Author and journalist Julian Dibbell examines the often-tenuous division between digital life and “reality” in his work on technology and online communities. His most recent book Play Money: Or How I Quit My Day Job and Made Millions Trading Virtual Loot delves into the real-world economy of virtual gaming, following the lives of poorly paid, “unskilled” laborers who are employed to amass vast quantities of “virtual loot” online. His work often focuses on issues of entry, access, and membership in online communities and how behavior is monitored within those communities.
In an early article, “A Rape in Cyberspace,” Dibbell tells a tale of crime and punishment within the interactive multi-user dimension (MUD) world LambdaMOO. Users of LambdaMOO created online personas who were able to interact with each other by entering commands into a scrolling line of narrated text. The “crime” Dibbell explores in his article occurred when a rogue user, Mr. Bungle, created a “voodoo doll” subprogram that assumed control of other users’ characters and caused them to perform unwanted sexual acts with one another online. Dibbell accounts for the way in which these virtual reality transgressions engendered reactions in the real world, writing that Mr. Bungle’s “victims” felt a crime had been committed not against their “physical” bodies, but against their “psychic double, the bodylike self-representation we carry around in our heads” (“A Rape in Cyberspace”). Dibbell describes the unwelcome sex enacted online as constituting not “an exchange of fluids,” but more importantly a Foucauldian “exchange of signs.” As he read the testimony of these “victims,” and began to take the severity of the virtual “crime” more seriously, Dibbell writes he was less and less able to take seriously “the tidy division of the world into the symbolic and the real that underlies the very notion of freedom of speech.” Indeed, LambdaMOO’s users seemed to reject the distinction between online and offline realities and actions in their collective response to Mr. Bungle’s offense. In a democratic vote, the users of LambdaMOO elected to “toad” Mr. Bungle; that is, to erase all traces of his existence from their MUD world in an act which some users recognized as possessing uncomfortable “conceptual ties” with capital punishment in the offline world.
Dibbell continues to gauge different perspectives regarding the “seriousness” of online play and offense in “Mutilated Furries, Flying Phalluses: Put the Blame on Griefers, the Sociopaths of the Virtual World.” The article, which was reprinted in 2008’s edition of The Best Technology Writing, focuses on Second Life’s community of “griefers:” renegade, but highly organized teams of “Goons” who systematically destroy or debase the hard-won virtual property of other users by orchestrating virtual explosions or ever-infamous “rains” of dancing, destructive virtual phalluses. When asked to explain the rationale for their actions, one prominent griefer admits, “We do it for the lulz”; that is, for the inherent “amusement in pissing off others.” Dibbell points out that while all users of Second Life are technically playing the same “game,” no consensus exists regarding Second Life’s rulebook or objectives. Griefers may be “playing a different game altogether” from users who invest great emotional energy in their online accomplishments. Dibbell delineates griefers’ goals as pushing users “past the brink of moral outrage toward that rare moment–at once humiliating and enlightening–when they find themselves crying over a computer game.” Like LambdaMOO’s case of cyber-rape, the “crimes” of Second Life’s griefers challenge users to “sort out the consequential from the not-so-much,” and to reassess the rules of behavior that ostensibly distinguish online from offline life.