This story is adapted from Reality+: Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy, by David J. Chalmers.Note: The following paragraphs describe a virtual sexual assault in a text-based virtual world.
Before there was the metaverse, there were MUDs, or multi-user domains. In 1993, they were the most popular virtual worlds for social interaction. MUDs were text-based worlds with no graphics. Users navigated through a number of “rooms” with text commands and interacted with others there. One of the most popular MUDs was LambdaMOO, whose layout was based on a California mansion. One evening, a number of users were in the “living room” talking with one another. A user named Mr. Bungle suddenly deployed a “voodoo doll,” a tool that produces text such as John kicks Bill, making users appear to perform actions. Mr. Bungle made one user appear to perform sexual and violent acts toward two others. These users were horrified and felt violated. Over the following days, there was much debate about how to respond within the virtual world, and eventually a “wizard” eliminated Mr. Bungle from the MUD.
Almost everyone agreed that Mr. Bungle had done something wrong. How should we understand this wrong? Someone who thinks virtual worlds are fictions might say that the experience is akin to reading a short story in which you are assaulted. That would still be a serious violation, but different in kind to a real assault. That’s not how most of the MUD community understood it, however. The technology journalist Julian Dibbell reported a conversation with one of the victims recounting the assault:
Months later, the woman . . . would confide to me that as she wrote those words posttraumatic tears were streaming down her face—a real-life fact that should suffice to prove that the words’ emotional content was no mere fiction.
The victim’s experience lends support to virtual realism—the view that virtual reality is genuine reality, and that what happens in virtual worlds can be as meaningful as what happens in the physical world. The assault in the MUD was no mere fictional event from which the user has distance. It was a real virtual assault that really happened to the victim.
Was Mr. Bungle’s assault as bad as a corresponding sexual assault in the nonvirtual world? Perhaps not. If users in a MUD attach less importance to their virtual bodies than to their nonvirtual bodies, then the harm is correspondingly less. Still, as our relationships with our virtual bodies develop, the issue becomes more complex. In a long-term virtual world with an avatar in which one has been embodied for years, we may identify with our virtual bodies much more than in a short-term textual environment. The Australian philosopher Jessica Wolfendale has argued that this “avatar attachment” is morally significant. As the experience of our virtual bodies grows richer still, violations of our virtual bodies may at some point become as serious as violations of our physical bodies.
The Mr. Bungle case also raises important issues about the governance of virtual worlds. LambdaMOO was started in 1990 by Pavel Curtis, a software engineer at Xerox PARC in California. Curtis designed LambdaMOO to mimic the shape of his house, and initially it was a sort of dictatorship. After a while, he handed control to a group of “wizards”—programmers with special powers to control the software. At this point, it could be considered a sort of aristocracy. After the Mr. Bungle episode, the wizards decided they didn’t want to make all the decisions about how LambdaMOO should be run, so they handed power to the users, who could vote on matters of importance. LambdaMOO was now a democracy of sorts. The wizards retained a degree of power, however, and after a while they decided that democracy wasn’t working and they took some decision-making power back. Their decree was ratified by a democratic vote after the fact, but they had made it clear that the shift would be made regardless. The world of LambdaMOO moved fairly seamlessly through these different forms of government.
All this raises crucial issues about the ethics of near-term virtual worlds. How should users act in a virtual world? What’s the difference between right and wrong in such a space? And what does justice look like in these societies?
Let’s start with virtual worlds that exist already. Perhaps the simplest case is that of single-player video games. You might think that with nobody else involved, these games are free of ethical concerns, but ethical issues still sometimes arise.
In his 2009 article “The Gamer’s Dilemma,” the philosopher Morgan Luck observes that while most people think that virtual murder (killing nonplayer characters) is morally permissible, they think that virtual pedophilia is not. The same goes for virtual sexual assault. In the 1982 Atari game Custer’s Revenge, the objective was to sexually assault a Native American woman. Most people think that something is going wrong morally here.
This presents a philosophical puzzle. What is the relevant moral difference between virtual murder and virtual pedophilia? Neither act involves directly harming other people. If virtual pedophilia led to nonvirtual pedophilia, that would be a major harm, but it seems that the evidence for such transfer is weak.
It is not straightforward for moral theories to explain what is wrong here. One possible explanation invokes virtue ethics, which explains the difference between right and wrong actions in terms of the virtues and vices of the people who perform them. We consider the kind of person who enjoys virtual pedophilia to be morally flawed, so engaging in virtual pedophilia is itself a morally flawed act. Perhaps the same goes for virtual sexual assault, torture, and racism. It is telling that many people have a similar moral reaction to the 2002 game Ethnic Cleansing, in which the protagonist is a white supremacist killing members of other races. By contrast, we don’t think that “ordinary” virtual murder is indicative of a moral flaw, so we regard it as unproblematic. Still, the ethical issues here are subtle.
Once we move to multiuser video game environments (such as Fortnite), and then to fully social virtual worlds (such as Second Life), the ethical issues multiply. If these virtual worlds were merely games or fictions, then the ethics of virtual worlds would be limited to the ethics of games or fictions. People could wrong each other in the ways they do when playing games, but not in the richer ways that they do in ordinary life. Once one sees virtual worlds as genuine realities, however, then the ethics of virtual worlds becomes in principle as serious as ethics in general.
In many multiplayer game worlds, there are “griefers”—bad-faith players who delight in harassing other players, stealing their possessions, and harming or even killing them within the game world. This behavior is widely regarded as wrong insofar as it interferes with other users’ enjoyment of the game. But is stealing someone’s possessions in a game as wrong as doing so in real life? Most of us would agree that objects owned in a game matter less than possessions in the nonvirtual world. Still, in long-term games, and all the more in nongame environments, possessions can be important to a user, and the harm can be correspondingly significant. In 2012, the Dutch Supreme Court upheld the conviction of two teenagers for stealing a virtual amulet from another teenager in the online game Runescape. The court declared that the amulet had real value in virtue of the time and effort invested in obtaining it.
Virtual theft is hard to explain if virtual objects are mere fictions. How can you “steal” an object that doesn’t exist? The philosophers Nathan Wildman and Neil McDonnell have called this the puzzle of virtual theft. They hold that virtual objects are fictions, and argue that they cannot be stolen. At worst, these cases involve the theft of digital objects but not virtual objects. In the Runescape case, a digital object was stolen but no virtual object was stolen. Virtual realism, which holds that virtual objects are real objects, gives a much more natural explanation. Virtual theft deprives someone else of a real and valuable virtual object. In this way, virtual theft provides further support for virtual realism.
What about murder in virtual worlds? Because there’s no genuine death in near-term virtual worlds, there is not much room for genuine murder. A user could induce a heart attack in another user’s physical body by saying something, or could induce others to commit suicide in the physical world. These acts in a virtual world are as morally serious as the same sort of act in a nonvirtual world. Short of these cases, the nearest thing to murder is “killing” an avatar. But this doesn’t kill the person who inhabited the avatar. At worst, it removes the person from the virtual world, an act more akin to banishment. Killing an avatar might be more akin to murder followed by reincarnation, at least if reincarnation produces full-grown people with memories intact. It might also be akin to destroying a persona: perhaps eliminating the Iron Man persona while Tony Stark still lives. Those are all morally serious actions, even if they’re not as serious as murder in the ordinary world.
How should wrong actions in virtual worlds be punished? Banishment is an option, but it may not count for much. Mr. Bungle was banished from LambdaMOO, but soon afterward the same user returned, reincarnated as Dr. Jest. Virtual penalties and virtual imprisonment likewise may have some effect, but the effects will be limited when users can easily take on new bodies. Nonvirtual punishment (from fines to imprisonment to death) may in principle be an option, but with anonymous users this may be hard to arrange. As virtual worlds become more central to our lives, and virtual crimes take on increasing seriousness, we may well find that it becomes difficult to find punishments that fit the crime.
Our moral and legal systems will need to catch up. We often treat virtual worlds as escapist game environments where our actions don’t really matter. But in the coming decades, virtual worlds will move far beyond games to become part of our everyday lives. Actions in virtual worlds will potentially be as meaningful as actions in the physical world. Crimes such as theft and assault in virtual worlds will affect real human beings and will be real crimes. To fully recognize this, we will need to treat virtual realities as genuine realities.
Excerpted from Reality+: Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy. Copyright (c) 2022 by David J. Chalmers. Used with permission of the publisher, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc. All rights reserved.