Yes, Virtual Experiences Can be Traumatizing

two users interact in Second Life
Two users interact in online game Second Life. Posted to Wikimedia Commons by JWSchmidt.

Content Warning: This article discusses sexual assault and contains content which may be disturbing to some readers. Please exercise caution.

Wired.com published an article on a case of rape in the popular online game Second Life. This article, while admitting the rape of a user’s avatar in a game could be a traumatic experience, claimed that this was “not a matter for police.”

The title of the article is Virtual Rape Is Traumatic, but Is It a Crime? But the headline would have been better off stopping at Virtual Rape is Traumatic.

Such an experience would leave a lasting impact on the victim- not the cartoon avatar, but the thinking, feeling person behind that avatar.

While comparing it with actual rape may be a bit of a stretch, virtual rape is still a form of sexual assault and should be treated as such.

Many people turn to online communities and multiplayer games to relax, have fun, and relieve stress. Sometimes people form lasting friendships through these communities. Virtual rape could potentially ruin what should be a place for users to relax and play games together. It could turn what used to be a fun past-time into a painful reminder.

What happens in a virtual world can have real life consequences. Sexually soliciting a minor online is considered a crime because we acknowledge that it can have lasting impact on the victim’s psyche, even if no actual contact took place.

Second Life Logo, showing a hand with an eye over the words "Second Life"
The Second Life Logo.

The same logic applies to games like Second Life. While the user is not physically harmed by the rape of their avatar, they may be traumatized by the exposure to sexual violence.

What if the victim modeled their avatar after themselves? To watch that avatar being attacked would certainly be disturbing on some level. Or worse, what if the victim was a survivor of a real-life sex crime? Virtual rape could easily open up old wounds.

Another article on this blog discusses the potential for rape in virtual reality, and states that our laws need to catch up to the technology but we should not condemn the technology outright. The same applies here- people should be allowed to enjoy online communities like Second Life, but we need to remember that virtual criminals can harm people and that they cannot go unpunished.

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