A rape in cyberspace

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They say he raped them that night. They say he did it with a cunning little doll, fashioned in their image and imbued with the power to make them do whatever he desired. They say that by manipulating the doll he forced them to have sex with him, and with each other, and to do horrible, brutal things to their own bodies. And though I wasn't there that night, I think I can assure you that what they say is true, because it all happened right in the living-room - right there amid the well-stocked bookcases and the sofas and the fireplace - of a house I came later to think of as my second home.

SOME YEARS ago I found myself tripping now and then down the well- travelled information lane that leads to LambdaMoo, a large and busy rustic mansion built entirely of words. On the occasional free evening I'd sit in my New York City apartment and type the commands that called those words on to my computer screen, dropping me inside the house's darkened cloakroom, where I handed over my quotidian identity, stepped into a new persona, and out into the chatter of a crowded living-room. Sometimes, when the mood took me, I emerged as a dolphin instead.

When I first visited LambdaMoo, the house was in crisis: an elusive congerie of flesh and bytes named Mr Bungle had committed ghostly sexual violence in the halls of LambdaMoo. The Bungle Affair raises questions that - on the brink of a future in which human existence may find itself as tightly enveloped in digital environments as it is today in the architectural kind - demand a clear-eyed consideration.

THE TIME was a Monday night in March, and the place was the living-room, which was in those days packed with chitchatters. So strong was the sense of convivial common ground invested in the living-room that a cruel mind could hardly imagine a better place in which to stage a violation of LambdaMoo's communal spirit.

Mr Bungle was at the time a fat, oleaginous, Bisquick-faced clown dressed in cum-stained harlequin garb and girdled with a mistletoe-and-hemlock belt whose buckle bore the quaint inscription KISS ME UNDER THIS, BITCH! He commenced his assault, unprovoked, at or about 10pm Pacific Standard Time. 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. This victim was exu (pronounced eh-SHOO), a South American trickster spirit of indeterminate gender, brown-skinned and wearing an expensive grey suit, top hat and dark glasses. Exu heaped vicious imprecations on him all the while and Mr Bungle was soon ejected bodily from the room. He hid himself away in his private chambers somewhere in the grounds and continued the attacks without interruption, since the voodoo doll worked just as well at a distance. Then he turned his attentions to Moondreamer, a tall, stout, brown-haired character, forcing her into unwanted liaisons with other individuals in the room, among them exu, Kropotkin (the well-known radical), and Snugberry (the squirrel). His actions grew progressively violent. He made exu eat his/her own pubic hair. He caused Moondreamer to violate herself with a piece of cutlery. His distant laughter echoed evilly with every outrage and he could not be stopped until someone summoned Iggy, a trusted old-timer who brought a gun of near-wizardly powers that didn't kill but enveloped its targets in a cage impermeable even to a voodoo doll's powers. Iggy fired at Mr Bungle, thwarting the doll at last and silencing the laughter.

These particulars are unambiguous. But they are far from simple, because every set of facts in virtual reality (or VR, as the locals abbreviate it) is shadowed by a second, complicating set: the "real-life" facts. And while a certain tension invariably buzzes in the gap between the two, the dissonance in the Bungle case is striking. No hideous clowns or trickster spirits appear in the RL version, no voodoo dolls, indeed no rape at all. The actors in the drama - mostly university students - sat, rather undramatically, before computer screens, their only actions a spidery flitting of fingers across Qwerty keyboards. No bodies touched. Whatever physical interaction occurred consisted of a mingling of electronic signals from sites as far apart as the eastern seaboard of America and the southern coast of Australia. Those signals met in LambdaMoo, certainly, but what was LambdaMoo? No enchanted mansion, just a middlingly complex database, maintained for experimental purposes inside a Xerox Corporation research computer in Palo Alto and open to public access via the Internet.

LambdaMoo was a Mud. Or to be more precise, it was a subspecies of Mud known as a Moo, which is short for "Mud, Object Oriented". All of which means that it was a kind of database designed to give users the vivid impression of moving through a physical space that in reality exists only as words filed away on a hard drive. When users log in to LambdaMoo, the programme immediately presents them with a brief textual description of one of the rooms in the database's fictional mansion. If the user wants to leave this room, she can enter a command to move in a particular direction and the database will replace the original description with one corresponding to the new room. When the new description scrolls across the user's screen it lists not only the fixed features of the room but all its contents at that moment - including things (tools, toys, weapons) and other users (each represented as a "character").

As far as the database program is concerned, all these entities are just subprograms that the program allows to interact according to rules very roughly mimicking the laws of the physical world. Characters may not leave a room in a given direction, for instance, unless the room subprogram contains an "exit" at that compass point. If a character "says" or "does" something (as directed by its user-owner via the "say" or the "emote" command), only users whose characters are also in that room will see the output describing the statement or action. Aside from such basic constraints, LambdaMooers are allowed freedom to create - they can describe their characters any way they like, they can make rooms of their own and decorate them, and they can build new objects almost at will. The combination of user activity with the hard physics of the database can induce a lucid illusion of presence - but when all is said and done, the only thing you really see when you visit LambdaMoo is a kind of slow crawling script, lines of dialogue and stage direction creeping steadily up your computer screen.

To the extent that Mr Bungle's assault happened in real life at all, it happened as a sort of Punch-and-Judy show, in which the puppets and the scenery were made of nothing more than digital code and snippets of creative writing. The puppeteer behind Bungle that night, as it happened, was a young man logging in to the Moo from a New York University computer. He could have been Mother Teresa for all any of the others knew, though, and he could have written Bungle's script that night in any way he chose. He could have sent an "emote" command to print the message "Mr Bungle, smiling a saintly smile, floats angelic near the ceiling of the living- room showering joy and candy kisses down upon the heads of all below" - and everyone then receiving output from the database's subprogram #I7 (aka "the living-room") would have seen that sentence on their screens.

Instead, he entered sadistic fantasies into the "voodoo doll", a subprogram that served to attribute actions to other characters that their users did not actually write. And thus a woman in Haverford, Pennsylvania, whose account on the Moo attached her to a character she called Moondreamer, was given the unasked-for opportunity to read the words "As if against her will, Moondreamer jabs a steak knife up her ass, causing immense joy. You hear Mr Bungle laughing evilly in the distance." And thus the woman in Seattle who had written herself the character called exu, with a view perhaps to tasting in imagination a deity's freedom from the burdens of the gendered flesh, got to read similarly constructed sentences in which exu, messenger of the gods, suffered a brand of degradation all too customarily reserved for the embodied female.

"MOSTLY voodoo dolls are amusing," wrote exu on the evening after Bungle's rampage, posting a public statement to the widely read in-Moo mailing list called "social-issues". "And mostly I tend to think that restrictive measures around here cause more trouble than they prevent. But I also think that Mr Bungle was being a vicious, vile f***head, and I ... want his sorry ass scattered from #I7 to the Cinder Pile. I'm not calling for policies, trials, or better jails. I'm not sure what I'm calling for. Virtual castration, if I could manage it. 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."

The tenor of this message was a curious amalgam that neither the RL nor the VR facts alone can quite account for. Where virtual reality and its conventions would have us believe that exu and Moondreamer were brutally raped in their own living-room, here was the victim exu scolding Mr Bungle for a breach of "civility". Where real life, on the other hand, insists the incident was only an episode in a free-form version of Dungeons and Dragons, here was the player exu issuing aggrieved and heartfelt calls for Mr Bungle's dismemberment. Ludicrously excessive by RL's lights, woefully understated by VR's, the tone of exu's response made sense only in the buzzing, dissonant gap between them.

Which is to say it made the only kind of sense that can be made of Mudly phenomena. For while the facts attached to any event born of a Mud's ethereal universe may march in straight, tandem lines separated neatly into the virtual and the real, its meaning lies always in that gap. You learn this axiom early in your life as a player, and it's of no small relevance to the Bungle case that you often learn it between the sheets, so to speak. Netsex, tinysex, virtual sex, however you name it, in RL reality it's nothing more than phone sex stripped of even the vestigial physicality of the voice. And yet, as many a wide-eyed newbie can tell you, it's possibly the headiest experience that the very heady world of Muds has to offer. Amid even the most cursorily described caresses, sighs or penetrations, the glands do engage, and often as throbbingly as they would in a real- life assignation - sometimes even more so, given the combined power of anonymity and textual suggestiveness to unshackle deep-seated fantasies. And if the virtual setting and the interplayer vibe are right, who knows? The heart may engage as well, stirring up passions as strong as many that bind lovers who observe the formality of trysting in the flesh.

It is small wonder that the sexual nature of Mr Bungle's crime provoked such powerful feelings. A sense was brewing that something needed to be done about Mr Bungle. But it wasn't until the evening of the second day after the incident that exu, finally and rather solemnly, gave it voice: "I am requesting that Mr Bungle be toaded for raping Moondreamer and I. I have never done this before, and have thought about it for days. He hurt us both."

Reading these sentences, an outsider might never guess that they were an application for a death warrant. Even an outsider familiar with other Muds might not guess it, since in many of them "toading" still refers to a command that, true to the gameworlds' sword-and-sorcery origins, simply turns a player into a toad. When the same command is invoked in Moo, not only are the description and attributes of the toaded player erased, but the account itself goes too. The annihilation of the character is total.

Over the course of the next 24 hours, 50 players made it known that they would be pleased to see Mr Bungle erased from the face of the Moo. The numbers suggested that the citizenry was indeed moving towards a resolve to have Bungle's virtual head.

There was an obstacle in the way, however: a curious state of social affairs known in some quarters of the Moo as the New Direction. To liquidate Mr Bungle would require a wizard. Master-programmers of the Moo and custodians of its day-to-day administration, wizards are also the only players empowered to issue the toad command. But the wizards of LambdaMoo, after years of adjudicating all manner of interplayer disputes, had decided they'd had enough of the social sphere. And so, four months before the Bungle incident, the archwizard Haakon (known in RL as Pavel Curtis, Xerox researcher and LambdaMoo's principal architect) formalised this decision in a document called "LambdaMoo Takes a New Direction," which he placed in the living-room for all to see. In it, Haakon announced that the wizards from that day forth were pure technicians. They would make no decisions affecting the social life of the Moo, but only implement decisions the community as a whole directed them to.

Faced with the task of inventing its self-governance from scratch, the LambdaMoo population had so far done what any other loose agglomeration of individuals would have done: they'd let it slide. But now the task took on new urgency. The question of what to do about Mr Bungle began to shape itself into a sort of referendum on the political future of the Moo. Arguments that had only superficially to do with Bungle (since everyone seemed to agree he was a cad) and everything to do with where the participants stood on LambdaMoo's political map broke out. Parliamentarian types argued that Bungle could not legitimately be toaded since there were no explicit Moo rules against rape, or just about anything else - and the sooner such rules were established, and maybe even a judiciary system to enforce them, the better. Others, with a royalist streak, seemed to feel that Bungle's as-yet-unpunished outrage only proved this New Direction silliness had gone on long enough, and that it was high time the wizardocracy returned to the position of leadership their player class was born to.

Then there were the technolibertarians. For them, the presence of Mud rapists on the system was a technical inevitability, like noise on a phone line, and best dealt with by defensive software tools. If someone blasts violent, graphic language at you, they argued, just hit the @gag command and the abuse will be blocked from your screen (and only yours). It's simple, it's effective, and it censors no one.

But the Bungle case was rather hard on such arguments. For one thing, the public nature of the living-room meant gagging would spare the victims from witnessing their own violation, but not from having others witness it. You might want to argue that what victims didn't directly experience couldn't hurt them, but consider how that wisdom would sound to a woman who'd been, say, fondled by strangers while passed out drunk at a party, and you have a rough idea how it might go over with a crowd of hard-core Mooers.

Yet no position was trickier to maintain than that of the Moo's resident anarchists. Needless to say, a pro-death penalty platform is not a comfortable one for an anarchist, so these were now at great pains to sever the conceptual ties between toading and capital punishment. Toading, they insisted (almost convincingly), was much more closely analogous to banishment, a collective action that, if carried out properly, was entirely consistent with anarchist models of community. And carrying it out properly meant building a consensus around it - a messy process with no easy technocratic substitutes.

The time came, at 7pm PST on the third day after the occurrence in the living-room, to gather in emmeline's room for her proposed real-time open conclave. The room was crowded rapidly with representatives of all the Moo's political stripes, and even a few wizards. Arguments multiplied and mingled, players talked past and through each other, the textual clutter of utterances and gestures filled the screen like thick cigar smoke.

There were the central questions, of course: thumbs up or down on Bungle's virtual existence? If down, how to ensure that his toading was not an isolated lynching but a first step toward shaping LambdaMoo into a legitimate community? Surrounding these, a tangle of weighty side issues proliferated. There were many references to Bungle's deed as "rape", but these in no way implied that the players had lost sight of all distinctions between the virtual and physical versions, or that they believed Bungle should be dealt with in the same way a real-life criminal would. He had committed a Moo crime, and his punishment, if any, would be meted out via the Moo.

On the other hand, little patience was shown toward any attempts to play down the seriousness of what Mr Bungle had done. When the affable ShermieRocko proposed that "perhaps it's better to release ... violent tendencies in a virtual environment rather than in real life," he was tut-tutted so swiftly and relentlessly that he withdrew the hypothesis altogether, apologising humbly as he did so. Not that the assembly was averse to putting matters into a more philosophical perspective. "Where does the body end and the mind begin?" young Quanto asked. "Is not the mind a part of the body?" "In Moo, the body IS the mind," offered ShermieRocko gamely.

But as the talk grew more heated and more heady, it seemed increasingly clear that the vigorous intelligence being brought to bear on the issues wasn't going to result in anything like a resolution. It was almost a relief when midway through the evening Mr Bungle himself teleported into the room. Oddly enough, in the three days since his release from Iggy's cage, Bungle had returned more than once to wander LambdaMoo, walking into one of the fiercest storms of ill will and invective ever to rain down on a player. He'd been taking it all with a curious, mostly silent passivity, and when challenged face- to- virtual-face by exu and the genderless elder statescharacter PatSoftly to defend himself, he'd demurred, mumbling something about Christ and expiation. He was equally quiet now, and his reception was cool. Exu fixed an arctic stare on him - no hate, no anger, no interest at all. Just ... watching. Others were more actively unfriendly. "Asshole," spat MaoTseHedgehog, "creep." But the harshest hostility had already been vented, and the attention he drew now was mainly motivated, it seemed, by the opportunity to probe the rapist's mind, to find out what made it tick and, if possible, how to make it tick differently. In short, they wanted to know why he'd done it. So they asked him.

And Mr Bungle thought about it. And as eddies of discussion and debate continued to swirl around him, he thought about it some more. And then he said this: "I engaged in a bit of a psychological device that is called thought-polarisation, the fact that this is not RL simply added to heighten the affect of the device. It was purely a sequence of events with no consequence on my RL existence."

They might have known. Stilted though its diction was, the gist of the answer was simple: Mr Bungle was a psycho. Not, perhaps, in real life - but then in real life it's possible for reasonable people to assume, as Bungle clearly did, that what transpires between word-costumed characters within the boundaries of a make-believe world is, if not mere play, then at most some kind of emotional laboratory experiment. Inside the Moo, however, such thinking marked a person as one of two basically subcompetent types. The first was the newbie; there were few Mooers who had not, on their first visits as anonymous "guest" characters, mistaken the place for a vast playpen in which they might act out their wildest fantasies without fear of censure. Only with time and the acquisition of a fixed character did players tend to make the critical passage from anonymity to pseudonymity, developing the concern for their character's reputation that marks the attainment of virtual adulthood. But Mr Bungle had been around long enough to leave his newbie status behind, and his statement therefore placed him among the second type: the sociopath.

And as there is little mileage in arguing with a head case, the room's attention gradually abandoned Mr Bungle and returned to the debate. But his anticlimactic appearance had robbed it of any forward motion whatsoever. What's more, he kept issuing expressions of a prickly sort of remorse, interlaced with sarcasm and belligerence, and though it was hard to tell if he wasn't still just conducting his experiments, some people thought his regret genuine enough that maybe he didn't deserve to be toaded after all.

People started drifting away. Mr Bungle left first, then others followed. By 9.45pm, only a handful remained, and the great debate had wound down into casual conversation. Emmeline's meeting had died, without any practical results to mark its passing.

It was at this point, most likely, that TomTraceback reached his decision. TomTraceback was a wizard who'd sat brooding on the sidelines all evening. He hadn't said a lot, but what he had said indicated that he took the crimes seriously, and felt no particular compassion towards Mr Bungle. But he had made it equally plain that he took the elimination of a fellow player just as seriously, and moreover that he had no desire to return to the days of wizardly intervention.

He told the lingering few players in the room that he had to go and then he went. It was a minute or two before 10pm. He did it quietly and he did it privately but all anyone had to do to know he'd done it was to type the @who command, which was normally what you typed if you wanted to know a player's present location and the time he last logged in. But if you had run an @who on Mr Bungle not too long after TomTraceback left emmeline's room, the database would have told you something different.

Mr Bungle, it would have said, is not the name of any player.

Mr Bungle was truly dead and truly gone.

THEY SAY that LambdaMoo wasn't really the same after Mr Bungle's toading. They say as well that nothing really changed. And though it skirts the fuzziest of dream-logics to say that both these statements are true, the Moo is just the sort of fuzzy, dreamlike place in which such contradictions thrive.

Certainly the Bungle Affair marked the end of LambdaMoo's brief epoch of rudderless social drift. Away on business for the duration of the episode, Haakon returned to find its wreckage strewn across the tiny universe he'd set in motion. For the better part of a day he puzzled over the record of events and arguments left, and at the day's end he descended once again into the social arena of the Moo with another history-altering proclamation.

It was to be his last, for what he now decreed was the final, missing piece of the New Direction. In a few days, Haakon announced, he would build into the database a system of petitions and ballots whereby anyone could put to popular vote any social scheme requiring wizardly powers for its implementations, with the results of the vote to be binding on the wizards. A few months and a dozen ballot measures later, the new regime had already produced a small arsenal of mechanisms for dealing with the types of violence that called the system into being. Moo residents now had an @boot command, with which to summarily eject berserker "guest" characters. And players could bring suit against one another through an ad hoc mediation system in which mutually agreed-upon judges had at their disposal the full range of wizardly punishments - up to and including the capital.

Yet the continued dependence on extermination as the ultimate keeper of the peace suggested that this new Moo order was perhaps not built on the most solid of foundations. For if life on LambdaMoo began to acquire more coherence in the wake of the toading, death retained all the fuzziness of pre-Bungle days. This truth was rather dramatically borne out, not too many days after Bungle departed, by the arrival of a strange new character named Dr Jest. There was a forceful eccentricity to his manner, but the oddest thing about his style was its striking yet unnameable familiarity. And when he developed the annoying habit of stuffing fellow players into a jar containing a tiny simulacrum of a certain deceased rapist, the source of this familiarity became obvious: Mr Bungle had risen from the grave.

In itself, Bungle's reincarnation as Dr Jest was a remarkable turn of events, but perhaps even more remarkable was the utter lack of amazement with which the LambdaMoo public noted it. To be sure, many residents were appalled by Bungle's brazenness. In fact, one of the first petitions circulated under the new system was a request for Dr Jest's toading that almost immediately gathered several dozen signatures (but failed in the end to reach ballot status). Yet few were unaware of the ease with which the proscription could be circumvented - all the toadee had to do was go to the minor hassle of acquiring a new Internet account, and LambdaMoo's character registration program would treat the known felon as a new and innocent person. Nor was this case necessarily understood to represent a failure of toading's social disciplinary function. On the contrary, it only underlined the truism that his punishment, ultimately, had been no more or less symbolic than his crime.

What was surprising, however, was that Bungle/Jest appeared to have taken the symbolism to heart. Dark themes still obsessed him. He no longer radiated aggressively antisocial vibes, though, and was a lot less unpleasant to look at (the outrageously seedy clown had been replaced by a mildly creepy but really rather natty blue-eyed young man), and a lot less dangerous to be around. It seemed obvious, at least to me, that he'd undergone some sort of personal transformation - nothing radical maybe, but powerful none the less, and resonant enough with my own experience, I felt, that it might be more than professionally interesting to talk with him, and perhaps compare notes.

FOR I too was undergoing a transformation in the aftermath of that night in emmeline's - and was increasingly uncertain what to make of it. As I pored over the social debate and got to know exu and some of the other victims and witnesses, I could feel my newbie consciousness falling away. Where before I'd found it hard to take virtual rape seriously, I was now finding it difficult to remember how I could ever not have taken it seriously. I was proud to have arrived at this perspective - it felt like an exotic sort of achievement, and it definitely made my ongoing experience of the Moo a richer one.

But it was also having some unsettling effects on the way I looked at the rest of the world. Sometimes, for instance, it grew difficult for me to understand why RL society classifies RL rape alongside crimes against person or property. I found myself reasoning that it must be classed as a crime against the mind. I did not, however, conclude that rapists were protected by the First Amendment. Quite the opposite, in fact: the more seriously I took the notion of virtual rape, the less seriously I was able to take the tidy division of the world into the symbolic and the real that underlies the very notion of freedom of speech.

Let me say that I did not at the time adopt these thoughts as fully-fledged arguments, nor am I now presenting them as such. I offer them as a picture of the sort of mindset that my initial encounters with a virtual world inspired in me. I offer them also, therefore, as a kind of prophecy. For I have come to hear in them an announcement of the final stages of our decades-long passage into the Information Age, a paradigm shift that the classic liberal fire wall between word and deed (itself a product of an earlier shift known as the Enlightenment) is not likely to survive intact. After all, anyone familiar with the workings of the new era's definitive technology, the computer, knows that it operates on a principle impracticably difficult to distinguish from the pre-Enlightenment principle of the magic word: the commands you type into it are a kind of speech that doesn't so much communicate as make things happen, directly and ineluctably - like pulling a trigger.

And it was this logic of the incantation, I was beginning to understand, that provided whatever real magic LambdaMoo had to offer: the conflation of speech and act that's inevitable in any computer-mediated world. This was dangerous magic, to be sure, a potential threat - if misconstrued or misapplied - to our always precarious freedoms of expression, and, as someone who lives by his words, I dared not take the threat lightly. Yet I could no longer convince my-self that our wishful insulation of language from the realm of action had ever been anything but a valuable kludge, a philosophically imperfect stopgap against oppression that would just have to do until something truer and more elegant came along.

Was I wrong to think this truer, more elegant thing might be found on LambdaMoo? I did not know. I continued, in my now-and-then visits, to seek it there, sensing its presence just below the surface of every interaction. Yet increasingly I sensed as well that if I really wanted to see what lay beneath those surfaces I was going to have to radically deepen my acquaintance with the Moo. For a time I considered the possibility, as I said, that discussing with Dr Jest our shared experience might be a step toward understanding. But I still felt intimidated by his lingering criminal aura, and hemmed and hawed before finally resolving to drop him Moo-mail suggesting a chat. By then it appeared to be too late. For reasons known only to himself, Dr Jest stopped logging in.

But he left behind his room - a treehouse tastefully decorated with bookshelves, an operating-table, and a lifesize William S Burroughs doll - and he left it unlocked. So I took to checking in there occasionally, heading out of my own cosy nook (inside a TV set inside the little red hotel inside the Monopoly board inside the dining-room of LambdaMoo) and teleporting over to the treehouse, where the room description always told me he was present but asleep, in the conventional depiction for disconnected characters. The not-quite-emptiness of the abandoned room invariably instilled in me an uncomfortable mix of melancholy and the creeps, and I would stick around only on the off-chance that Dr Jest might wake up, say hello, and share his understanding of the future with me.

Edited extract from Julian Dibbell's `My Tiny Life: Crime and Passion in a Virtual World', to be published by 4th Estate (pounds 16.99) on 28 January