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Welcome to Merci Victoria Grace

GameLayers which is developing the Passively Multiplayer Online Game (PMOG), which is trying to meld the existing web with a game space in interesting ways. She's going to be joining us to talk about the sorts of opportunities and challenges that this generates. Her details are over the fold, but I wanted to be the first to welcome her.

Biographical entry:

Merci Victoria Grace is a writer and artist. She has created a number of short films, animations, fictions, and CG sculptures. Her work has shown at the UCLA Hammer Museum in Los Angeles. She worked at Bad Robot Productions and was trained there in visual effects. At GameLayers, Merci envisions a game built on top of the entire internet and works with creative people to materialize that vision.


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Criminal Law in Virtual Worlds

My friend Orin Kerr is a leading expert in the area of cybercrime and the author of the Computer Crime Law casebook, the first legal casebook in this area.  He is also a blogger at the Volokh Conspiracy, one of the most-visited legal weblogs.  Orin has just posted a draft to SSRN of his forthcoming essay, Criminal Law in Virtual Worlds.  It's quite timely, given the ongoing discussion of Arno's recent post.  Here's the abstract:

When does conduct by an online player in a virtual world game trigger liability for a real-world crime? In the future, will new criminal laws be needed to account for new social harms that occur in virtual worlds? This short essay considers both questions. Part I argues that existing laws regulate virtual worlds with little or no regard to the virtual reality they foster. Criminal law tends to follow the physical rather than the virtual: it looks to what a person does rather than what the victim virtually perceives. This dynamic greatly narrows the role of criminal law in virtual worlds. Existing law will not recognize virtual murder, virtual threats, or virtual theft. Virtual worlds will be regulated like any other game, but their virtualness normally will have no independent legal resonance from the standpoint of criminal law.

Part II turns to the normative question: Are new laws needed? It concludes that legislatures should not enact new criminal laws to account for the new social harms that may occur in virtual worlds. Virtual worlds at bottom are computer games, and games are artificial structures better regulated by game administrators than federal or state governments. The best punishment for a violation of a game comes from the game itself. Criminal law is a blunt instrument that should be used only as a last resort. The state's power to deny individuals their freedom is an extraordinary power, and it should be reserved for harms that other mechanisms cannot remedy.

Online virtual worlds may seem real to some users, but unlike real life, they are mediated by game administrators who can take action with consequences internal to the game. Internal virtual harms should trigger internal virtual remedies. It is only when harms go outside the game that the criminal law should be potentially available to remedy wrongs not redressable elsewhere.

Dan and I took a look at this issue back in 2004 and reached conclusions that accord (generally) with this.  Prosecutions involving virtual property are theoretically possible, but the presence of game rules should generally limit the applicability of conventional approaches.  As far as I know, Orin's essay is the first U.S. law review publication on virtual crime since our effort.  It adds new case law precedents, new policy arguments, new factual developments, and the imprimatur of Orin's expertise in criminal law.

I'd just like to note how Orin approaches the Habbo situation Arno mentioned:

Within the Habbo Hotel virtual environment, virtual furniture could only be purchased with real money and could not be “stolen” by other users: the sum of all the furniture that the teenager moved was apparently purchased for thousands of dollars.  This conduct properly led to criminal charges because it was an actual theft, not a virtual representation of one.


There's already a substantial discussion underway at Volokh Conspiracy -- people may want to join in the thread there.

Comments (1)

US Government Looking for Terrorists... In Virtual Worlds

I've read this story in Wired a couple of times, the Secrecy News blog entry from a few days ago that it came from, and even went and looked at the (unclassified) original report (PDF) from the Office of the  Director of National Intelligence to Congress discussing it.  I still don't know what to make of this.  From the report:

Reynard is a seedling effort to study the emerging phenomenon of social (particularly terrorist) dynamics in virtual worlds and large-scale online games and their implications for the Intelligence Community.

"[The project will ] conduct unclassified research in a public virtual world environment. The research will use publicly available data and will begin with observational studies to establish baseline normative behaviors."

Perhaps a bit more pointedly (bordering on bizarrely), the report says that

"The cultural and behavioral norms of virtual worlds and gaming are generally unstudied. Therefore, Reynard will seek to identify the emerging social, behavioral and cultural norms in virtual worlds and gaming environments. The project would then apply the lessons learned to determine the feasibility of automatically detecting suspicious behavior and actions in the virtual world." [emphasis added]

I have to admit I'm unclear as to what might constitute "suspicious behavior" in virtual worlds, much less behavior indicative of terrorist motivations -- would that be killing as many Night Elves as possible in a battlegrounds session in WoW, emerging as a successful and highly profitable mole in EVE Online, or just using pose balls to role-play anatomically unlikely scenarios with someone using a hedgehog avatar in Second Life? 

Is this new seedling program something we should be concerned about (Big Brother in your virtual world, watching your ganking, duping, gold-farming, cybersexing ways), something we should roll our eyes at (checking to make sure this didn't come from The Onion), or something we should hail as an interesting new way for academics to get yet another character to level 70 -- in the name of research? 

Comments (29)

Collaboration in the Virtual World

Since 2006 I have been working within Second Life, using it as a collaborative platform. But one of the key questions to be answered is what makes Second Life qualitatively better than a discussion forum or VoIP (Voice over Internet Protocol) application? What is the added value of a virtual synthetic world like Second Life? And where will this lead in 2008?

1) A social Technology. MUVE (Multi User Virtual Environment) users share, real-time experiences. A website is an isolated, one-way communication channel. Second Life, on the other hand, allows visitors to interact in real time using many different media at once (synchronous communication). For example, an avatar visiting a virtual meeting hall can view a video while text messaging or voice chatting with another avatar watching the same video. It allows a resident to communicate either to the whole population, or to a specific resident on a one-to-one basis. “Building together, assistance from peers is nice, interaction helps a lot, finding similar people around the world, the international atmosphere in general, geographic separation of teacher and student is less of a barrier” However, external applications (email) are still needed for direct file transfer.

2) Graphical 3D representation; provides visual sensory stimulation that leads to a contributed sense of immersion. An equality which isn’t easily achieve in other learning applications. This provides a cost effective avenue for continued research in the fields of not only education but training and simulation as well.

3) Forums within communities. For example, www.schome.open.ac.uk plays a vital role within social interaction between community members and encourages collaboration. Establishing a sense of belonging within the community is greatly satisfying “We learn by becoming part of a community of practice” (Lave & Wenger, 1991) however, “such collaboration will not automatically occur simply because peer-to-peer interaction is supported and facilitated.” (Murphy, E. 2004). Illustrating that encouragement of social interaction is not solely defined by the facilitated technology to communicate.  How does the MMO (massively multiplayer online) environment encourage this interaction and collaboration?

In typical gaming synthetic worlds, communities are built around common goals or objectives (e.g. slaying Onyxia in World of Warcraft), whereas in Second Life there is no pre-determined path. Communities form around ideas, projects, brands and interests, and therefore the responsibility is passed to its residents to form their own objectives and goals.

2008 will be an extremely interesting year with continued improvements to Second Life, for example the mash up between moodle and Second Life. It will also be the year for new emerging synthetic environments, such as the MPK20 project developed by Sun Microsystems, which looks extremely interesting. Providing a true distributed multi-user internet application, where several users are capable of viewing and editing the same document within the environment. Whereas Second Life is unable to provide this level of collaboration, it's of no value if a user can open a page in isolation and other users are not involved in either being unable to view or change what that user is browsing. This level of functionality provides a more versatile collaboration tool.

Most interestingly of all will be the work of Second Life’s own residents and the extent to which Second Life can integrate with traditional e-learning models to find new approaches to teaching and learning that are truly immersive and collaborative. 2008 looks exciting!





Second Life Media Zoo link;


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GDC 2008: Game Designers' Rant

I was sick on Wednesday, and missed the annual Game Studies Download featuring Terra Nova co-author Mia Consalvo and the amazing Jane McGonigal and Ian Bogost. (Perhaps Mia will post about that talk...) But on Friday I was healthy enough to make it to the "Pouring Fuel on the Fire: Game Designers' Rant," which included Jane as well.

The session was wonderful--engaging and inspirational. I took copious notes, which follow.

Host Eric Zimmerman of Gamelab started out by saying that this is the year of game design. Portal winning game of the year was very much an indication of how great game design matters. A few years ago, experimental and indie games were still on the fringe; now they're being recognized. But game designers are typically slotted below technologists and graphics people when it comes to credit for a game.

Clint Hocking (Ubisoft): The problem game designers face isn't creative stagnation. It's having the courage to create something that challenges people...that's f---ing hard. Yes, games are art. Yes, games can make you cry. Why don't we learn from the creativity of small games? Why doesn't that get plugged into our blockbuster games? Why can't Call of Duty be about DUTY? Why isn't Medal of Honor about HONOR? What if you could put HONOR in a box and SELL it? Package the experience of knowing what it is to be honorable? 90% of the people in this world have never felt honor, and probably would love to. Imagine if you could be awarded a medal of honor in a game where you had to be HONORABLE to do it. Instead, we spend millions on games, many of which are DOA. Meanwhile these great, meaningful indie games are unknown. I'm not saying we should all quit our jobs and making quirky small games. I'm talking about using proven techniques to make things that people CARE about. Even with 6 million Halo users, you've reached only 10% of the audience size of the LoTR movies. That movie is fundamentally about the mechanics of TRUST. Those should not harder to simulate than the mechanics of ROPE. Product fetishism keeps trumping everything else--is it any surprise that the game of the year is about a f---ing CUBE?! What we lack is not creativity, what we lack is the courage to show we care about real stuff. Every time we make a game that fails to be about what real people care about, we're letting ourselves down. We have the creativity, the money, the demand. "F-ck, it's code. We can do anything."


John Mak: He asks the audience to stand up, brings up the house lights, and turns on music that's all about fun. People at the sides of the room start throwing out balloons, which the audience instinctively knows to start batting around. But some (most) have messages, which causes people to grab and read them before passing them on. ("I'm you're friend, play with me." "Give me to someone to form a tag team." etc). The look of delight on the face of the audience members is wonderfully gratifying. People are laughing and taking pictures. But as this winds down, Kim Swift of Portal fame is somehow (via a balloon? a person?) brought up to the podium in John Mac's place, and she has nothing to say. All this potential energy goes nowhere. (Not everything, it seems, is best left to chance...)


Jane McGonigal: I'm not mad at game designers. Compared to the rest of the world, we have it all figured out. Our medium kicks all other media's ass. We make more people happy than any other platform or content in the world. (If you don't believe that, you're not paying attention to what's happening.) We've won. Games have won. As an industry we've spent the last 30 years learning how to optimize experience. Brains, bodies (recently), and hearts are all engaged. That's the good news.

The bad news is we rule the virtual world only. Reality is broken, and we're not fixing it, we're offering alternatives to it. We offer better experiences, better socialization, in virtual experiences. That needs to start changing. If reality is broken, why aren't game designers trying to fix it? It's our responsibility to design systems that make us happy and successful and powerful in real life? We have the power and the responsibility. [you go girl!!!]

(Jane shows an image of her favorite "I'm not good at life." graffiti.) There's nothing in real life that I'm as good at in game worlds. I have spent the last year doing research on happiness. Instead of trying to figure out what's broken, these people are trying to figure out what makes us happy. Every positive psychologist has found the same thing. Happiness is 1) having satisfying work to do, 2) the experience of being good at something, 3) time spent with people we like, and 4) a chance to be part of something bigger than ourselves.

If you are a game designer you are in the happiness business.

In 1931, the newspapers ran a headline that announced "Soap kills germs!" They didn't even know that then. We've been making soap, and don't realize it kills germs.

We have good lives, most of us. But many people buying our games don't. The game gives them a higher quality of life than the real world does.

Why should we care about games? Because life is crap, and the only thing that makes it worth living is art and play.

We need a new headline: GAMES KILL BOREDOM Games are the ultimate happiness engine.

Let's think about five places where I wish games could make my life better. 1) running, 2) being on a plane, 3) playing fetch, 4) commuting, 5) dealing with annoying people.

Why don't I level up when I go running? make an nike ipod MMO!!!

Why isn't there a game I can play the whole time I'm on the plane?

The Sniflabs collar remembers other dogs you've encountered. We can play games with our dogs. What if I could play an mmo with my dog?

Trackstick...traces where you are and have been. Currently used for enterprise activites, but why couldn't we use it when we commute--lay a virtual world over the real one and navigate through it with the gps receiver.

If I could wear a thing that allows me zap peole I don't like with my mind, my life would be so much better. (She doesn't elaborate on how to make this happen, but I suspect she has ideas about that.)

Alter your reality. Help me save the world.

Guest ranter Chris Hecker: Apparently his rant last year was quite controversial, so he starts with a very long disclaimer about wanting people not to misrepresent him based on misunderstandings of his talk.

("movies and books taped together with duct tape" seems to have been the key phrase; shows some funny emails and wikipedia and comic responses to his talk)

Rants are important. Complacency = Death. But ranting has to lead to action. I's not true that if you don't have something positive to say you shouldn't say anything at all. criticism is valuable, even when it's not actively constructive. You have to be able to point out when things are broken. However you do it, it's important to speak your mind and tell the truth.


Jenova Chen: As a game designer, my job isn't to set fires, it's to make stuff. This has been a great year, with lots of innovation. Clint raised some of the same questions I wanted to talk about. Can a game make you cry? Can a game be art? New methods of distribution are reducing the costs for great indie games. Many are even moving to consoles (like his).

I can't rant as a designer, but I can rant as a gamer. I'm losing my interest in playing the new games coming to market. Fifteen years ago the lowfi games gave me more satisfaction than today's high-end games. What can videogames do that differentiate them from toys? Why are toys different from books, movies, sports as we age? We need mature content. (No, not *that* kind of mature. Not mature = college boys.) Intellectually, can videogames make you learn something more than how to drive a car? We need something more like The Little Prince than The Three Little Pigs.

Great art has come from the authors' own experiences.

Passage by Jason Rohrer is better than this year's blockbuster shooters.


Daniel James (3 rings): Talks about how things he loved (Lego, MUDs) have migrated to today's game. We are in the future! The way we bring games to market is changing in great ways. His grandmother is playing puzzle pirates instead of watching TV. w00t! (waiting for shoe to drop...)

The line is very very thin between virtual and real experience. What are you doing, and how do you justify it afterwards?

Comments (8)

Why not qualify the taking away of virtual objects as theft?

As a coincidence, on the same day I gave an in-company course on Law & Virtual worlds, a Dutch 17 year old boy[1] was arrested for ‘stealing’ items from the Habbo Hotel.[2] Both the producers of Habbo and the kids that lost their virtual items turned to the police. The producers reported hacking, the kids reported theft.

Whether virtual items can be stolen is an often recurring issue, which core is the status of virtual objects. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Dutch Supreme Court decided that computer data cannot be stolen. The element of “taking away” was considered problematic: one can obtain computer data after copying them, but the original owner still has possession of the same data.

This ‘multiple character’ (identical computer data being at different locations) is no longer prominent in case of most virtual objects.

You can take them away, like physical objects, and the original owner will no longer have control. To my surprise, many Dutch scholars and practitioners are sceptical with regard to the concept of stealing virtual goods. One could argue that the article on theft in the Criminal Code is not necessary, for a possible case of theft is always preceded by unlawful hacking. Also, people log on to someone else’s account, so from an in game perspective, there is just an avatar handing over goods to some other avatar.

In game it is just a transfer of virtual property as any other transfer. The crux is of course that one of the avatars is controlled by someone who is not the owner of the avatar, and does so without permission. So from an IRL perspective, the possession of the virtual objects does move from one person to the other. This can be compared to the stealing from someone’s bank account when using his bank card and/or secret code. There is a broad range of Dutch case law considering this as theft.

So what is the difference? One difference is that in case of the Habbo Hotel it is – according to the Habbo terms - not possible to get money out of the game. You need to violate the TOS to realize this (RMT). Is it relevant for the qualification as theft whether the stolen fortune stays officially in game? Well, not to me. I see no reason for distinguishing between virtual and physical theft. The original owners of the stolen Habbo furniture obtained the items after they bought credits with real money, and do attach value to those items. As long as the original owner looses something of value (such as virtual items) due to the act of another individual who gains possession over the item, it should in my opinion be qualified as theft, no matter whether the locus delicti is in the physical or the virtual world.


[1] See the item in a News show on November 13, 2007,http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=D7l8VBLe14U

[2] BBC News, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/technology/7094764.stm. See also e.g.http://virtuallyblind.com/2007/11/14/habbo-theft/, http://www.technovelgy.com/ct/Science-Fiction-News.asp?NewsNum=1310

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GDC 2008: The Future of MMOs

What self-respecting virtual worlds blogger could pass up the opportunity to attend an all-star GDC panel on "The Future of MMOs"? Not me, certainly. So at noon on Thursday I found myself in the first row of a crowded room, listening to John Wood (managing editor of MMORPG.com) pose a series of interesting questions to:

* Jack Emmert (Cryptic)
* Matt Miller (NCSOFT)
* Ray Muzyka (BioWare)
* Min Kim (Nexon America)
* Rob Pardo (Blizzard)

What follows are my notes on the session; in many cases the responses are not verbatim, but instead are condensed versions of the key points. I was very impressed with how articulate and thoughtful these questions and answers were; it was an hour well-spent.

First Question: There has been a trend towards outside IP-based games. Can an MMO be successful today without an outside content IP?

Jack: Investors/publishers love outside IP because of the guaranteed fan base. Developers/designers, on the other hand, prefer the creative flexibility of original content. Because the cost of MMOs has exploded, the pressure for outside IP will increase.

Matt: Yes, of course, there will be a trend towards outside IP because people want to play what they know. But smaller publishers will be able to take advantage of the flexibility of original creation.

Ray: All IP is original to begin with, no? The tradeoff between outside IP and original is the licensing vs original cost. To take advantage of licensed content properly you need to really understand the fan base and their needs, so you're simply trading one set of work for another.

Min Kim: We don't typically go towards outside IP, because it's too much of a headache to comply with the various restrictions. Depending on the genre, you may or may not need the name recognition of an outside IP.

Rob: WoW had the advantage of existing IP that the company owned (Warcraft world). It would have taken years longer to make if they'd started from ground zero on content/concept.

Second Question: Are MMOs headed towards consoles? Will companies in the future have to develop for cross-platform?

Jack: Yes.


Yes, of course. Champions Online (Cryptic's just-announced MMORPG) will be developed for consoles as well as PCs, and MMOs will almost definitely migrate. (But, he says pointedly, Blizzard shouldn't bother, it's much too hard, not worth it, etc. More laughter.)

Matt: The console base is larger than the PC base, it only makes sense to target it. [ed. Huh? That doesn't seem right...]

Ray: Not necessarily. There's a huge market on PCs, it's possible to be successful without targeting consoles. There are economic benefits to PCs because it's the largest "open market." Play patterns are different in the two contexts. It's a challenge that can be overcome, but you need to pick and choose your battles.

Min: I agree completely with Ray. Nexon is experimenting a bit with consoles. But for mass market, PC is still the way to go. It's our core market. For example, will consoles allow you to distribute the game for free? If not, the consoles won't work for our business model.

Rob: Of course there are going to be MMOs on consoles. We approach it as "what game do we want to make" and then "where should we put it"? RTS games don't do well on consoles due to user interface constraints. But web-based MMOs have demonstrated they can be huge as well. You just have to pick the system on which your game will be most fun.

Third Question: Will microtransactions be the future of MMO business?

Jack: It's ridiculous to think this is "the" future. Many people like paying one fee and not worrying about details. "Free to pay; buy the items" is fine for some contexts, but it's not the future. This is a 'buzz term' and I hate it. Monthly subscriptions are a much better business model (and even better when people forget about their monthly subscription...bonus free money, he says!) Depending on microtransactions is likely to be about as successful as spamming a million people with "send me a dollar" emails.

Matt: Bizdev folks want subscription income, it's much more reliable from a bookkeeping standpoint. Micropayments are much less predictable.

Ray: "Jack, how do you _really_ feel?" (laughter) It comes down to the game design. What drives your game? What will they be passionate about? If micropayments facilitate that, and fans are actively seeking it, it makes sense. It's the dominant and successful form in Asia, but not so much in the US. It really just depends on the game.

Min: Obviously I'm on the other end of the spectrum, since we only do the model Jack ridicules. We're bigger than NCSoft in Asia and Korea, because our market goes beyond the core market. We can expand to casual players because people can get in easily. Kids can't afford a subscription game; they need microtransactions. It all depends on who you're targeting.

Rob: This is very much an "east vs west" question. In Asia that's the dominant model, which presented a challenge for Blizzard. They didn't want to change the game design. Agrees with Ray--make the great game first, then decide what's the best model for it. Blizzard charges for name changes and server changes--they do that more as a deterrent than a profit motive, but they do make a nice profit from those transactions. Hybrid models would be interesting.

Jack: (Jumps in again, making sparks fly a bit...) Claims that microtransactions are bullshit, that the "pay for play" model that Blizzard uses in Asia doesn't constitute microtransactions. It's not a "magic bullet". It's not "east vs west" and Blizzard is proof of that.

Min: Points out that Maple Story is a great example of micropayments being successful.

Jack: I haven't really heard of Maple Story [ed. Ouch! His credibility just took a huge hit in my book.)

Min: Target has a huge virtual cards market that's evidence of how strong the micropayment model is.

Ray: This is about the people who play the game, and what are you making for them that they love? If you're not giving people who want microtransactions what they want, you're losing potential customers. The models don't need to be mutually exclusive; why not offer both modes of play? If you can do that without compromising your design, fabulous. If not, pick the model that works best for your audience.

Min: What we are selling is excellent user experience; you can make money by selling what users need to enhance that experience. The story they're hearing a lot from teenagers is "I've never played an MMO before, Maple Story is my first one".

Last moderator question: As time goes on, it's more and more expensive to build a topnotch MMO. Can you be successful now without multimillion dollar MMOs?

Jack: There are going to be two tiers of MMOs...the high-end like WoW, which everyone's afraid of, and the low-end. There will be no middle ground.

Matt: There will be small, low-budget MMOs that can be successful with 50K subscribers. There are people in this room making those kind of MMOs. If they get 100K they'll be successful beyond their dreams.

Ray: There are huge barriers to entry for the "WoW competitors". But there are new markets emerging--mobile, web-based, etc. We're making one (won't tell us what, though). Who would have imagined, five years ago, something like "Portal" being the game of the year? It's a small team with a brilliant idea executed perfectly. You can succeed with games like that if you know what you're doing. There is no one business model; you need to tune it to your game and to the audience. You have to know who you are.

Min: The uber-blockbuster won't be a realistic sustainable model for many companies. Nexon typically doesn't do that. None of our teams are over 100 people, and 85% of our revenue comes from item transactions. It's all about the social experience.

Rob: I'm delighted as a business person that nobody wants to make an MMO because Blizzard set the bar too high. But as a game player, I'm disappointed. I wants to see more stuff out there. But you're not just competing against WoW anymore, you're competing with WoW + expansions. Direct contrast is hard, because you're always playing catchup.

Ray: What *is* an MMO? Are multiple sessions of the same game, with strong community around them, MMOs? Lots of players sharing the same experience, if not the same exact sharded space...

First audience question: Can scifi as an MMO genre be as successful from the mainstream point of view? Can it succeed in a fantasy-driven market?

Jack: Yes, scifi can succeed (particularly IP based scifi). Fantasy has the advantage of a known conceptual model--what you do and how you do it is clear to the player. With scifi, players are immediately alienated (haha) because they have less of a strong conceptual model.

Matt: You can build off well-known single-player IP like Mass Effect.

Ray: MMOs at the core is role-playing, and it's an issue of what aspirational fantasy you're enabling. Different games fulfill different fantasies.

Min: It's harder to identify with scifi unless you have the existing well-known IP. I'd love to play "World of Starcraft"... (everyone looks at Rob, who's less than responsive).

Rob: All it takes is the right product. All worlds have their own challenges, but scifi or even contemporary (e.g. GTA) could be successful given the right approach.

Second audience question: What is your vision for user-generated content and addons in MMO?

Jack: Obviously those will have to be there in MMOs. Players want to be able to do this.

Ray: One of their pillars of game play in Neverwinter Nights was a pyramid of user types, based on Bartle's archetypes, that included creators. If you launch with it, and it's part of your campaign, you have great potential for it. Tack it on later, and you run more of a risk. You're most likely to be successful if you bring in great creators early on in the process.

Third audience question: What does the future of MMOs have to do with the future of everything else? (?!)

Ray: The answer is 42. (HA!)

Rob: I see an expansion almost as like another season of your favorite TV show, while a new console game might be more like a feature movie. [ed. fascinating comparison]

Fourth audience question: Is this a healthy industry, or is it really just a few super successful companies and lots of wannabes?

Jack: No, it's not a healthy industry at all. Investors are terrified of going up against WoW. It's scary if you're a fan.

Ray: At Bioware, we approach all of our development with both ambition and humility. We're at a nexus point, and it's an exciting time to be in this field as a developer.

Min: If you're purely targeting the WoW user, the future is bleak. But Maple Story is an example of targeting a different user base. Can you offer a successful and meaningful product to a broader user base?

Last audience question: In microtransactions are unofficial vendors problematic?

Rob: We take a very aggressive stance against outside sellers in WoW, in order to keep people from bringing RL advantages into the game. (That's not true, really, because those with more leisure time end up with an advantage.) For us, it's not a revenue problem but a gameplay problem.

Matt: It's an annoyance problem for players who are inundated with spam in the game. It's a customer service issue more than anything else.

Comments (19)

Is 'Free Gesticulation' For Avatars Here Yet?

Shrugverticalstrings I attended the Metaverse Roadmap workshop last week at Stanford, and I was pleased to hear Mitch Kapor touting the benefits of gestural input for virtual worlds (see Dan's blog post). I was especially excited when he said you can (almost) buy "3D webcams" - cameras plus an infrared depth sensor - for only $39! (Not sure if he was talking about the ZCam specifically). A couple of years ago, when Richard Marks of the Sony EyeToy team visited PARC and demonstrated their "real-time motion capture" for games, he said 3D cameras still cost $20,000!

Now I don't know if gestural interfaces will revolutionize computing in general, but I'm very excited about the new possibilities they create for 3D avatar control. As I've written about before, avatars will never be fully expressive until they are enabled with free gesticulation. With 3D cameras and real-time motion-capture techniques, "Players could use their own bodies and faces as joysticks in puppeteering their avatars." Currently in MMOs, gesture and facial expression are limited to a pre-specified library of commands (/bow, /wave, /point, /smile, /wink, etc.). Imagine if text chat were like this? What if you could only send chat messages by selecting them from a pre-specified library of phrases (like chat between strangers in ToonTown)? This would be severely limiting in terms of communication and expression. However, that's the current state of avatar gesture in virtual worlds.

In practice, free chat or voice can help compensate for this lack of free gesticulation. Take cybersex, for example, with its elaborate text descriptions of what you wish your clunky avatar could do: <Alex gently grips the nape of your neck with one hand and leans in for a kiss>. This really highlights a big gap in current avatar functionality!

Now in modeling gesture, we must recognize that not all "gestures" are the same. The canned gestures in today's virtual worlds and MMOs work okay for certain types of gestures, but others will require free gesticulation.

1. Stand-alone gestures (or emblems) - bows, waves, shrugs, head-shakes, nods, etc. - work pretty well in current avatar systems. Stand-alone gestures are fairly standardized embodied symbols that convey meaning independently of the surrounding talk. By convention, a nod conveys "yes" and a shrug conveys "I don't know." The gesture alone can stand as an intelligible turn.

2. Pointing gestures (or deictics) are also possible in current systems, but are a little harder to perform because they rely partially on the talk for their meaning. They should be precisely timed with relevant key words (e.g., "the cave is over there" where the extent of the point is simultaneous with "there"). This is tricky when you must type both the gesture command and the chat message. It's much easier with voice.

3. Emphatic gestures (or beats) are not really possible with today's avatars. Beat gestures emphasize particular words by being produced simultaneously with them. Because gesture commands and chat messages must be typed separately, beats cannot currently be tied to particular words. However, the appearance of beat gestures can certainly be faked, as in World of Warcraft's "talking" animation.

4. Finally, depictive gestures (or iconics) are not possible in today's virtual worlds and MMOs. Iconic gestures depict objects by mirroring elements of their physical form and/or motion. Their production is creative, and their uniqueness reflects the diversity of all the objects in the world; therefore, it's impossible to create a comprehensive library of them (and even if you tried, it would be too massive for players to handle). But with real-time mo-cap, depictive gesturing becomes possible. So for example, in World of Warcraft, if I can't think of the term "night elf," I can nonetheless depict the race through gesture: I run my thumbs and index fingers, in a pinching shape, along the edges of my imaginary long night-elf ears as they taper to a point. Or you can imagine in Second Life that one dominatrix might say to another, "Where can I buy one of those tops that are like a corset but only go from here to here?" while she places one "karate-chop" hand just under her avatar's breasts and the other hand just below its belly button. Her fellow dominatrix can then say, "Oh, you mean a 'cincher.'"*

While free gesticulation will no doubt revolutionize avatar control, just how such gestural interfaces should be designed and what activities they will be good for is still largely an open question. One fact that must be accommodated is that players at the keyboard will not only use their bodies to animate their avatars, but may also use them in the physical world at the same time. If my son approaches me at the keyboard, I don't want my avatar's head to turn when I look at him, especially if I'm talking to other people in the virtual world. And what about running? Do I really want to run my character across Norrath by running in place in front of my PC? (Actually, that might be more fun than the gym.) At the very least, free gesticulation in virtual worlds should make cybersex a lot less textual!

* For more on the reparative uses of depictive gesture in real life, see Moore, Robert J. (2008): "When Names Fail: Referential Practice in Face-to-face Service Encounters." Language in Society, 37(3). (Coming soon!)

Comments (26)


A couple of weeks ago, I was reading Benjamin Duranske's excellent virtual-worlds-and-law blog, Virtually Blind, and came across the following remark:

Most writers, including VB’s editor, take commodification and subsequent legal intervention as a foregone conclusion at this point.

This got me thinking: the first State of Play conference was in November, 2003, and since then the arguments have settled down considerably. When we do get legal intervention, it will be far more informed than it would have been 5 years ago.

I'm wondering, though, what degree of consensus there is out there with regards to how the law "should" treat virtual worlds?

For example, it seems fairly clear now that game-like worlds (such as WoW) are a different kind of animal to non-game worlds (such as SL). People may disagree in the details (for example how much of a defence a developer has to maintain in order to keep their game-like status), but there does seem to be a consensus that supportive legal intervention aimed at one kind of virtual world could hurt the other kind.

What other broad areas of consensus are there? I don't mean what should there be, I mean what are there? Can we say things about virtual property, player rights, IP, or any of the other big issues, that even people on opposing sides of an argument can agree on? Or is everything important pretty much settled now and we're now just arguing about who gets the CD collection?


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Virtual Trademarks

Shoe_2 About a year and a half ago, I pointed out some commentary on trademark law in virtual worlds.  In the past year, there have been many developments on this front, including the Eros lawsuits in Second Life and more attention from legal practitioners (see this from WIPO).  So, when I was recently invited by the Santa Clara Computer and High Technology Law Journal to write about user-generated content and virtual worlds for a Symposium, I decided to write a short overview of the topic of Virtual Trademarks with Candy Dougherty.

You can find the current draft here on SSRN.  The abstract reads:

In this article, we discuss how trademark law might apply to virtual worlds and virtual economies. In Part I, we consider how trademark infringement in virtual worlds resembles and differs from trademark infringement in other media. In Part II, we look at the various business models of contemporary virtual worlds and how commerce takes place within them. In Part III, we consider the circumstances where trademark infringement may occur in virtual worlds by discussing questions of use, confusion, dilution and fair use. In Part IV, we examine the issue of contributory trademark infringement.

As Candy and I point out, questions of trademark infringement in virtual worlds are going to be highly fact-specific (just as they are offline).  The most interesting question, I think, is how societal interests in free expression and play can be reconciled with the application of conventional trademark law to virtual commerce.

And since I'm on the topic of law and virtual worlds, I'll put in a plug for a few other papers.  Candy recently wrote two short pieces on the Bragg case and gambling in Second Life.  We co-wrote a similar short 5-pager on copyright.  And I was recently invited to write a short essay on user-generated content and virtual worlds.

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Organising Virtual Events

On the 18th December 2007 Twofour Learning and the Beyond Distance Research Alliance at the University of Leicester launched the Second Life Media Zoo project. The Island showcases a range of learning initiatives put forward by the Beyond Distance Research Alliance and is intended as a learning and research platform, aimed at gathering data on social interaction, behaviour and the importance of learning within a virtual 3D environment.

The event was synchronized between a virtual and real life launch at the University of Leicester and at the Media Zoo Island, within Second Life (SL). Many academics, company representatives, students and reporters attended both events. 42 avatars in total attended the launch at the Media Zoo Island, an extremely positive number as the Second Life architecture only caters for a maximum of 100 Avatars, with more than 60 causing increased lagg and decreased sim stability.



At the Twofour Learning offices we enlisted the help of four chaperones, and several well known pinnacle members of the community of Second Life also attended to offer help when required. We received a great deal of positive feedback from the event;

“Gilly Salmon's presentation was very interesting ... we were well looked after around the island - people offering help or to answer questions, extremely well attended!”

We did encounter a few minor problems with the audio stream, however, and one observed griefer attempted to disrupt the event. The Twofour Team were alerted straight away to his arrival and as the avatar in question was being monitored, he managed to only fire off a single comment before being ejected and banned from the Island. All other issues were subsequently resolved and the event continued as planned.

Integration between real and virtual events provides a great opportunity for people unable to attend events in real life, providing a deeper sense of “being there” - something we wish to see more of in the future. Attendees and fellow researchers were also observed expressing there own personal opinions of Second Life as a great technology to utilise for educational means.

“I think SL has massive potential, and if we could only overcome the technological barriers and find some way of including the FE sector (i.e. age limits), then SL could open the doors of education to many socially excluded people” Ladyjane Plympton




Second Life Media Zoo link;


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An MMO in the Imagination of a Little Girl

Liladreams What do little girls dream of

A number of journalists, myself included, are pretty psyched about this new, small-scale MMO called Lila Dreams.  It's still in the early stages of development, but it's due to be published by Kongregate later this year, when it'll be available to play free.  According to designer Jason McIntosh, the game takes place in the imagination of an eleven-year-old girl, where "darkness... surrounds the world, constantly encroaching inward and eating away the landscape. But there is also going to be an array of strange creatures from Lila's thoughts and nightmares with which to contend and befriend."  The concept art, the creative concept, and the game's small (three-person) but enthusiastic team make Lila Dreams a promising title to keep an eye on when it comes to innovation in MMOs.  We all love fantasy titles like World of Warcraft and social environments  like Second Life. but it's refreshing to think there are new artistic directions we can take virtual worlds!

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Surveillance: whose territory is a virtual world anyway?

When I visited mid January 2008 a technology crime police team in
Amsterdam, they told me about the internet related issues they were
struggling with. One issue was related
to the physical location of a server.

They said to have permission to open someone’s mail box
only if the servers are physically located in the
In any other case they needed permission from the “hosting” state.

There had been a case where a mother killed her child and the
Yahoo-mailbox showed an unread e-mail with a subject that
seemed highly relevant for the case. Not looking at this e-mail
because the mail is hosted in the  US seems to me an
unjust territorialisation of the internet.

How should this policy be applied to virtual words?

The issue in general has been discussed during the drafting of the Cyber Crime Treaty (Council of Europe),[1] but the drafters did not succeed to define under what circumstances investigation should be allowed on servers located in foreign territories. So, they decided to not regulate it.

In one recent case, the American producer of a game did not provide personal data of Dutch citizens (a group of fascists) breaching Dutch Penal Law because their utterances were allowed under the First Amendment. I can understand that, but there is a related question that intrigues me: is the Dutch police allowed to investigate in virtual worlds that are hosted and produced by, e.g. American companies? Is the Dutch police allowed to follow, observe, etc. avatars in general, or only if there exists a suspicion of e.g., illegal money transfers, hard drugs transactions or the planning of (terrorists) attacks? As the above e-mail example illustrates, co-operation with foreign police officers or foreign prosecutors is needed if the servers are located in other countries.

I am curious what a judge will decide if a suspect argues that the evidence obtained in a virtual world is inadmissible because the permission of foreign authorities was lacking. According to the wording of the code the suspect may be right, but following the spirit of the law would lead to another conclusion. To me, this would even be so if a citizen was logging into a virtual world from outside his home country, the servers are hosted elsewhere, and also the producer is form a foreign state. Just like a country has jurisdiction over a website indifferent of where the site is hosted, a virtual world can have impact in any country.

Authorities must be allowed to enter these worlds, just as avatars can, and patrol if necessary. I am not a proponent per se of policing in virtual worlds, but besides the regular national legal safeguards in this respect I see no legal obstacles in doing so if servers are located in other countries.

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On the Convergence of Virtual Worlds and Social Networking Sites

Bobprofile200 We're starting to see a convergence of virtual worlds and social networking sites in the new wave of virtual "social" worlds (e.g., Kaneva, vSide, Virtual MTV) and new 3D Facebook applications (ActiveWorlds, Gaia Online). This might be dismissed as fad. After all, everyone is either trying to replicate or piggyback on the success of America's #3 (MySpace) and #9 (Facebook) top-visited websites. World of Warcraft's 10 million users is impressive indeed, but MySpace has 30 times that. However, I think there is more to a convergence than mere hype. I see some interesting similarities and possible synergies between virtual worlds and social networking sites but also some important differences that could make integration tricky.

1. Virtual worlds already ARE social networking sites of a sort.

Virtual worlds and MMOs enable you to interact and play with friends online, add new people to your buddy list, monitor their online status and in some cases view their custom profiles. But there are important differences between World of Warcraft and Second Life on the one hand, and MySpace and Facebook on the other. First, virtual worlds not only provide social networking features, they also provide the world in which you meet people and play with them. The social networking features tend to be secondary to the simulated world itself. In contrast, social networking sites provide only the profiles and buddy lists, not the world. Second, the social networking features (i.e., buddy lists and profiles) of social networking sites are more sophisticated than those of most virtual worlds. Their profiles have more features, provide greater self-expression and enable more ways to play asynchronously. For example, all social networking sites enable you to show off your "friends" and leave public comments for them. They also let you post all kinds of media to your profile and see what your friends are doing through RSS feeds. Virtual worlds have not traditionally enabled these features although we're starting to see it in newer worlds like Kaneva, vSide and Virtual MTV. Third, the social networking features of virtual worlds are designed for the relationships you form with other players in that virtual world, not in the real world or other virtual worlds. So the social networking features are not designed for a general population like MySpace (they're more like Facebook back when it was limited to your particular university). Fourth, virtual worlds are designed primarily for maintaining relationships with friends when you are both in-world at the same time, that is, synchronously. You can interact and play with your friends in rich ways through your avatars or send them "tells" anytime from anywhere in the virtual world, but once they're offline, about all you can do is send them an email (if you can find a mail box). There is minimal support for asynchronous relationship management and, as a result, players typically go outside the game to set up guild forums where they can have profiles, public rosters, calendars and threaded asynchronous discussions.

2. Social networking sites provide profiles and buddy lists for your WHOLE life, not just your virtual one.

While virtual communities have long enjoyed profiles and buddy lists, MySpace, Facebook and other sites now provide this asynchronous social networking functionality for ANYONE in your life. As you meet people anywhere, you can add them as "friends" and then exchange public comments, share media and monitor updates to their profiles. For friends who have moved away geographically, social networking sites are a great way to keep in touch or reconnect at a distance. For people you've met briefly at a party or conference, social networking sites can be a great way to get to know each other better.

Now social networking sites seem to be most popular for managing relationships with people you meet and know "in real life"; however, they are also sometimes used for making online-only "friends." You can surf the profiles of millions of strangers and invite the ones you find interesting to join your buddy list. Then you can exchange public comments on profiles or photos and receive status updates and bulletins. This kind of addictive profile surfing and "friending" is possible on MySpace due to the massive size of its user base and its open access (Facebook still highly restricts which profiles you can see) and is more commonly engaged in by boys (and no doubt men) for purposes of flirting according to Pew (big shock!).

So it’s not surprising that social networking sites (SNSs) are so much more popular than virtual worlds. Because they are so generic, social networking sites have the potential to become as ubiquitous as email. But there are a few other important factors. First, SNSs put very small requirements on your time because the social interaction is asynchronous. Surfing profiles, adding friends, adding content, leaving messages, etc. are all interruptible activities and can be done a couple minutes at a time. "Instance runs," pick-up groups and even just synchronous chat conversations require much longer continuous blocks of time. Second, SNSs are very lightweight applications. Anyone with an internet connection and a web browser can run them. You don't have to worry about graphics cards, RAM, hefty downloads or firewalls. Third, SNSs are totally free to use, which is often key among young people.

3. On social networking sites you play yourself, while in virtual worlds, you play someone else (well sort of).

In virtual worlds, you generally play a character who has a name, sex, level (rather than age), race, class (rather than job) and a particular (avatar) appearance, which may be very, very different from that of your real-world persona. After all, behind one out of every two female characters is a male player. Whereas on social networking profiles, you tend to post your own name, sex, age, race, job and photos of yourself. These profiles act as windows into people's "real lives." They have created a new kind of online narcissism and voyeurism, which have proven to be wildly popular.

So the personae you present in virtual worlds and on social networking sites tend to be very different. However, in practice, there is a great deal of overlap. Most users in virtual worlds actually "play themselves" in the way they chat; true "role playing" of fantasy characters is somewhat rare. And even on social networking sites there are "fakesters" and role players (e.g., of celebrities). More commonly, users will lie about their age, omit their marital status or display a 10-year-old photo of themselves. So both in virtual worlds and on social networking sites, users play along a continuum of self presentation from real life to fantasy.

Is it a good idea to combine virtual worlds and social networking sites?

#1 and #2 above lead me to say "yes!" There are certainly potential synergies between the avatar-based socializing of virtual worlds and the profile-based socializing of social networking sites. I want to interact with my friends both when we're in-world together and when we're not. But #3 gives me some pause. Virtual worlds are a rare medium of social interaction that can enable you to transcend your real-world social statuses. If you’re "old," "ugly," "poor," "married," etc., you can nonetheless become highly popular through your charm, wit, game skill, avatar-customization skill, etc. But if your real-world persona is connected to your 3D avatar via a profile, you will be much less able to transcend it. Is this bad? Good? Will we lose the very thing that makes virtual worlds most attractive (at least to the unattractive)?

In a somewhat different vein, I read an Associated Press article recently that commented on the mixing of generations that’s starting to occur on social networking sites as they go main stream. It suggests that cross-generation interaction in this context is "creepy" or "like a 40-year-old at the prom or frat party." Eek! Yet attitudes toward virtual worlds seem quite different even though you often get similar cross-generation interaction. A raid with participants ranging in age from 16 to 60 is generally seen as pretty cool. The difference is no doubt due in part to the fact that you never really know the age or sex or race or sexual orientation or marital status of the person you're playing with. It may also be due to the fact that in MMOs, users are often interacting in the context of playing a game together, rather than simply gawking at party photos. Should your real-life characteristics be revealed in order to help manage this "creep factor"? Should cross-generation interaction be discouraged? Encouraged?

How should virtual worlds and social networking sites be integrated, if at all?

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Welcome N00bs

Maybe it's just because I've been scanning the digital ocean horizons nervous about piratical death bearing down upon me in the last few days, but as I look around the universe of virtual worlds just opening or about to open, I don't exactly see any rivals to World of Warcraft around. The big issues facing the new products are not whether they're WoWkillers, but whether they can avoid being roadkill.

This is pretty close to an open thread, I suppose, just some reactions to discussions I've been following through f13, Tobold's and other sites.

In general, it seems to me that there are really only four plausible market niches to inhabit at the moment when it comes to persistent-world MMOGs.

1. World of Warcraft's highly polished version of a Diku Mud, only built around some theme or licensed property which is strongly distinct from World of Warcraft. Note I said highly polished: I don't think you get a year to achieve basic functionalities, and you've got to go live with a lot of content, just like World of Warcraft did.

2. An improved version of a player-vs-player centered design (either built around mass conflict or individual contest).

3. A virtual world that's a social tool first, and not really built around a game at all. If WoW has the first type of niche covered strongly, then Second Life has this niche well in hand.

4. Something that's completely novel, which has no rivals at all in the market. Say, a very emergence-based sandbox game, or the kind of tool-rich and open-ended thing that Metaplace aims to be.

In the first category, Lord of the Rings Online seems to have attracted some customers with very WoW-like mechanics but a different thematic setting. There are real limits to this strategy: there are already a lot of failures of this kind, and more to come. I don't know how well Tabula Rasa is doing in terms of customers, but when a science-fiction themed game offers a wearable unicorn head as a veteran reward, it doesn't exactly fill one with confidence about its long-term prospects.

Age of Conan and Warhammer are waiting on the horizon, though any of you who were hoping to see female nipples on virtual breasts in your MMOG of choice (will male avatars have nipples? I can't tell from the available information at AoC's site) might need to move to Western Europe.  Anyway,  I can't see either of these worlds clearly counter-programming to World of Warcraft in the ways that they'll need to in order to flourish, nor do either of them seem likely to have the polish at launch that World of Warcraft had.  To really achieve original design, you've got to leave the Diku plantation. If you stay on it, you'll have to have the features set that WoW does plus some original twists or have a richly developed setting that is a compelling draw in its own right and sufficiently divergent from World of Warcraft.

As far as the second category goes, Pirates of the Burning Sea has gone live. Its rival isn't so much World of Warcraft but EVE Online. In one respect, you could make a case that any time an EVE-style game goes live, it can attract customers, because one of the things that makes EVE hard to enjoy for a new player now is that its world has developed to such an intricate degree that it is difficult to find a niche.  Since there are no new servers in EVE, there are no restarts. Pirates is arguably an EVE "restart": many of its underlying mechanics, particularly the centrality of the economic game and of PvP are the same. The setting is different enough that it may attract people on that feature alone. So far I find it somewhat technically challenged, and limited in some respects, but still interesting enough. The problem, as always, is going to be making the PvP consequential and cumulative while putting soft limits on the extent to which some players or factions can permanently dominate others, getting the risk/reward relationship into the sweet zone.

What's interesting out there to you, readers?   

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February Guests: Andrew Jinman & Arno Lodder

We'd like to welcome two guests to Terra Nova for this month of February: Andrew Jinman and Arno Lodder.  We're looking forward to their posts and some interesting discussions.  Biographical information & intros from both Andrew and Arno follow below the fold...

Arno Lodder

Arno In 2005, my master student Menno Briet told me about the well-known case of the Chinese gamer who killed his friend for selling his virtual Sabre sword he borrowed him. This case was of interest to me for the opportunities it entailed regarding Online Dispute Resolution, a field much of my research is devoted to (e.g., CEDIRE - Centre for Electronic Dispute Resolution). He was right, but soon I got fascinated by the legal aspects of virtual worlds, and read many papers of in particular American scholars.

Many of the legal issues (fundamental rights, penal law, civil law, intellectual property law, international law, financial law) were explored by a group of Dutch scholars and practitioners in the first months of 2006 and included in the book Law and virtual worlds (in Dutch, http://pubs.cli.vu/pub273.php) in 2006 that was presented during the Spring meeting of the Dutch IT & Law association. With Martine Boonk I wrote some papers on law and MMORPGs, in particular on Intellectual property http://ssrn.com/abstract=1079970

I am not only interested in studying virtual worlds but also in using them, e.g. in teaching. Last year I (that is: Jimi Broome) did two law classes in Second Life, one with my Canadian colleague Michael Deturbide. I hope soon to start exploring virtual worlds as an environment to resolve disputes. For its combination of the electronic environment with physical characteristics I believe there are interesting opportunities, see Short Note on Virtual Law Classes: Second Life and Other Three Dimensional Visual Worlds Next Phase for Online Dispute Resolution? http://ssrn.com/abstract=1014845.

Currently I conduct with Jacob van Kokswijk http://www.kokswijk.nl research into the social and legal aspects of virtual worlds, that will be used in April 2008 form the parliament on virtual worlds.

Andrew Jinman

Aj Andrew Jinman is originally a child of the golden age of gaming. Growing up on a steady diet of Ultima online, Warhammer and Neverwinter nights, he is no stranger to the MMORPG’s scene.

In 2002 Andrew continued his interests in this genre and enrolled at Plymouth University to study digital art and technology, to expand and open his mind to conceptualism. Then, in 2004, he experienced the sensational game of World of Warcraft, giving himself a greater insight into the community and behaviour of on-line personas. Andrew didn't know it at the time, but these experiences were vital and would shape the rest of his studies from here on!

In 2006, his interest for immersive environments grew and as he began to further shape and broaden his areas of study. The pivotal experience of WoW allowed him to comprehend and question gaming dynamics and player motivations, as defined in his dissertation, which can be found at: http://www.contemporary-media.co.uk/

Following his research Andrew began the Extension Project -  www.contemporary-media.co.uk/Extension - in collaboration with James Braman based at Towson University. The project was situated within Second Life, where students from both Towson and Plymouth Universities could run virtual lectures and seminars. The project consisted of a cross-virtual worlds advertising campaign, where WoW guilds and CSS clans were encouraged to lay down their arms and use other virtual worlds for discussion of tactics and raid planning.

He now works for where he has been leading the Media Zoo in Second Life collaborative project with the University of Leicester. He has written on the theme of the ‘virtual classroom’ for a number of journals and aims to continue to justify the importance of virtual worlds within the classroom.

Andrew now works for Twofour Learning. He has undertaken the technical and creative developments in the TwoFour/University of Leicester collaborative project, which has produced the Second Life Media Zoo. He has written on the theme of the ‘virtual classroom’ for a number of journals and aims to continue to justify the importance of virtual worlds within the classroom.


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Legitimate Questions

One of my longstanding interests in studying virtual worlds is governance and legitimacy. How are virtual worlds governed, and to what extent is this governance legitimate? When we think about political legitimacy, we can start to see a key difference between how political institutions have established their legitimate rule in the past, and how the multiple new institutions of governance in virtual worlds go about it. In particular, I am curious about how games may be making larger and larger contributions to political legitimacy in virtual worlds. To what extent are the outcomes that games generate not only legitimate in reference to the game (a valid, just, or fair win, if you will) but also contributing in some way to the legitimacy of associated institutions, such as guilds, gamemakers, and others?

The paradigmatic example of an institution which faces this question of political legitimacy is the modern bureaucratic state. As Max Weber famously observed, the state is the entity "that (successfully) claims the monopoly of the legitimate use of physical force within a given territory" (1946:78, emphasis in original; online version here). The legitimacy is important, of course, because ruling by illegitimate force is costly -- one wants to release the hounds only when necessary. But on what grounds is this legitimacy claimed? The bureaucratic state, by itself, can refer only to its procedures as right in and of themselves, and this is a weak foundation on which to construct a sense of belonging and legitimate rule amongst a citizenry. The nation, however, is a rich font of such meanings, containing as it does arguments about shared language, culture, history, and territory (all in the context of an "us" that is not "them"). So the story of the nation-state (as it is usually called in the literature) is one that involves an intimate relationship between the institutional apparatus of the state and the symbolic resource of the "nation". (NB: I am collapsing to an unforgivable degree what is an enormous body of scholarship on the state and its relationship to the nation -- this list is a place to start, at least.)

For virtual worlds, however, there is no central metaphor of the nation already in place. Certainly, as they persist they are generating shared languages, meanings, and practices, to a certain degree, and one sees attempts to port offline categories of territorial belonging into virtual worlds, with varying degrees of success. But I have noticed something else, and it leads me to ask whether games and the indeterminate outcomes they generate can be a source of political legitimacy.

Recently, a graduate student of mine, Krista-Lee Malone, posted a paper at ssrn (Malone 2007) based on the master's thesis she completed at UW-Milwaukee. The thesis was about hardcore raiding guilds in World of Warcraft, and the paper looks comparatively at the adoption of DKP systems by two guilds. Malone suggests that DKP systems create "player obligation to the guild through a rationalized system intended to measure commitment" and that they therefore constitute a core practical component of how guilds as institutions establish legitimate rule. The gameness is relevant in DKP, because player performance in the game is a factor (50 DKP MINUS!).

Similarly, when doing research at Linden Lab I noticed a number of attempts to deploy games as mechanisms to generate outcomes that could stand as legitimate and, importantly, be an alternative to, for example, top-down decision-making, or democratic voting. One such attempt was through the application of the Elo Rating System.

Second Life is a good example of a project – and Linden Lab has been a good example of a company – that is deeply informed by the “left-libertarian” attitude toward technology and its promise which has shaped everything from the structure of the early internet to the proliferation of personal computers, but about which I do not have sufficient space to say more here (see Turner, 2006). Suffice it to say that in a political sense Linden Lab in 2005 was characterized by an almost overpowering faith in technology, matched only by a similarly monumental suspicion of vertical authority – especially bureaucratic authority, although charismatic authority was suspect as well. The paradox for Linden Lab was how to realize the ongoing creation of Second Life in a way that was consistent with their idealized vision of individual creativity and liberty, while remaining indisputably and unavoidably the single most powerful institutional player on the scene.

Over the course of my field research at Linden Lab, I discovered that this tension between vertical control and horizontal, “emergent” governance was not only a key to understanding their struggles to make Second Life, but also of their struggle to make themselves as an organization. For as Second Life grew in size and complexity, so did Linden Lab, and this tension came to be the preoccupying focus of their own organizational lives as well. This preoccupation was the result of the same politically-charged disposition, one which tended to treat top-down or vertical decision-making as the antithesis of empowered and creative collaboration. As people at Linden Lab witnessed their creation and their company growing, this fear of a loss of liberty reached, at times, a fervent pitch, and in this ongoing predicament they are not alone in high-tech circles. Google, as recent coverage by several journalists has revealed, is similarly shaped by a disposition that combines a deep faith in technology with a rejection of vertical authority. Julian Dibbell has also recently charted the strange advent of what he calls ludo-capitalism, wherein labor experience is increasingly framed as (and constituted to be) a game. We should therefore be eager to understand how the entities that have their hands deep into the recesses of our digital lives are going about trying to solve their version of the challenge that famously preoccupied nation-states: how to establish legitimate institutional power in the face of practical and undeniable imperfections and limitations.

Elo rating systems are a group of statistical methods for calculating the relative skill levels of large numbers of players for two player games. Based on a system developed originally by Arpad Elo for generating a ranking of chess players, they have since been both modified and improved within chess and adapted for other two-player games. A ranking system generates a rating for each player, and is seen as legitimate in the degree to which these ratings seem to accord with the matches that do manage to get played. Thus, a key aim of these systems is also to predict the outcomes of matches between rated players, and its accuracy is thereby judged (and thus the system may also come to be modified). In this way, Elo rating systems generate an emergent ordered ranking, and this emergent quality made this technique an attractive solution for the challenge that faced Linden Lab: how to generate a ranked order of prioritization from a heterogenous collection of company tasks.

In mid-2005, one developer at Linden Lab, himself quite familiar with chess ranking systems, set about to code onto Jira a system built on Elo’s algorithm. He created a webpage that pitted two (and only two) tasks against each other for Lindens to choose. These “matches” would over time generate a list of highest-ranked to lowest-ranked Jira tasks. Rosedale enthusiastically supported this effort, and in two days the programmer had created the system and sent an email over the company-wide email list containing a link to the site. Upon arriving at the site, one saw a simple presentation of two Jira tasks, including each one’s title, unique Jira number, and a brief description. Employees were simply to pick one of the two (or pick a “draw”) and the system would record that match result and generate another match of two more tasks (soon after they were each asked to pick winners of ten such “matches” a day). Many Lindens tried out the system with some enthusiasm, as it seemed relatively un-“gameable”. Hundreds of matches were “played” in a short span of time (a matter of days), and a ranked list was generated. For Rosedale, this was a step on the road toward realizing an ideal of company decision-making from the ground up. For others, the system was suspect at the point of participation; presented with two entirely heterogenous tasks (add a urinal to the men’s bathroom vs. add a web browser to the Second Life client), they felt that picking between them was nonsensical. It was eventually abandoned in practice and other game-based (and non-game-based) initiatives to tap into the wisdom of Linden Lab’s crowd were tried.

So, I am left with a lingering question. Was the ultimate illegitimacy of the Elo-ranking system due to something deeper -- the fact that it was an attempt to incorporate a game into corporate decision-making? The suggestion I would like to make is that, for institutions, games are in fact quite difficult to domesticate, precisely because they can generate outcomes that challenge or outright contradict any existing, more coherent, narratives. And I would add to this another issue, just as important, and that is how the legitimacy of a game's outcomes is directly related to the community of its players or the institution which controls it (as in the case of organized sports). When games are mobilized for purposes other than the playing in and of themselves, who gets to interpret the outcomes, and say what they mean? The sponsoring institution, or the participating players? To me, these are central questions as we see more and more institutions attempting to govern through games. While Julian has rightly focused on what this means for labor and exploitation, in the Marxian sense, I think there is a related (Weberian) question that we must attend to as well -- how are institutions learning to use games to establish legitimate governance?


Malone, Krista-Lee. (2007). Dragon kill points: The economics of power gamers. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=1008035.

Turner, Fred. (2006). From Counterculture to Cyberculture: Stewart Brand, the Whole Earth Network, and the Rise of Digital Utopianism. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Weber, Max. (1946). From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology. H. H. Gerth and C. Wright Mills, eds. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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An Avatar's Day in Court

Farnaz Alemi, an associate at the law firm of Latham & Watkins, has just published a piece in UCLA J. of Law & Tech. about the resolution of disputes within (and without) VWs. From the abstract:

"Though the real world is attempting to recognize in-game property rights to provide relief, it is not the viable solution some may think. As this paper demonstrates, parties face major obstacles in the real world attempting to resolve in-game disputes. Thus, I have proposed a two-tiered justice system: the In-Game Justice System (the "IGJ") and the Real World Justice System (the "RWJ") to provide a potential means of resolving in-game disputes using various real world theories of law and judicial proceedings. More importantly, real world courts would now be sought as a venue of last resort if an aggrieving player pierces the virtual veil (the "PVV"). This proposal intends to provide justice and relief to victims of virtual worlds, and hopefully a means towards understanding the interplay between the virtual world and the real world."

It's a really interesting paper. For me the question is not so much the normative issue of whether we should block off the virtual worlds from the real/physical/etc worlds, but the degree to which courts and legislatures are likely to do so. The longer I look at what courts do the more I have the sense that there is actually a lot of power in the concept of the "magic circle", whether courts acknowledge this or not. I think that perhaps there is something wired into us in accepting that there is something special going on within the boundaries of the circle. Step onto a football field, walk into a church, log into Azeroth, and you're in a different world. I'm not sure what this means (nor do I have any sense of how one could prove the acceptance of the circle) but papers like Alemi's move us towards an understanding of the power of the circle and how courts should respond to it.


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Sexual Safety for the Price of a Teddy Bear

Build-a-Bearville, a new child-oriented MMO run by teddy bear retailer Build-a-Bear Workshop, opened its colorful virtual doors this winter--joining "web playgrounds" like Club Penguin and Webkinz on the highly-lucrative bandwagon of virtual world for kids. Though Build-a-Bearville's population is still small in comparison to giant Club Penguin, the teddy bear-themed MMO has used a lot of the same elements (character and clothing personalization, thematic mini games, etc.) to make the world appeal to children. Specifically, Build-a-Bearville is designed for kids who've purchased an animal from a Build-a-Bear store, which they can register online--though anyone can play.

Of course, like other children's MMOs, Build-a-Bearville is billed to parents as a "safe place where children can play" free from the dangers of internet predators, identity thieves, and inappropriate content. However, what's disconcerting about the world's play model--in which signing up is free, but certain privileges are reserved for players who've registered a purchased animal--is that the level of "safety" changes depending whether or not your child is a paying customer.

Players who don't have an animal to register are restricted to the "safest" level of chat: drop down menus with exclamations like "It's beary nice to meet you!"  Players with a registered animal, on the other hand, can chat freely. In theory, their chat is being censored for certain inappropriate words and phrases.  But, whereas in Club Penguin I've seen this method work effectively to eliminate sexual talk, I witnessed players in Build-a-Bearville shouting, "Any cute guys out there?" and "Who wants to flirt?"  Of course, some would say these questions are harmless enough--but they certainly introduce a social, and potentially sexual element into the game that seems to have been successful sidestepped in similar children's MMOs. Plus, the question remains, why should non-paying customers be more or less safe than paying ones?

I should note that as an ex-Build-a-Bear employee, my thoughts on Build-a-Bearville come with a certain bias.  At the same time, as these kids MMOs become more and more popular, I think it's important for us writers and researchers to spend actual time inside them observing.  Just because they're meant for children doesn't mean we adults can't take a peek inside...

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