Broken Context

I stopped blogging a couple years ago, but kept my old blogging domain name. I recently set up a tumblr scrapblog on that domain, So today, in Google Analytics, I was surprised to see some traffic still trickling from an old Broken Toys post mocking me for having a sense of compassion regarding a 2006 Ansche Chung griefing incident in Second Life. A quick recap of the incident: a real life female entrepreneur was ambushed with several minutes of disruptive prim spam shaped somewhat like pink dicks during an in-SL live event with CNET reporter Greeterdan Godel (Daniel Terdiman). Griefing and poorly designed prim penises are nothing remarkable in SL. However, what struck me then about the story was how this female business woman and her family felt about the incident.

She and her family were not just offended or hurt by the disrespectful joke, they also felt violated because of the sexual theme of the attack (no matter how silly, a dick is a dick; her attackers could have used any 3D shape to pummel her event but they chose to use cocks). Ansche expressed strong emotions using controversial language, basically claiming the in-SL attack felt something like a rape. Since virtual rape is an impossibility (anyone can exit a game or turn off their computer), I realized that sexual themed griefing is really the internet’s equivalent of sexual harassment and, yes, sexual violence. A lot of people took offense to the idea that Ansche felt raped. Please note that at no point did Ansche publicly say she was raped or that what happened to her in SL was the literal equivalent of an offline physical sexual assault. Her husband simply stated that she felt raped; in other words, that the incident made her feel violated in a sexual way. Sexual abuse is a spectrum that runs from the highly debatable, minor transgressions to the undeniable extremes of physical sexual assault; the only commonality between incidents of sexual abuse is that the victim felt violated in a sexualized context. People who think sexual harassment and violence are just physical acts might consider reading up on sexual abuse just to get a few more perspectives on the issue (or at least skimming their employer’s sexual harassment policy for some insight).

I empathized because I could not imagine a business woman NOT feeling sexually harassed if someone she didn’t know came into a live event where she was speaking and started throwing pink dildoes at her on stage (so many dildoes that the event had to be stopped and moved to a new location). Regardless of whether the joke was funny or not, it obviously had sexual themes. That some people are sensitive to sexual harassment shouldn’t surprise anyone. From bullying, bra-snapping boys in junior high through obnoxious ogling male coworkers who strain professional relationships by asking for (very unwanted) dates, almost every woman has had experiences that were in no way equivalent to the crime of rape, yet were more emotionally unnerving than they should be due to the unwanted sexual tone in the incident. Would sexual harassment policies even exist if people didn’t admit that when interactions include unwanted sexual themes, however subtle, they sometimes have a different and altogether more stressful effect on the victim? If a coworker compliments your neat handwriting at work, that alone is not likely to creep anyone out. If they compliment your perky tits, that can be really uncomfortable. It’s a fact of life that sexually themed language, media, interaction, and, yes, SL griefing will have different effects on people depending on the experiences and emotions of everyone involved. For Ansche, clearly the dick deluge left her feeling violated.

So, I wrote a blog post defending her FEELINGS. Three different ladies in the games industry wrote to me privately to tell me they appreciated my post. It was thoughtful in tone and did not trivialize the serious crime of rape, however several guys in the games industry (who are not known for their emotional IQs) criticized my post at the time and accused me of conflating rape with what happened to Ansche . None of the people who agreed with me that they felt bad for Ansche (because of how she felt) would say that publicly though because of the backlash from all the people who were rolling their eyes and feeling superior to Ansche because they could see the humor in her humiliation, the everyday griefing in what she experienced as sexual harassment while she was just trying to do her job (her SL business was actually supporting her in real life). People who knew me, understood why I thought the incident was worth remarking on publicly. Someone had to question the “griefers will be griefers” free pass that everyone was giving this incident. And I felt that someone who did understand Ansche’s emotional reaction should say so out loud rather than quietly thinking “hm, that would suck if it happened during my interview” like so many women did. I study sex in games, and my primary research focus for a little over a year in 2004 was researching emergent gameplay in online multiplayer games (including griefing, which is just another form of emergent play which for better or worse provides entertainment and retention for the griefers and their audience).

Sexual griefing is something I understand and have few problems within the context of a social, recreational game where the griefing target has plenty of choices (you can report people, you can block people, you can teleport away, you can log off, you can switch servers, you can switch games). But Ansche was at work. She couldn’t just leave her own speaking event. She didn’t have access to controls on the land where she was being interviewed and there wasn’t any feature she could use in-game to block the type of harassment during the event. The only power she had was to end her event, relocate it, or laugh it off and try to continue her event with the ridiculous griefing underway (this would have been my reaction, but that does NOT mean her reaction was any less valid).

Anyway, for anyone who comes across the Broken Toys post with the out-of-context quote pulled from my old 2006 blog: I was being compassionate and discussing an issue without mocking anyone else’s view point. I never said in-game griefing could be the equivalent of the crime of rape. I acknowledged that a victim of sexual themed griefing in a virtual world could feel violated the way Ansche did. Even today, I encourage people to think about the offline parallels (sexual harassment), especially when you consider that the woman was at work when this happened, not playing some frivolous recreational game that she could abandon for a round of Tetris once the dick storm started. Anyone who reads Broken Toys knows this guy knows a lot about games but you can’t view everything that happens in virtual worlds only through the “game designer” lens. Virtual worlds are conduits for real life, not just fun and games; there be ethical issues here too, not just dragons and gamer bullshit.

Hit a girl with dicks while she’s playing an online game, that’s griefing. Hit a business woman with dicks while she’s working an event in a virtual world… there are other words for that, perhaps depending on who you ask.

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