Ethics and Legal Aspects of Virtual Worlds

Ethics and Legal Aspects of Virtual Worlds


Virtual worlds are becoming a more important and prevalent part of our real world with each passing month. Shirky (2010, p37) argues that the old view of online as a separate space, cyberspace, apart from the real world is fading. Now that computers and other internet-enabled devices (such as smartphones) have been so broadly adopted there is no separate cyber world, just a more interconnected new world.

The internet augments real-world social life rather than providing an alternative to it. Instead of becoming separate cyberspace, our electronic networks are becoming embedded in real life (Shirky, 2009, p196). According to Adams (2010, p2), the virtual interactive worlds of Second Life (with 15,464,773 residents as of October 13, 2008) and World of Warcraft (with over 10,000,000 players) have populations larger than Sweden.


A number of cases of online crime have been presented in the media. The case of Mr. Bungle as described by Julian Dibbell in 1993 is probably the most famous case of crime in a virtual world. 119 Ethics and Legal Aspects of Virtual Worlds In this case a series of sexual assaults were carried out in the text-based online world LambdaMOO by a character called Mr. Bungle.

The controller of this character carried out the assaults on other players using ‘voodoo dolls’, subprograms that attribute actions to other players’ characters that they did not intend. Mr. Bungle was actually controlled by several university students acting as one to direct the attacks (Dibbell, 1998). The Bungle case is interesting because of the reported after-effects on the victims.


The question of ethics in virtual worlds can draw some lessons from ontological theory and value pluralism. In other words, our view of what is ethical is informed by our world view in the first instance and secondly that more than one system of values can exist simultaneously. Isaiah Berlin (1980) argued against the logical positivism which had come to dominate the study of politics and governance.

His argument was that it could never account for questions such as ‘what is justice’. When it comes to questions like this there is never a single answer so this leads to a variety of answers depending on the value systems in a given time and place. There can be no one value system that can accommodate all that is valuable. So there will be competing value systems even within the same community and at a given point in time.

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Impact on Victims of Virtual Crime

There are a number of reactions that are evident in victims of crime, as outlined by Kirwan (2009). These vary according to both the type of crime and the coping strategy and personality of the individual victim but can include Acute Stress Disorder (ASD) or Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), self-blaming for victimization, victim-blaming (where others put all or partial blame for the victimization on the victim themselves), and a need for retribution.

Virtual victimization, either of property crime or a crime against the person, should not be considered as severe as if a similar offense occurred in real life. There can be no doubt that a victim of a real-life sexual assault experiences post-victimization symptoms that are far more severe than those of an online victim. However, it would be an error to believe that online victimization has no effect on the victim at all.

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