It is by the goodness of God that in our country we have those three unspeakably precious things: freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, and the prudence never to practice either of them. -- Mark Twain
Massively multiplayer environments of all sorts are under attack from within. Gankers and vultures of all sorts litter the landscape of any MMO that allows for player-vs-player combat, we have griefers a-plenty for the ones that don't. Unless you're playing Neopets, online servers are full of foul-mouthed, racist junk-monkeys. The hate-filled miasma they spatter around them has reached the point where many people who could be on those services won't go, and those who do brave it won't go without a posse and riot gear. Virtual community sites, blogs, message boards and lists spawn their own sort of virulent, cruel muck with moderators scrambling to keep things scrubbed down to a socially acceptable level.
Is this the brave new digital world? Why do we put up with this? What do we do to stop it?
First, I think it might help to back off a bit and get rid of some loaded words. I do not believe this is in any sense in the same realm as a physical attack, or even a face-to-face verbal attack. But there are those out there who have had their personal lives attacked. And while there's no physical components, finding out someone has photoshopped pornographic photos of your mother and broadly disseminated them as Kathy Sierra did or even just finding that someone has hijacked your Xbox LIVE account is definitely is not something to just write off as "boys will be boys".
Where the line can be drawn between those types of issues and being told to bend over and face the Warthog so someone can simulate a sexual act with you in a game is very fuzzy. A lot of the words we can use to describe this have too much baggage to them, and people get caught up in that rather than the issue. We need a noun that isn't so loaded. I'm going to use the word "assault" to describe the situation. Assaulting others with just words is well defined and documented, especially in a sexual context. You can also assault someone with images on a screen. Both of those seem to apply most closely to the situation. Look at the legal definition of assault in most jurisdictions, as well as the term harassment.
It's not just the graphically-oriented virtual environments. Anyone who's ever been caught up in an old-fashioned early '90s newslist war can tell you predatory users have been around since acoustic couplers and they don't require shiny pixels to do their dirty work. These people have figured out how to make sticks and stones out of their words. Anyplace where people interact online is full of all sorts of behavior that would get you in deep trouble in real life. Why do we put up with it online?
People treating each other like this isn't "just the way it is." Unless your office environment is criminally dysfunctional, I bet you don't have to worry about being shivved by the CEO and having your new shoes taken off your dead body on the way to the coffee machine in the morning just because they match his suit better than the ones he has and he's four steps higher up the org chart. If you sent an email to one of your customers or co-workers that just said "M.I.L.F.?" or asked her for pictures of her boobs you can guess what would be coming next. It's not just work; if you pulled any of these stunts in a bar or other social gathering you'd be facing consequences there, too. If these same people are functioning in the real world, they have the basic skills to not act like jerks online.
We can speculate about the technical issues and blame the systems, but in the end that's not the core problem. There's always a bigger hack, to mangle a phrase from Quigon Jin. Hacks or strategies that allow predatory players to assault others aren't new. My own personal encounter with it being used in a predatory fashion was in a MUD I used to hang out on over 10 years ago. Or you can read an account of one on another MUD. Whether you're talking about giving someone a virtual roofie or the older, cruder VoodooDoll hack approach there's always going to be someone misusing any angle they can.
They aren't built into the systems for malevolent reasons. Someone doesn't just decide to make sure there's a huge back door with a neon sign that says, "Hackers enter here". VoodooDoll and other sorts of puppet commands were a part of the default command set of several of the old MOO/MUD systems. They were designed for system admins to help users out of jams by simply moving the character using the game's system rather than the risky business of twiddling around in that avatar/account's code. It was the user who found a way to invoke that command out of context that was the problem here.
Turning the online systems into everyone's nanny isn't the answer, either. I think they need to do their part, but we can't expect them to do it all. Think about how we handle other large scale interactions with rude people like driving. We have a fairly complete set of rules that describe how everyone is supposed to act behind the wheel, and you have to prove you know what it is to drive. Add a couple state troopers camped out on an overpass with a radar gun to keep drivers who follow them from the worst depredations safe from the rude little punks whose parents who bought them that ugly little imposter-rocket that just whizzed by you 20 m.p.h. over the speed limit, or that guy in the continent-sized SUV who is firmly convinced he does in fact own the road. The online systems need to have cops and their speed traps, but the state troopers are few and far between, and they have one hand tied behind their back. I wish we could impose a license test to connect to the Internet, too, but we can't.
The fact that there's money involved in this doesn't give anyone carte blanche. You pay for the privilege of driving too, but you don't expect the DMV to magically protect you from from the stench of a roofer's truck loaded with hot tar. So why do you expect Microsoft to protect you from all the smacktalking tweenage twits who plunked down their cash to play on Xbox LIVE too? It's like expecting the road itself to give out traffic tickets to drivers who flip you off.
We don't have to take online abuse. I wouldn't put up with it in the real world. I certainly wouldn't expect my child to. And yet, if I want to participate in most online environments, it's what I have to do. You can report people who abuse your character in most of these systems, but it's often virtually impossible to really get rid of the offenders. The online systems for dealing with player misbehavior are overloaded and they have to be as careful as they can that the person making the complaint isn't abusing that function and actually making it as a form of attack.
I don't have all the answers. But I do have a few things to think about here.
- Designers need to think. If you're going to hand off an awesome amount of power like literally being able to control someone else's character like a Muppet within your system, then abuse of that power has to be addressed within the system. The same applies to killing each other, taking items from each other by force or by trade, or any other interaction allowed by the system between players. Even if it's a good feature in and of itself, more attention needs to be paid so that your cool player vs. player setup doesn't turn into the Infinite Fountain of Gankers.
- Players need to think. They need to think about where they put their money, their effort, and just how they're going to deal with the line between this world and that one. This applies to both sides of this.
- Society needs to think. This is a whole new ballgame, and just letting the digital worlds grow wild is not working. We cannot let the social mores of the online life be dictated by the technical savvy and predatory instincts of a subset of the users. It's becoming too important to the rest of us.
The mainstream is beginning to notice the current state of affairs. Slate had an article over two years ago when two of their 30-something writers tried to head off into Halo 2, one of the most populous games on Xbox LIVE. Most of the text of the article is their impression of the place as a cesspool full of foul-mouthed little brats. Things are getting more serious now. No one was really afraid that those two writers adding at 14-year-old to their Friends List was pedophilia as they suggested. But recently Wired reported an incident in the online environment Second Life that the Belgian police are investigating as a rape.
This isn't the Old West. Having our online environments held hostage to the black hats with the bigger guns is no way to build a digital frontier. Unless we want others to step in and make these decisions for us, we as a body of online participants need to find a new set of social structures that allow us all to interact with the maximum freedom but also with the maximum of safety.
If we wait for the new sheriff in town to fight this battle for us we might not like the town we're left with.