Its nothing new to anyone who has been involved in internet communications that people seem to have a different attitude towards ethical and polite behaviour than they do in real life. People will say things in electronic forms that they wouldn’t dare say face to face to other human beings. Anonymity frees a person from certain restraints. This can be a good thing in that it allows people to discuss ideas more openly and honestly than they would do in most other settings but it can also be a bad thing when people use it as an excuse to say things that are hurtful and destructive and which don’t further the cause of discussion at all.
Recently on a message forum a debate came up about behaviour in an online game. The specifics aren’t really important but they involve essentially taking advantage of someones lack of planning and attacking that person in the game while they were unable to respond. The point was that in putting themselves in this position they had forfeited their right to complain about being exploited. I took issue with this because I felt that in real life there is a separation between someone being stupid enough to put themselves in a vulnerable position and the exploitation of that position by others. Some in the discussion felt that I was being absurd bringing real life into an online game discussion. I didn’t agree with them because I don’t see a fundamental difference between abusing someone virtually and doing so physically.
I feel that dismissing any event that happens in cyberspace as “not real” ignores that those names you see on your forum posts, and in your email and in chat rooms are not simulations of people they are real people. They have the same motivations, fears, and failings as everyone you meet in real life. They are affected by things that happen to them and those things aren’t necessarily limited to physical effects. Time and time again we hear about the psychological effects of real life crime on people. A few dollars can be replaced but the feelings of helplessness and despair over being victimized are very real and have a destructive effect on someones peace of mind. If this is true then victimizing them virtually will have similar results. Assaulting someone’s character or their intelligence unnecessarily online has a real life effect on that person. If you engage in such behavior for sport you are no better than the real life bully who assaults people physically simply for the rush of the feeling of having power over someone. The fact that you didn’t physically touch them is irrelevant.
This isn’t to say that one can’t have fun and be competitive in online games. I don’t feel that people are harmed by losing a player vs. player confrontation. I do feel that when the confrontation starts to become personal against the two humans involved instead of the characters they are playing then something has gone terribly wrong. In any competitive sport there are rules and agreements that keep the contest fair and enjoyable to both sides. This has to be true of such contests online as well and throwing out those rules just makes the game an unhappy place for everyone involved.