Virtual Rape refers to coerced or unwilling participation in sexual acts by a person's Avatar, character, or even textually based representation (see the case of LamdaMOO). Rape varies from one culture to another but, the shared development contributes to the similarities in habits, folkways, mores, and laws of a given society. Computer mediated Communication (CMC) has helped contribute to this issue due to the availability given to networked users to interact with other virtual societies.
Much of the debate focuses on whether virtual rape is a crime, since no physical injury or interaction occurs. However, the emotional trauma that can be a result of virtual rape is real (Legba, as cited by Julian Dibbell , "A Rape in Cyberspace"). If we take Spence's view that the avatar is merely an incarnation of the user him/herself (2008), then the argument that virtual rape is a personal violation has stronger grounds to stand on. As Paul Conway has argued, the intent is a significant factor in determining the ethicality of a situation; if a person slams another’s hand in a door, does it matter if that hand is a prosthesis? The intent of virtual rape is to degrade, dominate, and hurt the person whom the avatar represents.
Instances of Virtual Rape
One of the first publicized incidents of virtual rape was within the context of LambdaMOO—a text based virtual environment. A player named Mr. Bungle forced two other players, Legba and Starsinger, to perform explicit acts by using a “voodoo doll” subprogram. The act was coercive in that even when the two victims attempted to leave the “room”, they were unable to prevent Mr. Bungle from continuing his attack. Although, what Mr. Bungle did was unwanted, neither of the players were physically touched. It could be argued that they merely had to turn off their computers to stop Mr. Bungle. However, the investment of a player in their avatar might preclude this kind of preventative measure, and the ethical implications of his actions (in that they caused emotional harm) is. With no specific Terms of Service in LambdaMOO to address this kind of assault, and no legal grounds, the players of LambdaMOO had to create their own process and level the punishment they found appropriate on Mr. Bungle.
LambdaMOO is not the only game where this kind of behavior could occur. A virtual rape in Second Life was reported to the Belgian police  and has been much discussed. Along with the allegation of straightforward sexual assault in SL, there are ethical implications for areas in second life where players go to engage in virtual statutory rape—an illegal activity under the law, but the players represented by the underage avatars are (theoretically) not minors. Whether engaging in virtual child pornography is still unethical even when no actual children are involved is a difficult matter to define by using the rubric of intent or outcome alone.
The disbelief many expressed with regard to the Second Life virtual rape stemmed from the fact that, like the Sims, Second Life has a policy of only allowing behavioral interaction when both parties agree the specified behavior. This code functions in conjunction with the Terms of Service and EULA as a safeguard to prevent unwanted interaction (including virtual rape) in most virtual environments.
Defining virtual rape is further confused by the existence of games like “RapeLay”—a simulation where the entire point of the game is to sexually assault the other non-player-characters (NPCs). The code of the game makes playing the game in other, ethical ways a futile experience, and therefore more or less mandates these behaviors. Since the NPCs are not the representatives of other human players, they cannot experience the pain or emotional trauma of rape. If there is no victim, is there a rape? On the other hand, the player’s behavior can make these NPCs behave as though they are experiencing rape: from the standpoint of the player, it is the same effect as if said player were raping or assaulting another player’s avatar (albeit a victim without the ability to report their assailant to a moderator or admin).
Given that rape is an unethical act without the intermediation of technology, one could take the "traditionalist" view that virtual rape is merely an incarnation of unethical impulses that remains unethical in whatever setting it is manifested . However, the non-traditionalists have grounds for discussion in that the act of virtual rape is not carried out under “threat of injury” and the victim is never physically touched. Furthermore, whether virtual rape is illegal is also up for debate—while a case of avatar homicide has been persecuted in Korea, there is little precedent to deal with online crime perpetrated against avatars and the resulting policy vacuum has yet to be filled.
- Spence, E. (2008). Meta Ethics for the Metaverse: The Ethics of Virtual Worlds. University of Twente
- Virtual Environment
- Virtual Crimes and Punishments
- Virtual Community
- Cheating in Videogames
- Dibbell, J. (1993). A Rape in Cyberspace. Village Voice, December 23rd.
- Tavani, H.T. (2004). The uniqueness debate in computer ethics: What exactly is at issue, and why does it matter? Ethics and Information Technology 4: 37–54, 2002