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A Rape in Cyberspace December 21, 1993 _Village Voice_ 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 wasnt 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 Ive come to think of as my second home.

Call me Dr. Bombay. Some months ago -- lets 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 mansions 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 instead.

I wont say why I chose to masquerade as Samantha Stevenss outlandish cousin, or
as the dolphin, or what exactly led me to my mild but so-far incurable addiction
to the semifictional digital otherworlds known around the Internet as multi-user
dimensions, or MUDs. This isnt my story, after all. Its 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 1500 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 storys
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
reliable 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 cyberhyppies 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
dimestore 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. Bungles case is unambiguous, the facts at least are crystal

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 Ive 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 LambdaMOOs communal spirit. And there was cruelty enough lurking in
the appearance Mr. Bungle presented to the virtual world at the time -- he was a
fat, oleaginous, Bisquick-faced clown dressed in a 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 couldnt 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 rooms 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 mad 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 of near wizardly
powers, a gun that didnt kill but enveloped its targets in a cage impermeable
even to a voodoo dolls 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 a cross 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 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 databases 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 users 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 combinations of all
this busy user activity with the hard physics of this 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

Which is all just to say that, to the extent that Mr. Bungles 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 snipits 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 Bungles 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
databases subprogram #17 (a/k/a the *living room*) would have seen that sentence
on their screens.

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 a woman in
Seattle who had written herself the character of legba, with a view perhaps to
tasting in imagination a deitys 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 Bungles
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 [num]17
to the Cinder Pile. Im not calling for policies, trials, or better jails. Im not
sure what Im calling for. Virtual castration, if I could manage it. Mostly,
[this type of thing]

doesnt happen here. Mostly, perhaps I thought it wouldnt happen to me. Mostly, I
trust people to conduct themselves with some veneer of civility. Mostly, I want
his ass.*

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 VL
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 players life, limb, or material
well-being, here now was the player legba issuing aggrieved ad heartfelt calls
for Mr. Bungles dismemberment. Ludicrously excessive by RLs lights, woefully
understated by VRs, the tone of legbas 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 MUDs 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 its of no small relevance to the Bungle case
that you usually learn it between the sheets, so to speak. Netsex, tiny-sex,
virtual sex -- however you name it, in real-life reality its nothing more than a
900-line encounter stripped even of the vestigial physicality of the voice. And
yet as any but the most inhibited of newbies can tell you, its possibly the
headiest experience the very heady world of MUDs has to offer. Amid flurries of
even the most cursorily described caresses, signs, and penetrations, the glands
do engage, and often throbingly as they would in a real-life assignation --
sometimes even more so, given the combined power of anonymity and textual
suggestiveness to unshackle deepseated 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 lifes 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, youve
read Foucault and your mind is not quite blown by the notion that sex is never
so much an exchange of fluids as it is an exchange of signs. But trust your
friend Dr. Bombay, its one thing to grasp the notion intellectually and quite
another to feel it coursing through your veins amid the virtual steam of hot
net-nookie. And its 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 ad high-school sexual mythologies. The shock can easily reverberate
throughout an entire young worldview. Small wonder, then, that a newbies 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. Bungles 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 would later 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. legbas 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 Bungles cries for help and uncaged him shortly after the incident, expressed
his regret once apprised of Bungles deeds, which he allowed to be *despicable.*

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 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 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 wasnt 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 MUDdings origins in the
world of sword-and-sorcery role-playing games, simply turns a player into a
toad, wiping the players 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
LambdaMOOs accounts with Mr. Bungle. Within minutes of the posting of legbas
appeal SamlAm, 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.* SamlAms posting was seconded almost as
quickly by that of Bakunin, co-victim 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. 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 Bungles 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 databases 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
theyd 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 LambdaMOOs principal architect) formalized this decision in a document
called *LambdaMOO Takes a New Direction,* which was placed in the living room
for all to see. 1n 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: theyd 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 stood on Lambda-MOO 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 Bungles 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 Ill 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? Dont whine to the authorities about it -- hit the @gag command
and the assholes statements will be blocked from your screen (and only yours).
Its simple, its 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 didnt directly
experience couldnt hurt them, but consider how that wisdom would sound to a
woman whod 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 it 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 MOOs resident
anarchists. Like the technolibbers, the anarchists didnt 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 cant tear down the masters house
with the masters tools* -- read a slogan written into one anarchist players
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 that, 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 evangelines room for her
proposed realtime 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 MOOs political stripes, and
even a few wizards. Hagbard showed up, and Autumn and Quastro, Puff, Joe
Feedback, 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 couldnt 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. Bungles crime. There were the
central questions, of course: thumbs up or down on Bungles virtual existence?
And if down, how then to insure that his toading was not just some isolated
Iynching 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 Bungles
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 idiosyncrasies. Many were the casual
references to Bungles 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 a hypothesis than an assertion, that *perhaps its 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-do-aptly named Obvious seemed
to agree, arriving after deep consideration of the nature of Bungles 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 wasnt 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 Zippys 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. Hed 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, hed demurred, mumbling something about Christ and expiation.
He was equally quiet now, and his reception was still uniformly cool. Iegba
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 MOOs hostility toward him had
already been vented, and the attention he drew now was motivated more, it
seemed, by the opportunity to probe the rapists 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 hed 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

*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

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 its
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 characters reputation that marks the attainment of virtual
adulthood. But while Mr. Bungle hadnt been around as long as most MOOers, hed
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 rooms
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, Bundles anticlimactic appearance had evidently robbed it
of any forward motion whatsoever. Whats 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
wasnt still just conducting his experiments, some people thought his regret
genuine enough that maybe he didnt deserve to be toaded after all. Logically, of
course, discussion of the principal issues at hand didnt require a unanimous
belief that Bungle was an unredeemable bastard, but now that cracks were showing
in the unanimity, the last of the meetings 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 evangelines 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 whod sat brooding on the
sidelines all evening. He hadnt 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 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 LambdaMOOs 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 10. He did it quietly and he did it
privately, but all anyone had to do to know hed done it was to type the @who
command, which was normally what you typed if you wanted to know a 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 evangelines room, the database would have
told you something different.

*Mr. Bungle,* it would have said, *is not the name of any player.*

The date, as it happened, was April Fools Day, and it would still be April Fools
Day for another two hours. But this was no joke: Mr. Bungle was truly dead and
truly gone.

They say LambdaMOO has never been the same since Mr. Bungles toading. They say
as well that nothings 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 hed 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 couldnt 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 days 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 Haakons
dictatorially imposing 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 11
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 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 newcomers manner, but the oddest thing about his
style was his 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 returned from the grave.

In itself, Bungles 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 Bungles return. In fact, one of the first petitions circulated
under the new voting system was a request for Dr. Jests 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
LambdaMOOs 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 toadings social disciplinary function. On
the contrary, it only underlined the truism (repeated many times throughout the
debate over Mr. Bungles 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 -- 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 hed
undergone some sort of personal transformation in the days since Id first
glimpsed him back in evangelines 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 notes.

For I too was undergoing a transformation in the aftermath of that night in
evangelines, and Im 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 failing away from me. Where
before Id 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

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 eras 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 doesnt 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 its 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 hed 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 hed quietly acquired a third character and started life over with a
cleaner slate.

Wherever hed 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 lifesize 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 wont, 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 its usually not long before I leave Dr. Jests lonely treehouse and
head back to the mansion, to see some friends.

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