Ethics and Information Technology

, Volume 9, Issue 2, pp 111–119 | Cite as

My avatar, my self: Virtual harm and attachment

  • Jessica WolfendaleEmail author


Multi-user online environments involve millions of participants world-wide. In these online communities participants can use their online personas – avatars – to chat, fight, make friends, have sex, kill monsters and even get married. Unfortunately participants can also use their avatars to stalk, kill, sexually assault, steal from and torture each other. Despite attempts to minimise the likelihood of interpersonal virtual harm, programmers cannot remove all possibility of online deviant behaviour.

Participants are often greatly distressed when their avatars are harmed by other participants’ malicious actions, yet there is a tendency in the literature on this topic to dismiss such distress as evidence of too great an involvement in and identification with the online character. In this paper I argue that this dismissal of virtual harm is based on a set of false assumptions about the nature of avatar attachment and its relation to genuine moral harm. I argue that we cannot dismiss avatar attachment as morally insignificant without being forced to also dismiss other, more acceptable, forms of attachment such as attachment to possessions, people and cultural objects and communities. Arguments against according moral significance to virtual harm fail because they do not reflect participants’ and programmers’ experiences and expectations of virtual communities and they have the unintended consequence of failing to grant significance to attachments that we take for granted, morally speaking. Avatar attachment is expressive of identity and self-conception and should therefore be accorded the moral significance we give to real-life attachments that play a similar role.


virtual reality avatars attachment virtual harm ethics in virtual reality 


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. Cranford M. (1996). The Social Trajectory of Virtual Reality: Substantive Ethics in a World Without Constraints. Technology in Society 18(1):79–92CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Dibbell, J.D. 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. Village Voice, 38(51), 1993. Accessed 13 March 2005 at <∼IDLE/assign/bungle/bungle. html|>.Google Scholar
  3. Huff C., Johnson D.G., Miller K. (2003). Virtual Harms and Real Responsibility. IEEE Technology and Society Magazine 22(2):12–19CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  4. D. Hunter and F.G. Lastowka. To Kill an Avatar. Legal Affairs July–August 2003. Accessed 12 March 2005 at <–August-2003/feature_hunter_julaug03.html>.Google Scholar
  5. C. Kolo and T. Baur. Living a Virtual Life: Social Dynamics of Online Gaming. Game Studies 4(1), 2004. Accessed 17 March 2005 at <http://www.gamestudies. org/0401/kolo/>.Google Scholar
  6. Powers T.M. (2003). Real Wrongs in Virtual Communities. Ethics and Information Technology 5(4):191–198CrossRefMathSciNetGoogle Scholar
  7. G. Riva. The Sociocognitive Psychology of Computer-Mediated Communication: The Present and Future of Technology Based Interactions. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 5(6): 581–598, 2002, quoting G. Mantovani. New Communication Environments: from Everyday to Virtual. Taylor & Francis, London, 1996.Google Scholar
  8. J.R. Suler and W. Phillips. The Bad Boys of Cyberspace: Deviant Behaviour in Online Communities and Strategies for Managing it. Accessed 18 April 2005 at <∼suler/psycyber/badboys.html>Google Scholar
  9. Taylor T.L. (2002). Living Digitally: Embodiment in Virtual Worlds. In: Ralph Schroeder (ed), The Social Life of Avatars: Presence and Interaction in Shared Virtual Environments. London, Springer-Verlag, pp. 400–462Google Scholar
  10. The Daedalus Project. The Psychology of MMORPGS. Accessed 9 March 2006 at daedalus/archives/000514.phpGoogle Scholar
  11. L.-M. Whang and G. Chang. Lifestyles of Virtual World Residents: Living in the On-Line Game “Lineage”. CyberPsychology & Behavior, 7(5): 592–600, 2004Google Scholar
  12. L.-M. Whang, S. Lee and G. Chang. Internet Over-Users’ Psychological Profiles: A Behaviour Sampling Analysis on Internet Addiction. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 6(2): 143–150, 2003Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media B.V. 2006

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Centre for Applied Philosophy and Public EthicsUniversity of MelbourneMelbourneAustralia

Personalised recommendations