HellKitten, aka Natasha Harris, never knew what hit her. Harris, a former model and avid devotee of the computer game Quake, had posted some pictures of herself on a Web page. But last September, her public exposure backfired. One anonymous correspondent sent her a pornographic picture with her head spliced onto someone else's body. Another gave her a virus that reformatted her hard drive. But worst of all for Harris, a big animal fan, was the photograph of a mutilated dog. That was over the top.
Harassment of female Quake players in the overwhelmingly teenage-male Quake "community" isn't exactly unusual. But the severity of the abuses directed at HellKitten prompted some players to organize a movement advocating responsibility and good behavior: the Quake Community Green Ribbon Campaign.
Why the ribbon? Well, on the Web, no campaign can be considered complete if it lacks a ribbon icon for easy Web page festoonment. Blue ribbons, green ribbons, black ribbons -- there's even a Web page Ribbon-O-Matic service that will allow would-be campaigners to design their own new ribbon on the spot.
But the Quake community's adoption of the color green was laced with a wacky dose of irony. Quake is a shoot-em-up computer game devoted to extreme violence -- so much so that it has even spawned its own slang word, "gibbing," to describe the act of blowing up an opponent so that body parts fly in every direction. But the Green Ribbon Campaign already existed before the Quake community joined in: It was the brainchild of Zondervan, a Christian publishing house whose authors include, among others, former Vice President Dan Quayle.
Zondervan's promotional literature for the campaign warns that on the Internet, the principle of free speech is "being used and used irresponsibly as a smoke screen to communicate in a vulgar, profane, violent and insulting manner." But in Quake, isn't profane violence a way of life? How in the world did a community that specializes in gibbing and fragging each other come to endorse a Christian-sponsored campaign preaching responsibility and self-restraint?
One answer might be that Quake players are using the campaign to help them draw the line between entertainment and real life -- to make useful distinctions between violence contained within the pixels of a game and violence directed at real people. But even more intriguingly, if reports are true that the Quake community is toning down its adolescent act, the Quake Green Ribbon Campaign suggests that there may actually be some substance to the very idea of an online "community" -- even one so loosely defined as the set of "all people who play multiplayer Quake online." Posting a ribbon icon may be an absurdly easy gesture to make, but it is a dose of activism, nonetheless.
The Zondervan Publishing House commenced its Green Ribbon Campaign almost exactly two years ago, on June 6, 1996. The idea was an acknowledged direct attempt to copy the hugely successful Blue Ribbon Campaign orchestrated by the Electronic Frontier Foundation aimed at drumming up opposition to the Communications Decency Act. According to EFF's Stanton McCandlish, the mastermind of the Blue Ribbon Campaign, the blue ribbon is now one of the most recognizable symbols on the Web. Zondervan, which had caused surprising ripples in the Christian religious community by taking a bold stance against the CDA, nevertheless still wanted to promote the idea that people should take responsibility for their own speech -- that the best way to preserve the right to free speech is not to abuse it.
A Quake player nicknamed KingPing adapted the Green Ribbon Campaign wholesale in the wake of the HellKitten incident. The gist of the campaign was identical, although the ribbon image became slightly altered. Instead of the standard ribbon, the new image depicted a ribbon draped across the Quake symbol, itself a somewhat Satanic-looking version of a Christian cross. (A spokesperson for Zondervan said he was unfamiliar with Quake, and declined to comment on the apparent contradiction between Quake violence and the principles underlying the Green Ribbon Campaign.)
Online communities are fragile -- KingPing is no longer even an active member of the Quake community, and HellKitten rarely checks her e-mail (according to one report, she's also moved on from Quake to the Ultima Online role-playing game). But the Quake community transcends the ups and downs of individuals. There are numerous Web sites devoted solely to Quake news updated by the hour and visited by thousands of Quake fans every day. The community mantra that "everybody helps everybody else out" is borne out by the countless hours volunteered by programmers to create Quake add-ons or bots or other utilities that make multiplayer Quake gaming more enjoyable. Looking for a postmodern tribe whose community affiliation is based on commodity identification? Look no further.
Memories of HellKitten and KingPing may have already faded, but the movement is quite alive. Dan Reid, who took over managing the campaign in February, says new members join every day, and currently some 450 separate Web pages hoist the green ribbon high. And according to most Quake players interviewed for this story, the consensus is that the campaign has had a salutary effect.
"The stated goal is to raise awareness," says Steven "Blue" Heaslip, webmaster for one of the most popular Quake news sites, Blue's News. "And when you raise awareness, you inspire discussions and behavior that is a little more considered in light of other people's situations ... I don't know if it is the Green Ribbon Campaign or the simultaneous maturing of the community, but I do sense that the general tone of the community has been a little more respectful and responsible over the last year than in the year that preceded it."
That's not to say that harassment has vanished.
"Generally speaking, harassment is common through e-mail, IRC [chat] and on the Quake servers," says "Aurora," a Quake player and the director of gamegirlz.com. "For me it is rare not to have this kind of contact on a daily basis."
"[But] I think [the Green Ribbon Campaign] has served the purpose of making others aware of how common online harassment is, and how it really makes the girls involved in Quake online feel when they are on the receiving end of it," says Aurora. "Has it actually made a difference? Well ... I don't see as many Quake pages [with] editorials about 'girls whining about harassment' since it was launched ... I think a large number of males in the community either didn't want to believe it happened to the extent it did, or that it happened at all, and the GRC helped to make people look at it as a real issue and take it seriously... as it should be."
"Ever since the campaign debuted, there has been a decrease of social attacks on the Internet," says Linh Ly, aka "shorty," the webmaster for the Quake site Gibby Lube. "Most rants nowadays show no intention of attacking any personalities. It used to be like, 'id Software [makers of Quake] sucks for not putting this in the game.' Now I see more of, 'I have all respect for id Software, but the game would have been better if they did this.' I never really thought about female Quake players when I first started playing Quake, but today they are one of the most respected bunches in the Quake community."
Of course, no community would be complete if it didn't include dissenters. "Mona," a member of the Crackwhores Quake clan, believes the whole Green Ribbon Campaign is "entirely ridiculous ... totally hypocritical."
"The campaign is all but dead and forgotten," says Mona, "and didn't accomplish anything other than to let some people say, 'I'm holier than thou even though I can't really prove it.'"
"[No one] bothered to question the wisdom of a young girl posting gratuitous semi-nude pictures of herself on the Web," says Mona. "My take on it is this: HellKitten lacked any common sense whatsoever. She posted a lot of pics of herself in various modeling poses on a site catering to young boys. I'm not sure what she expected to happen. The obvious did happen: 'fan mail' from irresponsible boys. Why this was so hurtful to her, I have no idea."
Mona isn't the only Quake aficionado who refuses to buy into Green Ribbon propaganda. Shortly after the beginning of the campaign, Isaac "insane" Dawson posted some commentary on his own Web page, Tilted View.
"Since when was the Quake community anywhere near politically correct?!?" wrote Dawson. "Frankly, I'm sorry HellKitten had a rough time, and the idiots that caused it were just that. On the other hand, we PLAY QUAKE! Hello?? The game where you run around over the 'net' gibbing people! Heads and body parts with blood trails go flying and everyone says 'w00! coooool.' This is NOT a 'can't we all just get along' type of game people! This is in your face, heart pounding, blood letting, get medieval on their ass type of game ... All the sissy crap the past few days is pissing me off."
But Mona and Dawson's comments notwithstanding, most Quake players are eager to draw the line between hurtful violence and Quake violence, to distinguish between what is play and what is real.
"Despite the fact that Quake players generally hop out on servers and kill each other, on the servers it's a game," says Aurora. "I think the GRC kind of says, 'Gee, because I play a violent game online, that doesn't mean I deserve to be harassed by other people who happen to enjoy online gaming as well.'"
"I believe that this game allows many people to release their stress and daily troubles by killing pixels," says Cole Barnson, webmaster for The Trio of Pain Level Developer Group. "I think that this is a great alternative -- to go online and beat the crap out of your best buddy that betrayed you that day, either by modem or Internet, rather than going over to his house and blowing his head off with a shotgun, and ruining yours and his life. Sometimes people just get to the boiling point, and sometimes, we want to do things like 'remove' the problem. Rather than going and physically killing someone, you're just killing a pixel or two. It's a great way of releasing stress."
Maybe the ribbon campaign has helped Quake players learn the difference between pixel gore and real pain. Then again, in the virtual world, drawing any kind of line can be tricky. The whole online game universe is -- as Crackwhore Clan's Mona describes the protest campaign -- "somewhat illusory."
"Hell," says Mona, "HellKitten could be a 45-year-old man for all anyone knows."