Virtual Harrassment

Virtual Harrassment

Online environments are becoming more and more volatile. Should people be held accountable for their online actions or do real-world rules not apply to them?

The world where it is socially acceptable to make jokes about abuse in prison or “asking for it” if you’re wearing a short skirt is changing. That is, as long as you avoid the world of online gaming, where rape jokes and threats are just a part and parcel of the environment.

The idea of rape culture addresses how we collectively think about sexual violence. Everyday Feminism, a popular feminist website, explains it as “the way in which sexual assault, rape, and general violence are ignored, trivialised, normalised, or made into jokes.” Marshall University also has a page dedicated to explaining rape culture, stating: “Rape culture is perpetuated through the use of misogynistic language … [and] the glamorisation of sexual violence.”

People on the internet are often openly racist, homophobic and sexist without considering the repercussions. According to a study by the Pew Research Centre, 73 per cent of surveyed internet users said they had witnessed someone being harassed online, while 40 per cent reported being targeted themselves.

Some online gamers believe the best reaction to online abuse is to just ignore it. Others, such as gamer Rachel, think that the best strategy to combat this abuse is to “show them who’s boss” by playing well. Hardly a progressive way to fix the issue.

Rachel initially said she hadn’t experienced verbal abuse in terms of threats or sexual violence. However, the following day she re-contacted Critic to report that while playing Counter-Strike online she “started talking, reporting where the enemy was, and [her] team-mate said ‘is that a fucking girl? Shut your c*** mouth or I’m going to rape you.’”

Cheyanne, another online gamer, explained that even though she normally attempts to hide her identity online, she has been asked her bra size on more than a few occasions. Yngwie also reported this kind of incident. He said in a recent game of League of Legends, two members of the opposing team mentioned they were girls. Almost immediately, “a member of [his] team started to spam messages at the enemy team, repeatedly asking to know the cup sizes of the women.”

Anita Sarkeesian is famous (or infamous) for her feminist videos Tropes vs Women in Video Games. Initially she made a kickstarter video to raise funds, and received a massive backlash for trying to make the series. In a 2012 TED talk she reported that “all [of her] social media sites were flooded with threats of rape, violence, sexual assault, death”. In spite of the abuse, she raised “25 times what I initially asked for”, and her YouTube channel Feminist Frequency “went from a part-time side project to a full-time endeavour”.

This success, however, is somewhat negated by the continued harassment.

Three years on, Sarkeesian discussed the ongoing online harassment she has received. She said “we live in a society where online harassment is tolerated, accepted, and excused” and she is “angry that [she is] expected to accept online harassment as the price of being a woman with an opinion”.

People have threatened her life and the lives of others due to her discussion around games. Yes, games. One person found out where she lived, so she had to leave her home. The issue is not disagreeing with her — that’s what critical thinking and discussion are for. However, taking that dislike of her arguments and threatening to “shove it up her c***” perpetuates this “rape culture” that society is accused of.

While no one has been prosecuted yet, because of the nature of the threats against Sarkeesian, she now reports her abuse directly to the FBI. She has expressed frustration with how normal it has become to her, stating: “A death threat comes through my social media and it’s just become a routine: screencap, forward to FBI, block, move on.”

There is a history in online environments, and particularly in gaming, of “virtual rape”. Melissa Sander defined “virtual rape” in her Master’s thesis, Questions about Accountability and Illegality of Virtual Rape, as “the non-consensual simulated sexual violation of a victim avatar, a visual or textual representation of the user, by an aggressor avatar via online interaction”. Julian Dibbell’s 1993 article, “A Rape in Cyber Space”, is the first document to describe an incident of this nature.

The virtual world of LambdaMOO is an online multi-player computer game. People could create and programme their own characters: Insert Mr Bungle. He used a “voodoo doll” subprogram that allowed him to make other characters appear to be doing violent and sexual things. Mr Bungle forced one character to consume their pubic hair and another to sexually assault themselves with a kitchen utensil. He also forced one particular character to repeatedly have sex with him. Nothing like this had happened in LambdaMOO before, and the actions were purely a result of Mr Bungle hacking the system. The actions were deemed “virtual rape”, and a meeting was held in the online community to decide how to punish him. Despite the genuine distress the incident caused, no one was willing to punish the person behind Mr Bungle, nor could they decide a suitable punishment for the character. A master-programmer decided to terminate Mr Bungle’s account. The creator also implemented a voting system for any future issues, as well as creating an action to kick someone disruptive from the server. This particular case sparked discussion around developing online law, and Dibbell ended up teaching cyberlaw at Stanford University.

But virtual abuse certainly didn’t end in 1993. Now, with more and more online games, it is happening more frequently. Better yet, it’s being treated as normal behaviour, as if it’s to be expected.

Looking through some of the tweets directed at Sarkeesian, the same comments keep coming up; “everyone is threatened in games thats what we do [sic]”, “It’s a normal. It’s part of gaming” and “death threats and rape threats are in the culture of gaming … Have you ever played an Online game? Get used to it...”
Dr Lesley Procter of the Sociology, Gender and Social Work department of the University of Otago studies an online social world called Second Life, which is like a combination of social media and The Sims. She stated that in Second Life it would be impossible to be ‘raped’ as “a lot of the simulated gestures and movements are all scripted” so in order to escape “all you would have to do is stand up or quit”.

Procter thinks that hacking a game in order to violate a character would count as a form of “identity and intellectual property ‘rape’, as opposed to simulated physical rape”. She said we need to be “careful about how we apply the word ‘rape’”. She said that if we consider those things as rape, then are we somehow discounting the real-life experience and questioned whether it is “downgrading the [real-life] trauma”.

Procter described how a student in one of her classes got quite annoyed after another character simply bumped into her. Procter said this was a good example of how “our sense of personal space crosses over the screen. In that sense, even having someone sit beside you uninvited and sexually harass you would have an impact. There’s a technological term called ‘presence’, which virtual reality programmes are very good at generating, which is the sense that you’re really in an environment.” It’s this “presence” that makes people have such a strong reaction to any online harassment.

There is a disconnect between the internet and real life. In her article, “Cyber-Rape: How virtual is it?” Debra Michals said that the “internet permits … free and unquestioned expression in easily accessible public spaces”. People will say and do things online they would never do in reality. She explains that “Clearly, ‘virtual rape’ is not the same as the rape a woman experiences in the physical world” but states that the experience can still be upsetting.

Procter also said that on the internet, “your identity is pretty much hidden, you’re safe. You can do whatever and say whatever. It’s not only in virtual worlds — just look at Facebook and flaming and all that kind of stuff; it’s the lack of face-to-face accountability.”

Richard MacKinnon is another who addresses this disconnect, stating that “irresponsibility or freedom from responsibility is easily identifiable in virtual reality society”. He goes on to explain: “The relative rarity of virtual women in a predominantly male cybersociety has led to the documentation of great numbers of instances of sexual harassment.” MacKinnon wrote this in 1997, so the number of women in online environments has obviously grown exponentially since then, but his point still stands. The internet is seemingly still a male-dominated space where women are often the subjects of abuse for joining in.

Associate Professor Colin Gavaghan of the University of Otago’s Faculty of Law said, “making overt threats is a criminal offence punishable by up to seven years imprisonment”. If the threat is less overt, it could still be considered criminal harassment “if it causes the person to fear for their safety”. This could lead to two years imprisonment. However, there is a “mens rea” requirement which means that the harassed “must have intended the communication to cause such fear, or else known it was likely to do so.” Another action to take would be to seek a restraining order, but this requires a pattern of behaviour with at least two or more incidents.

However, Gavaghan added, “both of these options are likely to be difficult to use” because it requires the person’s identity and for them to be in New Zealand. A record of the behaviour is required, so something said over a microphone would be hard to prove.

In terms of sexual and abusive comments, it is even less clear: “if they’d have the potential to cause someone to fear for their safety, they could be covered” or “if the content is such as to qualify as ‘indecent’, it may be caught by s124 of the Crimes Act, which deals with distribution of indecent matter”.

Recently the Harmful Digital Communications Bill has successfully had its second reading before parliament. This bill introduces a new offense of “causing harm by posting digital communication”. Gavaghan said that “this would only require that the communication was sent with the intent to cause harm, and that [it] actually did cause harm”. The bill will also start up an agency which will mediate in these cases.

So there are things you can do, but these rely on qualifications: “if the behaviour is serious, if you can identify the person in question, and if they happen to live in New Zealand.” Gavaghan suggested that the most practical solution is to “report them to the content host; presumably most online games have terms and conditions and can delete accounts of those who breach them”.

Procter also mentioned the terms and conditions of the game, stating that “There are mechanisms, within Second Life at least, where you could take a complaint” in the face of any online harassment. The offending character would then be deleted.

Playing a game like Grand Theft Auto gives the player the freedom to kill people, to beat people up, to steal — what’s more, this kind of behaviour is encouraged by the mechanics of the game.

So what’s the difference between that kind of violent behaviour and this concept of “virtual rape”?

When someone purchases a game knowing it’s violent, they go into it prepared and consenting to the nature of the game. The acceptance of the violence relies on it being either a game which involves killing non-player characters (NPCs) or it’s an even playing field, where everyone can kill everyone. The player is entering into a fight with someone knowing they have the opportunity to kill or be killed.

“Virtual rape”, on the other hand, implies a role of power. This isn’t based around consent, and it isn’t a level playing field. A player is actively hacking a game (in the way Mr Bungle did) so that humiliation can occur. When the player targeted bought the game, they consented to the content of the game they bought, not the possibility that someone would hack the game and abuse their own character in a manner that is personal and disturbing.

Sarkeesian received “pornographic images made in [her] likeness who were being ‘raped’ by video game characters” repeatedly. It is not purely the images that are disturbing to her, but the notion that someone has taken the time to make them about her.

Yes, there is the option to not play. But the female gaming industry is growing and this does nothing more than make the online gaming sphere more undesirable for female gamers. When Pacman was the most realistic character you could play, this wasn’t an issue. But in a world where we are on the verge of virtual reality, surely it’s about time we look at the influence the virtual world could be having on our real world?
This article first appeared in Issue 7, 2015.
Posted 2:51pm Sunday 12th April 2015 by Laura Starling.