiscation X is subject to confiscation of property or fines in the virtual community that which the harm is done In communities such as Second Life [3], monetary fines that reflect physical capital can be placed upon X
Community Service X must complete tasks that will be beneficial to the virtual community X could be forced to "manually" clean the virtual environment
Social Punishments X is subject to punishments dealt by the social community of virtual beings whom he considers peers Public embarrassment or shunning by the community is appropriate by this definition
Restrictions X has its ordinary rights or liberties removed in the virtual world Actions such as movement, actions, speech, and etc. can be restricted
Avatar Modification the appearance of X in the virtual environment is altered leading to a loss of identity Any form of modification affecting the visual appearance including change of face, body, and clothing
Imprisonment X is imprisoned in a certain realm of the virtual world, limiting its free movements around the environment X enters the virtual world and is contained within a prison, room, or some closed-off environment; Second Life uses "The Corn Field"
Ostracism X is banned temporarily or permanently from participating or accessing the virtual world X cannot log into the virtual environment to participate; permanent type of ostracism is character death
Public Capital Punishment X is subjected to a combination of ostracism and social humiliation X is ostracized and the virtual community is notified of its wrongdoing

The list above are generalized punishment types that can be brought on to avatars that commit wrongdoing in a virtual environment. The punishment dealt would vary depending on the violation and the effectiveness of the punishment. Because much of the virtual environment is anonymous, punishments can usually only be enforced by a democratic community or by administrators of the community to the identifiable avatar and account.

Punishments in Practice

Punishments in virtual reality are dealt in a variety of ways for perceived wrongdoings. Wrongdoings are usually violations of the community code of conduct. In some role playing games, the gaming rules explicitly claim that violations will be punished but the actual type of punishment is up to the discretion of the administrators. Heroes of Gaia says in its Online Code of Conduct:

For all violations of the articles set forth above, punishments will be decided at the sole discretion of Ray Flame Entertainment Inc. [4]

In the case of the LambaMoo virtual rape, described by Julian Dibbell, a member of the MOO who had some administrative and moderation powers "toaded" the perpetrator, Mr.Bungle [5]. The character was removed from the database. Character death can be considered as a severe form of ostracizing.

In the virtual world Second Life, "naughty avatars" are sent to an area dubbed The Corn Field. Second Life wiki-contributors liken this area to a "prison." [6]. This is also a form of ostracizing and not public capital punishment given that the prison is closed off to the public.

In Xbox Live, gamers that have been flagged for cheating or harassment of other players are subject to account suspension or in some cases permanent ban. Microsoft has a no-tolerance policy resulting in immediate action everyday.

General Examples in the online game environment

  • Banning or kicking someone from a virtual environment to prevent wrongdoings
  • Stripping the rank (i.e. General to Private) in a military simulation game such as America's Army
  • Ignoring a certain player, purposely playing against them, or simply harassing or griefing them

Ethical Implications

Punishment guidelines

When a user disobeys the moral code while participating in an online environment a variety of different punishments can be applied. However certain punishments, such as social punishments, are applied by other users within the realm of the virtual or online world. This sparks the question of who is the one to say how severely an individual should be punished? For example, in the Dusty the Cat case (see Anonymous), Kenny Glenn was a young teenage boy when he posted a video of himself abusing a cat on the popular social sharing site YouTube. The fallout that occurred from this video was severe. Kenny Glenn's account on YouTube contained personal information which individuals used to collaboratively find out his address, phone number, and a variety of other personal details pertaining to his life. His family received death threats, random deliveries to their home, and thousands of phone calls. Ultimately Kenny and his brother were arrested as well on animal cruelty charges. Whether or not everything that happened to the Glenn family was a fitting punishment is debatable. However, the ethical issue at hand deals with who exactly has the right to punish other individuals online for breaking a moral code in the online environment? This question is further complicated by the fact that moral codes vary between virtual environments and that there is oftentimes no explicit "guide" on how members are expected to behave.

Glenn's punishment for his virtual representation of himself was a classic case of [Doxxing|doxxing], in which an online user's personal information is exposed in hopes that those offended by the user's content will seek revenge. This can come in various forms be it contacting the poster's employer or place of education, harassing the poster's family, or sending hateful mail to the poster's home address. Doxxing is highly controversial as the content it punishes is usually legal, but not socially acceptable. It is also controversial because the online community takes punishment into their hands and there is no limit to the damage they can do; it is at the discretion of other users.

Anonymity online

The anonymity found in many virtual environments also contributes to the complexity of the situation. The fact that players are anonymous can cause them to feel comfortable committing a social faux pas in the first place but this can also cause those players delivering the punishment to feel comfortable taking the punishment further than necessary. In the Dusty the Cat incident described above, the anonymous nature coupled with the large quantity of those delivering the punishment to Glenn left a permanent mark on his reputation and digital footprint. This situation raises the question of whether it is ethically acceptable for punishments in the online world to translate into punishments in the real world.

Gaming Company's Role

Certain punishments, such as Ostracism, usually come from a company that a user has violated and their rules are generally more clear cut. If a user were to cheat in a virtual environment such as World of Warcraft, Blizzard Entertainment could suspend the user's account for violating the terms of service. However other forms of virtual punishment stem mostly from other users in the same virtual environment, thus creating a slippery slope when these punishments are applied.

See Also


  1. Approaches to Managing Deviant Behavior in Virtual Communities https://www.cc.gatech.edu/~asb/papers/conference/deviance-chi94.ps
  2. Johansson, Marcus. "Why unreal punishments in response to unreal crimes might actually be a really good thing" 12 February 2009
  3. Wikipedia Second Life
  4. http://hog.webmmo.com/article_info.php?article_id=3326 Heroes of Gaia Game Rules
  5. Powers, Thomas M. Real wrongs in virtual communities 2004
  6. Second Life Wiki The Corn Field

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