Human rights & the 'online game provider'

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:

Article 10 – Freedom of expression1

1. Everyone has the right to freedom of expression. This right shall include freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference by public authority and regardless of frontiers. This article shall not prevent States from requiring the licensing of broadcasting, television or cinema enterprises.
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.

Comments on Human rights & the 'online game provider':

Nich says:

I think that the overall statement in the guidelines lacked of any deeper examination of the online gaming context. The categories that Ren suggests are, actually, what any lawyer or non-lawyer with relevant experience would have expected to be (at least) mentioned.

Certainly, the fact that some sort of semi-official initiative is being shown, should be considered encouraging. To what ends, however? For the taken directions simply reverberated the well known perspectives found in European declarative documents: on game content there is hardly any difference to the generally held positions over minors and conventional media and video-games (e.g. violence, politically ethical censorship); on online service providers (OSPs) it is the same hesitant pseudo-paternalistic attitude, which relies on the providers’ general responsibility without setting clear the particular accounts which require more focused action.

In other words, the view on online worlds per se falls short of addressing the complications of the online service structure as a source for human rights discussion and got attached to, in my opinion, dated and anyway self-evident (in European law) appreciations of circulated media.

Again, it is important that they stepped forward with it. From experience, though, it feels awkward that they are stepping forward with it…

Posted Apr 27, 2009 6:44:15 AM | link

SusanC says:

"Human rights guideline for online games providers" has a big section on Internet filtering, which seems wierdly out of place - most of what it talks about is relevant to ISP's, which are the subject of the other document.

Online games usually do filter chat, but this is rather different from filtering by an ISP (technically, and possibly also from a policy standpoint).

I think an interesting discussion could be had on whether game publishers should be treated differently from ISPs on this.

Posted Apr 27, 2009 8:54:46 AM | link

SusanC says:

Before removing gamer-generated content from a game, you should take care to verify the illegality or harmfulness of the content, for instance by contacting the competent authority law-enforcement authorities.

1. Or rather, you should follow the same procedures that web hosting companies have established for dealing with complaints that a user's web site is hosting illegal content. In the UK, I understand there's a code of practise that ISP's abuse teams follow, so that they can take down allegedly illegal content without being prosecuted themselves for looking at it.

2. This recommendation makes sense for platforms like Second Life or Metaplace. But earlier in the document, these were ruled out of scope as "not games". In a more themed, game-like world, the people running the game are likely to want to remove UGC for far more draconian reasons: e.g. it doesn't fit with the theme of the world.

Posted Apr 27, 2009 12:32:20 PM | link

Richard Bartle says:

I read the above section on removing gamer-generated content a little differently. To me, it seemed to suggest that the only valid reasons for removing content were to do with its illegality or harmfulness. This is because the document goes on to say:

"Acting without first checking and verifying may be considered as an interference with legal content and with the rights and freedoms of those gamers creating and communicating such content, in particular the right to freedom of
expression and information."

In other words, if you delete content for other reasons (eg. quality, consistency, context, operational) then you could be interfering with the rights of those who created the content.

Needless to say, if this were enforced then it would result in fewer MMOs allowing any form of user-created content for fear of being stuck with it. We'd get less opportunity for creativity, not more.


Posted Apr 28, 2009 3:04:48 AM | link

Richard Bartle says:

Another issue that the document raises is that of racist content. Early on, it says attention should be paid to:

"content which conveys messages of aggressive nationalism, ethnocentrism, xenophobia, racism or intolerance in general including when such
messages are concealed"

We later get half a page of detail on the subject which looks awfully like it could cover Horde v Alliance in WoW. The fact that such an artificial conflict doesn't use "real" races (which don't feature other than in choice of skin colour for humans) is no defence, because of the bit about concealment above.

Personally - and I've said this before - I feel that races in MMOs (and RPGs in general) can indeed be read as a real-world racist statements. They can be read in other ways too (eg. as a comment on class-based societies), but the fact that many designers put them in without giving any thought to what they mean (ie. elves and dwarfs are just part of the paradigm) makes them open to being interpreted at face value. Trolls, orcs, tauren etc. are explicitly called "races", therefore sanctioning (through gameplay mechanics) antipathy between confederations of these races does look to be saying that sanctions on the basis of race are OK. Even when you look to the original sources, you get a problem: Tolkien's orcs were created evil, essentially as a religious metaphor - they weren't a "race" in the sense that modern MMOs use the term. We got that all by ourselves.


Posted Apr 28, 2009 3:06:59 AM | link

Richard Bartle says:

As a final point, consider the following two paragraphs on children and MMOs (well, MMOGs, since all online games are lumped together):

"Declares that, other than in the context of law enforcement, there should be no lasting or permanently accessible record of the content created by children on the Internet which challenges their dignity, security and privacy
or otherwise renders them vulnerablenow or at a later stage in their lives;"

"Invites member states, together, where appropriate, with other relevant stakeholders, to explore the feasibility of removing or deleting such content, including its traces (logs, records and processing), within a
reasonably short period of time."

So ... they want member states to lean on developers to make them delete content created by children (as if developers can ever know it WAS created by children!), but they also say that this doesn't apply in the context of law enforcement. If recent proposals by the UK government are anything to go by, these are polar opposites: either you have to delete everything or you have to keep everything (for a year, in this example). This shows how completely governments can trump human rights legislation if they so choose, under the banner of "law enforcement". Yet if a company wanted to keep a database (eg. of anonymised communications that they can check incoming text against to identify potential child abusers - and some child-focused virtual worlds do do this) they couldn't.

Oh well, at least these are "guidelines" and not "laws".


Posted Apr 28, 2009 3:25:29 AM | link

Robert says:

As with most of their (european bureaucrats) definitions, what they mean is very diffuse to some extend. It seems obvious to me, that the creators of that document only have a very rudimentary view on computergames in general. Let me pick out their views of racism as well, like they convey it in this statement:

"Being aware that video games with a racist content, whose existence in member countries is unfortunately beyond doubt, convey a message of aggressive nationalism, ethnocentrism, xenophobia, anti-Semitism or intolerance in general, concealed behind or combined with violence or mockery"

Racism is a problem, but where exactly "real" racism starts and when it is not a "concept of a playerenemy" is often difficult to ascertain. Let me explain what i mean by this strange distinction. There is, of course, "open" racism in some games, as those are even used for certain propaganda interests - Like some games created by developers close to the Hezbollah, in which you could throw stones and shoot the "evil infidel oppressors" (e.g. israeli soldiers). Other forms of racism are quite different, as they create a certain negative "image" of certain groups of people, like Robert Purangao noted about certain stereotypes delivered in some games, here in grand theft auto III: "Parungao noted that nonwhite characters in Grand Theft Auto III were mainly criminals and obstacles to be disposed of by the white hero." (Source:

The Problem here is obvious - the developers of the games want to create a very stereotyped world so the player will find it easy to discern "who are the bad guys". BUT that is a real problem, since there now is the possibility, that players (who always seem to lack the ability to reflect their actions and are mindless consumers) cement their thinking in these stereotypes as well. They work in close correlation in how other (national) media work, since e.g. one of the most prominent criminals in the US always seems to be a black in his middle twenties, armed and dangerous.

As pointed out by another poster here, there are games with a totally fictional worlds as well who use the concept of races to discern "who is the enemy/friend". Problematic in this sense is again a thinking in stereotypes. Lets take the typical orc character (not in world of warcraft, but more in general). Orcs are evil. They breed fast, act brutally, look like some mutated humanoid with savage features and some sick skincolor, and are always minions of some dark god that needs them to drink blood, act savage and kill humans. The player is often completely legitimated as a "Hero" to just chop heads of when orcs are concerned. A very distinctive set of stereotypes is used here that include aspects of xenophobia, racism and intolerance to create the perfect evil creature. Mind me, even the fables of old used this way of creating "the ideal evil".
Here comes the great dilemma for developers of games that include some sort of "enemy" concept - players expect some sort of clear "signals" on who is the enemy and who is not - especially if any sort of violence is legitimated by the game to use against this "enemy". And the designers give it to them in the way they think it is expected: Give them vile orcs to slay, everyone knows orcs are evil. To sum up the problems i have with this paper, it probably never went in depth with game development concepts and player expectations, it just throws some diffuse guidelines around that racism in games is bad.
I would have suggested a more realistic approach in specifically addressing politically motivated racism in games (Propaganda and the like)that expresses the clear goal to motivate the player to adopt an racist ideology. The next step would be addressing games that depend on realistic settings and heavily use negative stereotypes (the black guy is always a criminal). Here it would be a good idea to advice designers and developers to balance the use of this stereotypes with positive ones, so you won`t get the impression that one type of "race" is always connected to, lets say, a criminal act. Like having a black criminal, but also a black police officer (sry for this very simple example). The other discussion here is the question of the "child-", "youth-" and adult- player which is not really well adressed, but i think about putting this in a seperate comment.

Posted Apr 28, 2009 10:28:45 AM | link

dmyers says:

A scary document.

You wanted games to be "important"? Well, welcome to that world, with this document as your reward.

Besides the obvious tensions that the comments here have quickly revealed, there is the fundamental contradiction that all documents like this one contain:

"It should, where appropriate, call upon member states and the private sector, respectively, to ensure and to facilitate all users’ right to freedom of expression and information, in particular as regards their freedom to receive information without interference by public authorities..."

...unless, of course, those public authorities take it upon themselves to write a document like this one.

Posted Apr 30, 2009 3:05:22 AM | link

SusanC says:

It's also interesting that they don't mention sex in games.


I see two aspects to this document.

The first aspect is issues that are specific to on-line games:

- On-line games mix commerially produced mass-media content with chat or "user-generated content". Second Life and the like are declared outside the document's scope, with good reason, but even in a WoW-like game users can still chat to each other. This raises the issue of what standards of censorship to apply - the standards for broadcast television, or the standards for a private communication between individuals? Should different kinds of content in a game be subject to different standards of censorship?

- It is technically possible to monitor and filter chat between private individuals. This gives the government - and private corporations that are not democratically accountable - unprecedented powers of surveillance and censorship.

- Such filtering doesn't actually work very well, at least at the moment (e.g. "socialism", "scunthorpe" etc). The poor reliability of the technology becomes important when we consider issues of public choice economics - market forces are not effective if the government makes it mandatory to use a particular product (and hence, government-mandated use of a poor-quality product will likely ensure that it remains of poor quality)

- Some the story-lines that have become popular in the MMO genre are particularly worrying to European governments (e.g. war between opposing racial or national groups).

The second aspect of the document is an ambivalence over censorship that could just as well apply to other media, such as printed books.

Posted Apr 30, 2009 6:50:43 AM | link

Peter says:

The part that I found most interesting was :


iii. include among the licensing conditions
for broadcasters certain obligations
concerning the portrayal of
violence, accompanied by dissuasive
measures of an administrative
nature, such as non-renewal of the
licence when these obligations are
not respected;


At a glance, that sounds somewhat ominous.

Posted May 10, 2009 3:25:11 PM | link

Jacab Christopher says:

Yes agreed with you dude. You can check griefster which provides you discussions about games.

Posted May 11, 2009 5:01:05 AM | link


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