Do Not Feed The Troll – Virtual Assault in Online Environments

A poorly dressed man is wandering through a dark and foreboding forest. He wanders aimlessly, inspecting brush and piles of detritus as if searching for something. His actions are highly repetitive, stooping to briefly peruse the darkened environment, until suddenly he pauses and grasps up a shiny object. He pauses to inspect it, trying to estimate whether it might have hidden elements that would make it even more impressive than its glittering stone. Without warning, a large, darkly armored man mounted atop a foreboding steed rides from behind a tree and smites the scavenger with a flaming sword. Nothing is left but a pile of ash.

This scenario, while obviously fantastical, would clearly be tantamount to murder in the real world. At the same time, it plays out countless times daily within the virtual environment. Often an attack such as this is unprovoked, unexpected, and leaves its victims with a sense of hopelessness and despair. Player-killing and other violent acts between virtual persons are a classic example of griefing, particularly in environments in which such attacks are not expected as human players are often tasked with killing AI controlled enemies in a teamwork based environment.

So how then, does the virtual community address the issues inherent in virtual assault, virtual murder, and other concepts that seemingly have a connection to real world violent crime? Clearly the direct consequences of virtual murder and assault are greatly lessened than their real world equivalents. An avatar that meets its demise at the hands of another user’s avatar can respawn within seconds, and indeed, entire virtual environments revolve around this fact with simulated warfare as the only goal of countless servers. In a virtual murder, no life is lost. Similarly, in a virtual assault, no bones are broken, and the appearance and health of a virtual person can be restored instantly. Yet at the same time the virtual crimes can impact user’s emotionally, causing levels of anguish similar to the real world equivalents, particular in cases of virtual assault.

The Model Penal Code defines assault as follows:

(1) Simple Assault. A person is guilty of assault if he:
(a) attempts to cause or purposely, knowingly or recklessly causes bodily injury to another; or
(b) negligently causes bodily injury to another with a deadly weapon; or
(c) attempts by physical menace to put another in fear of imminent serious bodily injury.

The relevant portion of this definition, part (c), is applicable to a discussion of virtual assault.

Many virtual communities regulate behavior such as this by banning it outright in their Terms of Service. One of the “Big Six” violations that will result in suspension or termination in the virtual environment Second Life is assault, defined within the SL terms of service as “. . .shooting, pushing, or shoving another Resident. . . [or] creating or using scripted objects which singularly or persistently target another Resident in a manner which prevents their enjoyment of Second Life.” (http://secondlife.com/corporate/cs.php) Other communities, however, are more tolerant of the acts, banning them only when they become particularly egregious or hatefuly. EVE Online, a virtual community that bases its online experience around concepts of interpersonal and interorganizational conflict, provides for a looser standard regarding harassment. The support documentation to the EVE Online Terms of Service state: “At our discretion, players who are found to be consistently maliciously interfering with the game experience for others may receive a warning, temporary suspension or permanent banning of his account.” (http://support.eveonline.com/Pages/KB/Article.aspx?id=336 ) Player attacks on other players in EVE Online are not considered assault, but instead part of the gameplay. The game rules do make a distinction between simple assault (and destruction of one’s ship) and the killing of a user’s actual avatar, in that it puts in-game bounties on users who do take “excessively” violent action against each other.

At the same time, unwanted acts of aggression perpetrated on one user by another can cause the same psychological anguish that a real world act of aggression would. Therefore, it seems the act itself could be a form of assault. The victim is put in apprehension for the safety of his avatar, and for many users the identification with one’s avatar can rise to a level where it is extremely closely tied to the user’s psychological state. In the article Virtual Dopplegangers: Psychological Effects of Avatars Who Ignore Their Owners (http://vhil.stanford.edu/pubs/2010/bailenson-ow-virtual-doppelgangers.pdf ), Jeremy Bailenson and Kathryn Segovia explore this connection and the effects avatar actions have on user’s perception of themselves and environment.

While the apprehension of harm of a virtual assault victim is most certainly there – has an actual crime occurred? In Second Life, Revisited (http://chronicle.com/article/Second-Life-Revisited/46557/ ) Michael J. Bugeja examines some of these issues. Of particular note is the quote from Linden Labs vice president Robin Harper: “Virtual assault. . . cannot cause physical harm, and an avatar cannot be forced to do anything against its controller’s will.” This sentiment is clearly a literal expression of the differences between real world and virtual assault as a means to downplay the lack of a bodily harm element in assault. Harper expounds further upon the ability of users to depart or even log off as a simple means of escape of online assault.

Clearly, criminal acts are not made legitimate by being pursued while in an online environment. Fraud via online means is still fraud. The same goes for money laundering, defamation, and any other number of crimes. Criminal acts involving the harm of another person’s body, however, naturally fall outside of this realm. At the same time, online bullying and griefing is such a common component of the online experience that perhaps steps need to be taken in order help dissuade online assailants from their actions.

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~ by scottyufl on December 3, 2010.

One Response to “Do Not Feed The Troll – Virtual Assault in Online Environments”

  1. Very well-written, Scott.

    Interesting to think that although the literal meaning of the crime clearly won’t provide anyone relief for online assaults, the essence of what the crime tries to protect may have some applicability.

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