Byte Murder

More evidence that 'virtual' as a prefix to 'property' has no modifying function: A guy sold another guy's virtual sword without his permission, so the second guy killed the first guy. Thanks Tobold for the head's up.

Does the word 'virtual' have any meaning now?

Edit: A longer description, from China Daily. Thanks [anonymous]. EC


Comments on Byte Murder:

ren says:

As Dr C hit the publish key before me, here is my take on things:

The quirk behind the human tragedy is encapsulated in the statement made by the public prosecutor "As cyberweapons are not under the protection of any law in our country, Zhu [the first guy] was faultless in this case."

Interestingly China Daily also reports that online game companies in Shanghai are looking to set up a “dispute system” to “to facilitate the settlement of disputes over virtual assets."

Is this a model something that western MMO publishers should adopt?

OK, a publisher can claim that trading is against the EULA but if they create the conditions where items can be traded, they will be, so are publishers -always- completely ‘faultless’?

Posted Mar 30, 2005 8:42:02 AM | link

Xilren says:

In terms of publishers being faultless, unless the user claims their passwords was hacked from the companies data servers, they only way another person could gain access to the virtual gear to sell/trade/destroy is if someone shared their password to begin with.

If I were the game company, this would get little sympathy from me.

In terms of someone being unhinged enough to kill another person over a few bytes in a database somewhere? Sad commentary on todays society in general.

Xilren

Posted Mar 30, 2005 11:44:13 AM | link

Scott says:

I'm not sure how the legality of a trade (online or not) would in any way mitigate a murder.

Posted Mar 30, 2005 12:01:41 PM | link

Thabor says:

OK, a publisher can claim that trading is against the EULA but if they create the conditions where items can be traded, they will be, so are publishers -always- completely ‘faultless’?

If we are making the assumption already that the sword is property, and virtual property is equivilent to real property why would we treat the situation any differently? If it were a pair of Nike would you hold the manufacturer at fault?

Its certainly a tragic situation, but I don't think it raises any new questions. Regardless of if game data is determined to be legal property or not players feel a sense of ownership of those goods. I'm not aware of any place where theft justifies murder in retaliation.

Posted Mar 30, 2005 12:16:18 PM | link

Aron says:

I'm certain it in no way mitigates the murder, but it does speak to the personal value these "bytes in a database" have. And why should that attachment be any sadder than the emotional tie other people have to their luxury yatch, or expensive car, or valuable jewelry? Indeed, in that world, that was his luxury yatch.

As developers continue to push their games towards greater levels of immersion and realism, they begin to create alternate worlds for people to live in. What is just a game to the people on the outside is a second reality to some of those on the inside. And although Reality A is made of atoms while Reality B exists as electrons, people will acquire and protect the rare and valuable resources just the same, and experience an emotional response at their loss.

Posted Mar 30, 2005 12:57:14 PM | link

Matt Mihaly says:

Aron wrote:

I'm certain it in no way mitigates the murder, but it does speak to the personal value these "bytes in a database" have.

I think bank accounts made that clear decades ago.

--matt

Posted Mar 30, 2005 1:03:25 PM | link

Jimpy says:

I don't think Dr. Castronova is suggesting that the status of the property in question would either mitigate or justify the crime.

The question posed is whether "virtual" is a meaningful modifier to the word "property" and, if so, what meaning does it carry?

And my response would be "yes, it is meaningful."

There are (at least) two legally significant types of modifiers to the word "property" (there may be others, but its lunch, you know?)

The first set are modifiers that describe the physical nature of the property in question (I would include modifiers such as "intellectual" and "real" here). These modifiers are legally important because a particular body of case and common law attach to them based on their physical nature. So even though "real property" basically just means "land," the fact that it is land puts it in a physical category that comes with a particular subset of quirky and unique legal realities that would not apply to a screenplay (intellectual property) or, say, a donut (mmmmmm . . . donuts).

The second set are modifiers that describe not the physical, but the ownership condition of the property in question (including modifiers like "public" and "community"). They are important because they describe certain legal outcomes that apply regardless of the physical nature of the property described. So if you tell me that something is "community property," I don't need to know whether it is a car, an idea or a plot of land to know how it is going to be disposed of in case of an ownership dispute.

Anyway, I would put "virtual" in the first category - a physical descriptor.

The problem is we haven't really decided whether there is a particular set of laws attached to the physical nature of "virtual" property. Should it be treated like intellectual property? Real property? Personal property? Or is it a unique and special snowflake that requires its own set of rules?

Fortunately, this indeterminacy is immaterial to the crime at hand. It would have had much greater significance had the murderer instead chosen to pursue his case in China's equivalent of civil court.

Personally, I am waiting for the day some WoW player sues another over the disposition of a particularly leet piece of loot, and some forward-thinking judge orders a remedy of specific performance: the malfeasor is forced to farm Molten Core until a replacement Deathstriker or Dreadmist Robes has fallen and been obtained. How Bind On Pickup will be explained to our judiciary I will leave to legal minds greater than mine own.

Posted Mar 30, 2005 1:17:02 PM | link

Xilren says:

I should have been more specific when snidely referring to this virtual sword as "just a few bytes in a database". Personally, I find the subject of in game items to be quite different than a bank account balance. By even disucssing what kind of "property" this virtual sword is we have granted it far more weight than it deserves. It is something totally meaningless without the rest of the game around it; it cannot exist independantly of the game as such, it's not even an "item" or property at all. It's a rule in a game.

You cannot remove it from the gameworld to another, at best you can "give" it to another player in the same gameworld or "destroy" it within the gameworld (though i dont like those terms either b/c you aren't truly "giving" anything nor "destroying" anything; the item always exists in the game code, you just don't have access to it anymore).

As such, I think granting property status to these particular "bytes in a database" just because people find it easier to discuss these things with real world points of reference is a mistake.

And no, just becuase people can sell such "items" to other people for money doesn't matter in the slightest to me. Just a newer version of the emporer's new clothes.

Xilren

Posted Mar 30, 2005 2:30:50 PM | link

Dirk Scheuring says:

From "Legend of Mir 3"s European website:


Think you have what it takes to be a famous hero in the realms of Mir, or is it the path of the villainous murderer you prefer.

Posted Mar 30, 2005 2:55:48 PM | link

Jimpy says:

Personally, I find the subject of in game items to be quite different than a bank account balance.

Actually, Xilren, they are more similar that you might think.

When you say you "own" a bank account balance (or that a bank account balance is your property), what exactly do you own?

All you "own" is the right to require (through the force of law, if necessary) that an institution (the "bank" - a non-physical entity formed by operation of law) must give you an agreed-upon amount of money on demand (but only if that demand is in accordance with "the rules").

You don't own any particular dollar bill (they can give you whatever money they have around - they don't have to keep and return the specific dollar bills you happened to give them earlier).

That balance "ownership" has no meaning outside the "gameworld" that is your relationship to that one particular game . . . uh, I mean bank. (And by that I mean that if that particular bank goes bust, another bank down the street certainly won't give you money in exchange for your ownership of the "bank balance" - though hopefully the FDIC has insured your chosen bank).

Really, the ownership of a "bank balance" is nothing more than a consensual illusion - you and that bank agree that, upon demand (and in accordance with 'the rules,' such as showing proper identification), the bank will give you some money in exchange for the money you gave to them previously (though you both agree it won't literally be "the same money" as in "the same exact pieces of paper").

And, of course, all of this is computerized.

Which means (and I hate to say it), your bank account balance is, in fact, "just a few bytes in a database." It has no other existence. It is just data.

Now, we just happen to have laws that very specifically apply to those particular bytes, so you really believe in your bank (and the power of law to back you up if the bank doesn't give you your money).

We don't have such obvious laws that apply to my Truefaith Vestments (although I do not mean that I would support running a sword through you if you took them. Then again, they ARE rather hard to make. Let me get back to you on that).

I don't think the hard questions are whether virtual swords are property (I am confident that they are, and that the courts will recognize them as such).

The hard questions are "who holds the rights to such property and how can they be transferred?"

In other words, it would be fairly easy to sort out "ownership" on a player-versus-player basis using traditional legal analysis (that account holds that sword - I own that account, ergo I own that sword when my rights are opposed to any other player who holds a different account).

It is far trickier when a game company asserts that THEY hold the property rights to the sword. The "creator-versus-player" battle is where all the cool legal thought is going to be.

Right now Blizzard says they own my Truefaith Vestments. Whether that is true or not is, I suspect, an open question and one that will have enormous import on the secondary market.

Posted Mar 30, 2005 3:30:30 PM | link

ren reynolds says:

Just to comment on the propertyness of sword. I think that this is a complete red herring in terms of fault.

On the one hand whether the sword is virtual, physical or dimond encrusted, having it sold from under you does not justify murder.

However this does not mean there was no fault. What if the first player had sharded a secret (non trade secret) with the second one, and the second player plublished it on their blog. Here there is fault, it’s a break of trust, property does not come into it?

Posted Mar 30, 2005 3:45:50 PM | link

ren reynolds says:

Does the word 'virtual' have any meaning now?

Of course it does! Its just the the meaning does not alter certain of our considerations, though it still does in others: would I rather be stabbed with a physical or virutal sword? – I’m going for the virtual ever time.

Posted Mar 30, 2005 3:46:31 PM | link

Thabor says:


The property discussion is one we visit again and again. Eventually clients will have some degree of ownership of the data related to their activites in the system. Analagous to any other data service provider their might be expectations for maintaining integrity of the data, and allowing the client to extract relevant data in some form. A client for a game might have a resonable expectation of being able to extract data such as you might see in a guild profiler tool.

Providers to date provide data transfer services in the form of item trading. To keep our bank example for earlier: it is possible to transfer an account into somebody elses name; or to transfer part of that account (balance) to another person in exchange for some other consideration. The reasons for the transfer is none of the bank's concern. They provide transfers as a part of their service, and have already recognzied my authority to perform that action.

Posted Mar 30, 2005 3:56:53 PM | link

Matt Mihaly says:

Ren wrote:

would I rather be stabbed with a physical or virutal sword? – I’m going for the virtual ever time.

You only say that because you've never been stabbed with the Screaming Death Sword of +5 Stabbityness.

--matt

Posted Mar 30, 2005 4:12:32 PM | link

Richard Bartle says:

Ren>Is this a model something that western MMO publishers should adopt?

Only the ones who allow trade in virtual objects and want to provide a useful service for their players.

>are publishers -always- completely ‘faultless’?

Let's say the guy didn't sell the sword. Let's say he just used it until it wore out and broke. He'd maybe still have got murdered. This isn't anything to do with the commodification of virtual goods, or with the responsibilities of developers. What happened is two people felt they had a stake in a virtual object and they fell out over it with tragic results.

If someone had shot someone else outside a casino over accusations of cheating in a game of poker, the law would be able to handle the situation just fine without needing to consider the responsibilities of the casino owners.

This case does show how seriously some unfortunate people can take virtual worlds, but I don't think we need any special-case treatment here. That was murder, and it would have been murder whether there was a dispute resolution system in place or not.

Richard

Posted Mar 30, 2005 4:33:19 PM | link

Evangolis says:

The property was virtual. The trust was real. Neither excuses murder, but one does more to explain it.

Posted Mar 30, 2005 5:40:17 PM | link

Xilren says:

>Jimpy said>That balance "ownership" has no meaning outside the "gameworld" that is your relationship to that one particular game . . . uh, I mean bank. (And by that I mean that if that particular bank goes bust, another bank down the street certainly won't give you money in exchange for your ownership of the "bank balance" - though hopefully the FDIC has insured your chosen bank).

>Really, the ownership of a "bank balance" is nothing more than a consensual illusion - you and that bank agree that, upon demand (and in accordance with 'the rules,' such as showing proper identification), the bank will give you some money in exchange for the money you gave to them previously (though you both agree it won't literally be "the same money" as in "the same exact pieces of paper").

>And, of course, all of this is computerized.

>Which means (and I hate to say it), your bank account balance is, in fact, "just a few bytes in a database." It has no other existence. It is just data.

I see what you are saying, but i disagree. The fact that modern banks now keep their accounts in computers rather than old paper ledgers or even really old pure hard currency, nor that most transactions nowdays are conducted electronically, doesn't change the fact that at some point in time, my money in that database was a real object seperate from the banks particular computer system. It IS an independent object for one important reason, it can leave the system. If the bank's computer crashed tomorrow, that does not mean I have lost my money. (thank goodness :-). [The bank going out of business is a different case; if you know that is going to happen, you can act to seperate yourself from the system].

To me, that is the important difference. My money is not hardcoded to one and only one bank system forever more. I can choose to withdraw all of my balance and get the real currency equivalent of it, or, I can have my money transferred to entirely different bank. That is something you cannot do with any such virtual items like your Sword of Leet.

There are no objects involed; you are renting a service from a game provider. I see it as the equivalent of joining a gym and renting raquetball equipment. Just because I can give it to my bud, lose it, sell a really fine one on ebay, or even destroy ir, doesn't make it mine.

Players are buying into the whole concept of a virtual world so much they assume as whole host of properties exist that really don't.

There is no spoon.

Xilren

Posted Mar 30, 2005 6:21:47 PM | link

Jim Purbrick says:

Value is in the eye of the (be)holder.

A virtual sword can have value like anything else.

The sad thing here is that people will kill each other over the ownership of things, but it happens, so it's little surprise that it's happened over the ownership of a "virtual" thing.

More a sad commentary on the human condition than anything else.

Posted Mar 30, 2005 6:33:56 PM | link

Staarkhand says:

I suppose a thread shouldn't get sidetracked discussing the 'realness' of 'virtual' property every time someone comes along that wasn't here for the last one. I think TN needs the blog version of a 'sticky' post, so that we can just point to a rigorous treatment of this topic every time someone new comes and says "wait, this stuff isn't real".

But, I'll sidetrack anyway, to avoid degenerating into ignoring the newly curious because "we had this same discussion last month/year/on the mud-dev boards".

We are surrounded daily by things which we deem to have value dispite the fact that that value is only defined in a certain context. Software outside the context of hardware to run it and to produce something I want. Currency outside the context of someone willing to accept it in exchange for something I want. Gasoline, a diamond, a rock, none have value outside what people assign to them. God didn't create value on the eigth day, it is not only defined by people, it is created by people.

Xilren, having been lead to a comparison involving a bank account, you essentially say a bank account is real because I can spend it. That's a fine summary: it's real because it has value. Value simply means A is willing to give B something A wants for it.

||It IS an independent object for one important reason, it can leave the system.||

Only if you define your system in a sufficiently small (and might I offer shortsighted) fashion. Your money has value outside a single bank the way l3wt has value on multiple continents of Azeroth. Neither retain value when looked at in a sufficiently broad context, say, the context of physical reality, those things I can stub my toe on (currency fits this bill, but is clearly a different entity).

||If the bank's computer crashed tomorrow, that does not mean I have lost my money.||

Ever heard of The Depression? People lost their money, or perhaps their money lost its value. And that didn't even involved something as 'real' as hardware failure.

||And no, just becuase people can sell such "items" to other people for money doesn't matter in the slightest to me. ||

I think it's clear it doesn't matter to you, but I'll suggest it should. L3wt is real, as in I can spend it - even spend it outside its original context via the medium of currency exchangers like IGE.

||There are no objects involed||

I beg you to reconsider defining only physical objects as candidates for value or realness. It's simply not a tenable position with even the smallest amount of thought.

||There is no spoon.||

You're a long way from blowing our minds here.

Posted Mar 30, 2005 7:18:50 PM | link

Staarkhand says:

To stray dangerously close to the topic, 'virtual' is a meaningful modifier of 'property' because it defines (or at least narrows) the context.

'Virtual' in the meaning of 'not real' (rather than 'not physical') is not.

Posted Mar 30, 2005 7:25:13 PM | link

Gordon Calleja says:

A common assumption that seems to underlie most comments around 'virtual' here is that it exists in some sort of opposition to the real.

I would say that it is more profitable to think of the virtual as being an integral part of the real. The real is made up of multiple layers of the virtual intertwined with the actual/physical/material (or whatever you chose to call it).

Posted Mar 30, 2005 8:20:55 PM | link

Brask Mumei says:

One thing that I did not see addressed.

This is a case of vigilante justice, no? The perpetrator tried to seek justice from the police, but was refused as it was outside of their jurisdiction. Thus, he resorted to force.

The reason why we try and avoid vigilante justice is it tends to be extreme and reactionary. This is why we carefully try suspected murderers rather than use lynch mobs.

The question this all raises is: "If the police *could* act on the stolen items, would the killing have occurred?"

Posted Mar 30, 2005 8:48:26 PM | link

Michael Hartman says:

This situation has no effect on whether the term "virtual" is an important prefix to "virtual property."

Please remember that there have been countless murders already over one Counterstrike or Starcraft team beating another.

That had nothing to do with virtual property. That was simply a matter of a maladjusted individual being unhappy with the behavior of someone else, and killing them for it.

Virtual property is NOT property. It should not and will not attach or inure the same rights.

Posted Mar 30, 2005 9:04:47 PM | link

Peter S. Jenkins says:

Richard>If someone had shot someone else outside a casino over accusations of cheating in a game of poker, the law would be able to handle the situation just fine without needing to consider the responsibilities of the casino owners.

This situation is quite different in that, according to the news report, the alleged murderer stabbed his victim to death in the RW, eerily echoing the type of violence that was perpetrated in the game with the virtual sword. It doesn't say in the news report whether the RW victim was stabbed with a sword, but even if it was just a knife, there is the inference that the alleged murderer was sufficiently deluded to transform the virtual violence into a RW fascimile which raises issues about whether access to these games should be more effectively denied to minors, the mentally unstable etc. Your casino example is like any RW monetary dispute which escalates into violence, and doesn't speak to the special issue of the effect of the immersivness of MMOG's on an aberrant subset of the players, and the game owners' responsibility. The liability of a tavern owner for a patron who is served too much alcohol and gets into a car crash as a result comes to mind in terms of a possible analogy for the potential responsibility of the game owner in these types of tragic situations.

Peter

Posted Mar 30, 2005 11:02:50 PM | link

Jeremy Neal Kelly says:

Michael Hartman wrote:

> Virtual property is NOT property. It should not and will not attach or inure the same rights.

You never fail to delight me with your charming posts. Do you have some reason for believing this, or are you simply declaring it true by proclamation?

Posted Mar 30, 2005 11:14:41 PM | link

semantic says:

Welcome to the New Frontier, pards. The topic of this unfortunate discussion is the, er, virtual equivalent of one man stealing another man's horse (or mining claim or six-shooter) in some far-flung territory beyond the bounds of The Law.

Having traveled the immeasurable distance between the scene of the crime and the nearest outpost of civilization, the Aggrieved seeks there sympathy and means to redress his loss. He finds none.

"That River you crossed on your way here," says the Magistrate. "That's as far as my arm reaches. Our laws hold no sway in The Void."

Thus he seeks out his sometime friend and partner, to confront him... to settle it... man to man. But now his mind is trapped somewhere between the Void and the place he buys toilet paper. The two worlds have been brought together through this crime, and he is their intersection. He seeks out his friend at his homestead on the near side of the River and finds him unrepentant, in his kitchen, enjoying a fresh /pizza.

Sleep well tonite, boys, and lay off the whiskey. We ride at dawn.

Posted Mar 31, 2005 12:43:31 AM | link

Peder Holdgaard Pedersen says:

As I see it, a virtual sword is virtual property because it is property of an avatar, ie a virtual person. It IS not the property of the player, unless the operator of the game has granted this right to the player - most EULA explicitly state that players are licensed to access a game/world/whatever owned by the operator. The player has a wide degree of control over the virtual property - as the player has 'rented' control over the avatar who does own the sword. But the conditions by which the player was given this control stipulate certain limitations to this control - ie the player is not allowed to receive real-world currency for the act of having the avatar transfer the sword to another avatar.

I guess what I mean is 'virtual' property does indeed make sense as it a totally different thing than 'real' property. Rights which apply to 'real' property do apply to 'virtual' property - as they are like apples to oranges. Totally different.

Posted Mar 31, 2005 2:00:10 AM | link

Richard Bartle says:

Peter S. Jenkins>This situation is quite different in that, according to the news report, the alleged murderer stabbed his victim to death in the RW, eerily echoing the type of violence that was perpetrated in the game with the virtual sword.

I don't think that's relevant. He just wanted to kill the guy, and would probably have used a gun if one had been to hand.

>It doesn't say in the news report whether the RW victim was stabbed with a sword, but even if it was just a knife, there is the inference that the alleged murderer was sufficiently deluded to transform the virtual violence into a RW fascimile

No, I don't think there is. China isn't the USA, and most people don't have firearms. If you want to kill someone in a moment of madness in China, stabbing them is pretty well your only option.

>Your casino example is like any RW monetary dispute which escalates into violence

That's right, it is. My point was that this tragic incident in China is just like any RW monetary dispute which escalates into violence, too.

>and doesn't speak to the special issue of the effect of the immersivness of MMOG's on an aberrant subset of the players, and the game owners' responsibility.

It doesn't speak of it because it doesn't have to. The real world is more immersive than virtual worlds; why should virtual worlds get special treatment for being immersive?

>The liability of a tavern owner for a patron who is served too much alcohol and gets into a car crash as a result comes to mind

If the tavern owner knows that the person they are serving alcohol to is going to get right into a car, sure, then there may be liability. If they don't, well, who knows what bizarre notions of responsibility the American judicial system might support, but in the UK (and perhaps China?) the tavern owner wouldn't be liable in such a situation.

Virtual world developers are not psychologists or psychiatrists. They have no way of knowing which of their players are likely to stab which other of their players, and therefore cannot be expected to be liable if one of them does something terrible. Were they informed by someone in a position to do so that they had a player who might go over the edge, then they could be liable if they continued to allow that person to play.

Richard

Posted Mar 31, 2005 3:12:24 AM | link

Richard Bartle says:

Brask Mumei>This is a case of vigilante justice, no? The perpetrator tried to seek justice from the police, but was refused as it was outside of their jurisdiction. Thus, he resorted to force.

The way I read it, Qui was denied justice but Zhu (the person who sold the sword) promised to give him the money. However, Zhu was somewhat tardy in doing this and Qui snapped. He didn't kill him to take the law into his own hands, he killed him because he lost his temper over being stonewalled.

Richard

Posted Mar 31, 2005 3:16:35 AM | link

Tobold says:

I don't think that what kind of property a virtual sword is has any relevance on the murder case. People kill each other out of love, jealousy, hate, prejudices, and a range of other motives, none of which are "real" in the physical world. "He stole my virtual sword" is no more an excuse for murder than "he broke my heart" would be.

But the case highlights the gap between the perceived value of virtual property, and the official value of virtual property, which is nil. Or as Brask mentioned, would the murder have taken place if that gap hadn't existed, and the law could have forced the first guy to return the virtual sword to the second guy?

Note that you can't lend your magical sword to another player in World of Warcraft. The first guy using it is stuck with it. Is that some sort of progress in the virtual property issue?

Posted Mar 31, 2005 3:24:51 AM | link

vmardian says:

I highly doubt that Blizzard made this design decision in order to combat sales in the secondary market. It's not progress and it definately does not solve the underlying problem. Popular games will always have some element of trade. Accounts will presumably always be transferrable. As games become more and more popular and immersive, we'll begin to see more and more service providers for such things as adventures, experience, quest completion, item acquisition, etc...

Posted Mar 31, 2005 4:10:57 AM | link

Richard Bartle says:

Tobold>would the murder have taken place if that gap hadn't existed, and the law could have forced the first guy to return the virtual sword to the second guy?

Would the law have ordered the developer to create a new sword out of thin air, on the grounds that whoever purchased the original did so in good faith?

Richard

Posted Mar 31, 2005 9:26:48 AM | link

Xilren says:

Sorry for boring people who already have this under their belt, but I have to say, from the overall tone you seem to suggest this topic is a closed one in that the TN crowd all agree that virtual items are in fact real and has some characteristics of property. Frankly, I'm shocked.

>Xilren, having been lead to a comparison involving a bank account, you essentially say a bank account is real because I can spend it.

Um no, that's not what I said at all. I said it's real because it can leave the system in which it currently resides in a variety of ways. Programming code can leave the system on which it was written, even if it still needs enviroment X in which to run. Intellectual property can travel through a variety of forms and systems. Interpreted game rule like the virtual sword, cannot.

This isn't about value; value is highly subjective which why it's meaningless in this discussion. We're talking about whether something is objectively deemed "property" or not.

>Only if you define your system in a sufficiently small (and might I offer shortsighted) fashion. Your money has value outside a single bank the way l3wt has value on multiple continents of Azeroth.

IMHO it's a simple definition. You define your system as the one of which the database is a part, whether it's a bank or a mmorpg. Poor analogy to continents of Azeroth. Would have been better if you could say, take platinum pieces in EQ and somehow transfer them into Planetside or SWG directly. Only way you could do something like that today is wholly external to the system via IGE or other secondary market activities.

||If the bank's computer crashed tomorrow, that does not mean I have lost my money.||

>Ever heard of The Depression? People lost their money, or perhaps their money lost its value. And that didn't even involved something as 'real' as hardware failure.

World of difference between a bank going out of business ala the depression and a bank's computer system crashing. In the former, yes people lost their money; in the latter, my money doesn't vanish despite the fact the "byte in the database" just went poof.

>I beg you to reconsider physical objects as candidates for value or realness. It's simply not a tenable position with even the smallest amount of thought.

I didn't say it was; intellectual property being the primary example of non physical property. I am much more interested in an object transferrence. If it can't exist outside of the medium of it's creation, then it isn't really seperate from such medium and can't be treated independently of it. That why I said these virtual items aren't items at all, they are interpreted game rule modifiers.

Look, if we removed computers from the equation, would you view it any differently? All these games are is computerized version of pen and paper rpgs (whith more players and layers of complexity to be sure). No one seems to get hung up on the realness of their D&D character sheet, or even a magic sword their DM made just for them, yet for some reason as soon as we use computers to be the intermediary of how the game is played, now all the game rules somehow acquire status as object or property? What if we stick with computers and just remove graphics? Would we have this same disucssion over a virtual sword in a text mud? While some might, I suspect you'd have a much harder time convincing people a string of text in a mud representing a sword in game really is a peice of property b/c it's easier to see the unreality of it. What about single player rpgs; i can sell my saved games of Planescape of BG2 on ebay but does that somehow make them mine?

I said "there is no spoon" for a reason. Everything in a computer game, multiplayer or not is nothing more than an interpretation of the game rule; a sword is nothing more than a modifier affecting the rules of combat. Just b/c all of players in the same gamespace agree to the rules to participate doesn't grant them property status external to the game. I can pay someone $5 real dollars to have them give me their Boardwalk in a game of monopoly, but at the end of the day it not mine; it belongs to the owner of the board game. Same thing as this sword, just a different medium.

Xilren
PS Apologize for the derail

Xilren

Posted Mar 31, 2005 10:01:52 AM | link

Jimpy says:

Some random legal issues raised:

Richard:

Who knows what bizarre notions of responsibility the American judicial system might support.

These "bizarre notions of responsibility" are called "dram shop" laws. They are state-specific and vary from "no liability for alcohol servers whatsoever" (found in Nevada - surprise!) to quite strict liability for places that serve liquor (found in Massachusetts - another surprise!).

The basic rule of thumb is that a bar is unwise to continue to serve someone alcohol to someone who is obviously or visibly intoxicated. They would be setting themselves up for being held at least partially liable for whatever that intoxicated person might go on to do. That could include being liable for harm to the drunk person themself (they go off and crash their car into a tree) or to others (the drunk starts a bar brawl and breaks someone's jaw).

Xilren:

I am much more interested in an object transferrence. If it can't exist outside of the medium of it's creation, then it isn't really seperate from such medium and can't be treated independently of it.

Not true. A really good example of this is a property law right called an "easement." Basically, an easement is a personal right to use a piece of land you don't own in a specific way.

For example, there are cases where an individual has won the legal right to walk a path across someone's land to get to a beach. This "right to take a stroll down this particular path" cannot be taken out of 'the system' (it only applies to that particular path), cannot exist outside of the medium (the path) and yet has an independent legal existence totally separate from the ownership of the path.

Thus, this kind of easement is basically a game-rule modifier: The basic rule is "the owner of land gets to decide what can be done with it" is being modified by a completely intangible "right" to take a stroll that cannot ever be separated from the medium it is applied to (the path). Even though it cannot be separated and has no existance apart from the path, it most certainly has legal existence that can be treated independently.

Peter -

As I see it, a virtual sword is virtual property because it is property of an avatar, ie a virtual person. It IS not the property of the player, unless the operator of the game has granted this right to the player - most EULA explicitly state that players are licensed to access a game/world/whatever owned by the operator

The first part of your statement is probably not true as a matter of law. For the most part, property laws apply to real people or recognized legal entities like corporations. There are some sketchy areas in the animal world - for example while I'm quite sure you can't leave your house to your cat when you die, you might be able to leave a trust that she would "own." But virtual people cannot own property of any kind (even virtual property) in any way that would be recognized by law. The reason for this is that the law generally does not permit ownership by entities that cannot make independent decisions (because the ownership is effectively permanent - a virtual person can't "decide" to sell a virtual sword - only the player controlling him can). Incidentally, this is why people deemed mentally incompetent generally lose property rights to their legal guardians.

The enforecability of EULA's is, I believe, an open question. For the moment, I just don't think there is anyone really willing to apply a hardcore lawsuit to the problem because the stakes are too low. But there may well come a day where someone tries to trot out the whole "restraint on alienation of property" issue on a large scale and take on a EULA in a more serious way than over some e-bay'd character.

By the way, can anyone point me to any legal resources on these issues? In particular, any good law review articles out there? Or do I have to go write one?

Posted Mar 31, 2005 11:07:02 AM | link

xilren says:

>Jimpy wrote: For example, there are cases where an individual has won the legal right to walk a path across someone's land to get to a beach. This "right to take a stroll down this particular path" cannot be taken out of 'the system' (it only applies to that particular path), cannot exist outside of the medium (the path) and yet has an independent legal existence totally separate from the ownership of the path.

>Thus, this kind of easement is basically a game-rule modifier: The basic rule is "the owner of land gets to decide what can be done with it" is being modified by a completely intangible "right" to take a stroll that cannot ever be separated from the medium it is applied to (the path). Even though it cannot be separated and has no existance apart from the path, it most certainly has legal existence that can be treated independently

Good example. But, it begs the question, on what rights the pathwalker actually gets. Right of use certainly, but would these same pathwalkers have the right to sell the path to someone else, or institue a toll on it, or open a shop on it? That is more analagous to what mmorpg players are attempting to do; they already have the rights to use the "objects" within the system according to the game rules. But "own" them and sell outside of the system?

I allso suspect such easements are only granted if, in our example, there's no other reasonable way to get to the public beach other than by crossing the private property via the path. In short, there has to be a compelling reason to grant it; what's the compelling reason for granting virtual property such status?

Xilren

Posted Mar 31, 2005 12:06:17 PM | link

F. Randall Farmer says:

Xilren>from the overall tone you seem to suggest this topic is a closed one in that the TN crowd all agree that virtual items are in fact real and has some characteristics of property.

This is not the case. Many of us disagree, forcefully, and urge our fellow game/world designers to consider that the design choices they make contribute to this confusion.

We just get tired of repeating ourselves.

Search the net for "Kidtrade" for an discussion of another point of view.


Posted Mar 31, 2005 12:33:34 PM | link

greglas says:

Randy is right -- the topic isn't closed and has been regularly debated here. As far as this one goes, in my humble opinion, it involves murder and is thus sure to attract plenty of media attention, but it doesn't illuminate the debate. We already know that people attach value to virtual items. We also know people attach value to plenty of things that aren't property. Murders occur over infidelity and being cut off in traffic, yet we don't think that kind of crime makes fidelity or driving into a form of property.

Posted Mar 31, 2005 12:48:18 PM | link

Thabor says:


Um no, that's not what I said at all. I said it's real because it can leave the system in which it currently resides in a variety of ways. Programming code can leave the system on which it was written, even if it still needs enviroment X in which to run. Intellectual property can travel through a variety of forms and systems. Interpreted game rule like the virtual sword, cannot.

A virtual sword certianly could leave one game system into another provided the operators of the different system provided some mechanism for doing so. The operation of a virtual sword is by an large is same in most systems, the differences being primarily a matter of scale. No different from a currency exchange. Your money only leave the bounds of your contry based on special arrangments with other systems, and tpyically will undergo some adjustment when it does so.


This situation is quite different in that, according to the news report, the alleged murderer stabbed his victim to death in the RW, eerily echoing the type of violence that was perpetrated in the game with the virtual sword.

I find this sort of misrepresentation highly objectionable. Virtual swords are just that, objects that are operationally an imitation of real life. People are killed by knives everyday in situations with no connection to gaming. As the popularity of gaming increases the amount of connections will increase. That isn't a real indication that gaming is inducing violence.

Posted Mar 31, 2005 12:51:54 PM | link

Thabor says:


Murders occur over infidelity and being cut off in traffic, yet we don't think that kind of crime makes fidelity or driving into a form of property.

Fidelity could easily be construed as a property based concept. IE: "He/she is mine, not anyone elses and they should touch him/her". Being cut-off in traffic invovles risk to property (a car).. But still there certianly are forms of violence that aren't property related.

Posted Mar 31, 2005 12:57:22 PM | link

Yaka St.Aise says:

Just to keep threading the bank analogy.
I happen to stay for a few weeks in one of those neat old-fashioned fiercely isolationist socialist locales, namely Eritrea, which aren't too fond of letting people change back the foreign currency they turned into domestic mints when entering the area.

In fact, was it not for third-party agents (IGE likes) who would agree to buy back my nakfas (that's local plat denomination), I'd be unable to retrieve my property from the system, or at least what I could take away with me would be useless outside of the system.

I can figure the online game service providers aren't too eager to offer the level of guarantee banks do on the virtual assets they store, especially regarding their ongoing ability to ensure persitency of the inventory, but it sounds to me like this is where we're headed, which I see as a GoodThing™.

What do you think will happen after one online game operator starts to offer a real and secure bookkeeping services with working I/O change system on top of an in-game domestic economy ?
[Project entropia doesn't fit this bill, btw, so the slot is still open, afaik.]

I'd wage much turmoil will ensue, but enventually this one is bound to join the growing check list of features that any newcoming MMORPG has to meet - for better or worse.

What did I miss ?

Posted Mar 31, 2005 1:05:04 PM | link

Staarkhand says:

||it cannot exist independantly of the game as such, it's not even an "item" or property at all. It's a rule in a game.||

This was the sentiment I was objecting to, that it couldn't be property because it isn't real. It's 'just a rule', which I intended to show was no different from many things we deem 'real' in our everyday lives in which we're highly dependent upon such conventions (or 'just rules') as money.

Your further analogies to board games, gym passes, and rights to walk to the beach are more along the lines that 'it's not property because YOU don't own it'. I agree with this.

Many don't. It is argued by some that it is property because they can control it. While I'm willing to say something has value because I can sell it, I don't carry that to mean that I own it just because I can sell it.

It's not unreasonable to say something is yours because you control it. Most of the nations in the world 'own' their land based solely on right of conquest, and continue to do so because they, or their big brother, can deter others from taking it either through political pressure, economic means, or ultima ratio regis, bombs.

This story illustrates how little control players have over items. Assuming you can't PK the new owner and loot it back (original UO rules), you appeal to game authorities in the game context. They say no. You appeal to game authorities out of the game context. They say no. You appeal to nongame authorities. They say no. You do everything up to and including violence, truly the final resort of the incompetent in this case.

Did you get 'your' sword back? Still think you own it?

Individual ownership of game items doesn't exist legally or practically.

P.S. This still leaves the door open for individual sales of game items to be legal. The concept of 'I'm not selling this sword, I'm selling my right to use it' is tired, but not without some merit. As has been said before in this blog, it's legal as long as twinking or giving ingame out of charity is legal.

Posted Mar 31, 2005 1:11:44 PM | link

Jimpy says:

Staarkhand>"It's not unreasonable to say something is yours because you control it."

Sure it is. Examples of this are legion. If I steal your car, I control it, but I certainly don't own it.

Xilren -

Appreciate your points. The only thing I have issue with is the notion that it would be somehow impossible (or even unprecedented) for something like a 'virtual sword' to carry legal ownership rights. The easement example was simply meant to illustrate that even something as abstract as an individual's right to walk on a specific path can be given property rights completely separate from the "real world" components. If a single person's "right to stroll" can hold rights, why not a virtual sword?

I have no issue with any of the arguments you or others have raised about the relative wisdom of granting various property rights in digital items.

I just think those people who are just announcing that it is obvious that such objects cannot possibly have any such rights are incorrect. It is not only quite possible, but there are ample legal precedents.

Posted Mar 31, 2005 2:01:14 PM | link

Thabor says:


Sure it is. Examples of this are legion. If I steal your car, I control it, but I certainly don't own it.

I think I have to agree with Staarkhand, control is ownership. What you are talking about is entitlement. The car is supposed to be under your control. It isn't anymore.

Posted Mar 31, 2005 2:19:07 PM | link

Jeremy Neal Kelly says:

Jimpy wrote:

...we haven't really decided whether there is a particular set of laws attached to the physical nature of "virtual" property. Should it be treated like intellectual property? Real property? Personal property? Or is it a unique and special snowflake that requires its own set of rules?


I think many people here are missing the point. ‘Property’ is a social construction; it is whatever the people and their government say it is. The notion of intellectual property would have surprised most people just a few hundred years ago, yet everyone here appreciates its importance. Jimpy is right. Who is to say games won’t inspire their own branch of property law some day?

Look at the recent Senate hearings on steroids use in baseball. I imagine some of this is simple anti-drug posturing by the politicians, but just as much, I’m sure, is motivated by real concern for the integrity of our ‘national pastime’. What will happen in twenty years when multiplayer games are more popular than baseball?

Posted Mar 31, 2005 2:56:13 PM | link

Peter S. Jenkins says:

Richard>No, I don't think there is. China isn't the USA, and most people don't have firearms. If you want to kill someone in a moment of madness in China, stabbing them is pretty well your only option.

You shouldn't believe the official propaganda about how well gun control is working in China. In fact, it is working very poorly and there is extensive access to guns on the black market, according to this article from the Economist.

Richard>The real world is more immersive than virtual worlds; why should virtual worlds get special treatment for being immersive?

Yes, the RW is more immersive but the game owner has exclusive control over an environment in which some individuals spend up to 60 or 70 hours a week. In the RW, the main analogies are are incarceration, all-inclusive vacations and some software dev companies, but with the possible exception of certain forms of incarceration, these don't seem to me to have as high a potential for driving an unstable individual over the edge as some of the more violent slash n'crash games.

Richard>If the tavern owner knows that the person they are serving alcohol to is going to get right into a car, sure, then there may be liability. If they don't, well, who knows what bizarre notions of responsibility the American judicial system might support, but in the UK (and perhaps China?) the tavern owner wouldn't be liable in such a situation.

Here you go again with attempting to portray the US legal system as an aberration, ignoring the fact that many of its principles are used by other countries, as I have pointed out in previous posts, e.g. the reference to the Marsh case and the company town principle by the EU human rights court. In terms of pub owners' liability for accidents caused by drunken drivers, see this BBC report about a significant settlement by a pub in Ireland.

Thanks for your comments Richard - I know I can always rely on you for a stimulating debate.

Peter

Posted Mar 31, 2005 8:55:46 PM | link

Richard Bartle says:

Jimpy>These "bizarre notions of responsibility" are called "dram shop" laws. They are state-specific and vary from "no liability for alcohol servers whatsoever" (found in Nevada - surprise!) to quite strict liability for places that serve liquor (found in Massachusetts - another surprise!).

Yup, bizarre.

Richard

Posted Apr 1, 2005 2:33:57 PM | link

Richard Bartle says:

Peter S. Jenkins>You shouldn't believe the official propaganda about how well gun control is working in China. In fact, it is working very poorly and there is extensive access to guns on the black market, according to this article from the Economist.

That article suggests that criminals can get guns relatively easily. It doesn't say that non-criminals can. An ordinary person who wanted to get a gun would have a hard time acquiring one. Ordinary people just don't have the contacts. In our example, unless the murderer was a member of a criminal gang, it would be very, very difficult for him to get a gun.

You can't say that the fact the murderer stabbed the victim rather than using some other method of killing the victim is somehow related to why the murderer wanted the victim dead. The odds are firmly in favour of its being a stabbing simply because a knife was the closest weapon to hand when the murderer snapped.

>Yes, the RW is more immersive but the game owner has exclusive control over an environment in which some individuals spend up to 60 or 70 hours a week.

It has control over the environment, but not over the individuals.

>Here you go again with attempting to portray the US legal system as an aberration, ignoring the fact that many of its principles are used by other countries

If you want to get all proud about it, strictly speaking the US is using the principles of UK law as a foundation for its own laws. I don't believe either of us are responsible for the law in China.

There are more judges in Los Angeles than there in all of France, which is one of the most bureaucratic countries in Europe. There is definitely something singular about the US legal system, whether you're in favour of it or against it. For this reason, it's difficult to generalise from the US to other countires.

>In terms of pub owners' liability for accidents caused by drunken drivers, see this BBC report about a significant settlement by a pub in Ireland.

First of all, Eire is not the UK. To be absolutely correct, I suppose I should say that Eire is not England & Wales, as Scotland has its own legal system (I've no idea what Northern Ireland has, sorry).

Secondly, if the publican knew that the person they were serving alcohol to was going to go off and drive then yes, as I said earlier, they would be liable. If they didn't know, though, why should it be their responsibility?

>Thanks for your comments Richard - I know I can always rely on you for a stimulating debate.

Just reminding our readers that there's a world beyond the USA!

Richard

Posted Apr 1, 2005 3:05:54 PM | link

Peter S. Jenkins says:

Jimpy>These "bizarre notions of responsibility" are called "dram shop" laws. They are state-specific and vary from "no liability for alcohol servers whatsoever" (found in Nevada - surprise!) to quite strict liability for places that serve liquor (found in Massachusetts - another surprise!).

Richard>Yup, bizarre.

Actually, the vast majority of the states (43) have dram shop laws imposing bar owner liability.
States such as Nevada are in a small minority of states that don't impose any liability at all. I think that in a non-unitary system of government, this represents a high level of consensus, and is not bizarre in any way.

Peter


Posted Apr 1, 2005 3:08:24 PM | link

MM says:


On the bank thing, I'd say that the anology holds. Selling a virtual item for money is just exchanging the bytes I have here for these other bytes over there. That it gets converted into currency at all should tell you something.

And what about shares on the stock market? That's a game in and of itself that has no real meaning at all until we cash out. The same holds true for the virtual sword.

Posted Apr 1, 2005 5:44:13 PM | link

Yaka St.Aise says:

Richard:
That France is one of the most bureaucratic countries in EU is a given, however that doesn't imply the number of judges in France is specially high, as judges are required in much less circumstances than they are in US or even UK (I obviously wouldn't know about Eire), which makes the comparison irrelevant.
The bloated bureaucracy in France goes hand-in-hand with a legalist (as opposed to judiciary) model where there are way less opportunities for litigations and calls to common-law courts.
[I hope the above is grokkable - I'm not fluent in english legalese]

Secondly, and fwiw, the same concept of liability of a bar/restaurant owner/barman for serving already wasted patrons applies in France, too (and I believe at least part of Germany).

Just reminding our readers that there's a world beyond _insert_your_locale_!

-- Yaka.

Posted Apr 1, 2005 9:48:26 PM | link

Richard Bartle says:

Yaka St. Aise>Just reminding our readers that there's a world beyond _insert_your_locale_!

Well yes. The point I was trying to make was that just because something is accepted in the USA, that doesn't mean it's accepted elsewhere. The more places that differ from the US and each other, the more my argument holds.

As for France not having all that many judges, the newspaper article I read about the number of judges in Los Angeles chose France because France had more judges than anywhere else in Western Europe. This was some time ago, though, so it may not be the case now.

Interestingly the same article mentioned that in the USA, lawyers outnumbered engineers by a factor of around 100 to 1, whereas in Japan engineers outnumbered lawyers by just about the same ratio.

Richard

Posted Apr 2, 2005 10:30:43 AM | link

Richard Bartle says:

Peter S. Jenkins>Actually, the vast majority of the states (43) have dram shop laws imposing bar owner liability.

I don't care if they all do, it's still bizarre.

Interestingly, here in England we have just this very day had an announcement that bar staff will be fined for serving drunks. The rationale is somewhat different to the situation in the USA, though. It's not that the bartenders are responsible for the actions of very drunk people, but it's that the actions of very drunk people are so socially disruptive that the dovernment wants fewer of them around. Stopping bartenders from serving them is one of the ways they've chosen to do this.

This probably looks just as bizarre to you as making bartenders responsible for the actions of drunks looks to me..!

Richard

Posted Apr 2, 2005 10:37:10 AM | link

Jeremy Neal Kelly says:

If the some government does choose to recognize game property, I wonder where it will happen first?

Posted Apr 2, 2005 11:10:49 AM | link

Peter S. Jenkins says:

Richard>Interestingly, here in England we have just this very day had an announcement that bar staff will be fined for serving drunks....This probably looks just as bizarre to you as making bartenders responsible for the actions of drunks looks to me..!

No. I applaud this first step in the U.K. to deal with the "lager lout" problem. It doesn't seem much different, qualitatively at least, from the U.S. dram shop laws in that pub staff will probably usually have the cost of their fines reimbursed by the pub owner and therefore it will be a form of pub owner liability. Also, barring any explicit language in the legislation to the contrary, (I haven't read a copy of the legislation), it could lead ultimately to common law liability for the pub owner for damages in that a conviction under the Licensing Act could be used as evidence of vicarious fault of the owner in a negligence suit. Similarities between pubs and MMOG's - 24 hour access, addictive product, reduction of inhibitions particularly concerning violence, sense of altered reality when there is excessive use, desensitization.

Cheers!

Peter

Posted Apr 2, 2005 1:55:08 PM | link

Neil Lalonde says:

Peter said, "Similarities between pubs and MMOG's - 24 hour access, addictive product, reduction of inhibitions particularly concerning violence, sense of altered reality when there is excessive use, desensitization."

A difference is that undercover police inspect pubs/clubs to try to spot businesses that serve people who are underage or "too drunk". Pubs that are identified as routinely doing so can be shut down and/or fined. It's a preventative measure.

Could some authority try to identify virtual worlds where patrons seem to be extremely addicted? Taking the game too seriously? Search the chat logs for threats made between players? Try searching a MMORPG chat log for the word "kill".

If evidence becomes common enough to prove that MMOGs are addictive, then we might see laws limiting the use of MMOGs. It sounds crazy today, but who knows...

So let's all do our part. Stop saying "I need my fix!" in reference to MMOG's! We don't know who might be listening.

Posted Apr 2, 2005 3:42:19 PM | link

Richard Bartle says:

Neil Lalonde>If evidence becomes common enough to prove that MMOGs are addictive, then we might see laws limiting the use of MMOGs. It sounds crazy today, but who knows...

It's not addictiveness that's a problem (we're all addicted to food), it's the social effects that the addiction has. If playing virtual worlds a lot has no more detrimental an effect on society than watching TV a lot, what's it matter if players are considered to be "addicted"? This is assuming that virtual worlds are in general addictive, of course, which I dispute anyway.

Some virtual world operators may want to limit access by time anyway. Bandwidth is expensive and most of the accounts that spend excessive periods online are either shared between individuals or are mechanised. Being able to limit access (to save money on bandwidth, make friends buy two accounts, reduce attractiveness of eBaying) is good for them commercially, and if they can spin a line about social responsibility then it won't aggravate players who believe they have the right to play 24/7 even if they don't have the physical stamina to do so.

I would rather that time-limitation came in this way, rather than imposed by uninformed vote-seeking politicians, because at least the door remains open for the time to be increased should technology give us a way to spend more time in virtual worlds (in a way that even politicians might consider "productive"). That said, I'd be wary that the social responsibility spin would be taken as an acknowledgement that virtual worlds are in general addictive, which I don't believe is the case. Still, there are some people who believe the whole Internet is addictive...

Richard

Posted Apr 3, 2005 5:17:50 AM | link

Ola Fosheim Grøstad says:

All communication system on the net has some "addictive" potential. I believe this is due to several factors, here are two I pay attention to:

1. There is a sense of "empowering" freedom when you participate in (semi-)social contexts on the net. I include news-sites as semi-social.

2. The communication channels are very poor at communicating emotional closeness. The effect of a hug or being with friends, perhaps as part of a crowd, is more powerful than your typical three hour net experience.

There is a dissonance between 1) and 2). 1) provides a foundation for believing that what you are doing is important (social) and the empowering freedom aspect might create some kind of illusion of having some kind of "break through" real soon now.(There's gotta be something important in all these news, or everybody else are hanging out here so there must be something too it). A very neat foundation for escapism. Unfortunately 2) prevents this break-through from coming resulting in some kind of prolonged minimal social fulfillment, but for lonely people also emotional starvation. I've seen enough users expressing frustration over this. They describe the Internet as COLD.

MMO just push the borders one step further by providing a detached context which appears to provide a valid "life situation", and add fuel to the flames by providing different kinds of treadmills and rewardsystems. I suggested using time caps on MUD-Dev a long time ago, but it wasn't very popular so I don't think it will happen until there is one success-story using such an approach. Maybe Middle Earth will be the first. The most addicted players (those who are harmed by their addiction) will most likely spread out on more games/characters though...

In relation to design there is a real dilemma in there: you don't want them to be bored, but you don't want to cause harm to their socio-emotional life either.

Posted Apr 3, 2005 8:55:22 AM | link

Ola Fosheim Grøstad says:

The "real dilemma" missed this part: Will developers be willing to make games that are fun for 2-3 hours and then switch to "boredom mode", when there are competing activities that provides as much fun as you can eat?

Posted Apr 3, 2005 9:05:01 AM | link

Yaka St.Aise says:

>Neil Lalonde wrote:
"If evidence becomes common enough to prove that MMOGs are addictive, then we might see laws limiting the use of MMOGs. It sounds crazy today, but who knows...

So let's all do our part. Stop saying "I need my fix!" in reference to MMOG's! We don't know who might be listening."

Well, that's sound advice - unless one does consider MMOG's are actually addictive - in which case following on this would be disingenuous.

> Richard wrote:
"It's not addictiveness that's a problem (we're all addicted to food), it's the social effects that the addiction has. If playing virtual worlds a lot has no more detrimental an effect on society than watching TV a lot, what's it matter if players are considered to be "addicted"? This is assuming that virtual worlds are in general addictive, of course, which I dispute anyway."

I agree with Richard about the problem of addictiveness being mostly restricted to the extent said addictiveness is socially disruptive.
However, I'd like to stress the possible disconnection between how socially disruptive gaming addiction really is, as opposed to how 'bad' it is perceived to be in the eye of outsiders to the hobby.
A few individual legal cases going wrong could be enough to kill the business, no need for hordes of zombified addicts to actually starve themselves to death in front of WoW III, or go on killing spree at the local mall for that.

Not subscribing to the view virtual worlds are intrinsically addictive, nor have to be, I still am one of those who think addictiveness is an integral part of most commercial MMOG designs at the moment, and I don't think lying about it (as he suggests) is a valid answer to the - very real - threat to the future of MMOG Neil mentioned.

Just as for potentially copyright-infringing devices, I think the first step towards addressing this issue is to figure whether:
- the potential for harm (here: addictiveness) is tied to "legitimate uses" of the device (here: enjoy socially acceptable good time) ;
- or if the main - and possibly sole - purpose of the device is to cause harm (here: hook users by any means to keep them pay their subscriptions, supposedly destroying the individual and wrecking social havoc in the process).

To be perfectly clear I personally don't condone the practice of prohibiting even the most stupid, value-less, toxic-to-death-addictive games, but I can't ignore the common practice in western countries to resort to law to 'protect' people from their own weakness and other people's predatory habits, so I figure this in one of those issues that won't go away just by ignoring it.

While I don't see coming legal prohibition of MMOGs, I suppose it still could happen if the industry brings it on itself by keeping on churning out products whose sole selling point is the ability to hook without hope of escape addictive personality types by playing on pavlovian feedback loops.

Conversely, I contend it is possible to avoid this fate by *simply* focusing on the production of games that offer some actual value in addition (or substitutive) of limbic-level addiction.

While I share Richard's concern that taking responsibility may end up with gamemakers charged with more than their fair share of responsibility for the malfunctionning players, I reckon there is room for designers to do some damage control without self-indicting themselves.

Semi-ironically, voluntary restrictions, such as enforcing age limits on some games and changing a few things to marketing and EULAs could go a long way towards supporting more interesting game designs, while reducing the odds of legal restraints.

To sum up, better games are the way to go because:
- they reduce the odds of the whole field being judged (literally) noxious and without merits ;
- they can succeed on higher than lowest-common-denominator (rodent level) merits, thus reduce their potential toxicity through socially-disruptive addictiveness ;
- they make more enjoyable for both players and designers to spend time on.

ttfn,
-- Yaka.

Posted Apr 3, 2005 6:55:53 PM | link

Brask Mumei says:

This talk of addictiveness reminds me of what Richard brought up in the early days of Terra Nova: The Heros Journey.

Why do MMORPGs not have exit plans?

When you hit level 60, why not give the user: "Congrats, you can quit now!"

One may think that this absence of exit plan is simple financial wisdom. Giving the player permission to quit may mean they quit, rather than playing another 3-4 months before they quit out of frustration. After all, why leave that $50 on the table?

I think that money *should* be left on the table:
1) There is no guarantee they will quit even after they get permission to quit. They may play less hours, but they'll likely still use it as a chat room.
2) Idle hands are the devils tools. Bored and frustrated players take it out on other players. This could cost you more customers than the $50 that they pay before finally cancelling.
3) Do you want your players last memories of your games to be of good times, or of frustration and boredom? Do you want them to feel eternally guilty for not playing your game, or feel satisfied that it was a good use of years of their lives? Which one will see them coming back for your expansion pack? (MMORPGs only let people quit when they are completely burned out. And then we wonder why it is so hard to bring players back?)

I think questions about addictiveness will vanish if we seriously address "How and when does the average player STOP playing my game? How do they know they are done?"

- Brask Mumei

Posted Apr 4, 2005 12:22:59 AM | link

Yaka St.Aise says:

> Brask Mumei wrote:
"After all, why leave that $50 on the table?

I think that money *should* be left on the table:"

That's a rude thing to say to profeshunals, Mr Mumei. ;)
The kind of truth that is generally not welcome by many ears, yet truth nonetheless.

Similarly *some* users should be willingly left off the game.
I've been one of those advocating the need for marketing and revenue models to stray away from the 'eat all you can' (as customer bases go), as well as the 'all you can eat' (regarding subscription fees and price points) approaches, with little success so far, alas.

Sadly, it is difficult to model accurately how much could be saved on hidden costs relatively to the higher price and risk of trying different business models by making games that strive to actually satisfy a select user base (possibly at higher per-sale pricepoints) rather than luring as many random eyeballs as possible using teh shiney-flavored candy, then stockholmizing 'em all in the same corral for as long as you can, no matter how much they howl in distress and stomp each other, until they die of despair and exhaustion.

/goofy apocalypse

Few reasonably shiney MMOGs (meaning 3D) at this point have been designed outside this model, each game in turn trying to please everyone in the existing niche of online gaming.
WoW may indeed bring more players into MMOGs and restore some optimism by investors, triggering a wave of new and possibly innovative games in its wake (past the inevitable cloning frenzy), but it doesn't do much to extend the gene pool of MMOGs nor their playerbase, as it still caters mostly to gamers.

I'm aware how much easier WoW is on non-gamers than other offers of the time, and how that's obviously a GoodThing™, yet it is also grounds for confusion by developers, marketing types and players alike, by suggesting WoW is hitting the mainstream nerve, while I suspect it is just enlarging the MMOG-players circle to a broader share of the overall existing gamers (casual to hardcore) market.

While it may change a few things about the MMOG standards in production values, QA and reliability, it doesn't expand on the what the Sims started, ie bringing games to people who didn't care for them until then.
In fact, by dumbing down the most visible (hence representative) western MMOG to a Ford Mondeo formula, WoW may participate in freezing these games into a 'fits all, fits none' form for a good while.

I have no doubt MMOG can in time be rescued from dull homogeneity by indy projects and a couple surprise hits, as the production costs are eventually dragged down by consumer-priced yet pro-quality-grade tools, but it is kind of tedious seeing the medium retracing one by one the growing pains of the movie/TV industry instead of cutting corners by learning from other trades.

fwiw,
-- Yaka.

Posted Apr 4, 2005 8:20:55 AM | link

Neil says:

Richard Bartle said, "If playing virtual worlds a lot has no more detrimental an effect on society than watching TV a lot, what's it matter if players are considered to be 'addicted'? This is assuming that virtual worlds are in general addictive, of course, which I dispute anyway."

I wasn't expecting that part of my post to be latched onto, but I think it is the more important point now that I think on it again. No, I don't think we will ever have a credible source "prove" that computer games are truly addictive. There is no physical dependence created by computer games, as is possible with nicotine and alcohol (as examples). Those of us privileged enough to satisfy our more basic needs will tend to spend the rest of our time (and as much of it as possible) entertaining ourselves in some way. The fact that computer games are always available makes them a bit different than TV (where most programs aren't very good past midnight, unless you pay for a premium service) and other leisure activities. But how many people have confessed to staying up "way too late" reading the last few chapters of The DaVinci Code? Books aren't addictive either. They're just hard to put down when they're good. (This isn't a review of The DaVinci Code! ;)

Yaka said:
"While I share Richard's concern that taking responsibility may end up with gamemakers charged with more than their fair share of responsibility for the malfunctionning players, I reckon there is room for designers to do some damage control without self-indicting themselves."

I'm pessimistic on this issue. Laws are often made by powerful lobby groups. Take Tipper Gore's (wife of former U.S. vice president) outrage over hearing her child listening to Purple Rain. The fifth song contains the word "masturbating". Thus was introduced the parental advisory labelling on music packaging for products that contain "offensive" language (according to American English). Plenty of albums contained potentionally offensive content before Purple Rain, but Tipper was a connected woman in a right-of-centre country.

Is this warning label a bad idea? It doesn't mean that the music has to be changed. As long as a publisher puts that warning on the package, musicians can be as offensive/expressive as they want to be.

Except that WalMart might not sell it. In which case, a publisher might "recommend" some lyric changes.

Posted Apr 4, 2005 12:20:36 PM | link

Ola Fosheim Grøstad says:

Neil, try to run the same argument with books. Obviously books without a happy ending should have a warning label:

"Bad ending, hero commits suicide: people with depressions are adviced to consult a professional before reading this book"

Posted Apr 4, 2005 1:37:31 PM | link

Neil says:

True... Yet books with offensive language don't have to have warning labels, and accessing the language is easier with books than CD's. Just open a book and there it is. "The book fell open and my daughter saw the F word!"

Laws are arbitrary sometimes.

Like Yaka said earlier, "...I can't ignore the common practice in western countries to resort to law to 'protect' people from their own weakness..." (Read above for the full paragraph.)

I suspect that MMORPG's aren't big business enough to warrant such attention. (Did I say I was pessimistic before...?)

Dungeons & Dragons was blamed (by media and conservative groups) for criminal behaviour in the past (were there any murders over game items?), yet no laws specific to D&D or pen-and-paper role-playing games came out of it. I have not done reasearch to determine if any p'n'p role-playing game publishers were ever held liable for murders/suicides/crimes commited by gamers, or if there were any such official charges laid against a publisher. (I suspect not.)

Posted Apr 4, 2005 2:50:52 PM | link

Ola Fosheim Grøstad says:

I don't mind the gorvernment protecting people from their weaknesses (what a horrible phrase). I think the adult society is responsible for what kids have access to. And yes, I think the goverment should regulate the game space by pointing at game A, B, C and D and say "You are not allowed to sell those to kids because they may cause uneccesary trauma etc". It is an either/or thing which the politicians should take responsibility for.

But when you make qualitatively classification of art-objects mandatory it becomes disturbingly dysfuctional:

* What is next? Labeling things as "gay/islamic/jewish"?

* The entertainment sector develops more tawdry expressions that are much more "dangerous" in my opinion: Britney Spears' lolita image begging to be beaten "baby, hit me one more time" which millions of little girl ate raw... Pretty nasty, actually. In my country talking about masturbation with teenagers is viewed as educational and takes place in public national information channels (radio and newspapers). Now, that is cultural, but that pretty much wraps up the problems with such labels. It can become a kind of censorships where positive information/art which is "needed" as force in a culture is supressed and replaced by speculative and more "dangerous" expressions. (Why is it so horribel to show a natural naked woman, but it is ok to show a woman in a bikini that is almost falling off? What kind of message does this send to little girls?)

* Etc. ;)

Posted Apr 4, 2005 3:57:21 PM | link

Yaka St.Aise says:

> Ola Fosheim Grøstad wrote :
"(Why is it so horribel to show a natural naked woman, but it is ok to show a woman in a bikini that is almost falling off? What kind of message does this send to little girls?)"

That hairy naked people aren't so happening by MTV standards and that bikinis are an exercise in applied mechanics ?

Sorry, couldn't help it. ;)

What was so 'horrible' about my statement (which you thoroughly distorted, btw) regarding law playing surrogate to people's willingness and ability to act as grownups ?
Whether you or I like it or not, it seems to be a steady trend in the western world - or did I miss something ?

Funny (in a scary way) case in point: Audio record of a 911 call., and text transcript of the same. (thanks to Making Light for linking it).

Back on topic, I stand by the idea that going for M+ ratings on some MMOGs can only prove beneficial for the field, from a creative and diversity standpoint. In the same line of thought, there is hope for games with 'controversial' (how's that for an horrible word ?) content to grow a healthy US customer base as long as they take care to not operate from the USA. EVE online is a good example of this.

ttfn,
-- Yaka.

Posted Apr 4, 2005 6:02:44 PM | link

Ola Fosheim Grøstad says:

Yaka, the "horror" is the all too common belief that some people are weak and others are not, and that if the weak people suffer then they get what they deserve.

(I am not saying that you believe this.)

If publishers want to rate their products then that is one thing. Stating that you only accept customer that are 18+ is ok. It is when some external body demands that artifacts are rated by quality it gets yukkie.

Posted Apr 4, 2005 7:28:51 PM | link

Linn Søvig says:

Hmm...I just wanted to comment on the original question on this post. The more I think about it, I feel that virtual is more of a geographical prefix. We see instances of crossing the boundary virtual and real several times, which is so elinquently discussed on this blog (big fan by the way). Be it currency or property or even emotions. I keep coming back to relationships as well. The friends I make in a MMORPG are very real to me. Infact the only difference between my 'real' friends and my 'virtual' friends is geography.
Although when it comes to property within MMORPGs I also feel time should be of essence.
Xilren wrote: I see it as the equivalent of joining a gym and renting racquetball equipment. Just because I can give it to my bud, lose it, sell a really fine one on ebay, or even destroy it, doesn’t make it mine.

I disagree. If you want to use the gym as a scenario, I would look at the fitness you acquire as the best comparison. You go to the gym, work your but off, lets say you’re mainly focusing on expanding you bicep muscles. You work out in the gym, you use the property of the gym, but is the muscle you acquire really yours? And lets just be a bit creative here. What if someone else in the gym stole that bulk of muscle you’d been working your ass off to obtain? Or the gym suddenly told you, sorry, your muscle is our property, you can't take it with you!

We mustn’t forget that these worlds are persistent. You keep playing and playing, enhancing your skills and not in the least assets, if someone just steals stuff you’re worked hard at attaining, wouldn’t you also be royally steamed?

But I don't feel that the game designers should be held responsible! I can't help thinking that it might be up to us, as players or people just obsessing about these questions, to make some form of forum, court or democratic politics, to ensure that those guilty shall be punished and that your avatar does have property rights, but within it's own geographical domain. And this should ofcourse be made in unison with the designers or producers.
We're beyond saying that MMORPGs are just games. This murder definately aknowledges that.

Posted Apr 5, 2005 10:13:23 AM | link

Barry Kearns says:

Xilren wrote:

Personally, I find the subject of in game items to be quite different than a bank account balance. By even disucssing what kind of "property" this virtual sword is we have granted it far more weight than it deserves. It is something totally meaningless without the rest of the game around it; it cannot exist independantly of the game as such, it's not even an "item" or property at all. It's a rule in a game.

You cannot remove it from the gameworld to another, at best you can "give" it to another player in the same gameworld or "destroy" it within the gameworld (though i dont like those terms either b/c you aren't truly "giving" anything nor "destroying" anything; the item always exists in the game code, you just don't have access to it anymore).

As such, I think granting property status to these particular "bytes in a database" just because people find it easier to discuss these things with real world points of reference is a mistake.

I think there's a fundamental distinction that you're missing here, Xilren, and I think it helps to illuminate the question of whether something should be treated as "property" or not.

There are two different aspects of value at work here: there is intrinsic value, and extrinsic value. The intrinsic value of an object relates strongly to the physical "realness" aspect of an object, but often only very weakly to the utility that the object provides, or the degree to which it is treated as "property".

This is illustrated most strongly when examining most modern currencies... a twenty dollar bill has very little intrinsic value, but by convention we assign a very specific extrinsic value to it. Speaking directly to your "dependence on the system" argument, it's interesting to note that the extrinsic value of twenty dollar bills isn't actually portable outside the treasury system of the US either... the only reason that we use them for transporting value is that people are willing to EXCHANGE them for other things of value.

The value of the US money supply remains unchanged (both intrinsically and extrinsically) when you pay for something with a twenty... just like the sword supply remains constant when one character trades a sword to another.

Casino chips are another good example. They have a physicality, and can be moved around from place to place, but only retain meaningful amounts of value when used within their tightly constrained universe. What makes them useful is that they are readily convertible to something else of value... in this case, those twenty dollar bills I was talking about.

It isn't the physicality of casino chips that makes them "property"... it's the convention that they serve as markers of transferrable value. If you put $50 dollars on a casino smart-card, and use it to run up a $75 electronic winnings balance on slot machine, the value of that $75 is yours... and if the machine loses power or the card has a defect, you'd have a legitimate legal claim IMO that you should receive the equivalent of that $75 in value restored to you.

The fact that the balance had no physicality is largely irrelevant. You possessed something of value, and it was erroneously taken from your control, preventing you from converting it to something else of value. It should be restored to you because it is the VALUE that is your property... not the particular bits that represented that value.

Likewise with a tradeable virtual sword that provides benefits to the possessor... it is the value that the sword conveys which may be the "property" in question, not the particular bits in the database that give the illusion of persistence to that value.

In that sense, the sword is very much like your bank balance... it has no intrinsic value, but because it is tradeable and has extrinsic value, it can be converted to something else of value if you can find someone willing to make the trade.

It is purely an illusion that you can "move your bank balance" somewhere else. You cannot. Your bank balance is a concept, and in that sense is exactly like the game rule modifier you discuss.

Your bank agrees to convert the value of your balance (generally on demand) to something else that you would find valuable, like twenty dollar bills, or a silly slip of paper with writing and numbers on it called a check... or can get another bank to make bits change in their database to correspond to symmetric changes in your bank's database.

I currently work for an employer who direct-deposits my paycheck to my bank. I have a debit card from my bank, and use it to buy groceries. During the whole conversion chain of my labor -> my employer's benefit -> my employer's bank balance -> my bank balance -> grocery store's bank balance -> groceries, nowhere did the value of my work instantiate into anything meaningfully physical. It was all an electronic representation of value. But it was still mine, and I could legally fight to be "made whole" should the chain break somewhere and deprive me of the value I once possessed.

"Realness" (or intrinsic value) is often irrelevant to value movement in these cases... but the property concepts are perfectly valid despite the varying levels of tangibility that we experience.

Xilren later wrote:

I see what you are saying, but i disagree. The fact that modern banks now keep their accounts in computers rather than old paper ledgers or even really old pure hard currency, nor that most transactions nowdays are conducted electronically, doesn't change the fact that at some point in time, my money in that database was a real object seperate from the banks particular computer system. It IS an independent object for one important reason, it can leave the system. If the bank's computer crashed tomorrow, that does not mean I have lost my money. (thank goodness :-). [The bank going out of business is a different case; if you know that is going to happen, you can act to seperate yourself from the system].

To me, that is the important difference. My money is not hardcoded to one and only one bank system forever more. I can choose to withdraw all of my balance and get the real currency equivalent of it, or, I can have my money transferred to entirely different bank. That is something you cannot do with any such virtual items like your Sword of Leet.

I think you've fallen for the illusion that is modern currency... you've conflated the extrinsic value of US currency to the point of calling it "real", when in fact it is nothing more than an agreement that other people will treat these green pieces of paper as markers of value. The "real" money you talk about is more-or-less worthless except for the trading utility it provides, and the extrinsic value of those bills does not exist outside the treasury system.

Dollar bills are no less constrained than the sword in that sense... they are simply more common and more popularly accepted as value markers.

The value of your "Sword of Leet" can most definitely be transferred to other games... most commonly by converting it to game currency and then swapping currencies with someone cross-game.

You might incur some (exceedingly steep) fees as part of the conversion process, but it's certainly possible. IGE and other trading services even offer direct game-to-game currency conversions, without having to take the intermediate step of converting to US currency first.

Most importantly, you don't actually transfer your money from one bank to another... you're simply converting the value of your balance in one bank to an equivalent value in another bank. Incurring no fees along the convesion path might create the illusion that you actually "moved" your money, but that illusion is not reality.

Each of those two bank's databases were separate and highly constrained systems. They agreed to change their respective entries in those entirely separate systems, but most importantly, they do this in exchange for another separate transaction which balances the books... and that transaction generally involves other databases, and so on.

From the perspective of your bank, your balance is just a rule modifier for their database. The only reason you are able to maintain the illusion of the "reality" of your money is that it can be converted to something else, and it's easy to find people willing to make the conversion for you.

Dollar bills are also tightly constrained to the currency system, and they only appear to be "real" value because of the pervasiveness of the acceptance of the illusion. Governments have promised to use the force of law to maintain that illusion, but history is replete with examples of governments that shattered that illusion by allowing inflation to dilute and eventually destroy the value stored by people using that currency.

The people on the short end of those disasters saw first-hand that money often is a lot less "real" than they thought it was... and sometimes saw the extrinsic value of their money become zero. Money in such cases reverted to intrinsic value: burnable paper, sometimes suitable for use as a toilet tissue substitute.

By analogy, a game-world collapsing would be little different from a government currency falling to zero value... or publicly-traded shares in a company dropping to a valuation of zero.

When you have stored value in these systems, it disappears in all three cases... but so long as the system maintained integrity, your value was still yours, and typically treated as "property", despite the fact that the popular markers of value were supported by the most ephemeral thing of all... promises.

Depression-era bank crashes, MMO games closing down, or governnment currencies inflating to worthlessness generally only give you a limited ability to "seperate yourself from the system": you're going to typically lose some of your stored value, and the later you clue into the crash, the less of your value you'll be able to preserve... because you're going to have a pretty hard time finding someone willing to take the losing end of that trade.

Posted Apr 5, 2005 1:03:27 PM | link

Yaka St.Aise says:

My... that's probably the best case I've read so far for virtual relitivism. ;)

While I agree thoroughly, there's still a tiny practical glitch: currency exchanges are secured by mutual commitment of states and banks.
There is no display of such mutual enthusiasm (so far) from either states, banks or online worlds operators.

Any suggestions on how to exit the gold-mint age and bring online worlds into the global monetary system at a formal level ?

-- Yaka.

Posted Apr 5, 2005 9:37:53 PM | link

Yaka St.Aise says:

> Ola Fosheim Grøstad wrote :
"Yaka, the "horror" is the all too common belief that some people are weak and others are not, and that if the weak people suffer then they get what they deserve.

(I am not saying that you believe this.)"

I'm glad you don't. :)

To dissipate any ambiguity from my previous statement, I don't think 'weak' people get what they 'deserve', yet I think expecting too much from others (ie taking over your what is your responsibility) is a vicious self-reinforcing cycle that leads people to behave less and less responsibly, under the assumption it's not their job anymore to act as adults.

hth,
-- Yaka.

Posted Apr 5, 2005 9:44:29 PM | link

Thabor says:

* The entertainment sector develops more tawdry expressions that are much more "dangerous" in my opinion: Britney Spears' lolita image begging to be beaten "baby, hit me one more time" which millions of little girl ate raw...

Not to derail the conversation, but the lyric in question is more likely sexual than violent. Hitting it is vernacular for intercourse in parts of America.

Posted Apr 8, 2005 11:14:56 AM | link