Cyberspace, the future, and words, words, words

Back at the beginning of March, I wrote this piece about an experience I had while playing DayZ. At the time of the writing, I had done reading on the game, but my scope was narrowly focused on only DayZ, and there are a few videos and a very important article that I missed. I wanted to add a coda to what I wrote then, as well as address in a very broad sense comments I received on the article and the various places it was subsequently posted to.

As with the first article, trigger/content warning for mentions of rape.

I’m not going to address specific comments I got on the original piece and the various places it eventually ended up – Rock, Paper, Shotgun, Giantbomb, and Critical Distance. In addition it appears to have served as the catalyst of this New Stateman’s article on the same topic. All these places have various comments, some encouraging, some not. There was a particularly noteworthy string of comments on Rock, Paper, Shotgun that gave me pause to the warning I gave for the first article and encouraged me to change the type of warning for this one (though I didn’t remove the warning entirely; sorry RPS commentators, your long diatribes about even the mere necessity of such warnings are pitiful).

While there are certainly some thoughts that bear further consideration, there is one discouraging vein of thought that runs through many of the comments that makes me furious; I even mentioned it myself at the beginning of my article: I’ve become one of “those girls” who see things everywhere, things are actually okay. 

What that essentially boils down to is this: why are you letting this bother you so much? You’re choosing to be offended. You could have turned it off. Why didn’t you expect this?

From a mere technical standpoint, it amuses me that so many of the comments asked what I expected to happen, since the very first portion of the article deals with me expecting the “rape” to happen. Yes, I am aware such things happen on the internet. Yes, I have had comments like that directed at me before. Yes, I expected it. Yes, I willingly open and play DayZ, even still.

What I don’t willingly do, and what I didn’t pay for, is the type of game that DayZ becomes when things like this happen. I don’t play DayZ to be a part in someone’s personal torture sandbox.

Recently, two videos came to my attention. They are named, respectively, “DayZ – rape victim 1” and “DayZ – rape victim 2.” (Strong content warnings for both these videos).

Both videos were uploaded by the same Youtube user, playing with what appears to be the same group of people. In both videos, they are armed with weapons, while their victims are not. After reading the titles, I expected what was to come: they take both “participants” into more secluded area, into trees and a house on the edge of Elektro. They assure their helpless captives that as long as they cooperate, they won’t be hurt. They handcuff them, remove their pants, and then one of the kidnapping players also removes his. He then proceeds to verbally assault the captives, his words drowned out a bit as another player pipes in the theme song from Jurassic Park through their in-game mic. As the music abruptly ends, the assailant’s moaning reaches it logical peak and he moans loudly. In one video, he sprays bullets in the air as he continues making lewd animations with his character.

And then they shoot them. They shoot them both, after repeatedly assuring them that they won’t.

The videos made my stomach drop; they made me clench my eyes shut in horror.

Like with my experience, I’ve imagined this scenario happening. I’ve worried about it in loud, busy downtown San Francisco and on the streets of my quiet, rural hometown in Arizona. I’ve imagined it every time I hear another story of it happening to another woman. It’s imagery I could do without; it’s imagery I see in my mind’s eye more than enough.

The words that stick out to me the most are what the kidnappers tell their captives – if you listen to us, we won’t hurt you. If you do what we say, we won’t hurt you. If you just listen, you will live.

Instead, they do awful things to their captives. And then they kill them anyway.

I can imagine those awful, awful words being spoken every 2 minutes, the national average for sexual assault in America. I imagine those awful, awful words being spoken and for the player on the other end to be one of the 200,000 plus people sexually assaulted every year and to be suddenly jarred back into that awful, awful time when the assault occurred. I imagine those awful, awful words and think of the 60% of Americans who will never report their assaults to police.

They’re just words right?

When I wrote that first article, I wasn’t aware of “A Rape in Cyberspace,” the 1993 piece by Julian Dibbell appearing first in the the newspaper The Village Voice. It explores the author’s experience in an online multiplayer game called LambdaMOO. I didn’t know what a MUD or MOO were when I first started played games a few years ago. I didn’t realize what they were until I first read the article. From speaking with friends, it seems like it’s not an article that most people my age know of.

What surprised me (and perhaps it shouldn’t have) is that a 20 year old article is still more than relevant today. Back then, the world was made of only words: descriptions of characters, places, and most relevant, descriptions of acts that occur between players. The similarities between the actions described in this article and my own surprised me: a character, with a rather grotesque description, takes liberties with other characters. The characters are forced to endure it; they can “gag” the other character, meaning they won’t have to see the what the other player is writing, but other players present can still read the words, making it quite possibly even more humiliating. Sexual acts are forced upon these characters; they’re also forced to commit unwanted sexual acts upon themselves. They can look the other way, but there is still nothing they can do to get away from it.

The article describes the society that comes together from this event: polls are established, with a majority of the player base being able to vote on proposals brought by other players. The administrators behind the game, known as “wizards,” are the only parties capable of removing characters from the game, an act known as “toading.” The article goes on to the describe the back and forth between the anarchists, libertarians, and in-betweeners trying to decide on what, if any, action should be taken by the wizards to punish Mr. Bungle, the perpetrator of the original act.

What strikes me most is the willingness of the community to pull together, to work toward mending a problem and taking appropriate actions for what most everyone seems to have realized was an inappropriate action. “A Rape in Cyberspace” was first published more than twenty years ago. A concerned, thoughtful group of players banded together to make their online community a safer environment for everyone.

Below are some of comments I received on my own blog after I wrote my original piece.

You played a post apocalyptic role playing game and were shocked that rape would be acted out in a world without law or any semblance of society?

Really? Its stories like this that give us women a bad name and look weak. It was just a dumb joke you put way too much effort into thinking about. How you let a dumb joke ruin something you really liked is beyond me. Stop making women look bad.

“There are no rules.” You said it yourself. It’s a roleplaying game in a post apocalyptic world. If you do not want to be a part of an emulation of terrible future you should never log in to DayZ again.

If it was a real life threat I would think it’s pretty awful but it wasn’t. Kind of a terrible question, but would you rather be tortured, mutilated and killed over being sexually assaulted?

I got called n-word, got called faggot and they wanted to rape, anally and orally, while playing Day Z and countless games I can name. This sort of stuff happens all the time, because they are assholes on the Internet. Stop thinking your case is unique or it’s because of your gender, race, etc.

“I am one of “those girls” who see it everywhere, things are actually okay.”
Yes, exactly. You were waiting for this to happen, practically seeking it out actively and now you’ve got your article to write. But by God, is it hyperbole and a half.

We are 20 years past the time “A Rape in Cyberspace” originally was published. And yet what I hear echo in every one of these comments, in all of these words, is the same phrase, over and over again: we haven’t made progress. We’ve gone backward.

I don’t think that most people see this form of cyber assault and condone it. I don’t imagine legions of men out in the shadowy realms of the internet cackling to themselves as they commit these acts or applauding as they see it happen to others, a fulfillment of their own twisted fantasies. I believe in inherently good human beings. At the very least, I believe in inherently intelligent human beings who have at least a drop of empathy in them.

I worry about the noise though. The noise that runs through every form of media in existence, the noise you can’t drown out because it’s everywhere, the persistent static that has no end. The constant stream of “get over it” that floods down upon everyone who can’t. The avalanche of “it’s just words” that fall down the mountain of media that surrounds us. Every time you tell someone to get over it, that it isn’t important, you add a little more fuzz to the noise, you add more volume. You normalize and desensitize. You make it just a little acceptable for things like this to happen. And the noise just keeps getting louder.

I ended my original with the question “where do you draw the line?”

I still don’t know. I struggle with equating cyber violence to real life violence. As humanity continues to blur the line between the physical and the mental planes, we have to question this more and more.

My fear is that eventually we’ll accept it. That the avalanche of words, that the what did you expect? questions will keep coming. That eventually, we’ll hear it so much that it will be all we hear. 20 years ago, we explored the connection between words and reality. Today, we have to strive even harder to find the distinction.

When I wrote my first article I wondered why nobody was writing about this. As it turns out, people have been writing about. For the past 20 years. And until it comes to a point where the noise stops growing louder, we have to keep thinking about it. We have to keep questioning and writing about it.

We have to stay vigilant.

[comments closed October 2014]


30 thoughts on “Cyberspace, the future, and words, words, words

  1. It seems to me that out of 150 hours you stated you have played DayZ, to have one disturbing incident seems like a very low rate of awful people doing awful things. Must be because of rape culture. And Patriarchy.

  2. Hey Kim, just a random stranger, I want to first point out that this is a well written article, but unfortunately I disagree that we have gone backwards… I think what they have done is disgusting and wrong, I am not trying to defend their actions, I just want to point out some logic in what they do….

    For starters, this is a video game, you can take the argument however you want, but at the end of the day, the difference is that a video game is a world without consequence, there is no “Police” in DayZ, there is no high authority, save for the game moderators. This is the reason why people act the way they are, because they can get away with it.

    Second point, you are playing a game that is supposed to emulate post apocalyptic survival horror, where the rule book has basically been thrown out the window and individuals fight for survival, guns, hunger system, injury system are all designed to provide immersion, but I think the biggest draw to immersion for DayZ, is the way other people act. Unfortunately I think the action of these rapists are exactly what you should expect of people in this situation and to some, what happened was just ‘part of the immersion’

    Third Point, in the real world you are held by a weapon, or physically subdued and forced to comply, in the virtual world, you aren’t physically bound, your death is not permanent, you cannot be raped without some form of co-operation from you, even a little bit, you let them get this far. Where is the line drawn? The line is drawn when you turn your sound off so you can’t hear them.

    Lastly, I don’t believe this is indicative to the video game community as a whole, I believe this incident is just the nature of the game you are playing, I believe in DayZ, by design the developers know the biggest draw in this game is human interaction, be it co-operation in a harsh environment, or self preservation at the expense of others, so they purposefully don’t police these kind of things, but on other games, say Xbox live, yes there are a lot of loud mouths, but they can be reported and if the offense is big enough, they can be banned.

    I believe that the gaming community as a whole doesn’t accept this kind of action as the right behavior, and if the player does this in other games (say e-sports tournaments) they will be disqualified.

  3. I think its disgusting that people respond the way they do. Its pathetic and it needs to stop. Thank you for writing. I’m going to share your story and hope it’ll open some eyes. Its sad because I want to play this game, but the thought makes me uncomfortable. Hopefully things will change in the upcoming generations, but the patterns suggest it’ll only get worse.

  4. srysly?

    You have three options
    1. Run away, die or log off then come back with pals, flank him and get your revenge.
    Watch Frankie if you need inspiration

    2. Make fun of him

    3. Roleplay it out for your psychic satisfaction.

    It appears you chose #3

  5. I’m a male, and I have people say things like “I’m going to rape your face” when I’m playing games. Should I fear this? No. I’ve also had people say they are going to kill me. Should I fear this? No. This is nothing new, and has been happening for more than 10 years. I’ve seen this since I was playing socom on the ps2.

    I think you may perhaps be a bit too sensitive. People talk “smack” in video games. It may be the latest FPS game, or your friends playing a long campaign with you in Civilization 4. Have you ever thought of saying something like “oh you dick” or “you bastard” while you’re playing a video game? Or perhaps a “Damn you” after you’ve been shot in a game? If so, you are part of the problem. I have yet to find anybody in a competitive video game (even one as simple as tetris) who hasn’t had a thought like this. Is damning somebody to hell because they managed to hit you with a shell in Mario Kart acceptable?

    Perhaps you should consider finding a hobby where you don’t have to interact with other people. Where the world is nothing but the rainbows and unicorns you want.. because the real world isn’t always a nice place, and if you don’t grow out of your sense of sheltered entitlement now, you’re brain will explode when you realize that there are actual real problems in the world like what’s happening in the Ukrane, Darfur or the complete subjugation and degradation of women in islam. Real rape is far more serious than what some angsty 12 year old screams at you in voice chat in a video game. Take a stand against that instead.

    • I think there is a difference between saying ‘I’m going to rape you’ and handcuffing your character, pulling their pants down, then verbally playing out the entire act of rape. How much of a difference is up to you, but there definitely IS one.

      • Its still no worse than the games pivotal mechanic, which is thrill killing. I see no difference between a virtual mock rape at gunpoint and a virtual execution at gunpoint. People understand that one is fantasy whilst they’re uncomfortable with the other for some reason.

  6. *ps* Apologies, I had a response and I wrote you a novel. tl;dr sorry :<

    I first heard about DayZ last December/January-ish from overhearing a couple guys I'd get to know better as time went on, but at that point I hadn't gone beyond much more than acquaintance. One had played it, the other was listening intently (as was I); you can do anything, good or bad. Stories of the bandits, the hero squads who execute tactical maneuvers like army commandos, the 'look what I can do!' people who like stripping and spontaneously combusting. Extra emphasis was placed on what the bad people do though; offer new spawns a hand, promise water and gear to help them go hunting, lure them into a secluded spot and then Bad Things.

    My first response was, "Sounds like that place could use some Vault Hunters." They both laughed their asses off.

    ((Ignore this if you get the reference.

    If reference is lost, Vault Hunters are the well stocked, nigh-indestructible, ever-respawning, gun-toting adventurers from the Borderlands game series. Note that they're usually driven by 1.) Greed and sometimes 2.) Bloodlust [Brick, Krieg, Salvador], but tend to lean towards heroes and justice and such))

    I wouldn't play DayZ because I don't think my nerves can handle it, but after reading the articles my reaction placed an interesting dichotomy in my head: If I would play, I'd prefer to be the hero, but naturally I'd prefer the Unstoppable Hero that, in that game's context, doesn't exist.

    And so while there are people who would try to kill these people for the principle, likely there will be no white knights charging in to save you, or even charging in for loot. The whole concept of the game is how it mirrors the dark, depraved aspects of humanity in perpetual chaos. With no law, order, or permanent death, internet assholes assert faux dominance with the rape and murder of virtual victims. Because they can. The game allows it. The atrocity of their actions doesn't pierce their ego, and they act unhindered because there isn't the prospect of not being able to play anymore due to tangible loss. They lose no points or extra lives. No mods will ban them for misconduct.

    Not to be full of myself, but I want to make sure my meaning is clear – the dominance they're exuding is ultimately meaningless, the (direct) victims only exist in-game, *but* the act they're undertaking is disturbingly real.

    I'm completely waxing philosophic here, and I sympathize greatly with your feelings. My first knee-jerk was for fantasy that can't be (though would make for a fun crossover): I'd prefer to be a White Knight, or even Krieg the Psycho cleaving through the bandits and rapists and laughing about meat, all while soaking up bullets and never dying. Justice of a sort! But that's not what that game is, it doesn't promise it or bring it. And people haven't just been writing about this for 20 years, they've been talking about it since there was any concept of chivalry or honor. If you have the will and firepower you can champion it, and it'll last as long as you and yours can.

    I will never say 'get over it'; I won't dismiss what is a valid repulsion. But I don't see a grand change of hearts and minds on this coming. The game promises you nothing but "true" freedom. And you can't make other people think the way you want them to, no matter how hard you try, and no matter how bad they might be.

    That said, I also won't say 'give up', 'get used to it', or 'expect nothing' – just know if it can happen it'll be hard as hell, so buckle up.

    I still like my fantasy crossovers, and I love imaging some sort of cosmic, karmic justice where the worst of these sort piss themselves in fear as others of their groups explode in crimson showers, staring into the face of a twisted mutant screaming, "HOW CAN I BREAK YOUR NECK IF YOU DON'T HAVE ONE!? STOP DYING AT ME!"

    You know, justice.

    Feel free to ignore my inane ramblings.

  7. For me at least, this confirms the fundamental nature of humans.
    How can people torture kids? How can war criminals just exterminate people ?
    Case in point in Bosnia. When a couple hundred men and boys were rounded up only to be shot later, the soldiers told the families they would be released as they had no reason to kill them. The soldiers insisted this MANY times almost incredulous that they had to reassure the wives and mothers that they weren’t going to simply cart the men and boys off to murder them like beasts.
    Buts that’s exactly what they did.
    Many, too many, humans will do the exact same thing in similar circumstances. A basic review of history will confirm the innate ability of humans to commit terrible, vile acts of murder, torture, rape.
    Some will need to be pushed a little like Rwanda. Others willing seek it like recent kidnap victims.
    No doubt many badly behaved gamers will never engage in such behavior. No doubt a few WILL. I don’t know how much fun a game for me would be with either idiots or possibly deranged masochists.
    Maybe if every time a player raped someone they would get raped by a zombie

  8. > I don’t play DayZ to be a part in someone’s personal torture sandbox.

    That’s actually what those games are about. Simple saying survival is naive.

    That’s why people played Rust recently and were disturbed by how many people made it their mission to also torture each other.

    When a game is about survival that much, this is normal behavior.

    Frankly, I did worse. I played DayZ and stalked people for ages and made it my mission to kill their entire 20 man community. I was a serial killer, but you don’t see people complaining about that, right?

    It’s just how that is.

  9. DayZ is a game about power, not survival.

    You have to scrounge up materials to survive. That’s why it’s about power over nature then.

    But then you’d be forgetting that other human beings exist. They are your enemy, not your friends. Even your own friends are allowed to kill you. You need power over human beings. If somebody declares that demoralizing a declared female character using rape taunts is effective to kicking her off the game, then you’ve let them win.

    Why? Because as soon as you get off the server, they are allowed to have even more power in their territory. Your very presence is a threat to other players even if you’re not going around murdering people, because you are STILL taking supplies.

    See, when everyone is a threat, there is no “fair” in this case. That’s why people shoot new players in Rust, too. Even a naked man is a threat, no matter how much new players complain.

    You’re picking the wrong game to complain about that kind of behavior in. DayZ is not supposed to be happy, cheery, or fair.

  10. Hi Kim,
    Thank you for your essays and to wisely flag this issue. I read somewhere you are video developer or perhaps designer, so if not I appreciate your observations and praise for getting this into the mainstream public. I do not play games online (prefer my books), not a video player myself but people that I know are.
    I was curious to research your experience. Read your essays and watched this video above. I gather that as I was disturbed to see one single video of a male-male interaction on this game DayZ, Grand Theft is another that makes me sick from the reviews; I must be not one of the folks that enjoy visual stimulation. I like a good movie, but that is all. Nonetheless I have been interested in getting a honest response about what video game players experience when they get involved better saying hooked for hours on these violent games. I thought it was the war component of being in a war zone environment, absolutely controlled ( you are not in real life there, so dying for real is apparently not an option), some thrill. It seems I am being to philosophical here but I guess there are some lines one can draw in mental space.
    It is a comfortable excuse to say that this is what you get since you logged on these game spaces. I reckon it is too simplistic as an answer for what our bright brain can do. Human beings ( and our ancestors family of apes too) are extremely visual, and the perception that visual can be added to violence appears entertaining to some humans more to a level of mental sickness. OK, we do not have rules, but why we have to relate to violence in sexual crimes to make someone loose their spot in a game? Perhaps the sexual violence is another boundary that does not exist? Or because we can inflict some sort of mental subservience to the player and sexual subservience or robbing someone of their dignity is thrilling?. I am not sure if you could see the DayZ player and his/her interactions, I have just seen this clip above and found that was extremely worrying that another player seemed to be more concerned in – making sure no one would see him to conceal his actions, that he could shot the restrained player in their genital parts and grunt and moan to be heard, then that he would chase the same player for more of perhaps sexual content not explicit (Thank God!) for his own pleasure. Hum… What was the goal of this game again?

    That reminds me of my first reaction of repulse to AVATARS in the 90’s or a game that was based on people adopting personas and living a live on-screen with faked money ( that turned to be a deposit of real savings for some); then it started to get more Greek tragedy in the sense of betrayal, adultery and then other levels of porno, which I am not going to scrutinize here. It has brought to courts people ( real people not AVATARS, but they were used in court for evidence) for divorce cases and bitter settlements. One can ask why people made a confusion with real life? Easy – because we are stimulated to visual signs and codes, consequently we are affected by our real friends. spouses taking actions on the virtual world. Seems silly, but that was one of the arguments I read. Now if we can be affected seriously by an action that is bound to happen on the virtual world, perhaps one can imagine now what it does with our brain waves when we are subdue to listen, to watch sexual violence in motionless attitude. It is not a movie with a context, but a random virtual player. Normal people would be extremely disgusted, I feel disgusted just to see this one above as the guy Kahn moves towards the player bleeding on his private parts and says something incomprehensible. I cannot imagine a rape scene or hearing something like that. It looks like a sadistic attitude or behaviour and I wonder – would that be an action that Khan would bring into real life? Would that be an action that he would reckon in his brain is normal as we have video games that allow me to do this, what about in real life, in a place where perhaps I can control the environment too? I think these are the questions to ask from players too. And perhaps to create on war video games games a Vienna Convention that would allow them to refrain or quash some people actions at the beginning. But then some would say – that is boring! For me, I would be excited just to apply the Vienna Convention virtually.

    Sorry for the long reply, just read your two essays and thought – I shall email you my thoughts.

  11. I stumbled on your post by accident but was compelled to read both of them fully. I was raised by a woman who has been through hard times, has been treated terribly by men and before meeting my step-father probably lost all hope in men. She raised me and my brothers to have respect for women, period. Whether it be in real life or on the internet playing games. I play day-z and couldn’t imagine treating a woman like this, it disgust me. What really pisses me off is that my entire life i have treated women with respect and chivalry , and because of how men are now i have to prove my intentions to any woman i meet. Im sorry this happened to you and i hope it doesn’t ruin your experience with Day-z. I dont agree with a lot of these comments because i think this game allows people to act out in a game what they havent gathered up enough muster to do in real life, yet. IF you have the urge to act out a rape on the internet then i believe you have the ability to do the same in real life. That urge comes from somewhere, all of the new kids are acting out all different types of games they play. How is this different?

  12. Every single violent or offensive act that is committed in Dayz happens in real life too. Men are knocked unconscious into seizures in the middle of the street far more frequently than women are raped, and victims of these assaults are often innocent, yet nobody complains that its insensitive or unacceptable when a player sneaks up behind you and knocks you out in the game.
    The purpose of Dayz is that players can interact freely in a fantasy world without consequence, if you think that people violating your virtual characters body whether it be with mock rape or bullets then games like this or R rated games in general are not for you.
    In a game where mindless thrill killing is its pivotal mechanic this shouldn’t be too shocking.

  13. I’m sorry you had a bad experience online, it is still the Wild West on many games. However, I think there’s a difference between rape and what happened, you had control and could turn your game off at any moment; rape victims cannot escape.

    Unfortunately online gaming is a gamble, you have some control in terms of choosing what game you play, muting microphones, ignoring chat etc. but you can’t (and shouldn’t want to) control how others play games. The best solutions are community side, servers that have specific rules for players with similar mindsets, that way you play with people who want a similar experience.

    That doesn’t make what happened any nicer, and like another poster said, if you had any real life abuse even a virtual incident like this could bring back trauma. The only option though is to try and avoid certain communities and have a plan to quickly turn off your game if anything goes wrong so that you have control.

    Good luck with your next (hopefully better) adventures.

  14. I can’t edit my post, but I should add that what happened was definitely sexual harassment, and were there a lack of anonymity there might be less incidents since people could be held accountable to some degree.

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