Fair warning -- I'm playing outside of my sandbox here.
One question that has been bothering me for quite some time is why we conceive of avatars as alternate identities. It seems to me that that is not how many (most?) of us experience avatars. They are not alternate selves. Rather, to the extent I do engage in storytelling and not Halo-style enemy blasting, I do so as a narrative. My characters are more akin to characters in a book, rather than alternate identities. (My critical literary theory is especially weak. I'm sure someone with an English degree will tell us many useful things about the relationship of authors to authored characters.)
So: if we experience our avatars as characters in a story, rather than alternate identities, does that mean anything to my larger project of the economic analysis of virtual property in real markets? Surprisingly, yes. And the conclusion may run counter to the general thrust of my arguments. But, that's what we get to do here -- consistency being the hobgoblin of small minds, and all.
Here's how the thought-stream goes. How do we explain why someone keeps a given object off of the market when a market clearing price is generally offered? If golden rings are going for $90 in general, why don't I put the one on my left hand onto the market? Peggy Radin's idea is that identity is the key: when I identify with my wedding band, or my house, or my car, etc., then I keep it off the market not because a market-clearing price isn't being offered, but because it is MINE.
Another way of putting it: trades make us all richer. I want the baseball card more, you want the money more. So we trade. The question is WHY I want the baseball card more. Idiosyncratic preferences are what generate value realized through trade. But what creates those idiosyncratic preferences?
Sometimes what creates idiosyncratic preferences is information differential. But that's boring. If I happen to have secret knowledge that the card is worth a lot more than I'm paying for it, obviously I (or anyone else) will buy it and resell it. But that can't account for the majority of sales. For the most part, we buy at market prices, and then (crazily enough) we KEEP the property off the market. It's ours. It becomes part of our identity.
So if this slightly off-beat thought-stream is correct, if avatars and swords and the rest are about identity, we ought to protect property rights in these things. This approach was indirectly suggested in Dan and Greg's fantastic "Laws of the Virtual Worlds" piece.
But what *if* it's all about narrative? If it's all about narrative, then these avatars and objects are creative works, and all the arguments I've been making about disentangling intellectual property law from basic vanilla property law come under serious stress.
Indeed, I'll admit it: one thing my theories -- OR the game companies -- don't deal well with is the problem of user-created intellectual content. But that's not really my goal: those derivative work / infringement cases will have to be worked out like the sampling cases in rap music. And I think they will be worked out to some reasonable solution.
Comments on Names and Narrative:
I actually think Jim Gee's tripartate model of avatar and identity gives us a few more tools to think with here. He sees the self-avatar relationship as consisting of SELF-as-avatar, self-as-AVATAR, and some middle ground, if I recall correctly. I'm guessing that some of us prefer to play as one or another, and that perhaps even the narrative of the game can't get us to shake our preference for identity position. So could we expect more SELF-ish players to put items on the market when it suits their identities as traders, and more AVATAR-ish players to keep items when it supports their sense of character?
Posted Dec 5, 2005 9:44:01 AM | link
I'd suggest talking to somebody with a background in economics - what I'm about to say is grounded in vague recollections from classes taken a decade ago.
The problem you've discovered ("Why don't people sell if the price is good") has been adressed in microeconomics - it's perceived value. Which differs per person, and is not directly related to ownership. (E.g. I might value that ring on your left hand even more than you do and offer a price you cannot refuse. Unlikely, but possible)
It's in no way related to playing as "self" or as "avatar". It might be an outgrowth of that, though. In general, I would think that if you play as an Avatar, you'd place higher value on items with emotional investment, while as a "rational" player you'd place higher value on items that help you progress.
Posted Dec 5, 2005 10:27:09 AM | link
Josh -- ah, perhaps I can lure you over to the dark side of social construction & ludology and away from your world of Demsetzian rational actors? Because, for me, at this point in my thinking, games and stories are where the interesting action is. I think you're exactly right that the avatar isn't *completely* about private self and private ownership, nor does the virtual world map to a standard social space. That's why our standard notions of law and society break down--we have a hard time talking policy of narratives and games. The problem for you (and for me) is that there isn't a lot of sophisticated work explaining how the law should handle the economic aspects of -- for lack of a better term -- improvisational theater.
That's what my Planes of Power piece is driving at. In a nutshell, there are countless ways to oversimply what's happening in terms of value generation in virtual environments by analogy to other activities. I think your paper is absolutely dead on when you describe domain names, for instance. But the virtual sword is not a domain name, it is something more subltle. It's very difficult to explain its value, but it must rest partially in narrative (user-told stories using designer-authored tools) + game (voluntary submission to essentially arbitrary rule sets for the purpose of agonistic play) + old fashioned politics. All of these are part of what creates the value of the virtual sword in the MMORPG, but the concepts really don't play nicely with each other.
Some industry folks grok this, but they've got a business to run -- they aren't trying to find an ideal policy of virtual property.
Posted Dec 5, 2005 10:37:25 AM | link
Joshua Fairfield>One question that has been bothering me for quite some time is why we conceive of avatars as alternate identities. It seems to me that that is not how many (most?) of us experience avatars. They are not alternate selves.
I'm missing something here. The first sentence asks why we conceive of avatars as alternate identities and the third sentence says that we don't.
Are you asking why we feel that our avatars are "us" despite the fact that physically they're not, or are you questioning the supposition that we think they're alternative identities at all? Or something else?
Posted Dec 5, 2005 10:47:04 AM | link
Clarification: Although we usually talk about Avatars as being alternate identities, it is my sense that they are less about identity than about narrative.
Posted Dec 5, 2005 11:18:55 AM | link
Joshua > Although we usually talk about Avatars as being alternate identities, it is my sense that they are less about identity than about narrative.
The question then arises, *whose* narrative? And that's where identity comes in. I'd submit that it's the word "alternate" that should be questioned in the above. Avatars are less *alternate* identities than they are extensions of our own identity (as I'm sure Richard would agree).
Economically, though (and in the plainest possible language), it's a question of what you're doing in the virtual world in the first place. Are you there to make money? Then you sell the ring. Or are you there to discover the narrative that lies behind the avatar, and thus behind part of yourself? Then you might sell the ring, you might keep it, you might see if you can offer it to an attractive Night Elf in return for her hand in marriage. Market-clearing prices will never be the sole determinant, only because yes, the rational actor model I think is so full of holes by now that it's probably resting somewhere at the bottom of Booty Bay.
Posted Dec 5, 2005 1:43:06 PM | link
Economic blurb 2:
The way I understand economics, a transaction happens when an actor is offered more or equal value to what he possesses. In theory, money quantifies value perfectly: everything has a price. In practice, there seems to be some kind of multiple-axis quantification of value, where money just can't hold up to something intangible like friendship or identity.
The problem of this dilemma isn't about virtual swords, per se; it's about swords. It's not a stretch to say that a sword you found as a kid and have grown up with has a lot of sentimental value and that this could be replicated in virtual space. Your conception of self has expanded to include the item. Whether or not it's virtual is irrelevant.
Even if you don't personally identify with the avatar, you identify the avatar as Construct X with that sword. It's as much of a possession as the appearance it takes on your computer screen.
Posted Dec 5, 2005 1:43:47 PM | link
From someone with a background in English and Economics (but I always sucked at the econ).
Critically speaking there is no real relationship between the author and the character. Unless explicitly delineated as such (ie memoir or autobiography), you would never make the argument that the character is representing the author's preferences in some way. Ideological representation, perhaps, but not identity.
As such, your thesis holds true for an example like Halo. A strongly narrative game where your choices (even if they impact the game world, like in a RPG) does imply a character in a pre-written story. Just because it's interactive doesn't necessarily mean the leap from avatar to alternate identity is inherent in the relationship.
However, I would argue that the purpose of a MMOG is wildly different from a single-player narrative game. There is no overarching narrative of my Doctor in Anarchy Online. There's no real plot or other characters or the sense that the character is taking part in some narrative which is determined by persons other than me.
The connection between me and the Master Chief, I would argue is rather like the connection between me and a character I would write into a story. I control his actions but he is not a representation of me. In AO though (at least the way I play it), my doc talks like me, acts like me, and-- while I don't walk around hitting things with a very large hammer, is a lot more of a representation of my self-- idealized and fallible than the Master Chief.
So, translating this into economic motivations. I buy and sell things as idosyncratically as I do in a real-world market. My impulses to haggle or to buy useless pretty things is just as strong for a virtual item (relatively speaking) as for a real-world trinket. Whereas, my desire to buy a bigger sword in a RPG universe is determined by the character's narrative desire to have a bigger sword with which to hit things...
Lots and lots of holes in that, but hopefully the essential points are clear.
Posted Dec 5, 2005 2:29:34 PM | link
I can't say much in an informed way about the narrative aspect of things. My experience, and my feelings from the way people talk about things, is that they tend to identify their character's actions--economic or otherwise--as their own actions, and this leads me to think that their economic actions are probably about as much about narrative as people's RL economic actions.
More informed stuff about the economics. It's probably just in the writing, but most people most of the time hold into a piece of property, rather than selling it at the market-clearing price. This is totally consistent with the most rational-selfish-actor models of economics, because the market-clearing price itself comes from people's tastes in which some people decide the widget is worth more to them than the market clearing price, and some people decide it's worth less. Theory does say very little about how they decide this.
More interesting and anomalous, there's RL experimental evidence of people gettiing attached to something just because they possess it. Quoting a popular article on a famous study:
" In one of Kahneman's studies, he gave half of the participants a mug and the other half no mug. The results showed that people with a mug wanted to trade the mug for an average of approximately $7 cash, while the people without a mug valued the same type of mug at $3 cash.
The two acts are logically the same — trading a mug for money — Kahneman explained, but those with mugs did not want to give up something they already had."
Standard models of rational-selfish-actors would NOT predict this behavior. Is this about narrative? Maybe; I wouldn't be surprised to find out "narrative" is a significant part of economic behavior in RL (at least among those who have their basic needs satisfied). Quite possibly it's worth a few bucks to be able to say, "Yeah, I got this mug as part of this experiment..." to friends.
Posted Dec 5, 2005 3:56:45 PM | link
Timothy Dang wrote:
"" In one of Kahneman's studies, he gave half of the participants a mug and the other half no mug. The results showed that people with a mug wanted to trade the mug for an average of approximately $7 cash, while the people without a mug valued the same type of mug at $3 cash.
The two acts are logically the same — trading a mug for money — Kahneman explained, but those with mugs did not want to give up something they already had."
Standard models of rational-selfish-actors would NOT predict this behavior. Is this about narrative? Maybe; I wouldn't be surprised to find out "narrative" is a significant part of economic behavior in RL (at least among those who have their basic needs satisfied). Quite possibly it's worth a few bucks to be able to say, "Yeah, I got this mug as part of this experiment..." to friends."
I don't really see how this follows, either to "narrative" or to "not wanting to give something [one has] up." Wouldn't the sellers naturally value what they would be selling higher than potential buyers would? It seems like a rational action to me. Then again, I don't know economics.
Posted Dec 5, 2005 4:18:30 PM | link
A fascinating question - which highlights some of problems with trying to understand everything through the lens of market-based economics. I agree with both Greg and Mark, although I would frame the issue a little bit broader than just identity or narrative - I think it is a question of meaning more generally - identity and narrative are two prominent structures within which meaning arises, but there are others. Law and economics has always struggled with this problem - because for many people meaning is more important than life itself (a great many people would sacrifice themselves for their children/country/beliefs...), we don't always make "rational" economic decisions. How can economics ever hope to deal with the priceless?
As an interesting aside, Torill Mortensen  describes the creation of objects through role-play in Aarinfel [eg. the vial of sand - pp.142-148] which are only symbolic - having no existence in the database/code. And yet such objects have significant value to participants because of the meaning attributed to them. Her discussion of the Silver Rose as floating signifier is interesting in this respect (even though the Rose is a database object, it serves no purpose in the MUD except as signifier).
Posted Dec 5, 2005 4:51:27 PM | link
Vykromond> I don't really see how this follows, either to "narrative" or to "not wanting to give something [one has] up." Wouldn't the sellers naturally value what they would be selling higher than potential buyers would? It seems like a rational action to me. Then again, I don't know economics.
When you're talking about a discrete object like "a mug", the standard assumption is that any given person has some internal value for the mug. If their internal value is $4, then they'd be willing to be a mug for any price less than $4, but not a higher price.
On the other hand, if they already had a mug, and their value was $4, they's be willing to sell the mug for any price greater than $4, but not a lower price.
So, if you take a large group of people and randomly give half of them mugs and half not (I'm pretty sure that in the experiment the half who didn't get mugs got some cash), then you would expect that the typical "internal value" of the two groups would be the same. If it was (on average) $4, then you'd expect to see just as many people willing to sell their mugs for as little as $4 (or maybe $4.10 or something) as you would see people willing to buy them for $4 (or $3.90...).
Kahneman & Tversky's experiment seems to show that there's something about the posessing the mug (or being given the mug, or the story about being given the mug, or the story about being given cash instead of a mug... not simple) which makes the mug worth more to those posessing it than to those who don't. Again, this is even though it was random who got the mug and who didn't.
Hard to do this in ascii, feel free to bug me more (here or email) if that's not clearer.
Posted Dec 5, 2005 5:42:17 PM | link
I think you said it better than I did, and I think the examples from Torill are point on.
I was thinking that, just like the various values for a wedding ring, you might say narrative potentials are contained in physical objects, e.g., displaying an American flag or a erecting a public monument. But I think the difference is that our law of chattels, both real law and physical law, manages to work out ownership/expression disputes over these things fairly well (but not always -- see the cases over flag burning or nativity scenes).
Posted Dec 5, 2005 7:22:42 PM | link
I'll up Peter's point on "meaning" by extending it to "significance" and our cognitive processing of significance It’s semantics, but I view “significance” as a stronger term and more specific to an object within a class: the meaning of avatars and the significance of a particular avatar. The processing of significance then falls within the realm of behavior analysis.
I recently read "The Psychology of Investing" by John R. Nofsinger. In this book, Nofsinger identify a few key behaviors that runs counter to the rational investor concept and cites numerous "studies" similar to the ones Timonthy Dang cited.
Some of the behaviors are overconfidence, fear of regret and seeking pride, considering the past, mental accounting, etc. The example cited by Timothy is an indication of “fear of regret” or fear of losing out to future benefit of owning the mug. So this “fear” adds a behavioral premium to the mug. In financial and economic analysis, some may classified this as the value of potentional future upside and thus will apply option valuation and analysis.
Unfortunately, behaviors, sentiment, meaning and significance are not so universal. I think once people start thinking about pricing insurance policies for avatars and avatar goods will we reach a level of universal significance.
So perhaps we can replace the focus on narrative with the focus on experience as that is how we develop meaning and significance.
Posted Dec 6, 2005 1:25:55 AM | link
My view - it's about identity, kinda.
*First, I am not sure what Radin's idea (that I know nothing about) adds to the understanding of trade. I don't see why it is crazy to buy at market prices and then to refuse to sell at those same prices. The good's value to me is $10, the price is $5, that's why I bought it, and that's why I am keeping it too. Idiosyncratic preferences do drive trade, but I don't see the need to explain what those preferences are by assigning them to identity. I'm just under-read about this problem.
* On the question of identity-aspects versus narrative- aspects of virtual goods. Your Chevy may express something important about you, and you can weave a tale of your life in which your Chevy plays a significant role. The former doesn't make cars ordinary property, and the latter doesn't make cars intellectual property. Not sure where to go from that observation - as is said of the Grinch, he puzzled and puzzled until his puzzler was sore.
* The post spurred me to think about what the avatar is to me personally. It's not part of a narrative, I think. And it is not my identity either. I yearn for it to be my identity, but it is not. I think rather that my avatar mediates for me to some realm I want to be in but cannot reach. The environment that contains the avatar helps this process, to the extent that it encourages my mind to grasp at that other place. Other players can as well. Although, when the catass named 'Killj00' wanders by, I feel yanked back to the present realm. The present realm, for all its wonders, is not the only place for humans to be. We each have the capacity to sense faintly, to achieve an unconscious awareness, of another place where humans could be, once were, ought to be, were meant to be, but cannot be. The realms of fantasy that are being constructed don't spring from the whole cloth - there's meaning in the structure of the utopic and dystopic visions, and in the fact that some and not others are commonly popular with humans from such vastly disparate cultures as China and Sweden and Indiana. Jordan Peterson argues that we can't do anything without a reason to do things, and that therefore we all have some core structure of 'ought' and 'ought not' buried deep down in there, somewhere. He theorizes that those structures involve a dread of some chaotic place coupled with a deep longing for its opposite. And meanwhile, of course, we are just here, between the chaos and the relief, yet we think it falls to us to move the world toward one and not the other. Hence action. Perhaps when Professor Bartle gave us the tools to start making places, we immediately began to make those kinds of places. Merged with Tolkien's thought (from whom almost all of my dribble of reasoning here derives), these same tools might very likely have evolved into this role almost completely, to serve as conduits to an unconscious mythical space. And thus my avatar is not identity, but rather a totem whose sensing of some different plane generates vibrations, ones that are weak, yet strong enough for me to actually feel. And if like me your desire to feel those vibrations is really, really strong (something that separates roleplayers from powergamers, I now suspect), the emotional impact is powerful.
Posted Dec 6, 2005 1:29:50 AM | link
I guess I'm struck by the tendency to struggle so much with the notion of a self that at times encompasses an avatar, but at times does not. For me, we're not going to find the answer by appealing to narrative, or play, or some concept that provides a principle to account for the power of experience in these domains. If we want to say it's all about narrative, than we should aim higher, and say that it's all about something socially contructed that is a lot bigger than narrative; i.e., it's all about culture, which is a product of shared experiences that generate shared meanings and shared expectations, as Peter and Frank's posts have pointed toward.
But this still gets us only part of the way, because it is hard to account for the primary experience that Ted so ably describes by reference only to, on one hand, history and culture, or, on the other, a behavioralist account (which is, as Frank points out, never as successfully universal as it aspires to be).
Instead, we're going to have to be ready to think differently about how the self engages the world. I'm reminded of what the cognitive scientist Paul Back-y-Rita (who pioneered work on how the brain can repair itself after injury) says about how we should understand a blind person's cane. For a blind person a cane conveys an enormous degree of sensitivity and nuance, and through it that person becomes able to read the world in a reliable way through a form of interaction with it fundamentally different than that of the sighted. But cognitively speaking it cannot be understood either as an extension of the arm, with a hand getting information at the end, or as an instrument between the person and the world, subtle and sensitive perhaps, but still always just a tool. It is neither, because in acquiring the competence to use it the blind person's brain (and body in general) changes, learning to see the world in a new way. Thereafter the cane is never just a cane nor a hand replacement. It, and the user, are something new. This does not mean that it can't be put down, folded up, leaned somewhere for a moment as its owner attends to other things. But while it's in hand, the user's experience of the world is not sensible apart from it, in all its technical specificity.
Isn't an avatar the same, at least for many?
Posted Dec 6, 2005 2:10:30 AM | link
(Oops. The cognitive scientist's name is Paul Bach-y-Rita.)
Posted Dec 6, 2005 2:14:13 AM | link
Josh>Although we usually talk about Avatars as being alternate identities, it is my sense that they are less about identity than about narrative.
They're about a particular kind of narrative that derives its power because through living it you confirm your identity.
Those aren't alternate identities; those are aspects of your identity.
Posted Dec 6, 2005 3:35:55 AM | link
Does that mean I can look upon my identity as a narrative and my avatar as a sub-plot?
Posted Dec 6, 2005 12:27:39 PM | link
I think it might help to frame Josh's question a bit --
I think what Josh was getting at, and his reason for raising the question, is something peculiar about the legal academy. There is a certain variety of legal scholarship that has arguably been the *dominant* mode of scholarship during the past 10 years or so, and that is law and economics, particularly neoclassical L&E originating in law schools like Chicago (where Josh studied) and Virginia (where I studied). (Jeff Cole, one of our frequent commenters, is versed in this as well.)
L&E did plenty of good things for legal scholarship, for instance making legal scholars focus on practical market and systemic consequences of their arguments rather than the refinement of a purely normative theory of legal doctrine. In essence, it made law steal concepts from economics rather than philosophy. Of course, this improvement led to the loss of some of the old values, by making some scholars tend to devalue norms & theory that didn't sit well with neoclassical economic thought. Also central was a view of human nature that was purely self-interested, rational, and materialistic. Things like morality, narrative, and game spaces were largely off the map for this breed of legal scholarship. I think Judge Posner analogized moral sentiment to debating preferred flavors of ice cream -- pointless and inefficient.
Thinking of virtual property in the L&E Demsetzian terms (fragmentation and market privatization creating greater efficiency and value) is a worthwhile take, I would say, on the emergence of digital assets. It reveals quite a bit. In the case of domain names, it has much to offer (I'm also partial to an article by Anapum Chander, The New, New Property, in Texas Law Rev a few years ago, which explains why property is a good fit for domain names, and why the allocation schemes don't do much so for social justice concerns). In the case of virtual property, it's extremely important as well -- in some ways, I like what Josh did in his article on property rights better than what Dan and I did in ours, which was just an introductory brush that didn't take up economic analysis very much.
But neoclassical economic analysis is not prevalent among economists today, because they recognize that it doesn't tell the whole story. My sense is that those who do pure L&E writing have fairly acknowledged that fact at this point, but those who apply it to various practical issues have been less flexible. I think Tom, coming from a humanities theory background, and Ted, coming from a more contemporary economic background, are both very comfortable with theories of economic value embedded in culture and social relation -- neoclassical economics is subsumed under a broader theoretical umbrella that colors it. Yet in law, neoclassical economics persists, because those who use it 1) don't have faith that they personally have anything worthwhile to say beyond it, and 2) are a little quick to dismiss what they might describe as mushy and non-rigorous humanities theory-talk. Olin Foundation grants may play a part in this as well -- who knows.
As I said before, I think the VW story is more complicated than Demsetzian analysis reveals. However, I'm skeptical that many in the legal academy want to take games seriously enough that we can actually form a policy vocabulary around this area. For legal ideas to be meaningful, they have to be accessible to judges and policy-makers. For them to develop, you need to have some scholarly back and forth. I'm uncertain that exploring the way narrative and game theory relates to economics theory in MMORPGs would be scholarship that would be accessible and useful to many people at this point, if anyone wanted to pursue it. (Though I'd love to read it.)
Brett Frischman critiquing Demsetz expanded to IP (an area where people *are* talking): ">http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=855244">
Me lamenting the lack of social capital talk around the Grokster debates:
Posted Dec 7, 2005 9:07:52 AM | link
Whoops- bad link. Brett's paper is here:
Posted Dec 7, 2005 9:11:29 AM | link
Heh, yeah, I am a proud Posner-pragmatist. Not because I have any blind faith in L&E, but because I believe it provides the most useful reference from which to measure any deviation.
While I agree that many in the legal academy don't yet take games seriously, I am skeptical that we (royally, as society, not just the 'gaming community') need to develop any significantly different policy vocabulary regarding VW's.
Further, the extent to which we do has far, far more to do with a general lack of understanding of what are exactly the issues.
For example, none of the people with whom I've discussed virtual items as property have been able to convince me that (current implmentations) aren't anything other than bailments. Why do we need another vocabulary? If I owned a paint gun range and hid bigger, better guns/protection on the range for players to find, none of those players, absent my express permission, would assume they could walk out with anything they found. And most would consider someone who did so a thief.
Posted Dec 7, 2005 10:54:13 AM | link
But RMT isn't about taking the guns off your land, right? If we have to say MMORPGs are like paintballs (arguably they aren't, for various reasons, e.g. scale/code/persistence/narartive dimension) the better analogy would a player who plays your game, runs and gets the bigger guns, and then transfers them in game to the other players. You contractually forbid, but you can't enforce practically, because you're got 1 ref to 3000 players, and the ref also happens to be partially blindfolded.
Relevant question for Josh being -- from whence derives the economic value of this gun? Outside the game you could fix a market price for the gun (and for the virtual sword, this would probably be 0 out of game), but in-game it assumes a different market price, because the game rules create a particular value -- change the (arbitrary) game rules (which may constitute a narrative-like thing) and you change the value. And, to the extent the game/narrative is used as an instrument of expressive activity (you want to use a particular gun to enact a particular story within the environment), the gun becomes part of something that (Josh is suggesting) might be theorized as a new IP object of social value. The value being generated is in "performance w/gun" not in the mere ownership of the gun itself.
Posted Dec 7, 2005 11:14:27 AM | link
Captain Kirk is famously known for saying
“… pain and guilt can't be taken away with a wave of a magic wand. They're the things we carry with us, the things that make us who we are.”
Situations and the symbols of situations gain value through the way they are woven into our lives. Some situations are idiosyncratic, some are socially structured. Thus some symbols have strictly personal value – a favorite old stuffed animal, say – and some have more generic value – a wedding ring. As the societal value of something increases the number of persons with an interest in it increases and it becomes more amenable to classical economic analysis. Where idiosyncratic value and societal values differ there is the opportunity for trade.
Situations, however stylized, can still be woven into our lives – in that sense they are legitimate. So disemboweling orcs does become part of our identity. In turn, “Hey, Joe, watch me waste that orc!” becomes part of our narrative. The Sword of Swerd we used to kill the orc is tied to both: it is a symbol of our identity and a part of our narrative. Where the environment in which the story is told can interact with the story teller the story teller is changed by it.
So for me this discussion hinges on the question of the legitimacy of experience in virtual environments. I believe they are legitimate. And I don’t think most folks on this forum would question that. None-the-less, if an experience in a VW is not legitimate then it would not contribute to identity and it would be entirely narrative in narrow interpretation of the term. But if VW experiences are authentic, if they do change those that participate in them, then they are undeniably tied to identity and teasing apart intellectual property and classical property in VWs is an important endeavor.
To that end, I still believe that until virtual property has a societal instantiation outside the contractual control of a single entity there can be no real virtual property. But that is another thread.
And on another tangent, this has implications for the violence-and-video-games crowd. In a twisted way, making an argument that VW experience contributes to identity opens other kinds of liability. It is another reason folks in the commercial game development and operations community should be arguing against this interpretation.
Posted Dec 7, 2005 11:14:35 AM | link
Good thoughts, Greg.
I wasn't really talking about RMT. The way I see it, the issue isn't about whether or not the virtual sword *is* property, but who *owns* it.
Your points support the bailment: you can't take it with you. The operator gives you possession (not ownership!) of items for the purpose of playing the game.
The beauty of that analysis is that once items become portable among games (owned by different operators!), then the bailment suddenly flips on its head: the bailors become the bailees! I think that's pretty elegant.
You are absolutely correct that practical enforcement is a problem. For me, the issue is who bears the cost of enforcement? Ted and Richard seem to argue that society should (e.g. the law should provide some affirmative super-rememdy or other active protection beyond contract). I disagree.
Why should society shouldn't shoulder the cost to make enforcement practical that Ted, Richard, and other players/operators (i.e. those who would benefit) won't?
And, the praticality of enforcement isn't unique to VW's. If I operate my paint gun range and the terms forbid RMT for items found on my range, how will I ever know if two transacting players made some agreement over coffee at the diner around the corner from my range?
Posted Dec 7, 2005 12:13:36 PM | link
Apologies for not closing an italic tag!!
Posted Dec 7, 2005 12:15:01 PM | link
I agree with you entirely about that, Jeff.
I always listen carefully to Ted and Richard, and I even cite them a bunch, but to argue that we need anti-RMT laws that are stronger than contract law -- that the law protecting devs from RMT is not adequate, that it needs to go thermonuclear somehow -- strikes me as perhaps unwise theoretically and an extreme longshot in political terms.
The devs have a lot. They've got the EULA (and, I'd suggest, several other laws that could be applicable to professional pharmers) to shut down the RMT if they choose to pull the lawsuit trigger. But beyond that, if role-play is seen a form of religion, the players will have to be the converted and indoctrinated into self-policing against the RMT.
Posted Dec 7, 2005 12:43:58 PM | link
We can really bring any topic back to RMT, can't we?
Jeff Cole >Ted and Richard seem to argue that society should (e.g. the law should provide some affirmative super-rememdy or other active protection beyond contract).
I don't remember Ted's interration proposal including additional enforcement - assuming that is what you are referring to. The interration idea was based on the assumption that the argument Greg and Dan made in their paper about player property interests superceding the EULA would be accepted by courts. Interration would function essentially in place of the EULA banning RMT. (There were also other aspects, such as protection from liability and government interference, but I don't think any of them entailed greater enforcement by government). As for Richard, it has been by experience that he rarely asks for much from governments other than to be left alone to FoD with impunity ;-)
At any rate - I agree with Greg and Jeff - we probably don't need additional laws to allow worlds to ban RMT, and those worlds should take on the burden of enforcement. However, that is very different from arguing that there is an inherent property interest that supercedes the contract/EULA. It is a precarious "property" interest indeed for which the remunerated alienation of any part is a sufficient condition for the entire portfolios (accounts) of both vendor and purchaser to be deleted ("expropriated"?).
Jeff >virtual items as property have been able to convince me that (current implmentations) aren't anything other than bailments
I see your point, although bailments generally don't imply use and enjoyment by the bailee of the goods in question. Take the classic examples of bailments: when you give your car to a parking garage/mechanic, it is not for their use and enjoyment, but for the fulfillment of a specific purpose (storage/repair) - and compensation flows from bailor to bailee. In this case, the primary purpose for the "bailment" is the use and enjoyment by the player (bailee), for which compensation flows to the VW owner (bailor). Even assuming the player is in "possession" of the virtual sword (a tenuous proposition in itself), it seems to me that agreements of compensation for use and enjoyment of property are more likely to take the form of rental/lease than bailment. Moreover, the bailment analysis also depends on the property analysis - much like rental/lease, it requires property which can be bailed.
On the topic of narrative and identity - I found Mark Turner's description of the reason he chose to delete rather than sell his avatar at the end of a recent FT article [subscription required] interesting:
Finally, though, my decision had as much to do with personal ethics as the finer points of intellectual property. It is hard to explain but handing over Eghed to another player just seemed wrong. He might abuse the trust others had in my Eghed, the one that did not steal nice items and knew what to do. What if someone else wrecked Eghed's colleagues' game experience? Colleagues who had assisted Eghed out of altruistic good will.Richard's four levels of immersion (player - avatar - character - persona [qv. DVW 154-155]) are helpful in this respect. A player can sell an avatar [puppet], and some players may be indifferent to selling their character - although as Turner points out, there may be ethical issues. It is common to see descriptions of the character associated with avatar sales (eg. "good reputation", etc.). The persona, however, is non-transferable as it is deeply linked to the player, not the avatar. [I am using Richard's terms slightly differently than he does, but hopefully the point is clear].
Posted Dec 7, 2005 3:10:01 PM | link
Peter -- you're exactly right and I probably mischaracterized what Richard and Ted want from law. The virtual world legal exceptionalism they advocated for in the NYLS issue was much more of a "keep law out" approach than anything else. I guess I just find that somewhat inconsistent with the fact that currently law (in the West) has pretty much stayed out of the issue of player ownership of virtual property, and the RMT trade seems to be flourishing, and Richard and Ted both seem presently unhappy about how commerce is intruding into the sphere of VWs (for different reasons).
Posted Dec 7, 2005 7:48:55 PM | link
Peter: "It is a precarious "property" interest indeed for which the remunerated alienation of any part is a sufficient condition for the entire portfolios (accounts) of both vendor and purchaser to be deleted ('expropriated'?)."
Exactly. My point re: virtual items as bailments is that in the current implmentation, the player's "property" interest is simply possession and not ownership. You are right it is indeed precarious: play by the rules or lose your interest (not only in the item, but your character).
However, if a player's item were portable from EQ2 to WoW, then the player's property interest is much less precarious ...
Peter "Take the classic examples of bailments: when you give your car to a parking garage/mechanic, it is not for their use and enjoyment, but for the fulfillment of a specific purpose (storage/repair) - and compensation flows from bailor to bailee."
I am not sure why "use and enjoyment" is not a "specific use." I never argued virtual items were "classic" bailments. So when my friends come over to my house to play poker, and I give them possession of cards and chips with which to play, what is the relationship?
Bailments are rooted in property law, but are largely creatures of contract, now.
I like the original concept of bailments very much: I give to you property for a specific purpose with the understanding that you will ultimately return it to me. Possession subject to conditions.
Re: "possession." Greg has also suggested the concept of "possession" of virtual items is tenuous. Respectfully, I see that as a cop-out. If we are supposedly so enlightened as to appreciate a new vocabulary, then certainly we are at also so enlightened as to loosen our grip on the can-hold-it-in-your-hand concept of possession.
Posted Dec 7, 2005 9:51:14 PM | link
Greg > I just find that somewhat inconsistent
I agree with you that the position leads to some inconsistencies - we've discussed them before. I would have thought Richard would be particularly sensitive to the IP implications of the sovereignty argument - but the discussion kinda died at the time.
[BTW - my comment above should read "As for Richard, it has been my experience..."]
Jeff > If we are supposedly so enlightened as to appreciate a new vocabulary, then certainly we are at also so enlightened as to loosen our grip on the can-hold-it-in-your-hand concept of possession.
I'd have to think more about how I feel with respect to reifying the spatial metaphor to the point of recognizing virtual possession in the actual world, but that is not what I had in mind. What I had in mind was far more simplistic - does the *player* really have possession of something that resides on the dev's servers, running on the dev's code, under the dev's ultimate control? This is linked, inter alia, to the problem of perspective [qv. Kerr]
But the issue you raise is more interesting, and relevant to the more general topic of narratives and meaning. In large part, law is a practice of trafficking in metaphors and comparisons - this thing is like that thing, so we should treat it thusly. We tend to deal with "new" situations by comparison to existing phenomena because it helps us remain (somewhat) consistent. I can see the reasons why you want to talk about possession of the virtual sword - I've spent enough time in VWs to know how important the possession of certain virtual objects can be. But virtual worlds are made up of images, text and symbols which, through interaction with underlying code, immerse us in a compelling fictional environment. Aside from possessing virtual swords, I have also flown on unicorns, cast magic spells, turned invisible and teleported into a virtual Monopoly board. The question is which metaphors, images and ludic systems are relevant to legal analysis, and which are just that - metaphor, fiction and games.
Posted Dec 7, 2005 11:56:13 PM | link
I would define "possession" functionally. Perhaps something along the lines of "the present right to exercise or fact of exercising exclusive, immediate use of a thing."
Consider "use" a black box. Is there some substantive reason not to?
The fact that somebody might subsequently possess (rightly or wrongly) a thing doesn't destroy present possession. After all, it is better to have possessed and lost than never to have possessed at all. Or, something.
I am skeptical that Kerr's analysis is anything more than semantic: one perspective merely assumes a metaphor that begs the questions. The ultimate question remains: do we accept or reject the metaphor? Is visiting amazon.com like visiting a store? Is e-mail like postal mail?
We don't disagree that the "question is which metaphors, images and ludic systems are relevant to legal analysis, and which are just that - metaphor, fiction and games."
In the end, you're still asking: can one "possess" something one cannot hold in her hand?
Posted Dec 8, 2005 6:38:25 PM | link
Jeff > "the present right to exercise or fact of exercising exclusive, immediate use of a thing."
Just to be clear, I don't necessarily disagree with the concept of possessing virtual objects. I think we do need to clarify what we mean by such a term if it is to be a legally relevant category, and it is not just about whether you can "hold it in your hand". I make no claims to enlightenment, but here are some vague thoughts and questions I think we'll need to address:
- Possession tends to be defined in terms of control, not use (eg. I can use a movie theatre/subway/road/satellite without ever being in possession). What are the salient aspects of control of a VW object?
- Context is important. The ramifications of possession differ in property law (and again for real and chattel property), torts, criminal law, taxation, customs, etc. and therefore the salient characteristics of "possession" may vary.
- The law recognizes two forms of possession: actual and constructive. Actual possession tends mean you have the object under your physical control ("in your hand" if you will). Constructive possession means you have indirect power and control over the object, possibly through an agent (eg. bank account). Which are we talking about here? I can see arguments going both ways. We started by talking about bailments. What does it mean to bail through constructive possession?
- Who is the relevant (legal) person we should look to to determine (exclusive) possession - the avatar? account? player? owner of the account? holder of the password? owner/possessor of the computer?
- Possession can be joint or exclusive - you define it in terms of exclusivity, but does a player really have exclusive control? Depends in relation to whom. Exclusive of other players, usually (assuming we aren't talking about joint assests like an EVE corp). Exclusive in relation to the devs? Not so sure.
- Possession of a "thing". Ah, there's the rub. What is the "thing" of which we speak? A sword? A graphic on my monitor? An entry in a database? A floating signifier [qv Mortensen, above]? Where are the limits of "thingness"? Which jurisdiction is the "thing" in? Does it reside on the server? On the client? In the mind(s) of the player(s)? Somewhere in between? These are not idle philosophical questions once we get to court.
- When Kander held the grain of sand [Mortensen 2003:147] in his hand on Aarinfel was it legally relevant possession?
I think we may well (and already have) come up with some coherent answers to some of these questions and issues, but I think some others run pretty deep into ongoing discussions of the relationships between law, VWs, games and fiction in general.
Jeff >I am skeptical that Kerr's analysis is anything more than semantic
The problem of perspective, I would submit, is more than mere semantics (or put another way, perhaps the law and virtual worlds are themselves little more than semantic?).
External perspective: the virtual object is an entry in a database on a server - the player is presumably making a claim to constructive possession of the entry while the dev is in actual possession of the database. Different server architectures (eg. centralized vs. P2P) may come to different legal results.
Internal perspective: the virtual object exists in a world which is an entity unto itself, and in which the player/avatar has actual possession of the virtual sword until the dev physically ("virtually"?) takes it away from her. Different world fictions/structures come to different results, regardless of the physical architecture upon which they run.
From the internal perspective, Kander has possession of a grain of sand. From the external perspective - Mortensen has simply exchanged some messages with another player, and nothing persists in the database to show for it.
Posted Dec 9, 2005 3:30:45 PM | link
Unfortunately, a moot point. Only a tiny fraction of mmog players think of their "toons" as living characters. To the vast majority, an avatar is simply an exotic form of "combat vehicle." Mobile inventory with a few skills attached.
Posted Dec 12, 2005 12:47:29 AM | link