Main Page | October 2003

Pay (Not) to Play

Question Presented: Is the trade in virtual items evidence of a game design flaw?

If we understand MMORPGs to be simply a form of entertainment, then we should expect value in MMORPGs to exist primarily in the experience of playing. We don't pay others to complete crossword puzzles for us or play Monopoly for us merely so that we can "own" Boardwalk and Park Place. If the experience of playing MMORPGs is the value that subscribers pay for, it would seem that MMORPG players who pay for virtual goods are essentially robbing themselves by paying extra cash to others in order to avoid the enjoyment of the game.

In theory, we play games because we enjoy them. So if the value of the game is in the experience, why would anyone ever pay anyone else to play a game for them? The common theory of the market for game assets (described cogently by the Julianator here) is that paying for virtual property is equivalent to paying for manufactured goods in real life. An individual with money pays another who has more time or greater ability. E.g., I don't want to whack at rats and snakes in Norrath for three hours to reach level 10, so I pay someone time-rich to do that for me. But while paying for chores makes sense in the case of mowing lawns, baking bread, and even coding games (all these have to be done and can be tedious), does this dynamic make sense in the case of playing games? In theory, shouldn't entertainment environments, where all adversity is arbitrarily imposed, have different dynamics?

One might hypothesize that the trade in virtual assets amounts to a game design flaw. If I want to play as level 10 just in order to see what level 10 is like, and I find playing as level 1 a chore, then the game designer's choice of making levels 1-10 all about the tedium of killing rats and snakes was (probably) a bad design choice. Indeed, the fact that most single-player games are released with "cheat" modes suggests that game designers are well aware that skipping the chore factor in games can make a game more enjoyable. This is consistent with the common gripe of game reviewers that certain games do not allow frequent "save" intervals, requiring repetitive drudgery as a punishment for mistakes. But I'm unaware of any MMORPG that has cheat modes -- at least not ones that are sanctioned by the company. (I'd welcome corrections.) The reasons for that seem obvious.

While I don't think analogizing the sale of virtual property to the sale of a cheat code presents a complete picture of what is occurring with the sale of virtual goods (it probably doesn't explain what is happening in There, for instance), I do think it takes us part of the way.

For further reading see 1) comments on this Game Girl Advance story, 2) the Ghost Mode thread on MUD-Dev (discussing the idea of the "content totem pole"), and 3) this by The Ludologist.

[Tasteful animated GIF courtesy of the Animation Factory.]

Comments (26)

Virtual Theft and Earth Law

Interesting discussion going on over at Many2Many about a BBC article on theft in virtual worlds.

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Vulnerability II

Over in Shadowbane, worlds are being closed. The official reason seems to be the fact that populations are too low, but the story becomes a bit more mysterious if you read the forums. Players seem convinced that someone figured out how to manufacture massive amonts of gold for themselves. That practice, known as 'duping,' is part of the meta-game to some players. At one level, these worlds are designed to allow you to easily manufacture gold pieces - you simply stand your character next to the right monster and kill it over and over. Each time it drops a few coins. Over time, you can get a mountain of coins. Dupes accelerate this process somehow - perhaps a certain monster, cornered in a certain way, appears and dies with incredible rapidity. Or there is some FedEx exploit, of the kind that we first saw in Habitat and recently reappeared in Ultima; your character can buy widgets for 1 gold piece here and sell it for two gold pieces there, in unlimited quantities, enabling a person with a few computers and an artful piece of code to become a billionaire in a few weeks.

Shadowbane players believe that much of the gold in their worlds is duped rather than earned. The specific server-closure policy seems to back that up. Imagine if the gubmit said you were going to be kicked out of your town. What would be your expectation regarding compensation? Surely you would expect not to be worse off materially. Things you couldn't take with you - your house (SB allows real estate ownership) - you would expect compensation for. When Camelot merged two servers recently, the character could move with all items and equipment. Yet those being booted from SB's Scorn and Treachery servers are leaving with nothing but the clothes on their back: no bank items, no coins, no property.

At the same time, SB is opening a new server, with a new map. SB plans to introduce more of these. Players fear that, step by step, each old server will be wiped and the new servers will eventually become the only servers.

Patching together the comments of disgruntled players and the sequence of events, this feels like a fairly sophisticated attempt to clean the bad gold out of the economy. Come up with a new server with a new map (and presumably a dupe fix); wipe old servers whose economy had been affected by the dupe; gradually move the player base to the new, clean worlds. Of course it only works if you completely disenfranchise everyone along the way.

Desperate measures, it seems. I would have advised a very heavy progressive tax. Anyone who gets lots of gold for any reason - duping, macros, eBay, whatever - gets to contribute 90 percent of it to the public coffers. If implemented before launch, it is completely fair. And it lessens the likelihood that uncompensated seizure will become a matter of state policy...

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Death and Taxes

The comments by DivineShadow on a previous posting got me thinking about the relationship between taxation and virtual worlds. There are some interesting aspects to virtual world taxation that, so far as I know, haven't been addressed much in the nascent literature. So let me spitball for a bit, and Ted (and Julian and Greg and everyone else) can correct my mistakes.

First, it's interesting to note how taxation can be used to mediate server resources. In the goode olde days of lambda and others, resource allocation was performed by the VW equivalent of the central committee of the politburo, aka the Architecture Review Board. As Julian explained in MTL and elsewhere, disk quota was centrally capped, just like all elements of capital and production under Stalinist rule. Requests for deviations from the default allocation had to be justified, and, of course, quota decisions that destroyed, say, beautiful gardens based on the I'Ching were viewed as arbitrary, unfair and destructive. Though various alternatives were mooted--my favorite was Julian's quota lottery or "Quottery"--none of them have the majestic indifference of the market. This, of course, is the central lesson of capitalist economics, and we now are seeing new elements of this emerge in VWs.

I see now that Second Life is using market economics directly to mediate server resources. In 2L if you use resources in building content then those resources get taxed. Of course this leads to the "no taxation without representation" trope, mentioned elsewhere, but it does have the great benefit of working like consumption taxes IRL: those who consume server resources have to pay for it. This is unlike the monthly fee of UO or EQ or any number of games which are much more like the (socially regressive?) flat tax regimes, much favored by the rich. In EQ, no matter how many hours you are online, no matter how many server resources you use, you still pay the same amount. Which, of course, tends to encourage over-use, but this has (some? limited?) social benefit in VWs since it encourages community.

The problem with taxation, at least for developers, is that they can make the case that resource taxing is fair--the user pays depending on the amount she uses. The developers can even tie the tax directly to one's real life money as Entropia tried to do, which also has some benefits. But they're still left with the fact that, well, it's a tax. You can call it a fee, a levy, an impost, or a contribution. People still know that it's a tax. You'd be better off calling it the "Pit of Death." People would prefer that to a tax.

Another way of imposing a tax is much sneakier, and therefore much more fun. You create a market for goods and tax the transactions surreptiously. This is also socially progressive (?), since it taxes at the point of consumption. But it's much better for the developers because it can be spun as a commission (à la eBay). And this is especially good if the developer can make the case that they're simply internalising the market that otherwise would go elsewhere. Then the tax appears to be just a "cost" of running an efficient market, and not a tax. And hell, you can even claim that it's the cost of reducing fraud that would occur in those "unsanctioned" markets. It's the same outcome in terms of server resources and potential revenues as a tax, except you don't get people throwing virtual tea into the virtual bay, and dressing up like Paul Revere.

The sad thing about this problem is that taxes also work to solve (in part) one of the great problems of VWs, that of hyperinflation caused by addition of resources. It's now well established that developers need a resource drain, however spurious, to pull some of the capital out of the world. Otherwise everybody ends up as unhappy as the good burgers of the Weimar Republic who wheeled barrowfuls of marks to the bakers to buy a loaf of bread. The need for resource drains means that we end up with hair dye, or some other equally vapid excuse for retiring capital. But if developers tax the system, then a chunk of resources are pulled out of circulation automatically and, praise be to the gods, deposited in the developer's pocket.

This is helpful, and interesting, and of course completely unacceptable to most players.

I don't pretend to have a lesson here. As usual, this is more in the nature of observations for comment. I do have a number of other thoughts about Julian's desire to be taxed IN REAL LIFE for his transactions in UO. But that will have to wait for another day...

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Hacking Vulnerabilities in Largescale Social Software

This just in from the train wreck dept: one hacker can bring a game to its knees for a long time. In this case, it's the European servers of Dark Age of Camelot. The referenced article indicates that the hack manifested itself when a few god-level commands showed up at a couple of places a couple of times. In other words, evidence appeared that the server was not secure. So what do you do? Close the server. In fact, close all servers. Shut down the entire world until you can find the hole and patch it. Even if it takes days or weeks.

The problem is, you're shutting off a service to thousands of people, and, in some cases, you're turning out the lights on some people's entire social system. The article catalogs the general dissatisfaction that arose.

Perhaps the incidence of a hack is just as high as with any system. The difference is that you have absolutely zero wiggle room and a very steep loss function. One little hack, and the entire world dies for a week, two weeks, three... nasty stuff.

Comments (3) - History of MMORPGs

A nifty social history of virtual gaming worlds has begun over Seven more instalments to follow.

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Playing Politics


Like many others, I've been working through a copy of Dungeons and Dreamers. Like Dr. Mortensen, I've got some criticisms, but I'm generally enjoying it. This is probably due to the fact that I am interested in whether Richard Garriott had a good time in high school. (Turns out, unlike me, he did, but like me, he was selling his computer games in ziploc bags.)

One interesting chapter in the book provides vignettes of mod makers. For intellectual property law aficionados, game mods make for fun IP market dynamics. Mods like Counter-Strike (based on Half-Life) are just one example of how open source software promotes popular derivative creativity. (For more examples, see Coase's Penguin by Yochai Benkler.)

Borland and King talk a bit in the chapter about Velvet-Strike. (The section seems to grow from one of King's Wired articles, which you can read here -- good stuff). Counter-Strike, as you may know, is a team FPS mod of Half-Life where terrorists fight with counter-terrorists. Velvet-Strike mods the mod by allowing players to promote virtual peace by placing spray-painted protests on game walls. There are also "intervention recipies" for virtual peace-making posted on the website. So VS is kind of like a land reform mod for Monopoly. Anne-Marie Schleiner, the creator, explains the impetus behind the project here.

The VS website has a whole section devoted to flames the team has received. The flames (which are in many ways standard flames) are worth reading just for the purpose of seeing how certain typo-prone Counter-Strike players see themselves, understand the message of the game, and interpret the Velvet-Strike mod as a form of political software speech that they don't like. Some of the flames are just standard pro-war, anti-feminist jabber. Some are internally contradictory "lighten up" flames. This one in particular I found interesting, in light of some recent posts here.

Dear Anne Marie,

I know real revolutionaries and your video game is a joke. No offence, but civil war and freedom fighting is not some little game in your precious little suburban world. [etc.]

Virtual peaceniks can get flak from all quarters, it seems.

Update: Relatedly, Jill is working on (maybe she finished) a thesis section on political games and Gonzalo F. just made one and, btw, wrote a master's thesis on the subject.

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Social Impact Games

Marc Prensky, CEO of Games2Train and author of Digital Game-Based Learning, has done us all a service by starting Social Impact Games, a catalogue of non-entertainment games. Huzzah!

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A Picture Worth Too Many Words

Since ancient times, humanity has looked to charts to help make sense of the world around it. The seafarer's navigational chart, to take one iconic example, provides a clear, objective picture of what lies beneath and beyond the inscrutable surface of the waters. The astrologer's astral chart, to take another, provides an ambiguous, open-ended image of what lies beneath the inscrutable surface of the soul and its fate.

Today I started publishing economic charts on my weblog, which is devoted to understanding (and ultimately 0wNz0ring) the eBay market for virtual items from Ultima Online, and I still haven't decided whether they function more like the navigational or the astral variety. Consider my chart of weekly market sales totals, which goes back to mid June:

Note the gentle but steady decline. What does it mean? Is this the smoking gun confirming Dan's hypothesis that Star Wars: Galaxies -- which launched right at the start of this downward slope -- is eating UO's lunch? (Decline or no decline, SWG's sales line will soon cross UO's; at $114,000-per-fortnight, it's just 12% shy of UO and gaining fast.) Or is it just a picture of what the venerable UO trader Markee Dragon assures me happens every year like clockwork: the summer slump?

And even if the line keeps drooping through the fall, how exactly, short of massive ethnographic inquiry, could we be sure that the droop reflects an exodus to SWG and not the terminal cooldown of a six-year-old game or the deflation endemic to MMORPG economies or, for that matter, a cultural revolution leading the UO player base to reject the cash markets once and for all?

Michael Froomkin and others are bold indeed to hope virtual worlds might tell us important things about the real world. I'll be happy if I can figure out what these deeply complex, overdetermined places are trying to tell us about themselves.

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Net Chat and Virtual Worlds

From the Cognitive-Dissonance Dept:

On the same day that China announces that it has arrested some poor bugger for seditious views expressed in a chatroom, Microsoft announces that it is shuttering its chatroom services worldwide because chatrooms have become "a haven for peddlers of junk e-mail and sex predators." (Let's leave aside for the moment the obvious objections that (1) the "chatroom sex predator" is not nearly as common as commercial media would make us believe, and (2) that killing the chatrooms is intended to drive users to the MSN instant messaging service and that the decision was, according to the MS spokesmodel, taken as part of a "strategic investment to build up MSN Messenger.")

The question then is whether the response by Microsoft holds any lessons for developers of virtual worlds. I can't say I've ever heard of pedophilic approaches made through gaming worlds like EQ or UO, even though you'd think that its demographic of young male players would make it an obvious target. Perhaps the type of gaming there just makes the environment unsusceptible to this sort of activity.

More interesting is to speculate what will happen with There and Second Life. Unlike gaming worlds these places are set up for social communication: think AOL with avatars. Surely the developers here are going to have a serious monitoring issue once they come out of beta. Of course, like MSN Messenger (and unlike free chatrooms), the owners of these worlds have users' credit card details, and can give this information to law enforcement. It will mean that they can easily identify abusive or dangerous users after the event. But this isn't going to insulate them from private lawsuits claiming that they should have monitored the activity to stop the event from happening in the first place.

Oh, and having been forced into monitoring all activity for fear of being sued, developers will then be sued for infringing on the privacy of all those non-abusive users. Scylla, I'd like to introduce you to Charybdis.

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The volume of trade in synthetic worlds

I've been tracking eBay category 1654 (previously referenced), the home of most but not all auctions relating to Internet Games, since July of this year. Here we have auctions for the currencies, items, and accounts from a growing number of worlds; this is the trade in magic wands which, if expanded indefinitely, would become the Babylonion Lottery. I've been watching this and similar categories for awhile, but we have solid data now because Dibbell pointed me to HammerTap's Deep Analysis, a little spider that crawls across eBayspace and counts what it sees. The latest figures appeared on Proskenion today.

Now that it's almost October, we have a bit of time perspective on these numbers and we can draw some conclusions. Here they are: Trading of these items is robust. In a typical month, there are about 80,000 successful sales, coming to a bit less than $1 million in total. About half the auctions posted get sold, with most going in one bid through the Buy It Now option.

Moving from stats to anecdotes, from what I have seen, the maximum sale in a given two-week period ranges from about $2,000 to $20,000. The biggest single sale was a guy who sold more than 200 copies of a macroing program for EVE Online at 100 bucks a pop (the price has dropped since). That's 8 times the rate at which I make money doing things like writing this crummy blog entry. What's the upper limit? EVE has over 30,000 users, I'm told. I'm also told that gameplay is boring until you accumulate enough cash to build a ship that can cruise and kill. Basically, you have to grab an asteroid, mine mine mine, go sell, grab an asteroid, mine mine mine, go sell, etc., for hundreds of hours. UNLESS you can get your hands on a certain program that macros all of these actions, which you can do for, at this point, only 25 bucks a pop.

The bottom line, once again, is that there is a market here. A real one. Since July 1, the market for magic wands has seen more than $3.5 million in transactions. It's a gross underestimate - EverQuest auctions appear not here but there. The Gang of Four (Lineage, Legend of Mir, Ragnarok, FFXI) don't show up in the eBay I'm able to search here under the smogberry trees. Take out these five, and the market is left to Ultima, Camelot, Sims, Star Wars, and Other. Still, there's $3.5 million trading hands. That's a lot of wands.

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Sabotaging our Humanity

The topic of this post, according to the New York Times, is an idea that is already becoming a cliché:

Is our virtual culture of violent images and hyperactive stimulation sabotaging our humanity?

Retreat to Walden, anyone? I don't know. Jason Della Rocca seems pretty human to me when he talks about this other NY Times article on the "9/11 Surivor" Unreal mod as well as popular criticism of some other simulations.

The big question here is the potential regulatory response to the above cliché. Borland and King have pointed to this which contains a quote from Des Clark of the "Australian Office of Film Literature and Classification":

We tend to be extremely strict because of our guidelines on sexualised violence or where there are rewards for sexual violence, gross nudity and other sexual activity...

In the eyes of Mr. Clark, it seems that playing out bad behavior is different than just watching it -- seem familiar? And the same article also has this quip from Bill Hastings of Tolkienesque New Zealand:

Some of the games do have video clips in them now and some of the games do have a linear narrative structure... There is a goal you have to achieve by killing people basically - for kids I don't think that's great.

So the idea is that games rewarding bad (virtual) behavior are bad enough to, e.g., keep out of the hands of kids. (Potential silver lining: maybe games like the Ultima Series should be government-subsidized?)

Of course, as we all know, games are speech and censorship is bad. Greg Costikyan is more eloquent about this. Curious to see, though, that some designers developing a game based on the Columbine Shootings have advanced another argument that we've criticized here:

"We're just trying to make a statement," Mr. Leonard said. "We're trying to say, `It's just a game.' "

Update: Jason Della Rocca post re books

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LawMeme - On the Second Life Tax Revolt

Ordinarily I would post an update where new info emerges on a previously discussed topic, but the relevant posting has dropped off the "recent list," so it might be overlooked...

James Grimmelman over on LawMeme has picked up on the Second Life revolution and posted a long entry about the emergence of revolutions/democracy/etc in these worlds.

Interesting stuff. He even says I have good instincts. For this reason (among others) his posting *must* be read.

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Dislogue: On the "Moral Repugnancy" of External Markets for Virtual Goods

From the BlogRolling Dept.

Dislogue--"Books, Culture, Fishing, and Other Games"--has a very thoughtful posting about the ethics of virtual asset trading entitled On the "Moral Repugnancy" of External Markets for Virtual Goods. This was brought about by Julian's appearance on NPR and the almost universal distaste of the callers-in for his method of making cash. (He should have stayed the honest brothel-keeper that we all knew and loved)

I could seek to summarise the Dislogue posting, but this would end up a little like the guy who speed-read "War and Peace" in 10 minutes and, when asked what it was about, suggested that Russia was involved somehow.

Since you all can read, I'll just suggest that the following quote is the endpoint, but the journey to this point is very interesting:

"I've come around to thinking that online massively multi-player games should encourage out-of-game trading. "

Head on over.

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Gosh darn Euro-peens

Who really gets this area, Americans or Europeans or Asians?

In the States, I've been at conferences about games and stuff where everyone has a laptop linked by 802.11 to the world and each other, the whole thing being live-blogged, comments flowing around, everyone clicking and clicking and clicking. Nobody's playing avatar games though.

I just got back from Manchester. There wasn't any wireless, but there was lots of reference to buzzing academic activity - game-design programs all over the place, government-sponsored game research from places like Ireland, the Game Research Center at ITU Copenhagen (/em drool), the Ludologists, etc.

I've never been to an academic game conference in Asia, don't even know if they have them. I've never met, or even heard about, a MMORPG researcher who has played Lineage. (Grad students: will someone PLEASE get a Fulbright to Korea on this?) But they have subscriber numbers that dwarf those in US/Europe.

So, Asia has the code and the users, with the US a distant second. Europe has the government interest and the research centers, with the US again a distant second. What does America have? Highspeed internet access in the hotel, so you can ditch the last conference session and go do some more blogging...

I'm making worthless generalizations of course. What's the reality?

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Grep and you shall grok...

Hobbit and Wookie hater Gonzalo Frasca wrote an interesting review of The Sims a few years back. Frasca is a ludologist (don't try looking up that word yet) as you'll plainly see in his Simulation vs. Representation article, which, in passing, has a brief "who's who" list of other ludology names to google.

One of the most interesting things in the article is Frascas' reticence over the extensibility of parodic forms into game spaces. Game spaces are simulative as well as representative. Therefore, when Frascas criticizes the consumerist ideology he sees within the Sims (avatar aquisition = avatar happiness), he finds himself needing to defend against the argument that Wright's team intended the game as a parody of contemporary culture. Frascas is dubious as to whether parody is a form that works in games:

While traditional representation just mimics characteristics of a referent, simulation also models its behaviors. A movie that makes fun of consumerism just depicts events that are watched by its audience, but a simulation makes the players perform those actions and I think this is not quite the same.

I think that's right, as far as it goes. But if true, doesn't this insight have some significant implications?

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Play Money

While Ted is in the Old Dart and Julian is busy making money, I thought I'd venture an economic question. I was chatting with Julian the other day and he mentioned that business seemed to have taken a downturn of late in the UO world. Though his HammerTap figures look upbeat, there seems to be a migration over to the new kid on the block, Star Wars Galaxies.

A quick look at cat 1654 shows that SWG stuff is showing up there, though Ted's new empirical research project has meant that we don't have any hard data yet. Any anecdotal responses from those at the sharp end of these transactions? Is the smart play money heading over to Tattoine, and if so, is this because there is more money to be made on the new frontier?

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The Author as Autarch

MarloweIn their very interesting draft paper that Dan mentioned, Professors Bradley and Froomkin suggest that virtual worlds might be testbeds for legal rules. However, with regard to experimenting with intellectual property, they aren't so sure that virtual worlds are a good fit. They say:

Like zoning, intellectual property involves complex technical issues in the real world that a game could not test.

This may be true, but a bigger problem with using virtual worlds as testbeds for experimental intellectual property rules is that virtual worlds are intellectual property. Putting aside trademarks, patents, and other relevant forms of intellectual property, software is protected by copyright. The copyright is not just limited to a game's source code and object code, but also extends (to an unclear extent) to other salient aspects of the program.

With regard to intellectual property rights in avatars and MMORPGs, Ren Reynolds, Molly Stephens, and Dan Miller have all looked at the issue. And Joseph Beard has a funny and well-written piece that isn't directly on point, but is worth reading to understand the greater context of virtual property rights. I'm not going to foray into the legal issues here in a blog post -- I'll just say that IP issues in virtual worlds are very complicated and, as a practical matter, much depends on the language of click-wrap licenses and the degree to which those licenses might be enforced.

What I did want to say is that we should bear in mind how intellectual property issues and governance issues in game spaces overlap. T.L. Taylor has a very interesting article re ownership in Everquest, that demonstrates how governance and IP ownership issues can be intertwined. As Taylor and others have noted, it can be argued that the participants in MMORPGs are like actors who give life to the world. But even if that is true, huge investments of creativity (as well as money) are made by the designers (and corporations) who set the MMORPG stages for the actors, and then market, distribute, maintain and improve them.

Dan and I pointed out in our article that analogizing virtual worlds to real life legal regimes is problematic because we don't usually need to credit our elected officials with the authorship of our worlds, whereas we usually accept the fact that authors and artists "rule" absolutely the worlds they create. (Admittedly, some fan feedback websites to the contrary.) Therefore, seeing games as akin to governments, while it may be appealing at first glance (especially to players) is hard to reconcile with the rights of authors. Pavel Curtis suggested that in virtual worlds, dictatorship is inevitable. It will be interesting to see, therefore, to what degree democracy, authorship, and intellectual property can reach a market equililbrium as these environments continue to develop.

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Virtual Worlds, Real Rules

Michael Froomkin,a longtime cyberlawyer, and his wife, Caroline Bradley, have released Virtual Worlds, Real Rules. Here they argue that we could use VWs to simulate legal systems IRL without having the downsides of experimenting with actual legal systems. They suggest that property, tax, even torts, might be relevant areas to apply the insights of VWs.

Interesting idea. I wonder whether it will be possible to get past the "hey, it's just a game" factor (by which I mean that people don't take it as seriously online as they would IRL) or the fact that the systems tend not to allow for much experimentation coz they're driven by the needs of the developers, not the populace. Be *very* interesting to see how this might develop.

Comments (13)

Golems and Community

Dr. Castronova's first post was about how better AI can create more effective virtual communities. Everyone should agree that good AI certainly creates more enjoyable games (see Barney in Half-Life). This is probably a correlative of the fact that bad AI ruins some games. But query: does smart AI create better communities?
Of course, real-life bots are the subject of a vast amount of pop literature. Asimov is a good place to start, but golems (not gollums) have an older pedigree. Also pre-dating I, Robot is the play R.U.R., a.k.a. Rossum's Universal Robots which popularized the term "robot." More recently, you can choose your poison, but 2001, Blade Runner, AI (riffing on Pinnochio), even The Terminator flicks, all revisit Capek's questions -- if we create things that seem like us, how will they fit into our society? The recurring theme in all of the above (and look at Asimov's First Law) is a deep Oedipal fear that they won't. This is interesting stuff, but as a practical matter, I'm not too worried about replicants taking over the world or the ethics of deleting subroutines, even ones that imitate Haley Osmond.

So back to the question: do smarter bots make for better virtual communities? Take for example, the interesting decision in The Sims Online that there wouldn't be any bots. (Given the repetitive OMG! LOL! statements, I'd almost like to be informed otherwise.) In some ways, I think this was a good idea. While I am somewhat embarrassed to admit that I kind of like Clippy, I'm more embarrassed by my time-to-time Julia experiences, when the avatar you're dealing with turns out to be a cousin to ELIZA. Or even reverse-Julias, when you mistake an avatar for a bot. (Yes, I've had these too.)

So now that it is clear that we're approaching the point where the Turing Test can be passed (in virtual environments) I'm curious to see what societal role we'll allocate to bots in social game-spaces. Will MMORPGs be filled with Clippy sidekicks and virtual peanut galleries, or will subscribers feel uneasy with receiving simulated praise? Will stronger bonds be formed if players are banding together to fight a mob as smart as Deep Blue? Will the Julia problem be "fixed" with clear indicia or will line-blurring be the norm?

Virtual world bots and mobs may not raise all the questions Capek anticipated with his play about future robot revolutionaries, but they do make for an interesting prequel.

Update 10/03: Dave's article (mentioned by Ted) and Raph's slides are both good for further reading.

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Emergence of Social Structures

A comment on one of the other posts sparked a question I've had for a while. To what extent are we seeing the emergence of social structures in online worlds that are not created by the developers? The exemplar of this would be the various political/juridical mechanisms that the denizens of LambdaMOO generated, but of course this was a world where the creation of these structures was mostly the point, and where there was much less (money) at stake for Pavel Curtis and those whom we think of these days as the developers.

I hear of some things happening in A Tale In The Desert, and I wondered whether we were witnessing it in primarily social worlds like There or Second Life, or being incorporated into primarily-gaming worlds.

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Avatars Become Storefronts

Dark Age of Camelot recently released Foundations, a free expansion that allows users to build and own houses. The expansion also allows users to set up consignment merchants, little sub-avatars whose only purpose is to stand by your house and sell objects for you. A buyer interacts with a user-owned consignment merchant the same way she interacts with an NPC merchant: walk up, right-click, browse, buy.

In the early days of avatar worlds, there were two modes of user to user marketing, one based on this user-merchant-avatar concept, and the other being barter: I stand in the marketplace and shout the availability of my wares, and then deal directly with any buyers I attract. Arguably, the barter system is more in character for many of these worlds, because of their medieval atmosphere. However, the user merchant avatar technology is clearly less cumbersome. eBay-style auctioning systems are even more friendly to market-making.

Transactions cost theorists would predict that ease of use would dominate cultural consistency in the long run, and experience now seems to be bearing them out. Ultima, I believe, has always had user merchants; Anarchy Online, a sci-fi world without the need for medieval flavor, has had a global auction system from the start; EverQuest moved from barter to user merchants with the Luclin expansion in 2002; the markets of Star Wars Galaxies are modeled after eBay; and now Camelot has its consignment merchants.

The implications of this shift are interesting, because they suggest that the forces of economic development - bugbear to a motley assortment of resistance movements, from Lenin to Hitler to the Wandervogel of Tora Bora - are indeed tectonic, even for avatars: Slow-moving, irresistable, and eventually decisive.

While market forces can't be fought, perhaps they can be integrated in a way that coheres with the atmosphere of the world. I hope so. I like the Tolkien worlds and I would hate to see them turn into window-dressing for an auction game.

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New Worlds / Old Worlds

Bouncing off Dr. Castronova's post about Cro-Magnon, I want to mention that we had some interesting discussions before naming this weblog. Naming a thing is always a way of summing it up -- so how, exactly, best to sum up... synthetic worlds? MMORPGS? virtual worlds? Are they "new worlds"? "World" has a range of meanings. While the electricity, silicon, community, and imagination that make up MMORPGs are just re-combined stuff that Cro-Magnon had handy, the phenomenon we're seeing does seem significantly new. Calling these communities "games" is an understatement, I think -- but, on the other hand, we probably don't want to delve too deep into the mythology of frontiers. Especially on the Internet, frontier claims have always reminded me a bit like those consumer labels proclaiming "NEW!" in big bright letters...

And as Ted points out, good analogies to the past abound. And analogies to the present as well -- e.g., doesn't the image of Cro-Magnon gazing on flickering illusions in the darkened interior of Chauvet bring to mind that other darkened dreamspace of the twentieth century, fabricated by the illusionists at the westernmost point of the Western World?

Whatever we call these new/old worlds, it seems we are constantly traveling on a Silk Road There and Back Again, and looking for a way to explain to ourselves and others where we have been.

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The Virtual World of Cro-Magnon

Granted that virtual worlds are increasingly immersive environments, what happens when we extrapolate backwards? According to (the premier online art exhibitor), we eventually get to Lascaux. Emerging from the caves, Joseph Campbell wrote: "Without exception these magical spots occur far from the natural entrances of the grottos, deep within the dark, wandering chill corridors and vast chambers, so that before reaching them one has to experience the full force of the mystery of the cave itself. Their absolute, cosmic dark, their silence, their unmeasured inner reaches and their timeless remoteness... can be felt even today, when the light of the guide's light goes out."

People ask me whether we can honestly expect large numbers of people to be immersing themselves in virtual worlds 10, 20, or 50 years from now. Consider: if the immersion impulse was truly behind the emergence of visual art itself, some 15,000 years ago, it must lie very, very deep in the mind.

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The Revolution Will Be Televised

Over at Second Life their "embedded journalist" Wagner James Au has been reporting on a "Tax Revolt" against a system which the agitators see as "unjustly penalizing ambitious builders,who contribute so much value to the world." Those with long memories or ready access to Julian's "My Tiny Life" will recognize shades of Lambdamoo's quota system and the aggravation of working within the constraints of the ARB's decision-making system.

Au's latest report notes that the revolt has concluded,

"cumulating in a series of thematic events, early in September, from debates on taxation to musket building to Burr-versus-Hamilton-style dueling -- all announced on an era-appropriate board. Bluecoat and Redcoat costumes were fashioned for the Revolutionaries and the Linden loyalists, while Nephilaine Protagonist even designed an Enlightenment-era scribe's costume for me, so I could cover the story in proper attire."

Now I'm as susceptible as the next man to the rare beauty that is the Society for Creative Anachronism (unless the next man happens to be this guy). But I'm trying to process the Second Lifers' response with the news about demonstrations against the WTO in Cancun and Lee Kyung-Hae's suicide to make his point clear.

Oh, yeah, Second Life is "just a game." I wonder how long this line will continue to work, and how long the revolutions will continue to be peaceful and creatively anachronistic.

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So I was over at Many to Many checking out Clay Shirky's musings on the Fakester Revolution and it struck me that the Fakester issue has some interesting intersections with the questions surrounding MMORPG governance. The "Fakesters" were folks using Friendster and stating they were (or shall we say, "choosing avatars such as"?) God, the World Trade Center, War, etc. Good story about it here. As the story explains, the Friendster folks weren't too keen on the idea (seems they had some intellectual property worries), and set about deleting the Fakesters -- who decided to politicize the whole affair with the "Fakester Revolution." (I'm sketchy as to exactly what streets were barricaded and how seriously anyone took this, but the story is apparently there was some sort of "Revolution.")

Clay (wisely, imho) seems a bit unwilling to see the demise of the Fakesters as grounds for wailing and lamentation. He observes that virtual communities need some ground rules to start building. But he also seems to think this might have been a misstep, because the value of a community comes from its users. Ergo, the rules shouldn't be changed in mid-stream to delete participant-created value from the social network. Now, in the case of the Fakesters, it seems this requirement that "you" should be "you" (and please let's not think too deeply about that) was part of the Friendster Constitution. So apparently the Fakester Revolution was a genuine revolution attempting to change the ground rules of the society. And it failed (and I'm guessing some of the non-Fakester Friendsters don't mind that it failed) in part because the Friendster company, indisputably, controls the code.

Interesting enough, I think. But another angle we can take is focusing on the identity issue. Map Friendster/Fakesters onto virtual worlds, and you'll find the Fakesters get the benefit of the default rule in MMORPGs. The norm in Everquest and The Sims Online is that avatars are not expected to be identifiable as their RL controllers--you should be someone else. So if the Friendster code-holders thought that Fakesters were bad for community -- does that mean that MMORPG community is a dead letter because disposable personalities don't make for good investments?

Well, it comes down to whose community you want to join, I suppose. Obviously, the Fakester community thought they had an investment here that they've now lost -- and some of the Friendsters are content to see them go. So maybe the Fakesters will sign up for a Star Wars Galaxies account...

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Cr1m3 and (No) Puni5hm3nt?

Excuse the l33tspeak, but it's gonna be a while before I get it out of my system.

Now that we have this brand new forum (thanks be to Teddy C) on interesting social aspects of virtual worlds, I wanted to start out with a question that's been bugging me for a while. A little while ago the fabulous Julian posted a fabulous entry on his fabulous Play Money blog.

Like most of his Play Money deals, it involved him acting as the middleman in the sale of a virtual asset in UO. But this particular asset was very unusual and he quickly discovered that it had been "stolen" in-game by an avatar with high-level thieving skills. So he became a virtual fence for an asset that he knew to be stolen. He questioned the ethics of this action but concluded that, since stealing is an in-game skill, the theft took place in-world and was not properly thought-of as theft.

My question is whether this holds up IRL? Could the victim bring a criminal action against the thief or Julian? It's undeniable that the asset has a tangible value IRL, and that the asset, as the usual common law definition requires, was "appropriated with the intention permanently to deprive" the owner of it. Is the argument that "theft" is permissible in-world sufficient to insulate Julian from a fencing charge?

Maybe. But I want to be in court the day that you try explaining skill-trees to the 70 yo judge...

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AI and society

Designer Dave Rickey (whose credits include EverQuest, Dark Age of Camelot, and now Wish) notes that increasing bandwidth makes deeper AI available in large social games. Up to now, AI basically just decided whether to fight the player and then how to fight badly enough to lose, over and over. And over. Other NPC actions were scripted: "Take this bottle to my sick cousin and return for a reward." Rickey urges designers to re-think their inattention to AI. That got me excited about Wish as a game.

Perhaps the future of AI in these worlds will be a 'massively social AI' that involves the users in dynamic relationships among the NPCs. Extensive AI can create events that generate emotional investment: a spouse is seduced, a child abducted, a land ravaged. It could also create the possibility of reward and resolution, by yielding to the user in the right way, at the right times. And a massively social AI could create a level of collective immersion that validates these emotions and makes them real. By making a large number of people feel that these events are meaningful, the AI can make its emotional gifts that much more credible: As a user, I am happy not only because this robot says I did well, but also because other players - real humans - attest that what I did was hard and also valuable. Ultimately, a social AI could create a home-like atmosphere: a group of people who know very much about me, who know what a hero I am, who call on me for help, and who cheer when I return.

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