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A Rape in Cyberspace

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Julian Dibbell [email protected]


(c)1993 by Julian Dibbell. Electronic-redistribution only, limited to
the net and not-for-profit BBSs. Plus, it would be nice to be advised of
any reposts: [email protected]

Originally published in the Village Voice, December 21, 1993.

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

By Julian Dibbell

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've come to think of as my second

Call me Dr. Bombay. Some months ago--let's say about halfway
between the first time you heard the words
_information_superhighway_ and the first time you wished you
never had--I found myself tripping with compulsive regularity
down the well-traveled information lane that leads to LambdaMOO,
a very large and very busy rustic chateau built entirely of
words. Nightly, I typed the commands that called those words onto
my computer screen, dropping me with what seemed a warm electric
thud inside the mansion's darkened coat closet, where I checked
my quotidian identity, stepped into the persona and appearance of
a minor character from a long-gone television sitcom, and stepped
out into the glaring chatter of the crowded living room.
Sometimes, when the mood struck me, I emerged as a dolphin
I won't say why I chose to masquerade as Samantha Stevens's
outlandish cousin, or as the dolphin, or what exactly led to my
mild but so-far incurable addiction to the semifictional digital
otherworlds known around the Internet as multi-user dimensions,
or MUDs. This isn't my story, after all. It's the story of a man
named Mr. Bungle, and of the ghostly sexual violence he committed
in the halls of LambdaMOO, and most importantly of the ways his
violence and his victims challenged the 1000 and more residents
of that surreal, magic-infested mansion to become, finally, the
community so many of them already believed they were.
That I was myself one of those residents has little direct
bearing on the story's events. I mention it only as a warning
that my own perspective is perhaps too steeped in the surreality
and magic of the place to serve as an entirely appropriate guide.
For the Bungle Affair raises questions that--here on the brink of
a future in which human life may find itself as tightly enveloped
in digital environments as it is today in the architectural kind-
-demand a clear-eyed, sober, and unmystified consideration. It
asks us to shut our ears momentarily to the techno-utopian
ecstasies of West Coast cyberhippies and look without illusion
upon the present possibilities for building, in the on-line
spaces of this world, societies more decent and free than those
mapped onto dirt and concrete and capital. It asks us to behold
the new bodies awaiting us in virtual space undazzled by their
phantom powers, and to get to the crucial work of sorting out the
socially meaningful differences between those bodies and our
physical ones. And most forthrightly it asks us to wrap our late-
modern ontologies, epistemologies, sexual ethics, and common
sense around the curious notion of rape by voodoo doll--and to
try not to warp them beyond recognition in the process.
In short, the Bungle Affair dares me to explain it to you
without resort to dime-store mysticisms, and I fear I may have
shape-shifted by the digital moonlight one too many times to be
quite up to the task. But I will do what I can, and can do no
better I suppose than to lead with the facts. For if nothing else
about Mr. Bungle's case is unambiguous, the facts at least are
crystal clear.

The facts begin (as they often do) with a time and a place. The
time was a Monday night in March, and the place, as I've said,
was the living room--which, due to the inviting warmth of its
decor, is so invariably packed with chitchatters as to be roughly
synonymous among LambdaMOOers with a party. So strong, indeed, is
the sense of convivial common ground invested in the living room
that a cruel mind could hardly imagine a better place in which to
stage a violation of LambdaMOO's communal spirit. And there was
cruelty enough lurking in the appearance Mr. Bungle presented to
the virtual world--he was at the time a fat, oleaginous,
Bisquick-faced clown dressed in cum-stained harlequin garb and
girdled with a mistletoe-and-hemlock belt whose buckle bore the
quaint inscription ``KISS ME UNDER THIS, BITCH!'' But whether
cruelty motivated his choice of crime scene is not among the
established facts of the case. It is a fact only that he did
choose the living room.
The remaining facts tell us a bit more about the inner world
of Mr. Bungle, though only perhaps that it couldn't have been a
very comfortable place. They tell us that he commenced his
assault entirely unprovoked, at or about 10 p.m. Pacific Standard
Time. That he began by using his voodoo doll to force one of the
room's occupants to sexually service him in a variety of more or
less conventional ways. That this victim was legba, a Haitian
trickster spirit of indeterminate gender, brown-skinned and
wearing an expensive pearl gray suit, top hat, and dark glasses.
That legba heaped vicious imprecations on him all the while and
that he was soon ejected bodily from the room. That he hid
himself away then in his private chambers somewhere on the
mansion grounds and continued the attacks without interruption,
since the voodoo doll worked just as well at a distance as in
proximity. That he turned his attentions now to Starsinger, a
rather pointedly nondescript female character, tall, stout, and
brown-haired, forcing her into unwanted liaisons with other
individuals present in the room, among them legba, Bakunin (the
well-known radical), and Juniper (the squirrel). That his actions
grew progressively violent. That he made legba eat his/her own
pubic hair. That he caused Starsinger to violate herself with a
piece of kitchen cutlery. That his distant laughter echoed evilly
in the living room with every successive outrage. That he could
not be stopped until at last someone summoned Zippy, a wise and
trusted old-timer who brought with him a gun of near wizardly
powers, a gun that didn't kill but enveloped its targets in a
cage impermeable even to a voodoo doll's powers. That Zippy fired
this gun at Mr. Bungle, thwarting the doll at last and silencing
the evil, distant laughter.
These particulars, as I said, are unambiguous. But they are
far from simple, for the simple reason that every set of facts in
virtual reality (or VR, as the locals abbreviate it) is shadowed
by a second, complicating set: the ``real-life'' facts. And while
a certain tension invariably buzzes in the gap between the hard,
prosaic RL facts and their more fluid, dreamy VR counterparts,
the dissonance in the Bungle case is striking. No hideous clowns
or trickster spirits appear in the RL version of the incident, no
voodoo dolls or wizard guns, indeed no rape at all as any RL
court of law has yet defined it. The actors in the drama were
university students for the most part, and they sat rather
undramatically before computer screens the entire time, their
only actions a spidery flitting of fingers across standard QWERTY
keyboards. No bodies touched. Whatever physical interaction
occurred consisted of a mingling of electronic signals sent from
sites spread out between New York City and Sydney, Australia.
Those signals met in LambdaMOO, certainly, just as the hideous
clown and the living room party did, but what was LambdaMOO after
all? Not an enchanted mansion or anything of the sort--just a
middlingly complex database, maintained for experimental purposes
inside a Xerox Corporation research computer in Palo Alto and
open to public access via the Internet.
To be more precise about it, LambdaMOO was a MUD. Or to be
yet more precise, it was a subspecies of MUD known as a MOO,
which is short for ``MUD, Object-Oriented.'' All of which means
that it was a kind of database especially designed to give users
the vivid impression of moving through a physical space that in
reality exists only as descriptive data filed away on a hard
drive. When users dial into LambdaMOO, for instance, the program
immediately presents them with a brief textual description of one
of the rooms of the database's fictional mansion (the coat
closet, say). If the user wants to leave this room, she can enter
a command to move in a particular direction and the database will
replace the original description with a new one corresponding to
the room located in the direction she chose. When the new
description scrolls across the user's screen it lists not only
the fixed features of the room but all its contents at that
moment--including things (tools, toys, weapons) and other users
(each represented as a ``character'' over which he or she has
sole control).
As far as the database program is concerned, all of these
entities--rooms, things, characters--are just different
subprograms that the program allows to interact according to
rules very roughly mimicking the laws of the physical world.
Characters may not leave a room in a given direction, for
instance, unless the room subprogram contains an ``exit'' at that
compass point. And if a character ``says'' or ``does'' something
(as directed by its user-owner), then only the users whose
characters are also located in that room will see the output
describing the statement or action. Aside from such basic
constraints, however, LambdaMOOers are allowed a broad freedom to
create--they can describe their characters any way they like,
they can make rooms of their own and decorate them to taste, and
they can build new objects almost at will. The combination of all
this busy user activity with the hard physics of the database can
certainly induce a lucid illusion of presence--but when all is
said and done the only thing you _really_ see when you visit
LambdaMOO is a kind of slow-crawling script, lines of dialogue
and stage direction creeping steadily up your computer screen.
Which is all just to say that, to the extent that Mr.
Bungle's assault happened in real life at all, it happened as a
sort of Punch-and-Judy show, in which the puppets and the scenery
were made of nothing more substantial than digital code and
snippets of creative writing. The puppeteer behind Bungle, as it
happened, was a young man logging in to the MOO from a New York
University computer. He could have been Al Gore for all any of
the others knew, however, and he could have written Bungle's
script that night any way he chose. He could have sent a command
to print the message ``Mr. Bungle, smiling a saintly smile,
floats angelic near the ceiling of the living room, showering joy
and candy kisses down upon the heads of all below''--and everyone
then receiving output from the database's subprogram #17 (a/k/a
the ``living room'') would have seen that sentence on their
Instead, he entered sadistic fantasies into the ``voodoo
doll,'' a subprogram that served the not-exactly kosher purpose
of attributing actions to other characters that their users did
not actually write. And thus a woman in Haverford, Pennsylvania,
whose account on the 'MOO attached her to a character she called
Starsinger, was given the unasked-for opportunity to read the
words ``As if against her will, Starsinger jabs a steak knife up
her ass, causing immense joy. You hear Mr. Bungle laughing evilly
in the distance.'' And thus the woman in Seattle who had written
herself the character called legba, with a view perhaps to
tasting in imagination a deity's freedom from the burdens of the
gendered flesh, got to read similarly constructed sentences in
which legba, messenger of the gods, lord of crossroads and
communications, suffered a brand of degradation all-too-
customarily reserved for the embodied female.

``Mostly voodoo dolls are amusing,'' wrote legba on the evening
after Bungle's rampage, posting a public statement to the widely
read in-MOO mailing list called *social-issues, a forum for
debate on matters of import to the entire populace. ``And mostly
I tend to think that restrictive measures around here cause more
trouble than they prevent. But I also think that Mr. Bungle was
being a vicious, vile fuckhead, and I...want his sorry ass
scattered from #17 to the Cinder Pile. I'm not calling for
policies, trials, or better jails. I'm not sure what I'm calling
for. Virtual castration, if I could manage it. Mostly, [this type
of thing] doesn't happen here. Mostly, perhaps I thought it
wouldn't happen to me. Mostly, I trust people to conduct
themselves with some veneer of civility. Mostly, I want his
Months later, the woman in Seattle would confide to me that
as she wrote those words posttraumatic tears were streaming down
her face--a real-life fact that should suffice to prove that the
words' emotional content was no mere playacting. The precise
tenor of that content, however, its mingling of murderous rage
and eyeball-rolling annoyance, was a curious amalgam that neither
the RL nor the VR facts alone can quite account for. Where
virtual reality and its conventions would have us believe that
legba and Starsinger were brutally raped in their own living
room, here was the victim legba scolding Mr. Bungle for a breach
of ``civility.'' Where real life, on the other hand, insists the
incident was only an episode in a free-form version of Dungeons
and Dragons, confined to the realm of the symbolic and at no
point threatening any player's life, limb, or material well-
being, here now was the player legba issuing aggrieved and
heartfelt calls for Mr. Bungle's dismemberment. Ludicrously
excessive by RL's lights, woefully understated by VR's, the tone
of legba's response made sense only in the buzzing, dissonant gap
between them.
Which is to say it made the only kind of sense that _can_ be
made of MUDly phenomena. For while the _facts_ attached to any
event born of a MUD's strange, ethereal universe may march in
straight, tandem lines separated neatly into the virtual and the
real, its meaning lies always in that gap. You learn this axiom
early in your life as a player, and it's of no small relevance to
the Bungle case that you usually learn it between the sheets, so
to speak. Netsex, tinysex, virtual sex--however you name it, in
real-life reality it's nothing more than a 900-line encounter
stripped of even the vestigial physicality of the voice. And yet
as any but the most inhibited of newbies can tell you, it's
possibly the headiest experience the very heady world of MUDs has
to offer. Amid flurries of even the most cursorily described
caresses, sighs, and penetrations, the glands do engage, and
often as throbbingly as they would in a real-life assignation--
sometimes even more so, given the combined power of anonymity and
textual suggestiveness to unshackle deep-seated fantasies. And if
the virtual setting and the interplayer vibe are right, who
knows? The heart may engage as well, stirring up passions as
strong as many that bind lovers who observe the formality of
trysting in the flesh.
To participate, therefore, in this disembodied enactment of
life's most body-centered activity is to risk the realization
that when it comes to sex, perhaps the body in question is not
the physical one at all, but its psychic double, the bodylike
self-representation we carry around in our heads. I know, I know,
you've read Foucault and your mind is not quite blown by the
notion that sex is never so much an exchange of fluids as as it
is an exchange of signs. But trust your friend Dr. Bombay, it's
one thing to grasp the notion intellectually and quite another to
feel it coursing through your veins amid the virtual steam of hot
netnookie. And it's a whole other mind-blowing trip altogether to
encounter it thus as a college frosh, new to the net and still in
the grip of hormonal hurricanes and high-school sexual
mythologies. The shock can easily reverberate throughout an
entire young worldview. Small wonder, then, that a newbie's first
taste of MUD sex is often also the first time she or he
surrenders wholly to the slippery terms of MUDish ontology,
recognizing in a full-bodied way that what happens inside a MUD-
made world is neither exactly real nor exactly make-believe, but
profoundly, compellingly, and emotionally meaningful.
And small wonder indeed that the sexual nature of Mr.
Bungle's crime provoked such powerful feelings, and not just in
legba (who, be it noted, was in real life a theory-savvy doctoral
candidate and a longtime MOOer, but just as baffled and
overwhelmed by the force of her own reaction, she later would
attest, as any panting undergrad might have been). Even players
who had never experienced MUD rape (the vast majority of male-
presenting characters, but not as large a majority of the female-
presenting as might be hoped) immediately appreciated its gravity
and were moved to condemnation of the perp. legba's missive to
_*social-issues_ followed a strongly worded one from Zippy
(``Well, well,'' it began, ``no matter what else happens on
Lambda, I can always be sure that some jerk is going to reinforce
my low opinion of humanity'') and was itself followed by others
from Moriah, Raccoon, Crawfish, and evangeline. Starsinger also
let her feelings (``pissed'') be known. And even Jander, the
Clueless Samaritan who had responded to Bungle's cries for help
and uncaged him shortly after the incident, expressed his regret
once apprised of Bungle's deeds, which he allowed to be
A sense was brewing that something needed to be done--done
soon and in something like an organized fashion--about Mr.
Bungle, in particular, and about MUD rape, in general. Regarding
the general problem, evangeline, who identified herself as a
survivor of both virtual rape (``many times over'') and real-life
sexual assault, floated a cautious proposal for a MOO-wide powwow
on the subject of virtual sex offenses and what mechanisms if any
might be put in place to deal with their future occurrence. As
for the specific problem, the answer no doubt seemed obvious to
many. But it wasn't until the evening of the second day after the
incident that legba, finally and rather solemnly, gave it voice:
``I am requesting that Mr. Bungle be toaded for raping
Starsinger and I. I have never done this before, and have thought
about it for days. He hurt us both.''
That was all. Three simple sentences posted to _*social_.
Reading them, an outsider might never guess that they were an
application for a death warrant. Even an outsider familiar with
other MUDs might not guess it, since in many of them ``toading''
still refers to a command that, true to the gameworlds' sword-
and-sorcery origins, simply turns a player into a toad, wiping
the player's description and attributes and replacing them with
those of the slimy amphibian. Bad luck for sure, but not quite as
bad as what happens when the same command is invoked in the
MOOish strains of MUD: not only are the description and
attributes of the toaded player erased, but the account itself
goes too. The annihilation of the character, thus, is total.
And nothing less than total annihilation, it seemed, would do
to settle LambdaMOO's accounts with Mr. Bungle. Within minutes of
the posting of legba's appeal, SamIAm, the Australian Deleuzean,
who had witnessed much of the attack from the back room of his
suburban Sydney home, seconded the motion with a brief message
crisply entitled ``Toad the fukr.'' SamIAm's posting was seconded
almost as quickly by that of Bakunin, covictim of Mr. Bungle and
well-known radical, who in real life happened also to be married
to the real-life legba. And over the course of the next 24 hours
as many as 50 players made it known, on _*social_ and in a
variety of other forms and forums, that they would be pleased to
see Mr. Bungle erased from the face of the MOO. And with dissent
so far confined to a dozen or so antitoading hardliners, the
numbers suggested that the citizenry was indeed moving towards a
resolve to have Bungle's virtual head.
There was one small but stubborn obstacle in the way of this
resolve, however, and that was a curious state of social affairs
known in some quarters of the MOO as the New Direction. It was
all very fine, you see, for the LambdaMOO rabble to get it in
their heads to liquidate one of their peers, but when the time
came to actually do the deed it would require the services of a
nobler class of character. It would require a wizard. Master-
programmers of the MOO, spelunkers of the database's deepest
code-structures and custodians of its day-to-day administrative
trivia, wizards are also the only players empowered to issue the
toad command, a feature maintained on nearly all MUDs as a quick-
and-dirty means of social control. But the wizards of LambdaMOO,
after years of adjudicating all manner of interplayer disputes
with little to show for it but their own weariness and the
smoldering resentment of the general populace, had decided they'd
had enough of the social sphere. And so, four months before the
Bungle incident, the archwizard Haakon (known in RL as Pavel
Curtis, Xerox researcher and LambdaMOO's principal architect)
formalized this decision in a document called ``LambdaMOO Takes a
New Direction,'' which he placed in the living room for all to
see. In it, Haakon announced that the wizards from that day forth
were pure technicians. From then on, they would make no decisions
affecting the social life of the MOO, but only implement whatever
decisions the community as a whole directed them to. From then
on, it was decreed, LambdaMOO would just have to grow up and
solve its problems on its own.
Faced with the task of inventing its own self-governance from
scratch, the LambdaMOO population had so far done what any other
loose, amorphous agglomeration of individuals would have done:
they'd let it slide. But now the task took on new urgency. Since
getting the wizards to toad Mr. Bungle (or to toad the likes of
him in the future) required a convincing case that the cry for
his head came from the community at large, then the community
itself would have to be defined; and if the community was to be
convincingly defined, then some form of social organization, no
matter how rudimentary, would have to be settled on. And thus, as
if against its will, the question of what to do about Mr. Bungle
began to shape itself into a sort of referendum on the political
future of the MOO. Arguments broke out on _*social_ and elsewhere
that had only superficially to do with Bungle (since everyone
agreed he was a cad) and everything to do with where the
participants stood on LambdaMOO's crazy-quilty political map.
Parliamentarian legalist types argued that unfortunately Bungle
could not legitimately be toaded at all, since there were no
explicit MOO rules against rape, or against just about anything
else--and the sooner such rules were established, they added, and
maybe even a full-blown judiciary system complete with elected
officials and prisons to enforce those rules, the better. Others,
with a royalist streak in them, seemed to feel that Bungle's as-
yet-unpunished outrage only proved this New Direction silliness
had gone on long enough, and that it was high time the
wizardocracy returned to the position of swift and decisive
leadership their player class was born to.
And then there were what I'll call the technolibertarians.
For them, MUD rapists were of course assholes, but the presence
of assholes on the system was a technical inevitability, like
noise on a phone line, and best dealt with not through repressive
social disciplinary mechanisms but through the timely deployment
of defensive software tools. Some asshole blasting violent,
graphic language at you? Don't whine to the authorities about it-
-hit the @gag command and the asshole's statements will be
blocked from your screen (and only yours). It's simple, it's
effective, and it censors no one.
But the Bungle case was rather hard on such arguments. For
one thing, the extremely public nature of the living room meant
that gagging would spare the victims only from witnessing their
own violation, but not from having others witness it. You might
want to argue that what those victims didn't directly experience
couldn't hurt them, but consider how that wisdom would sound to a
woman who'd been, say, fondled by strangers while passed out
drunk and you have a rough idea how it might go over with a crowd
of hard-core MOOers. Consider, for another thing, that many of
the biologically female participants in the Bungle debate had
been around long enough to grow lethally weary of the gag-and-
get-over-it school of virtual-rape counseling, with its fine line
between empowering victims and holding them responsible for their
own suffering, and its shrugging indifference to the window of
pain between the moment the rape-text starts flowing and the
moment a gag shuts it off. From the outset it was clear that the
technolibertarians were going to have to tiptoe through this
issue with care, and for the most part they did.
Yet no position was trickier to maintain than that of the MOO's
resident anarchists. Like the technolibbers, the anarchists
didn't care much for punishments or policies or power elites.
Like them, they hoped the MOO could be a place where people
interacted fulfillingly without the need for such things. But
their high hopes were complicated, in general, by a somewhat less
thoroughgoing faith in technology (``Even if you can't tear down
the master's house with the master's tools''--read a slogan
written into one anarchist player's self-description--``it is a
damned good place to start''). And at present they were
additionally complicated by the fact that the most vocal
anarchists in the discussion were none other than legba, Bakunin,
and SamIAm, who wanted to see Mr. Bungle toaded as badly as
anyone did.
Needless to say, a pro-death-penalty platform is not an
especially comfortable one for an anarchist to sit on, so these
particular anarchists were now at great pains to sever the
conceptual ties between toading and capital punishment. Toading,
they insisted (almost convincingly), was much more closely
analogous to banishment; it was a kind of turning of the communal
back on the offending party, a collective action which, if
carried out properly, was entirely consistent with anarchist
models of community. And carrying it out properly meant first and
foremost building a consensus around it--a messy process for
which there were no easy technocratic substitutes. It was going
to take plenty of good old-fashioned, jawbone-intensive
grassroots organizing.
So that when the time came, at 7 p.m. PST on the evening of
the third day after the occurrence in the living room, to gather
in evangeline's room for her proposed real-time open conclave,
Bakunin and legba were among the first to arrive. But this was
hardly to be an anarchist-dominated affair, for the room was
crowding rapidly with representatives of all the MOO's political
stripes, and even a few wizards. Hagbard showed up, and Autumn
and Quastro, Puff, JoeFeedback, L-dopa and Bloaf, HerkieCosmo,
Silver Rocket, Karl Porcupine, Matchstick--the names piled up and
the discussion gathered momentum under their weight. Arguments
multiplied and mingled, players talked past and through each
other, the textual clutter of utterances and gestures filled up
the screen like thick cigar smoke. Peaking in number at around
30, this was one of the largest crowds that ever gathered in a
single LambdaMOO chamber, and while evangeline had given her
place a description that made it ``infinite in expanse and fluid
in form,'' it now seemed anything but roomy. You could almost
feel the claustrophobic air of the place, dank and overheated by
virtual bodies, pressing against your skin.
I know you could because I too was there, making my lone and
insignificant appearance in this story. Completely ignorant of
any of the goings-on that had led to the meeting, I wandered in
purely to see what the crowd was about, and though I observed the
proceedings for a good while, I confess I found it hard to grasp
what was going on. I was still the rankest of newbies then, my
MOO legs still too unsteady to make the leaps of faith, logic,
and empathy required to meet the spectacle on its own terms. I
was fascinated by the concept of virtual rape, but I couldn't
quite take it seriously.
In this, though, I was in a small and mostly silent minority,
for the discussion that raged around me was of an almost
unrelieved earnestness, bent it seemed on examining every last
aspect and implication of Mr. Bungle's crime. There were the
central questions, of course: thumbs up or down on Bungle's
virtual existence? And if down, how then to insure that his
toading was not just some isolated lynching but a first step
toward shaping LambdaMOO into a legitimate community? Surrounding
these, however, a tangle of weighty side issues proliferated.
What, some wondered, was the real-life legal status of the
offense? Could Bungle's university administrators punish him for
sexual harassment? Could he be prosecuted under California state
laws against obscene phone calls? Little enthusiasm was shown for
pursuing either of these lines of action, which testifies both to
the uniqueness of the crime and to the nimbleness with which the
discussants were negotiating its idiosyncracies. Many were the
casual references to Bungle's deed as simply ``rape,'' but these
in no way implied that the players had lost sight of all
distinctions between the virtual and physical versions, or that
they believed Bungle should be dealt with in the same way a real-
life criminal would. He had committed a MOO crime, and his
punishment, if any, would be meted out via the MOO.
On the other hand, little patience was shown toward any
attempts to downplay the seriousness of what Mr. Bungle had done.
When the affable HerkieCosmo proposed, more in the way of an
hypothesis than an assertion, that ``perhaps it's better to
release...violent tendencies in a virtual environment rather than
in real life,'' he was tut-tutted so swiftly and relentlessly
that he withdrew the hypothesis altogether, apologizing humbly as
he did so. Not that the assembly was averse to putting matters
into a more philosophical perspective. ``Where does the body end
and the mind begin?'' young Quastro asked, amid recurring
attempts to fine-tune the differences between real and virtual
violence. ``Is not the mind a part of the body?'' ``In MOO, the
body IS the mind,'' offered HerkieCosmo gamely, and not at all
implausibly, demonstrating the ease with which very knotty
metaphysical conundrums come undone in VR. The not-so-aptly named
Obvious seemed to agree, arriving after deep consideration of the
nature of Bungle's crime at the hardly novel yet now somehow
newly resonant conjecture ``all reality might consist of ideas,
who knows.''
On these and other matters the anarchists, the libertarians,
the legalists, the wizardists--and the wizards--all had their
thoughtful say. But as the evening wore on and the talk grew more
heated and more heady, it seemed increasingly clear that the
vigorous intelligence being brought to bear on this swarm of
issues wasn't going to result in anything remotely like
resolution. The perspectives were just too varied, the meme-scape
just too slippery. Again and again, arguments that looked at
first to be heading in a decisive direction ended up chasing
their own tails; and slowly, depressingly, a dusty haze of
irrelevance gathered over the proceedings.
It was almost a relief, therefore, when midway through the
evening Mr. Bungle himself, the living, breathing cause of all
this talk, teleported into the room. Not that it was much of a
surprise. Oddly enough, in the three days since his release from
Zippy's cage, Bungle had returned more than once to wander the
public spaces of LambdaMOO, walking willingly into one of the
fiercest storms of ill will and invective ever to rain down on a
player. He'd been taking it all with a curious and mostly silent
passivity, and when challenged face to virtual face by both legba
and the genderless elder statescharacter PatGently to defend
himself on _*social_, he'd demurred, mumbling something about
Christ and expiation. He was equally quiet now, and his reception
was still uniformly cool. legba fixed an arctic stare on him--
``no hate, no anger, no interest at all. Just...watching.''
Others were more actively unfriendly. ``Asshole,'' spat Karl
Porcupine, ``creep.'' But the harshest of the MOO's hostility
toward him had already been vented, and the attention he drew now
was motivated more, it seemed, by the opportunity to probe the
rapist's mind, to find out what made it tick and if possible how
to get it to tick differently. In short, they wanted to know why
he'd done it. So they asked him.
And Mr. Bungle thought about it. And as eddies of discussion
and debate continued to swirl around him, he thought about it
some more. And then he said this:
``I engaged in a bit of a psychological device that is called
thought-polarization, the fact that this is not RL simply added
to heighten the affect of the device. It was purely a sequence of
events with no consequence on my RL existence.''
They might have known. Stilted though its diction was, the
gist of the answer was simple, and something many in the room had
probably already surmised: Mr. Bungle was a psycho. Not, perhaps,
in real life--but then in real life it's possible for reasonable
people to assume, as Bungle clearly did, that what transpires
between word-costumed characters within the boundaries of a make-
believe world is, if not mere play, then at most some kind of
emotional laboratory experiment. Inside the MOO, however, such
thinking marked a person as one of two basically subcompetent
types. The first was the newbie, in which case the confusion was
understandable, since there were few MOOers who had not, upon
their first visits as anonymous ``guest'' characters, mistaken
the place for a vast playpen in which they might act out their
wildest fantasies without fear of censure. Only with time and the
acquisition of a fixed character do players tend to make the
critical passage from anonymity to pseudonymity, developing the
concern for their character's reputation that marks the
attainment of virtual adulthood. But while Mr. Bungle hadn't been
around as long as most MOOers, he'd been around long enough to
leave his newbie status behind, and his delusional statement
therefore placed him among the second type: the sociopath.
And as there is but small percentage in arguing with a head
case, the room's attention gradually abandoned Mr. Bungle and
returned to the discussions that had previously occupied it. But
if the debate had been edging toward ineffectuality before,
Bungle's anticlimactic appearance had evidently robbed it of any
forward motion whatsoever. What's more, from his lonely corner of
the room Mr. Bungle kept issuing periodic expressions of a
prickly sort of remorse, interlaced with sarcasm and
belligerence, and though it was hard to tell if he wasn't still
just conducting his experiments, some people thought his regret
genuine enough that maybe he didn't deserve to be toaded after
all. Logically, of course, discussion of the principal issues at
hand didn't require unanimous belief that Bungle was an
irredeemable bastard, but now that cracks were showing in that
unanimity, the last of the meeting's fervor seemed to be draining
out through them.
People started drifting away. Mr. Bungle left first, then
others followed--one by one, in twos and threes, hugging friends
and waving goodnight. By 9:45 only a handful remained, and the
great debate had wound down into casual conversation, the
melancholy remains of another fruitless good idea. The arguments
had been well-honed, certainly, and perhaps might prove useful in
some as-yet-unclear long run. But at this point what seemed clear
was that evangeline's meeting had died, at last, and without any
practical results to mark its passing.
It was also at this point, most likely, that JoeFeedback
reached his decision. JoeFeedback was a wizard, a taciturn sort
of fellow who'd sat brooding on the sidelines all evening. He
hadn't said a lot, but what he had said indicated that he took
the crime committed against legba and Starsinger very seriously,
and that he felt no particular compassion toward the character
who had committed it. But on the other hand he had made it
equally plain that he took the elimination of a fellow player
just as seriously, and moreover that he had no desire to return
to the days of wizardly fiat. It must have been difficult,
therefore, to reconcile the conflicting impulses churning within
him at that moment. In fact, it was probably impossible, for as
much as he would have liked to make himself an instrument of
LambdaMOO's collective will, he surely realized that under the
present order of things he must in the final analysis either act
alone or not act at all.
So JoeFeedback acted alone.
He told the lingering few players in the room that he had to
go, and then he went. It was a minute or two before ten. He did
it quietly and he did it privately, but all anyone had to do to
know he'd done it was to type the @who command, which was
normally what you typed if you wanted to know a player's present
location and the time he last logged in. But if you had run a
@who on Mr. Bungle not too long after JoeFeedback left
evangeline's room, the database would have told you something
``Mr. Bungle,'' it would have said, ``is not the name of any
The date, as it happened, was April Fool's Day, and it would
still be April Fool's Day for another two hours. But this was no
joke: Mr. Bungle was truly dead and truly gone.

They say that LambdaMOO has never been the same since Mr.
Bungle's toading. They say as well that nothing's really changed.
And though it skirts the fuzziest of dream-logics to say that
both these statements are true, the MOO is just the sort of
fuzzy, dreamlike place in which such contradictions thrive.
Certainly whatever civil society now informs LambdaMOO owes
its existence to the Bungle Affair. The archwizard Haakon made
sure of that. Away on business for the duration of the episode,
Haakon returned to find its wreckage strewn across the tiny
universe he'd set in motion. The death of a player, the trauma of
several others, and the angst-ridden conscience of his colleague
JoeFeedback presented themselves to his concerned and astonished
attention, and he resolved to see if he couldn't learn some
lesson from it all. For the better part of a day he brooded over
the record of events and arguments left in _*social_, then he sat
pondering the chaotically evolving shape of his creation, and at
the day's end he descended once again into the social arena of
the MOO with another history-altering proclamation.
It was probably his last, for what he now decreed was the
final, missing piece of the New Direction. In a few days, Haakon
announced, he would build into the database a system of petitions
and ballots whereby anyone could put to popular vote any social
scheme requiring wizardly powers for its implementation, with the
results of the vote to be binding on the wizards. At last and for
good, the awkward gap between the will of the players and the
efficacy of the technicians would be closed. And though some
anarchists grumbled about the irony of Haakon's dictatorially
imposing universal suffrage on an unconsulted populace, in
general the citizens of LambdaMOO seemed to find it hard to fault
a system more purely democratic than any that could ever exist in
real life. Eight months and a dozen ballot measures later,
widespread participation in the new regime has produced a small
arsenal of mechanisms for dealing with the types of violence that
called the system into being. MOO residents now have access to a
@boot command, for instance, with which to summarily eject
berserker ``guest'' characters. And players can bring suit
against one another through an ad hoc arbitration system in which
mutually agreed-upon judges have at their disposition the full
range of wizardly punishments--up to and including the capital.
Yet the continued dependence on death as the ultimate keeper
of the peace suggests that this new MOO order may not be built on
the most solid of foundations. For if life on LambdaMOO began to
acquire more coherence in the wake of the toading, death retained
all the fuzziness of pre-Bungle days. This truth was rather
dramatically borne out, not too many days after Bungle departed,
by the arrival of a strange new character named Dr. Jest. There
was a forceful eccentricity to the newcomer's manner, but the
oddest thing about his style was its striking yet unnameable
familiarity. And when he developed the annoying habit of stuffing
fellow players into a jar containing a tiny simulacrum of a
certain deceased rapist, the source of this familiarity became
Mr. Bungle had risen from the grave.
In itself, Bungle's reincarnation as Dr. Jest was a
remarkable turn of events, but perhaps even more remarkable was
the utter lack of amazement with which the LambdaMOO public took
note of it. To be sure, many residents were appalled by the
brazenness of Bungle's return. In fact, one of the first
petitions circulated under the new voting system was a request
for Dr. Jest's toading that almost immediately gathered 52
signatures (but has failed so far to reach ballot status). Yet
few were unaware of the ease with which the toad proscription
could be circumvented--all the toadee had to do (all the ur-
Bungle at NYU presumably had done) was to go to the minor hassle
of acquiring a new Internet account, and LambdaMOO's character
registration program would then simply treat the known felon as
an entirely new and innocent person. Nor was this ease generally
understood to represent a failure of toading's social
disciplinary function. On the contrary, it only underlined the
truism (repeated many times throughout the debate over Mr.
Bungle's fate) that his punishment, ultimately, had been no more
or less symbolic than his crime.
What _was_ surprising, however, was that Mr. Bungle/Dr. Jest
seemed to have taken the symbolism to heart. Dark themes still
obsessed him--the objects he created gave off wafts of Nazi
imagery and medical torture--but he no longer radiated the
aggressively antisocial vibes he had before. He was a lot less
unpleasant to look at (the outrageously seedy clown description
had been replaced by that of a mildly creepy but actually rather
natty young man, with ``blue eyes...suggestive of conspiracy,
untamed eroticism and perhaps a sense of understanding of the
future''), and aside from the occasional jar-stuffing incident,
he was also a lot less dangerous to be around. It was obvious
he'd undergone some sort of personal transformation in the days
since I'd first glimpsed him back in evangeline's crowded room--
nothing radical maybe, but powerful nonetheless, and resonant
enough with my own experience, I felt, that it might be more than
professionally interesting to talk with him, and perhaps compare
For I too was undergoing a transformation in the aftermath of
that night in evangeline's, and I'm still not entirely sure what
to make of it. As I pursued my runaway fascination with the
discussion I had heard there, as I pored over the _*social_
debate and got to know legba and some of the other victims and
witnesses, I could feel my newbie consciousness falling away from
me. Where before I'd found it hard to take virtual rape
seriously, I now was finding it difficult to remember how I could
ever _not_ have taken it seriously. I was proud to have arrived
at this perspective--it felt like an exotic sort of achievement,
and it definitely made my ongoing experience of the MOO a richer
But it was also having some unsettling effects on the way I
looked at the rest of the world. Sometimes, for instance, it was
hard for me to understand why RL society classifies RL rape
alongside crimes against person or property. Since rape can occur
without any physical pain or damage, I found myself reasoning,
then it must be classed as a crime against the mind--more
intimately and deeply hurtful, to be sure, than cross burnings,
wolf whistles, and virtual rape, but undeniably located on the
same conceptual continuum. I did not, however, conclude as a
result that rapists were protected in any fashion by the First
Amendment. Quite the opposite, in fact: the more seriously I took
the notion of virtual rape, the less seriously I was able to take
the notion of freedom of speech, with its tidy division of the
world into the symbolic and the real.
Let me assure you, though, that I am not presenting these
thoughts as arguments. I offer them, rather, as a picture of the
sort of mind-set that deep immersion in a virtual world has
inspired in me. I offer them also, therefore, as a kind of
prophecy. For whatever else these thoughts tell me, I have come
to believe that they announce the final stages of our decades-
long passage into the Information Age, a paradigm shift that the
classic liberal firewall between word and deed (itself a product
of an earlier paradigm shift commonly known as the Enlightenment)
is not likely to survive intact. After all, anyone the least bit
familiar with the workings of the new era's definitive
technology, the computer, knows that it operates on a principle
impracticably difficult to distinguish from the pre-Enlightenment
principle of the magic word: the commands you type into a
computer are a kind of speech that doesn't so much communicate as
_make_things_happen_, directly and ineluctably, the same way
pulling a trigger does. They are incantations, in other words,
and anyone at all attuned to the technosocial megatrends of the
moment--from the growing dependence of economies on the global
flow of intensely fetishized words and numbers to the burgeoning
ability of bioengineers to speak the spells written in the four-
letter text of DNA--knows that the logic of the incantation is
rapidly permeating the fabric of our lives.
And it's precisely this logic that provides the real magic in
a place like LambdaMOO--not the fictive trappings of voodoo and
shapeshifting and wizardry, but the conflation of speech and act
that's inevitable in any computer-mediated world, be it Lambda or
the increasingly wired world at large. This is dangerous magic,
to be sure, a potential threat--if misconstrued or misapplied--to
our always precarious freedoms of expression, and as someone who
lives by his words I do not take the threat lightly. And yet, on
the other hand, I can no longer convince myself that our wishful
insulation of language from the realm of action has ever been
anything but a valuable kludge, a philosophically damaged stopgap
against oppression that would just have to do till something
truer and more elegant came along.
Am I wrong to think this truer, more elegant thing can be
found on LambdaMOO? Perhaps, but I continue to seek it there,
sensing its presence just beneath the surface of every
interaction. I have even thought, as I said, that discussing with
Dr. Jest our shared experience of the workings of the MOO might
help me in my search. But when that notion first occurred to me,
I still felt somewhat intimidated by his lingering criminal aura,
and I hemmed and hawed a good long time before finally resolving
to drop him MOO-mail requesting an interview. By then it was too
late. For reasons known only to himself, Dr. Jest had stopped
logging in. Maybe he'd grown bored with the MOO. Maybe the
loneliness of ostracism had gotten to him. Maybe a psycho whim
had carried him far away or maybe he'd quietly acquired a third
character and started life over with a cleaner slate.
Wherever he'd gone, though, he left behind the room he'd
created for himself--a treehouse ``tastefully decorated'' with
rare-book shelves, an operating table, and a life-size William S.
Burroughs doll--and he left it unlocked. So I took to checking in
there occasionally, and I still do from time to time. I head out
of my own cozy nook (inside a TV set inside the little red hotel
inside the Monopoly board inside the dining room of LambdaMOO),
and I teleport on over to the treehouse, where the room
description always tells me Dr. Jest is present but asleep, in
the conventional depiction for disconnected characters. The not-
quite-emptiness of the abandoned room invariably instills in me
an uncomfortable mix of melancholy and the creeps, and I stick
around only on the off chance that Dr. Jest will wake up, say
hello, and share his understanding of the future with me.
He won't, of course, but this is no great loss. Increasingly,
the complex magic of the MOO interests me more as a way to live
the present than to understand the future. And it's never very
long before I leave Dr. Jest's lonely treehouse and head back to
the mansion, to see some friends. set inside the little red hotel
inside the Monopoly board inside the dining room of LambdaMOO),
and I teleport on over to the treehouse, where the room
description always tells me Dr. Jest is present but asleep, in
the conventional depiction for disconnected characters. The not-
quite-emptiness of the abandoned room invariably instills in me
an uncomfortable mix of melancholy and the creeps, and I stick
around only on the off chance that Dr. Jest will wake up, say
hello, and share his understanding of the future with me.
He won't, of course, but this is no great loss. Increasingly,
the complex magic of the MOO interests me more as a way to live
the present than to understand the future. And it's never very
long before I leave Dr. Jest's lonely treehouse and head back to
the mansion, to see some friends.


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