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Apr 04, 2007

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1.

This looks like a fascinating project, but one thing leapt out at me - you have a group of students to introduce to MMOs, and give them a sense of what it's like for the people who do this for fun, but only one character between the group, rather than one each?

I know this is getting more common in Second Life, but to me it's always looked like a serious violation of the social contract and the unspoken "one virtual person : one real person" equation.

Of course, I suppose there are property issues there, too - who owns the character, you or the students or the university? Or whoever happens to be driving him at the time? And in the event of a dispute over the character's property, what happens then? What about characters individual students create and play on university time & equipment - where do the property rights vest then?

I suppose what I'm asking is whether this was an issue you considered in designing the project, and if so why you decided on doing it this way. And whether you feel this approach is still extensible to other MMOs.

2.

I'd agree with Sam: I was struck by the decision to go with a single ingame character. I can see why this would be useful: no need to waste time logging in and out for people to try stuff out, nor a need to go through the character creation process each time. But in a class about property rights, it raises interesting questions in itself about such usage.

Is the character a single agent, acting like an incorporated body? A fictitious legal person rather than just the representative of the player? Do property rights and responsibilities devolve onto the group? Onto the person in control when something was created or an act carried out? With companies using Second Life for PR stunts there will surely, eventually be a question of liability where a person acts or creates while on retainer to a company, or where using a company-funded avatar.

I was also interested in what you said abuot the property rights of players whose characters are banned. Will Second Life be forced to allow "wills" for such characters? Or will they be able to arbitrarily remove property rights from creators through their own, quasi-judicial but internal processes?

Anyway, interesting stuff.

Endie

PS be *very* careful answering such apparently innocent questions: one wrong answer and you will be blog-trolled into insanity by Prokofy Neva .

3.

Don't cry for Linden Labs. It's a corporation with near endless supplies of time, money, and publicity. Bragg isn't. Case closed.

4.

Thank you very much for your comments!

Yes, issues raised in Sam's comments have been considered previously. I am certain that Professor Townsend Gard can elaborate my answers (if she has not already explained this aspect in her article posted on April 2, 2007), so I would like to explain briefly why one class avatar was chosen from the aspect of logistics. First, the class (approx 100 students) was divided into 13 groups, and each group received one week to learn Second Life and complete this project. Every week, a group handed Fizzy over to the next group. As Professor Townsend Gard wrote in her article, Fizzy was our pet hamster, so to speak. In addition, students were not forbidden to create their own account and explore Second Life for this research if they prefer to do so. In fact, many of them actually did create an own account and used it for the research (or fun!). It was totally up to the student whether to create a personal account. For the purpose of PowerPoint presentations (of groups'research results), the project instructions encouraged students to try using Fizzy's point of view (i.e. snapshot etc)to have a consistent theme in the presentations. As you can see at http://fizzysecondlife.blogspot.com/, some students included snapshots of their own avatars as well.

Second, Sam's comment, "...give them a sense of what it's like for the people who do this for fun, but only one character... " This is my personal opinion and that Professor Townsend Gard may not necessarily fully agree with me, but I did not see the purpose of leading law students into Second Life was to give them a sense of what it's like for the people who do this for fun. I have been an avid MMORPG player for many years and clearly see differences between Second Life and other traditional MMORPGs--not just about the given environment but also the fundamental concept itself. (I know this topic has been discussed among respected authorities here in TerraNova, so I am not going to elaborate.) The purpose of this project was to give the students opportunity to see the intricacies of legal issues, particularly over virtual properties. Understanding of the complex issues requires appreciation of Second Life's (or similar virtual sims) unique computer generated environment as well as the structure of rules/regulations (or no laws and no regulations or self regulation). Giving them a sense of what it is like for people who play MMOs for fun is probably very collateral to our main purpose (it can be part of it, however). Therefore, in the sense, we did not need to enforce students to create their own avatar to mimic a life of MMO players. I hope this clarifies some of your questions :)

5.

I am amused and delighted by the comments, and agree with Rachel's comments. A few additional thoughts...

First, on the decision to have one avatar. Fizzy is the narrative plot device that allows the class to view the journey we are on together. We talk as if everything that has happened, happens to Fizzy. In fact, what has happened is that most students have signed up for a free account and have constructed their own avatars, and do their work with their own avatars. So in some sense Fizzy is a double fiction.

Second, I had originally thought of each student having their own avatar, but worried they might get obsessed and didn't want to be the cause of their demise in law school. So, one avatar, one week seemed to make better sense.

Third, yes, contract issues. We have been working with Linden Lab to make sure this is cool with them...and there have been other educational groups that have used one avatar for a group of students.

Finally, the property issue. This has come up a couple of times with the students, which I find quite amusing, and just supports the need for the kind of work we are doing. After spending only about 5-10 hours working on a particular aspect of the project, a student will want to know if they have any property ownership interest in Fizzy. Why, I want to know? Do you see a particular value in Fizzy? In what you have bought? The feeling of vestedness and "It's mine" comes very quickly. This is why we are looking at this. Instead of contract language or even copyright language, the comments and the students turn to property concepts. Very interesting.

I'm not sure how much value there is in Fizzy. Ownership could be debated, of course. Fizzy is registered under my name. The funds for Fizzy's exploits come from Rachel's account, at this moment, which she will be reimbursed through Seattle University. The students put in between 5-10 hours of work each. What the posts are really talking about are elements, I think, 1) the copyright in Fizzy and 2) the virtual property ownership of the stuf Fizzy picks up along the way.

The latter would be governed by the IP policy at my university (which they are currently writing!) In general, the question would be whether we were using extraordinary amount of resources for the project for the school to have an ownership stake in Fizzy as a copyrighted work. In my opinion (and this is one of my specialities), we have not. Second, as to the virtual propert itself, if I reimburse Rachel from my reimbursement account, the question would be is this like a microphone or camera ordered (in which case, they would want it back) or is it more like travel reimbusements (in which case they wouldn't). Interesting questions. I think I would have to spend a good deal of time explaining the situation before they would understand...the conversation on what potential enrichment fund were going to was be doing..."and so what do you get when you buy someting..?"

So, sory for the long comment back. I think it is REALLY telling that the comments are concerned about property interests.... it validates the project in my view. People quickly feel there is something at stake, and not in a contract way, but in a property way.

6.

Elizabeth --

I'm glad your first comment was that shared ownership of Fizzy was about making the narrative work. I think that's a sound call, from a pedagogical perspective, and perhaps really telling about the way we might approach property (and property law) in virtual worlds.

I think we intuit that VWs are primarily communicative environments that have mimetic elements, and part of their utility is bound up in their capacity to enable narrative structures that resonate with the "scripts" we employ to understand offline experience. So when we talk about Fizzy, we need to realize that we're talking about a story as much as a thing, and it's good that the story of the experiment can be told with a single protagonist.

Also, as you point out, by making Fizzy shared, you problematize what Fizzy is and what the relationship should be between Fizzy and the current user. The standard convention, perhaps too easy, is that the avatar is an extension of self. But it need not be, and as your students show. The avatar is a skin that can be rewritten and/or shared by a collective.

It's also a really nice way to create some good "property theory friction" at the outset. E.g.: Why isn't Fizzy mine given that I use and "possess" him? Why don't I have an avatar in this place that I can call mine? Why do I feel like I need one?

Anyway -- I guess I'm just repeating what you and Rachel have said, but I give you credit for structuring the experiment that way. It's definitely not the obvious way to do things, and it would certainly not be the way to set things up if this were about playing a game, but I think a shared class avatar makes a great deal of sense from the standpoint of instruction in this case.

7.

I think one of the best things that's come from Second Life is the beginning of the end of the idea that these environments are always roleplaying spaces. With any luck, people will stop using the term "MMORPG" in a few years.

The reason this is relevant... it came up from Greg's characterization of property issues with regard to the avatar itself. In an actual roleplay scenario, property wouldn't be much of a question: he is me. The strength of the roleplay enforces the identification. But in this case, there is no roleplay: there is an other, the avatar, and no one identifies with him.

It makes me think of Shock the Avtar.

8.

Thank you both very much for your responses, I'm much reassured - especially by the 'pet hamster' analogy!

9.

@Michael:

Hehe, its amazing how completely opposite definitions can attach to the term “Roleplay”. The statement “he is me” would in my terminology be proof positive that a character is not being roleplayed. As I see it, the point of roleplay is to create a character with their own narrative, not simply continue your own everyday narrative in new place. In that context saying “he is me” makes as much sense as saying “J.K. Rowling is Harry Potter”. In roleplay as I would frame it, the author is not the character. Each to his own I guess.

In a roleplay world it is pretty clear to me that Fizzy’s stuff, and Fizzy’s story, belong to Fizzy. Its also pretty clear that SL isn’t framed much as a roleplay world. Though I do know people who treat it that way.

I’m quite fascinated by the idea of avatar as a pet, or as distinct entity from the Player. I’ve been wracking my brains to think of a better name than “avatar” for such an entity. One in which the player has more of a steward or guardian role than a puppet master. I’m wondering if the law surrounding the role of the legal guardian might be a better frame for what Fizzy’s property rights are?

10.

I don't know enough about Second Life to know whether there is competition for, and/or in-game trade of, particular items. But in the MMORPGs I've played -- EverQuest (the original) and World of Warcraft -- players spend enormous amounts of time and energy, typically through their voluntary "guild" organizations, in setting up what amount to mutual covenants governing in-game rights-based property distribution.

That history, in turn, apparently prompted the company that created and markets WoW, Blizzard, to program features into the game to facilitate such distributions -- making some items untradeable, for example, by coding them to be "bind on pick-up," whereas others are "bind on equip"; or providing software switches that can permit multi-preferenced levels of random-number generation ("rolling" for "need" or "greed").

So I'm looking forward to your upcoming law review note, Ms. Goda, entitled "The Common-Law Antecedents of the Dragon-Kill-Point ("DKP") System." Please email me a copy when it comes out.

11.

Personally, as a student participating in this project, I wanted very much for everyone to enter into exploring virtual property and the virtual space with an open mind. There was much talk about the usefulness, validity, and execution of this project prior to its commencement. Significantly, each new group came in with a similar wary eye as to what was going to happen. Though not proficient in MMORPG’s, I felt that exploring a virtual world that espouses to gives players IP rights would mirror the notion that ownership of property is the foundation to society.
I believe that student’s skepticism about this learning tool was absolved once they realized that property law can stretch as far as technology will let it. Even though SL is fundamentally contracts based, assessing for over and undertones of property law made us evaluate the policies behind each doctrine. Significantly, as a practice pointer, our class should be very aware of the danger and consequences of applying property laws traditionally based in real property to the on-line world. Rachel Godah has raised this issue on several occasions with the groups, namely that judges and legislatures currently have little grounding or conceptualization into what the long term result would be of applying traditional property notions to a space like Second Life, or even the internet for that matter. The result of a ruling that lacks the foresight brought by having explored virtual rules could hinder not only online gamming, but internet commerce and the entire use of the net as a mode of exchange. ~ Thus, if anything, the Second Life project has made us aware of the potential problems with trying to fit old law to a new medium; old wine into new wine-skins if you will… and this thought process will serve us in all areas of practice, whether or not we go into IP.

Finally, we did not directly assess whether Linden’s reasoning to grant IP rights rested in a “civic republican” view of players not being full players without significant ownership of their Avatar and all subsequent creations. However, I think there is a strong argument for some sort of property rights making the game more “whole”, and inducing people to play. That being said… serious MMO players probably don’t have a tie to whether they actually own the equipment their avatar is using. Gaming probably feels equally real whether or not you have IP rights to what you use. I wonder if this assumption is true or if players feel more attached to SL’s avatar created property (something they make in a sandbox) versus items they acquire in other games? Surely this was Linden’s idea in soliciting players ~ giving them an incentive to play. But I wonder how strong the incentive of IP rights really is? Or is the draw of Second Life stemming from the limitless possibilities of creation/ user created world/ and media attention? Would SL be as popular regardless of IP rights? (MMO experts ~ insert your opinions here!)

In the end~ a wonderful and stereo-type shattering experience.

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