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6:10pm on Tuesday, 8th February, 2011:



Today, in my CE317 class, those students who bothered to turn up and I discussed Julian Dibbell's famous article about the relationship between the real and the virtual, A Rape in Cyberspace.

This is actually quite an advanced topic for final-year undergraduates to be discussing for two hours, but then mine is an advanced module. The subject matter the article concerns — a particularly unpleasant series of acts in LambdaMOO and the player community's response — is adult (but not salacious); however, everyone knows that some computer games have an 18 rating, and therefore it shouldn't be too surprising when, on occasion, something rated 18 crops up. In CE217 I show images from games which are actually banned in some countries (Germany, China) and others which, while not banned, would be very problematic in the UK. People can get upset over computer games; people who study computer games — especially if they hope to develop them — need to know about this. It's not that I'm saying there are design lines they can't cross, it's that I'm saying if they do cross those lines, it should be a deliberate act rather than a thoughtless one.

The discussion covered a lot of ground with regards to what's real and what's not, what's right in a game and what's not, when players have a right to complain and when they don't. In the end, it all comes down to two things: context, and the readiness of non-players to accept that context.

Why am I blogging this?

Well, I printed out all 15 copies of the article myself. I'd asked the departmental General Office to get the Print Centre to do it, but they weren't there when I went to pick them up. I subsequently discovered that the reason they weren't there was because the administrator who picked them up read the title and opening paragraph and got upset. She handed them to the Departmental Secretary, and I had to get them from her instead.

Here are those opening words, to save you from looking:

A Rape in Cyberspace

How an Evil Clown, a Haitian Trickster Spirit, Two Wizards, and a Cast of Dozens Turned a Database Into a Society

First published in The Village Voice, December 23, 1993

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 for a time to think of as my second home.

Well, I can see why someone used to seeing papers about Electronic Engineering and Computer Science might be a bit surprised by that. Although I'd prepared the students for it, I hadn't thought I needed to prepare the people involved in the process of getting the text to the students — I wasn't expecting them to read it. Although one can't go through life scared of using the word "rape" lest it upset people (I've no idea if you're upset by it, for example), nevertheless it isn't pleasant when, inadvertantly, you do just that. I sent a grovelling apology as soon as I found out what had happened, but have had no response.

I guess now I'll have to print out all the subsequent handouts myself, too.

It's rather ironic that an article all about context should cause offence when taken out of context itself.

Referenced by Printer Problems.

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Copyright © 2011 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).