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Sign of the Times?

Written By mista sense on Saturday, May 5, 2007 | 7:12 PM

Yesterday I took in a commentary by Regina Lynn from Wired about "virtual rape" (in Second Life) as a crime.

Um... what?

Apparently the Belgian police are investigating allegations by a Brussels citizen that she (or he) was raped in Second Life. Sounds like a joke, and while it isn't verified, the discussions have begun. The commentary's headline is "Virtual Rape is Traumatic, but is it a Crime?"

I don't do Second Life, and I'm not really into the massively multiplayer scene, either. Generally, I play games to get away from others. If I collaborate, it's selective-- something on the order of Mario Party is good enough for me. And the precision with which Second Life and its ilk have begun to emulate the conventions of reality, with the advent of real-world businesses, campaign headquarters, art and society frankly disturbs me a little. That's not a game- it's a pretend world, and while those are fine, I wonder about those who are not so good at knowing where to draw the line.

I play a lot of video games; I find I rarely play less than three hours a day as a benchmark minimum. Plenty of weekends have gone by where I've done little else. Fantasy is fantastic as an escape from life-- which you subsequently return to, ideally more relaxed, relieved and entertained than when you left; better able to cope with the admittedly mundane. But fantasy as a replacement for life is an insult to humanity.

I realize that a digital avatar is deeply personal, as a representation of the self. It's expected that, especially with the heavy time investment that many of these games require, individuals care about what happens to their characters. But I imagine that the concept of "virtual rape" as traumatic, a matter worthy of police attention, must be enormously offensive to individuals who've endured actual, violent, visceral rape at the hands of flesh-and-blood monsters. If you're not having fun in the internet game-- whether it's because there's nothing going on, or because somebody's character is trying to get on top of you-- turn it off.

The real question is not whether or not it's a crime. If it's harassment to make unsolicited lewd phone calls or send obscene IMs, then it's harassment to use your imaginary character to grope someone else's imaginary character. And while that sort of thing is certainly upsetting, "traumatic" is entirely too heavy a word. The internet age necessitates that at any given time, you risk exposure to scandalous pop-up ads, irritating spam emails, and all kinds of imagery and language that might offend your delicate sensibilities.

Second Lifers are not internet newbies. This is a community where anthropomorphic wolf cubs walk around in diapers looking for sex; all kinds of weird, overtly sexual stuff is in plain view. Not to mention the "consensual rape for plot value" issue that often comes up in RPGs. The easily offended should be on their guard, therefore-- and if another user behaves inappropriately that user should be reported, and the victim should terminate the behavior by turning off the game. Is that so impossible that nobody can do it for just a few minutes?

Actually, that's just what Lynn suggests about Second Life-- that since people's professional lives are apparently so firmly entrenched in the Second Life universe, just a few minutes of lost game time could cause reverberating financial repercussions. I'm skeptical of this defense, but if it's valid, the problem isn't perverts in a computer game, it's that-- and this is something I never thought I'd hear myself say-- people need to be less dependent on the computer. If your Second Life is causing you trauma, maybe it's time to spend a little more time on your first.

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