As in the discussions concerning pornography*, there is ongoing debate as to whether or not what one does in a game – e.g., including violent and/or ethically questionable sexual acts – has any effect on one’s real-world attitudes and actions. For every new study that claims to show some sort of causal linkage between game-play and players’ real-world acts and attitudes, there are vociferous attacks by defenders of games and gaming – justified at least in part, as we saw in the case of pornography*, because of the extensive difficulties of demonstrating such causal linkages.
These and related defenses of what otherwise seem to be excessive violence and violent sex in games can be captured in the phrase “it’s only a game.” Such defenses argue, that is, that there are clear and more or less impermeable boundaries between what happens in an online and/or virtual game environment and what gamers do in the rest of their largely quite ordinary lives.
Moreover, the debates we explored above regarding how far some forms of pornography* may serve emancipatory and/or patriarchal ends get replayed in the game context as well. In particular, as suggested by the example of the Japanese game RapeLay, rape in computer-based games is apparently as old as the games themselves, beginning with the venerable Dungeons and Dragons role-playing games first instantiated on computers in the 1970s and especially popular in the MUDs and MOOs of the 1980s and 1990s. Julian Dibbell’s famous “A Rape in Cyberspace” documented such sexual violence – and further made clear that the presumed boundary between the real and the virtual was not as solid or impermeable as some wanted to think. Rather, while the sexual assaults targeted against two of the avatars in LambdaMOO played out as bare textual descriptions unfolding across the screens of the avatars’ real-world owners (along with those of other members of the community looking on), the sense of violation experienced by the real persons behind the assaulted avatars was strong enough to evoke real tears. This, as Dibbell points out, is the flip side of more consensual forms of virtual sex: contrary to initial intuitions, he explains, virtual sex, despite its restrictions to 900 lines of text, can be as intense as any real-world encounters – perhaps even more so, “given the combined power of anonymity and textual suggestiveness to unshackle deep-seated fantasies”