Dan and I have posted a new paper on SSRN, Amateur-to-Amateur, which is about how copyright theory is challenged (or should be challenged) by disintermediated content production, selection, distribution, and modification practices. While we don't mention virtual worlds at all, I think there are obvious implications in the paper for the way we think about virtual worlds. As TL has stated:
With ever broadening definitions of intellectual property rights the status of cultural and symbolic artifacts as products of collaborative efforts becomes increasingly problematized. In the case of virtual environments – such as massive multiplayer online role-play games – where users develop identities, bodies (avatars) and communities the stakes are quite high.
Obviously, amateur-to-amateur ("A2A") creative practices are relevant in virtual worlds. In Second Life and in LambdaMOO, much of those worlds have been about what individual users have done with a progbit. But I'm not content to cabin player contributions to coding -- players "author" VWs in other ways. Players make MMORPG environments tick because 1) they roleplay (at least sometimes), 2) they create and participate in guilds, fansites and other in-game and out-of-game social networks, 3) they provide agonistic engagement (esp. in P2P worlds), and 4) most importantly -- they're simply present to hear, see, trade, and be included or excluded. The presence of others affects the play experience in many ways. Even virtual absence can be a factor: Take Mia Consalvo's recent example of being irked by fishing bots in FFXI -- those bots were offensive primarly, I think, not merely because someone was possibly cheating and possibly borking the economy, but also because playing with player-AFK-bots feels like an insult to the social nature of the game.
So how does the player contribution to authorship balance with the designer contribution? It doesn't detract from the importance of the designer or suggest that designers should just sit back and shoot for emergence. By analogy, in our paper on copyright, Dan and I don't argue that the mere existence of new A2A practices require that copyright law be abandoned or that it is clear we must alter copyright's current market orientation. But if social authorship is as important to virtual worlds as it seems to be, I think it *should* influence the way we theorize virtual worlds. Critiques shouldn't be as focused on the alleged failings of designers or on standard analogies to single player games. VWs are computer games of a sort and interactive fiction of a sort, but they are also societies of a sort. Critiques should include discussions of player culture, player motivations, and player contributions to design and performance.
As an example of how this is important: I was talking briefly with Nick Monfort last year about his proposal of multi-leveled analysis of Atari Combat (platform, game code, game form, interface, and reception and operation). The game code level is very important to understanding Combat, in Nick's opinion, because it reveals the design constraints under which the authors operated. But in MMORPGs and MUDs, I think the reception level is probably more important--and perhaps it is a mistake to even think about what players do in MUDs or MUSHes as "reception" And I don't think this is much of a new or radical idea: take Liz Klastrup's suggestion of a Poetics of Virtual Worlds, which focuses not upon unearthing a designer's authorial intent but upon understanding player narratives of experience. Or Torrill Mortensen's thesis (all 410 pages here) describing the MUD, Dragon Realms. Dr. Mortensen's critical focus is as much on player understandings of the play experience as it is an attempt to understand the game "authorship" of the admins.
This is why the concept of the auteur can be a good fit for the design of virtual worlds, but a bad fit for the interpretation and theorization of virtual worlds once they go live. I think it's also why the Social Software All-Stars find virtual worlds much more interesting than standard video games. Virtual worlds have art, story, and game-play -- so the IF/New Media theorists and game critics have a lot to contribute to understanding virtual worlds. But they are digtial societies as well, which is very novel (well, at least *as* novel as MUDs have always been). We don't usually think of society as a form of art, but perhaps, in this case, we need to.