A Rape in Cyberspace

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"A Rape in Cyberspace, or How an Evil Clown, a Haitian Trickster Spirit, Two Wizards, and a Cast of Dozens Turned a Database into a Society" is an article written by freelance journalist Julian Dibbell and first published in The Village Voice in 1993. The article was later included in Dibbell's book My Tiny Life on his LambdaMOO experiences.

Lawrence Lessig has said that his chance reading of Dibbell's article was a key influence on his interest in the field.[1] Sociologist David Trend called it "one of the most frequently cited essays about cloaked identity in cyberspace".[2]


Before Dibbell wrote his article in 1993, he started his journalism career by becoming a music journalist. Through his journalism career, he became interested in the phenomenon of the Internet. This interest that Dibbell had of the Internet became the main focus of his writings.[3] His writings included a variety of sub cultures when it came to the world of the Internet and during his exploration, he stumbled on to the online world of LambdaMOO. Dibbell saw LambdaMOO as its own little sub culture that has sub cultures within them, which he thought to be interesting and inspired him to writing about his experience within the game.[3]

Dibbell mentions that his girlfriend at the time played a part in him coming across the story. He came across it by accident when he was trying to get in contact with her over the phone and would not get an answer from her. When he could not get in to contact with her over the phone, he assumed that she would be online so he searched for her in LambdaMOO. When he found her, she had been in a meeting to figure out what to do about Mr. Bungle and that is where the story came to be.[3]


An image of a MUD (Multi-User Dungeon) similar to the one where the cyber-rape occurred.

"A Rape in Cyberspace" describes a "cyberrape" in a multi-player computer game or MUD called LambdaMOO that took place on a Monday night in March of 1993 and discusses the repercussions of this act on the virtual community and subsequent changes to the design of the MUD program.[4]

LambdaMOO, which is a virtual community still in existence, allows players to interact using avatars. The avatars are user-programmable and may interact automatically with each other and with objects and locations in the community. Users interacted through script, as there were no graphics or images on the MUD at the time.[5] The "cyberrape" itself was performed by a player named Mr. Bungle, who leveraged a "voodoo doll" subprogram that allowed him to make actions that were falsely attributed to other characters in the virtual community. The "voodoo doll" subprogram was eventually rendered useless by a character named Zippy. These actions, which included describing sexual acts that characters performed on each other and forcing the characters to perform acts upon themselves, went far beyond the community norms to that point and continued for several hours. They were interpreted as sexual violation of the avatars who were made to act sexually, and incited outrage among the LambdaMOO users, raising questions about the boundaries between real-life and virtual reality, and how LambdaMOO should be governed.

Following Mr. Bungle's actions, several users posted on the in-MOO mailing list, *social-issues, about the emotional trauma caused by his actions. One user whose avatar was a victim, called his voodoo doll activities "a breach of civility" while, in real life, "post-traumatic tears were streaming down her face". However, despite the passionate emotions including anger voiced by many users on LambdaMOO, none were willing to punish the user behind Mr. Bungle through real-life means.

Three days after the event the users of LambdaMOO arranged an online meeting, which Dibbell attended under his screenname (Dr. Bombay), to discuss what should be done about Mr. Bungle. The meeting lasted approximately two hours and forty-five minutes, but no conclusive decisions were made. After attending the meeting, one of the master-programmers of LambdaMOO (with screenname JoeFeedback), decided on his own to terminate the Mr. Bungle user's account.[6] Additionally, upon his return from his business trip, LambdaMOO's main creator, Pavel Curtis (screenname Archwizard Haakon), set up a system of petitions and ballots where anyone could put to popular vote anything requiring administrative powers for its implementation. Through this system, LambdaMOO users put into place a @boot command, which temporarily disconnects disruptive guest users from the server, as well as a number of other new features.

It was later discovered that behind Mr. Bungle was not only a young man that attended NYU, but was also a group of NYU students on a dorm floor who encouraged his actions by calling out suggestions during the evening of the rape.[7]


Legal and ethical debate[edit]

Dibbell's A Rape in Cyberspace brought issues of online abuse to light that had not been heard much of during its time. It led to some debate about ethical and legal issues, how to continue to build the Internet, how to regulate it, and how to potentially prosecute crimes that had never existed before.[5] There are still problems when it comes to online abuse such as the incident mentioned in Dibbell's article because the actions are happening online and not in the real world. This sparked the debate of whether these events are legal or not. The act itself is not considered illegal but the psychological damage the users feel is real. A conclusion on how to deal with these types of incidents has not yet been reached, but Mr. Bungle's actions were part of what started the conversation in the first place. [5]


In the aftermath of the event, members of the LambdaMOO community came together to discuss how to handle what happened. The community attained a political self-consciousness about itself when deciding how to punish Mr. Bungle for his actions. [8] Prior to the event, LambdaMOO's creator Pavel Curtis released a document known as the "New Direction" which stated that the "wizards" were to serve the purpose of technicians and were not to make decisions which affect the social life of the MOO and to only implement decisions made by the community as a whole. This forced the LambdaMOO community to invent their own self-governance from scratch; in the case of Mr. Bungle, it was decided that his character would be deleted.[9]

An argument over free speech also became an issue because of the rape that occurred in LambdaMOO, with questions regarding whether or not there are consequences when it came to speech within the digital world. People would now have to face this issue since media has become a huge part in people's lives. People interact with media all the time even when they are not trying to so it has become harder to avoid the negative things that people say or do. Information is more instant unlike before where information got around a lot slower and solutions are constantly being thought of to counter the "trolls".[3]


A Rape in Cyberspace demonstrates how the virtual world and the real world tend to mix together since the virtual world could not exist without reality, and how Dibbell's experiences in the online community affected his real world thought process.[10]

The article also demonstrates the emotional effect which the events that happened within LambdaMoo had on the victims of this virtual rape. Even though it happened in virtual reality, it had a symbolic meaning in both realities. It is not to say that it compares to a rape happening in real life but the meaning of rape symbolizes some form of violation physically in real life and mentally in both realities.[11]


Dibbell's A Rape in Cyberspace and other publications that he has made about the Bungle incident have been seen by many scholars and professionals as a key foundation in the topic of virtual rape.[12] The article has been used to take a look at the moral nature of actions within the virtual world.[11]

Since the Mr. Bungle case, LambdaMoo set up an arbitration system so that people can file suit against one another and this system has been put into use with the matter of a virtual death.[13]

Over a decade later, these events remain one of the primary advertisements for LambdaMOO. Research students still regularly visit the MOO (often sent there by their professors) and start asking users about these events.[5]

This article draws attention to a more modern version of the platonic binary, otherwise known as the mind-body split. The event described in the article illustrates the intellectual self from the physical self through the typing of words on a screen.[14]

Dibbell continued to participate in LambdaMOO, up to 30 hours a week, and eventually wrote My Tiny Life about his experiences, incorporating the article.[15] He remains somewhat astonished at the impact it has had, saying in 1998, "No piece I had done before had managed to convey as vividly to readers the fact that there was something wild and different going on online, something that might profoundly alter the way they related to words and communication and culture in general."[16]

The article made many people interested in the legal implications of online activity, including Lawrence Lessig, and Dibbell himself would go on to teach cyberlaw as a Fellow at Stanford Law School Center for the Internet and Society.[17] The article is also considered one of the earliest examples of New Games Journalism where review of computer games are meshed with social observation and consideration of surrounding issues.




  • Anonymous. "A Rape in Cyberspace". cs.stanford.edu. Retrieved 17 November 2019.
  • Anonymous (1995). "A Rape in Cyberspace". albany.edy. Retrieved 24 November 2019.
  • Anonymous (27 January 1999). "Mind game in the MUD". theguardian.com. Retrieved 27 November 2019.
  • Buck, Stephanie (30 October 2017). "The 'rape in cyber space' from 25 years ago posed problems we still haven't solved today: Free speech vs. virtual 'action' on the early web". timeline.com. Retrieved 22 November 2019.
  • Dibbell, Julian (1998a). "A Rape in Cyberspace". My Tiny Life: Crime and Passion in a Virtual World. New York: Owl. p. 11–30. ISBN 0805036261. How an evil clown, a Haitian trickster spirit, two wizards, and a cast of dozens turned a database into a society.
  • Dibbell, Jullian (12 December 1998b). "Covering Cyberspace". Massachusetts Institute of Technology Communications Forum. Retrieved 16 December 2006.
  • Eisinger, Dale (13 April 2017). "The Original Internet Abuse Story: Julian Dibbell 20 Years After 'A Rape in Cyberspace'". thedailybeast.com. Retrieved 30 November 2019.
  • Gelman, Lauren (2 December 2002). "CIS Fellow Jullian Dibbell". cyberlaw.stanford.edu. Retrieved 24 November 2019.
  • Haynes, Cynthia; Holmevick, Jan (2001). High Wired: On the Design, Use, and Theory of Educational MOOs. University of Michigan Press. ISBN 0472088386. Retrieved 27 November 2019.
  • Huff, C.; Johnson, D.; Miller, K. (2003). "Virtual Harms and Real Responsibility". Technology and Society Magazine. 22 (2): 12–19. doi:10.1109/MTAS.2003.1216238.
  • Johnson, Laurie (1 January 2008). "Rape and the Memex". Cite journal requires |journal= (help)
  • Levy, Steven (2002). "Lawrence Lessig's Supreme Showdown". Wired. Archived from the original on 9 November 2006. Retrieved 16 December 2006.
  • MacKinnon, Richard (1997). "Virtual Rape". Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication. 2 (4).
  • Mahadevan, Divya (2 March 2015). "A Rape in Cyberspace, starred". blogs.brown.edu. Retrieved 27 November 2019.
  • Sander, Melissa (2009). "Questions about accountability and illegality of virtual rape". Iowa State University Capstones, Theses and Dissertations: 1–95.
  • Schulz, J (1 May 1999). "Larger Than Life". Wired. Retrieved 16 December 2006.
  • Trend, David (2001). Reading Digital Culture. Blackwell Publishing. ISBN 978-0-631-22302-3. Retrieved 16 December 2006.

Further reading[edit]