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Nov 11, 2010


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Children are a tough category because, in some ways, they are already "virtual people;" that is, they are not as instantiated as adults, at least from a legal (and many would say moral) sense.

My child-self was almost a "pre-avatar" of my adult self, yes? I could do things that didn't "count," and couldn't do many things that adults are allowed to do. I existed in a special magic circle, bounded more by highly specific rules (eg, grades) than laws. I was rewarded for being "good," not for being "useful."

I'm a giant liberal and insanely devoted to the principles of free speech and free press. That being said... the one place where I really begin to think that there's a place for censorship and very careful consideration of risk/benefits, is when it comes to issues of child safety.

On the one hand, you have Romeo and Juliet. It's a play about minors and they have sex, which is a no-no from a legal standpoint. Can it be read as a play that glorifies under-age sex? Sure. But to read it that way requires a maturity and context that belies the purported harm. The environment in which that context occurs almost has to be one that will be sensitive to the required nuances.

OTOH, a book that provides best practices for how to seduce minors online has no valuable purpose other than ones that are explicitly illegal (and, imho, evil). Yes, you can make a meta-argument against censorship in any form... but I've already said that I think that child safety is a different magic circle. We (both the courts and Nature herself) haven't invited children into the levels of the game where they have tools to deal with these things.


I think it is problematic to simply equate 'virtual worlds' with the 'real world.' They are not the same — potential consequences vary greatly between the two 'locations.'

For example: Julian Dibbell's 'A Rape In Cyberspace' was not about the potential criminality of the acts. In fact, both Mr. Dibbell and the person behind the victim 'exu' emphasized the story was not intended to imply what Mr. Bungles did was rape. Mr. Dibbell's own purpose behind the story was to illustrate how the LambdaMOO community was forced to evolve socially in response to the incident.

The danger of equating the virtual with the real is that doing so can easily lead us to miss the uniqueness of the virtual. For example, why should 'slavery' be described in a virtual world context? This is a definition from the real world — there is no need for it to apply to the virtual. (I would argue that, as virtual worlds work now, it also fundamentally cannot apply.)

At the same time, harms that occur in virtual worlds are real harms. They just aren't harms that can be equated to 'rape' or 'slavery' or 'assault.' These harms, rather, are mental harms.

I've discussed this some in my own work. I have a working paper on SSRN that looks at ways privacy law can be used to protect virtual world users because it is one area of law intended to protect against mental harms and intrusions. ( A Virtual Property Solution: How Privacy Law Can Protect the Citizens of Virtual Worlds, http://ssrn.com/abstract=1688001 )

Unless we look at the true underpinnings of virtual world social interactions and shrug off the vestments of 'real world' analogies, we won't be able to truly find ways to limit or prevent harms that might occur in virtual worlds.

After all, mental harms and mental suffering is nothing to scoff at. Rutgers Freshman Tyler Clementi is a good example of their dangers. ( http://www.nytimes.com/2010/09/30/nyregion/30suicide.html ) And anyone who has played online games long enough has witnessed, suffered, or been a part of merciless personal attacks. (Some have experienced all three.) Us internet cognoscenti even have a name for these situations: flame wars.


A book that defends such a heinous practice is not the practice itself, and so, like virtual child porn, it throws an interesting light on the harm-based approach to ethics and law. Harms dominates so much of our thinking. For example, the Prop 8 ruling was based on whether one side or the other could demonstrate evidence of harm. But there are other approaches, not as popular today, in which harm is important but not the only criterion. Cases such as this book force us to reconsider - why cannot we just say that a practice is wrong, even though there's no evidence of harm? Suppose for example that the State has difficulty establishing (as in the Prop 8 case) that anyone has been hurt by the publication of this book. Suppose that someone draws a picture of a little girl having sex and shows it to lots of other people, but thereafter no evidence emerges that any of those people, or anyone else, ever has something bad happen to them - no bad thoughts, no guilt, certainly no evil actions. If we base our ethics on harm alone, there's nothing to be done. Therefore I think we need to ask the kind of questions Lisa is asking, and take them quite seriously. Where do we draw the line - for the sake of drawing a line and nothing more? If only harm can justify law, why would we not permit such books and such images to be published? What basis do we have for imposing the majority's morality, when there's no evidence that someone is actually being hurt? Is there such a basis? I believe quite strongly that there is, but it is one that would probably take most readers of this blog into a very uncomfortable place.


Who chooses when something is wrong? Do you, Mr. Castronova? Do the policemen? Do my neighbors? This comes down to free speech and individual liberty.

The basis for banning obscene works -- such as your example drawing above -- is a multi-progned judicial nightmare. The obscenity test illustrates the problems of trying to regulate morality. And yes, the banning of obscenities is based on harm. The judicial reasoning behind obscenity bans is that these works are not, in effect, speech and present risk of harms that justify their prohibition.

As for imposing the majority's morality; there is never a justification for tyranny of the majority except a willingness to surrender your own freedom.


Lisa>So here's the question.

You say that, but then you ask 16 questions!

The general rule is that in a fictional context, behaviours are not bound by real rules. People do things in books that would be illegal in the real world, but they're not doing it in the real world so that's OK.

The exception rule is that if exposure to the fictional context causes disproportionate real-world harm, then the fiction (or its creator) may be held to account. If a novel inspires thousands of people to set fire to schools, then Something Must Be Done.

The exception to the exception rule rule is that if the possibility of harm is confined to the individual who consumes the fiction, and if they are given fair warning of this up front, then it is OK. Reading a psychologically harrowing book may give you nightmares, but that's OK; reading it to a paralysis victim who can't tell you to stop is not OK.

The main points of contention are:
1) Deciding whether or not the risk that someone may take the fiction as fact is great or small.
2) Deciding what Must Be Done if you do decide the risk is too great.
3) Deciding whether or not people should be allowed to harm themselves if they go into a possibly dangerous situation reasonably aware of that danger.

This all applies to games, their being fictional contexts.

Note that the situation is different for non-fiction, because there the danger lies not in a frame error by the content consumer but in reality itself. A document telling people how to create a weapon for gassing underground transport systems is dangerous not because it's a joke that someone may misinterpret, but because it's actually directly useful to would-be nut jobs.



Thank you, Richard, et al!! I asked because it's a topic that confuses me. Not actually saying we should deem legality, but am interested in understanding current norms in a technologically evolved world. Will comment more thoroughly a bit later, in the meantime, thanks!!


Hey Richard, is this published somewhere as one synthesis? If not, you should. Like your 3 contentions. Reminds me of Asimov's 3 laws of robotics minus the instruction. Perhaps we (you? you and Ted? the hivemind?) can add nuance and distribute?

Or, is it Occam's razor on this one? I'm not a legal mind, but leaving things open for interpretation seems good and not good, all at the same time.


@John re: rape. I do not assume the act was legally rape, merely that the victim felt it was rape. Sometimes those boundaries are very muddy.

One of the ares that perplexes me is whether exposure, virtual or otherwise, desensitizes and encourages behavior outside norms. Or is it a valve release that allows those with uncontrollable thoughts to confront a fantasy or a possible reality of their actions? Does it make real kids safer, or less safe? Dunno, and that is why I'm asking. :-)


I do think it is important to look at how harms effect people playing video games and participating in virtual worlds. There is real harm involved in cyber-bullying, for example.

I am wary of looking at the psychological effects of in-game events on folks. The danger are attempts to find 'norms.' I do not think there are norms.

One example of this danger are folks who attack video games in the U.S. and Australia as being overly violent. These folks try to connect video games to the de-sensitization of children to cruelty. These are same sorts of attacks previously levied against TV. Before that, movies. Before that, books.

Defining 'norms' for how people are affected by experiences is very difficult and prone to problems. A better approach, I believe, is too look at how folks become emotionally connected to events.

You list binary options in your last comment: essentially, do these game experiences make kids more safe or less safe? The simple answer is that some are more safe as a result, some less. Some are encouraged to behave similarly in real life, whereas others use it as a safety valve. It isn't an either/or answer.

Another danger is borrowing too much language from the real-world. Online gaming and online communities are unique experiences and should not be burdened with the baggage of analogical language.

exu, one of the victims in Dibbell's LambdaMOO essay, described the event as rape. But you later see that further refined in the essay; not rape in the physical sense, but a LambdaMOO equivalent.

It's important, though, to look beyond the physical analogies. The event wasn't rape, but it was a violation of exu's personal identity. Mr. Bungle's, in effect, borrowed exu's identity, against her wishes, and acted out events. This is a mental and personal violation, not a physical.


John Nelson: As for imposing the majority's morality; there is never a justification for tyranny of the majority except a willingness to surrender your own freedom.

I hear that. And yet I still think that someone who avidly consumes child porn is not free but actually a slave, to something or someone quite nasty indeed.


Slave is a strong word. There are choices that can be made. Does that mean the compulsions cease? No. But even in situations where there is a compulsive need for something people have the choice of how to respond.

That response is where society and the law can and should step in. That is where harm occurs. Attempting to predict that response is not what society should do; different people respond differently. Minority Report shouldn't happen; and here we don't even have 'psychic triplets' to see the future.

You question whether there are situations when the moral majority's view should be imposed even if there is no wrong. The answer is no; the solution is to understand the scope and nature of the harm.

Child pornography isn't 'harmless' even if someone doesn't act on viewing it. Most child pornography results from the exploitation of children. That is where the harm is, that is why it is and should be prohibited.

Compare, however, your example above of someone drawing a picture of a little girl having sex. Is it a little girl having sex, or something else? Is it open to interpretation? If so, who interprets it? What if it is not intended to look like a picture of a child? Should the intent matter, or should it be banned for how it might be perceived?

The problem you get is who decides what? You reference the child pornography in your drawing example, but what if we change it to drawings of the Prophet Muhammad? Who then decides whether this should be allowed? Muslims? Christians? The government? Which government?

Let me return to an earlier comment by you where you state:

The main points of contention are:
1) Deciding whether or not the risk that someone may take the fiction as fact is great or small.
2) Deciding what Must Be Done if you do decide the risk is too great.
3) Deciding whether or not people should be allowed to harm themselves if they go into a possibly dangerous situation reasonably aware of that danger.

Why should we try and decide pre-emptive right or wrong? Why should government or society try and predict someone else's behavior based on what they see or what they experience? This is a more Big Brother type of government than exists in the U.S. and, frankly, oversteps government's authority under the Constitution.

A document describing a method for creating a weapon that will allow an underground transport system to be gassed is not dangerous. The would-be but jobs seeking to create such a system are dangerous. Not having the information available to the designers of underground transport systems so that they can modify it is dangerous.

You say such a document is directly useful to would-be nut jobs. So is the car they use to be transported to the place of attack. So are the screwdrivers, hammers, and pliers used in the attack. In fact, those are more directly useful.

The reality is that you can't stop information; all you can do is believe that the overall good of humanity outweighs the bad. You can also provide consequences for bad acts that deter their occurrence. But you can't control who acts unless you actually control who acts; and that means you'll necessarily be required to take away liberty and freedom.

A quote often erroneously ascribed to Benjamin Franklin is the phrase "those who choose a little bit of safety over liberty deserve neither." I prefer liberty; perhaps more folks prefer the illusion of safety.

To get back to the original post, it is important to look at harms and how they occur. It is not always clear how given situations will effect someone. Children playing violent video games may react in different ways. Nevertheless, how these games impact children are important.

Most importantly, understand the scope and the nature of the harm will better allow policy makers to fashion appropriate responses. These responses could then alleviate or mitigate the harm. The danger is lack of understanding or expedient use of analogies in lieu of understanding. These approaches may lead to responses that exacerbate, rather than mitigate, problems.


I think the can of worms might be said to be opened, the contents wriggling out.


Lisa>Hey Richard, is this published somewhere as one synthesis?

Not that I know of, it's just my distillation of what I've gathered from thinking about this over the years. It has bits of AI, law, media theory, psychology ...

>If not, you should.

That would involve finding somewhere to publish it, reading up on it, and writing an actual paper.

>Perhaps we (you? you and Ted? the hivemind?) can add nuance and distribute?

Fine by me!

>I'm not a legal mind, but leaving things open for interpretation seems good and not good, all at the same time.

Heh, it's what keeps lawyers in jobs.


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