The Council of Europe (CoE) has developed two sets of Guidelines that seek to interpret Human Rights in an online context. On 6 May 2009 there is a Council convened workshop in Strasbourg to explore the guidelines. Prof Bartle and I (with my think tank hat on) are speaking at the meeting.
In this post I’ve provided a short background to the context of the documents and some of my views on the way that key concepts are constructed in the guidelines intended for online game providers. I think that the Council would appreciated a wide set of views on these guidelines as they seem sincere in trying to gather input from a wide set of actors, hence I post these views here to gather your comments.
The guidelines at hand are"
These seek to outline how these two industries can promote rights as defined in the “Convention for the Protection of Human Rights and Fundamental Freedoms” in the context of their customers and citizens generally.
The rights focus of both of these documents is Article 10 of the Convention:
2. The exercise of these freedoms, since it carries with it duties and responsibilities, may be subject to such formalities, conditions, restrictions or penalties as are prescribed by law and are necessary in a democratic society, in the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety, for the prevention of disorder or crime, for the protection of health or morals, for the protection of the reputation or rights of others, for preventing the disclosure of information received in confidence, or for maintaining the authority and impartiality of the judiciary.
Looking at the document “Human Rights Guidelines for Online Games Providers” I want to look at the opening section of the document (see below). Given its title I am taking this to be an overall conception of the key actors involved in the rights at hand and a normative view of what roles they should take, I believe this needs some examination.
"Understanding the role and position of online games providers in respecting and promoting human rights
Providers (designers and publishers) of online games design and make available products which can promote the exercise and enjoyment of human rights and fundamental freedoms, in particular the freedom to express, to create and to exchange content and communications while respecting the rights of others. Designed and provided in an appropriate manner, games can be powerful tools to enhance learning, creativity and social interaction, thereby helping users to benefit from the information society.
However, like other content, online games may also inadvertently impact on the rights and sensibilities of individuals, in particular children, as well as their dignity. The potential impact of such games may increase as they allow the gaming experience to become more creative and interactive (as the possibilities for expression, interaction and exchange of content with other gamers increase) and ever more realistic (as the visual effects of games develop).
Online games can play an important positive role in the lives and development of individuals, especially for children and young people. It suffices to consider the importance of rights and freedoms, values and dignity, into the embedded design and marketing of games. In this regard, it is recalled that the exercise of freedom of expression carries with it duties and responsibilities, in particular as regards the protection of health and morals and the rights of others, which publishers of online games are encouraged to bear in mind when deciding on the content of their games.
Games designers and publishers are therefore encouraged to promote and facilitate gamers’ well-being and should regularly assess and evaluate their information policies and practices, in particular regarding child safety and responsible use, while respecting fundamental rights, in particular the right to freedom of expression and the right to privacy and secrecy of correspondence. At the same time it should be noted that member states, civil society, other private sector actors, parents and gamers themselves have important roles to play in engaging in multistakeholder co-operation, promoting gaming literacy for children and assisting game providers in fulfilling their role.
In this regard, designers and publishers of online games are encouraged to take note of, discuss and make their best efforts to comply with the following guidelines (below) and to consider making reference to them within their games and in their enduser agreements.
The appended guidelines are without prejudice to and must be read in conjunction with the obligations applicable to online games providers and their activities under national, European and international law.” (Human Rights Guidelines for Online Games Providers page 4)
The key actor here seems to be the ‘online game provider’. Interestingly the guidelines conflate designer and publisher – whereas of course these are often separate entities with very different outlooks and drivers.
What providers do under this text is exercise ‘freedom of expression’ while moral constraints are covered there seems no recognition of economic and social factors that might constrain this ‘freedom’.
While the text goes on to say that providers are ‘encouraged’ in respect of ‘gamers’ wellbeing. There are a several instances in the text where providers are reminded that they have ‘duties and responsibilities’ in respect of rights.
The artifacts under consideration are variously referred to as ‘product’, ‘content’, ‘embedded design’ and ‘marketing’. The artifacts have the ability it assumed to ‘promote’ the exercise of rights and have a role in the ‘development of individuals; as well as potentially being able to ‘inadvertently impact’ actors. It is also noted that the ‘gaming experience’ can become more ‘interactive’ allowing the gamer to exercise expression. Many other potential social goods that can result through interaction with an online game are noted.
Here the artifacts seem at once to be static entities but at the same time things that can have a complex role in lives and inter relations of actors. So while it is acknowledged that there is increase interactivity neither the agency of the actors nor the affordances of the artifacts seem to play much of a part in this description. Critically, it seems to me, the technical-social nexus of the online game as a site in which the rights at hand can be expressed or restricted by the actors that use the online game seems to be passed over setting rights guardianship into an implied hierarchy where the end user is almost passive.
What’s more as I have noted in previous works the act of giving primacy to the ‘artifact’ nature of online games, as opposed to the ‘place’ like nature or ‘contractual’ nature that many of them have sets any discourse about them in a particular direction.
Lastly the other key actors appear to be ‘children’, ‘users’, ‘individuals’, ‘gamers’, ‘member states’, ‘civil society’, ‘other private sector actors’ and ‘parents’.
As noted above, the relationship between the users of the artifacts and the creators and other actors seems to imply a hierarchy. What’s more the text sees to put emphasis on protecting and keeping children safe.
There are many categories that are overlooked by this typology, those I suggest are useful to incorporate into an analysis of online games include the following:
‘adult gamers’ – while this is possibly the larges single category of gamer it often seems overlooked. From a policy point of view this strikes me as problematic as it does not seem to me that it is self evident that the rights of child gamers trump those of adult gamers in all circumstances, and even if they do the case needs to be explicitly stated.
‘player community’ – in many online games the notion of and the feeling of belonging to a community is key the experience of the game and many of the goods suggested by the guidelines.
‘user generated content’ – there is mention of users and expression the idea that users might them selves be active in the generation of game content for other users which might include: text, the act of gaming, mods, fanfic and other content that some how becomes part of the gaming experience – seems missing.
In these categories it seems to me that their might be an implication of active-agency that seems lacking in the text in relation to the notion of any agent using an online game.
Other categories we might consider include: ‘game designers’, the ‘games industry’, ‘retailers’, ‘self governance structures’, ‘guilds’, ‘consumers’ and ‘professional and industry bodies’.
In summary this definition of roles appears to set up an industry with freedom that is bounded only by rights-related duties and users, primarily children, that interact with relatively fixed artifacts in ways that have relatively defined outcomes on them that they have little control upon. A key invisible category is assumed presence of the Council of Europe itself the author of the document.
I suggest that a more rounded approach to rights online should include a more granular understanding of how the practices of game production and use come about through a much more complex interplay of actors. What’s more key elements of context to take into account include the notion of a game as a system of constraints and acts within a game as being fictional or symbolic.
In a further post I may explore in detail the actual guidelines that are suggested in the document.