“Netsex, tinysex, virtual sex – however you name it, in real-life reality it’s nothing more than a 900-line encounter stripped of even the vestigial physicality of the voice,” writes Julian Dibbell, in a 1993 article for The Village Voice entitled “A Rape in Cyberspace.” “And yet as any but the most inhibited of newbies can tell you, it’s possibly the headiest experience the very heady world of MUDs has to offer.”
In the early ’90s, before the idea of an online community was anything more than a whispered dream shared amongst a brave, lonely few, a member of the text-based MUD LambdaMOO named Mr. Bungle used a piece of software to commit rape. The software, called a voodoo doll, allowed Bungle to manipulate other members and “force” them to do his bidding. The doll was not rare in and of itself – voodoo dolls were occasionally used for play, occasionally for mischief – but Mr. Bungle would appear to have been one of the first to use one for sexual humiliation.
Dibbell relates the event in detail:
“The remaining facts tell us … that he commenced his assault entirely unprovoked, at or about 10 p.m. Pacific Standard Time. That he began by using his voodoo doll to force one of the room’s occupants to sexually service him in a variety of more or less conventional ways. That this victim was legba … [who] heaped vicious imprecations on him all the while … that he turned his attentions now to Starsinger … forcing her into unwanted liaisons with other individuals present in the room. … That his actions grew progressively violent. That he made legba eat his/her own pubic hair. That he caused Starsinger to violate herself with a piece of kitchen cutlery. That his distant laughter echoed evilly in the living room with every successive outrage.”
legba had this to say after the attack:
“Mostly voodoo dolls are amusing. … Mostly, [this type of thing] doesn’t happen here. Mostly, perhaps I thought it wouldn’t happen to me. Mostly, I trust people to conduct themselves with some veneer of civility. Mostly, I want his ass.”
legba later admitted that while typing those words, decrying an act of “virtual” rape against her “virtual” self, she was experiencing a very real case of post-traumatic stress, crying very real tears over what she believed was a very real invasion of her personal and sexual sanctity. Even had she been able to tear herself away from her online self, even had she allowed herself to be driven away by Bungle’s outrageous behavior, she would not have been able to save her character from the attack, or herself from the humiliation of knowing that others (her online family) were witnessing her virtual assault at the virtual hands of a rapist.
In a 1943 treatise entitled “A Theory of Human Motivation” (PDF), A. H. Maslow proposed the idea that human behavior was informed by a series of successive motivations grouped into five categories. His 10,000-word paper is often expressed as a simple pyramid diagram with the most basic needs (food, water, sleep and sex) at the bottom of the pyramid and the higher needs (love, self esteem, creativity, etc.) in ascending order, with Self-Actualization at the top.
“A person who is lacking food, safety, love, and esteem would most probably hunger for food more strongly than for anything else,” writes Maslow, suggesting physiological needs take precedence, and that only after a person has met those needs will he seek to meet higher order needs and so on; which brings us back to sex. Let’s say you’ve got all that food, water and shelter folderol taken care of, but what you really lack is sex. Your first order of business is going to be finding someone with whom to satisfy that need.
Which brings us back to online communities. From full-fledged dating services to online groups only incidentally offering a social outlet, online spaces are the perfect environment for breeding wants and needs. In most online communities it takes only weeks, if not days, for the first amorphous hints of an adults-only romper room to take shape, leading to all manner of sexual experimentation and fulfillment. Some communities are even built from the ground up explicitly for sex. And sometimes, online community members act like Mr. Bungle, attempting to satisfy their basic Maslowian needs (for sex, or even control) through coercion or force.
The Rape Switch
“This game contains sex, politically incorrect behavior, blasphemy, and lots of other things which are not acceptable to many people,” says the Sociolotron website. “This game allows you to bring out your darker side, but it also allows the same for other players!”
Just what exactly the makers of Sociolotron intended by the phrase “darker side” is a matter of subjective opinion (and a matter most of us won’t feel the need to investigate too thoroughly). Suffice to say, Sociolotron is a place where anything goes; up to and including most things we simply would not tolerate in normal life – including rape.
“I’d prefer something with a violable elegance to something that appeared open to all takers,” said Sociolotron user Dominic, speaking to a reporter for adult game site MMOrgy.com. “Ultimately, I want to explore something that is resisting and I want that resistant thing to break for me.”
MMOrgy describes Dominic as “one of” Sociolotron‘s rapists. Scenes from a menagerie of horror movies come flooding in. But before we get too carried away by moral indignation, it’s important to note that the ability to be raped is a character option in Sociolotron – users can turn it on and off at will. This is, after all, the place where anything goes. If only there were a switch for turning off sociopaths …
Again, from the Sociolotron website:
“Don’t yell for help to the game masters! … There is some supervision by game masters and we will interfere if people behave in a way that disturbs other players’ gaming experience beyond the normal level but other than that we leave the players to settle their own disputes.”
The phrase “beyond the normal level” is compelling to say the least.
“And if she doesn’t resist … at the initial capture? Does that lessen the pleasure for you?” the MMOrgy.com interviewer asks Dominic.
“Part of the art is to create resistance,” he says.
“How do you do so in one who willingly goes with you?”
“There are always spaces of distress if your mind is subtle enough to find them.”
What Sociolotron users may get out of willingly submitting to an individual like Dominic is anyone’s guess, and perhaps intangible. At any rate, it’s most definitely a higher order Maslow need, somewhere in the area of Love or Esteem. Sometimes, however, sex in the online space is more clear cut. Sometimes it’s all about the Benjamins.
In World of Warcraft, players buy items and animals with in-game gold. This gold can be earned through various in-game means or, if you have more money than time, purchased in out-of-game auction houses. But what if you have neither in-game gold, nor out-of-game cash? Well, they don’t call it the oldest profession for no reason.
“I need 5000 [World of Warcraft] gold for my epic mount,” proclaimed the level 70 night elf Druid, known colloquially as “Epic Slut.” “In return you can mount me.”
Phone sex lines have been doing gangbuster business for decades, so the idea of someone talking dirty for money isn’t all that new. But until recently, outside of a small circle of gamers and philosophers, the idea of breaking the fourth wall and offering one’s physical self in return for in-game favors seemed a taboo too far. Epic Slut may not have changed that perception, but she, like Mr. Bungle before her, did challenge the belief that it “doesn’t happen here.” And she isn’t alone.
“My free trial was set to end at midnight. I hadn’t earned any gold whatsoever, and my character wasn’t advancing quickly enough to turn a profit. I knew what I had to do, and I bravely started clicking,” says Rob Conzelman, a self-described “cyber whore” writing for Dragonfire Magazine. Conzelman describes the character he made (female, of course) and how he dressed her, and how he then proceeded to wait by a lamppost, looking sexy and soliciting passersby.
“And, uh, just like that,” he writes, “I made five gold pieces in five minutes. I was earning zilch when I played legitimately, but cyber-whoring myself paid off in virtual dividends. Instantly I earned the equivalent of 80 cents and boosted my wage to a near real-life $4 an hour wage!”
“Will Bobba for Furni”
Online communities, by their very nature, push boundaries, and that is exactly why so many people find their second home within one, and why so many others seek to fulfill their needs within their walls. But as the scope of internet offerings expands to include content designed for octogenarians, politicians, school teachers and children, that very tendency of online communities to break social barriers comes into stark relief. Sometimes barriers can be good things, especially when children are involved – or could be.
“Maybe ‘furni’ is common UK slang, but my first encounter with the word was on Habbo, where virtual furniture is the only possible currency between characters,” writes the BBC’s H2G2 reviewer, after a visit to Habbo Hotel, the kid-centric online world. “The second most important term to remember on Habbo is ‘bobba,’ a nonsense word that automatically replaces any objectionable terms. If someone says, ‘Bobba you!’ they’re not trying to be cute or smurfy. They said something so bad that it was automatically censored. … When you hear a female habbo say, ‘I WILL BOBBA FOR FURNI,’ then you’ve met your first virtual furniture strumpet. This behavior is quite against the rules of Habbo, but enterprising users have found workarounds.”
As vile as it may seem that children are selling their virtual selves for money (or furni), if pressed on the subject, Habbo‘s teens will always have the tried and true response “I learned it by watching you” to fall back on.
“100 an hour paid up front for girl in Seoul 20 or younger”
Called a “failure of the ratings” system by some and “worth checking out” by others, Audition, a dance-based MMOG, sports tens of millions of registered users (more than Second Life) and according to Korean gaming site KH Games, presents something of a hidden menace to the Korean population, if not the world.
Audition functions like most MMOGs, only with DDR-style dancing instead of dragon slaying. Users sign up for an account, register a name and join up with others to dance the night away. Sounds harmless enough, except Audition, like many Asian MMOGs, offers a deep reward system supplemented by pay-to-play extra features; features some users are willing to sell themselves in order to get. But again, nothing new here. What is different is the dance moves in Audition are overtly sexual, and players are encouraged to “pair up” and even get married within the game. Audition players frequently follow their in-game affairs out of game, leading to all sorts of trouble, as one might imagine.
But such online-turned-real-world meet ups are also not new to Korea, where, after decades of sexual repression, they appear to be undergoing something of a sexual revolution – internet style. Scheduling bungae-ting (lightning meetings) in chat rooms or through instant massaging and then following up with a real life hookup is commonplace, and many of Korea’s free-to-play MMOGs, like Audition, double as dating services. Instead of flowers and candy, Romeos buy in-game items, and their Juliets reciprocate with sex.
Audition offers very little in the way of chat or language filters, and many prospective sex seekers register with names like “Looking for a girl in Seoul 25 and under” or “100 dollars an hour paid up front for girl in Seoul 20 or younger” to save valuable chatting time. KH Games tells the story of 16-year-old Jung Na-yung, who was lured to an off-line rendezvous with the promise of a quick meet-up and perhaps some in-game items, and was then trapped and raped by an in-game friend turned real-world tormentor.
One assumes that, like Sociolotron‘s Dominic, for Jung Na-yung’s rapist, the thrill of the breaking was the whole point, but in this case (unlike Mr. Bungle’s rape) the assault didn’t occur in-game, nor (as in the case of Dominic) was it consensual. A U.S. version of Audition is currently available.
“I think where parents should be the most concerned is online worlds that are not rated and where emergent sex occurs,” Brenda Brathwaite, the industry’s foremost expert on in-game sex, told Wired News last year. Was anyone listening?
Emergent sex is the next battleground, the undiscovered controversy. Incidents like Bungle’s assault on LambdaMOO, the creation of a Dominic in Sociolotron and the rape of Jung Na-yung paint a grim picture, but to date, they are isolated occurrences far removed from the mainstream. Consenting adults who meet to trade sex for game gold may be an accepted fact of life on the fringe, but minors trading “bobba” for anything should sound an alarm bell or two.
According to Maslow, the sex drive is an unstoppable force, as primal as the need for food, and just as our many other modern tools have evolved to service us in this regard, so too have online worlds evolved, and so too have those who would seek to satisfy their needs (whatever they may be) through coercion or force. But the question isn’t whether or not we’ll allow our children, our hormonal, curious children, to participate in this evolution (they will whether we want them to or not). The question is whether or not we’ll allow their curiosity to take them places we wouldn’t dare allow them to go in the real world.
Sociolotron and its like are the equivalents of real-world swingers clubs or singles bars, and they have formidable barriers in place to restrict minors from entering, which is as it should be. We would not, after all, allow minors into a strip club. But in places like Habbo and Audition, we’re allowing the sociopaths into the preschool. This year’s political circus may be centered on the role of videogames in violent crimes, but even if every school shooter in the United States had played videogames to prepare for his rampage, chances are on that very same day more children, exponentially more, were playing doctor online. This, in and of itself, is not necessarily the problem – it’s who they’re playing with we should be concerned about.
Russ Pitts is an Associate Editor for The Escapist. His blog can be found at www.falsegravity.com.