As the experience of virtual universes develops more extravagant, virtual violations, for example, attack and robbery might become as genuine as their partners in the actual 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.

Nearly everybody concurred that Mr. Bungle misunderstood accomplished something. How might we comprehend this wrong? Somebody who thinks virtual universes are fictions may say that the experience is likened to perusing a brief tale in which you are attacked. That would in any case be a not kidding infringement, yet divergent in kind to a genuine attack. That is not how the vast majority of the MUD people group got it, nonetheless. The innovation writer Julian Dibbell reported a conversation with one of the casualties describing the attack:

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 attack as awful as a comparing rape in the nonvirtual world? Maybe not. In the event that clients in a MUD append less significance to their virtual bodies than to their nonvirtual bodies, then, at that point, the mischief is correspondingly less. In any case, as our associations with our virtual bodies create, the issue turns out to be more intricate. In a long-​term virtual world with a symbol in which one has been encapsulated for quite a long time, we might relate to our virtual bodies significantly more than in a short-​term printed climate. The Australian rationalist Jessica Wolfendale has contended that this “symbol connection” is ethically huge. As the experience of our virtual bodies develops more extravagant still, infringement of our virtual bodies may eventually become as genuine as infringement of our actual 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 isn’t direct for moral hypotheses to clarify what’s going on here. One potential clarification conjures temperance morals, which clarifies the contrast among good and bad activities as far as the ideals and indecencies of individuals who perform them. We consider the sort of individual who appreciates virtual pedophilia to be ethically defective, so captivating in virtual pedophilia is itself an ethically imperfect demonstration. Maybe the equivalent goes for virtual rape, torment, and prejudice. It is telling that many individuals have a comparative moral response to the 2002 game Ethnic Cleansing, in which the hero is a racial oppressor killing individuals from different races. Conversely, we don’t believe that “common” virtual homicide is characteristic of an ethical defect, so we see it as unproblematic. All things considered, the moral issues here are unobtrusive.

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 burglary is difficult to clarify in the event that virtual articles are simple fictions. How might you “take” an item that doesn’t exist? The savants Nathan Wildman and Neil McDonnell have called this the riddle of virtual robbery. They hold that virtual items are fictions, and contend that they can’t be taken. Even from a pessimistic standpoint, these cases include the burglary of computerized protests yet not virtual items. In the Runescape case, a computerized object was taken yet no virtual item was taken. Virtual authenticity, which holds that virtual items are genuine articles, gives a significantly more normal clarification. Virtual robbery denies another person of a genuine and significant virtual article. Along these lines, virtual robbery offers further help for virtual authenticity.

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.


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