The attack came out of no where. I had just slipped out of the Thieves’ Guild intent upon securing the Gem of Flawlessness, when I tripped right into a caltrop. I was trapped, and the assassin hacked away at me without remorse. I struggled to fight back, wielding a sword and double-wielding a dagger, but he was bigger, stronger, more skilled. I died, screaming. I had been pk’d.

It was 1995 and I was 19, playing an ascii-based online MUD called Styx. Yes, very old school.  And, although I’d certainly died from encounters with monsters, it was the very first time I had ever been pk’d or player killed, a term which refers to one player killing another player.

I was equal parts furious and crushed. Even though I played a game which allowed pk’ing, how dare a complete stranger ambush, trap, and kill me?

Fast forward 10 years, and we find the now infamous story of an online gamer actually killing a friend over a virtual sword. Three years later, in 2008, a woman is arrested for virtually “killing” her online husband. Ridiculous and pointless events. Lives destroyed for absolutely no reason. I shake my head. But a part of me remembers the pk’ing incident, and for a moment I can empathize with the fierce “real-life” passions that rage in response to virtual life happenings.

These are all examples of cross-cultural clashes. Most of us have figured out how to negotiate the cultural mores within online communities, but there are few of us who have actively contemplated their existence. In fact, we might be surprised to think of the virtual world as a third space or even as a different culture. However, if we do view the virtual world “as a foreign culture we must interact with” (Zhao 2009), then the set of skills required for successful habitation is a valid topic for discussion.

Typically, when our virtual lives overlap our physical world selves, we know what to do. We know how to act, how to behave, how to adapt. We know, intuitively or not, that the virtual world and our physical world are not the same, do not operate by the same rules, or even utilize the same language. We have, somehow, cognizant or not, become fluent with the ethics of the digital life.

But have our students? Sometimes I think our knee-jerk reaction to such a question is: of course they have, they’re digital natives, after all. But a glance at the comment section of YouTube or any online newspaper, for that matter, or posts left on a forum will convince us otherwise. Most have certainly mastered Twitter and Facebook and uploading their own YouTube videos, but have they mastered the rules of conduct for this distinctive culture?

Ethics are notoriously slippery creatures, difficult to nail down, harder to define. And yet, we operate under them, recognize them when they’re being abused, miss them when they’re absent. What are we doing as educators to ensure that our students are introduced to and educated in the ethics of the digital life?

As we stand at the precipice of a digital tomorrow, we find an educational world torn: some school districts are gingerly sticking one toe into the digital water, ensuring only that students have keyboarding classes, while others are jumping in headfirst, placing iPads in the hands of students directly. This disparity muddies the water, prompts us to look, instead, toward tech adoption as the answer to our current challenges. Our instinct is to direct our conversations toward cool projects — wikis, and VoiceThreads, and digital stories, and prezis — instead of opening a dialogue concerning behaviors and attitudes and actions in the virtual world. Instead of asking whether or not our students have access to the latest software innovation, we should be asking: how are we preparing our students for what they’ll encounter online? How do we teach them what is acceptable? What is not?

My questions, then, are to you: are there ethics to be learned in the virtual world? If so, are there specific ones that we should teach to our students? Are there any that you currently attempt to instill in your students (or own children)? Which ethics should be taught, how do you instruct, and do how you assess?

Conversely, do you feel it’s not an educator’s job to instill ethics of any sort, digital or not?

Do share — I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts!

Photo Credit: WadsonGems & webaxes