October 2010 | Main Page | December 2010

What character are you using?

Characters A recent report in the Wall Street Journal reveals that Deep Packet Inspection is making a comeback. DPI allows analysts to work over the packets you send out and mine them for patterns relevant to problems like, deciding which ads to send your way. Earlier versions of this technology encountered much blowback due to privacy concerns. The current generation of promoters say that privacy is respected. In discussing how the systems handle privacy, the promoters make some interesting revelations about a completely different matter: Personality. It turns out that if I want to target ads to you very closely, I will tailor my pitches in different ways at different times of the day. You're just not the same consumer at work as you are at home. In a very interesting shift, one vendor mentioned in the article, Kindsight, says that it delivers information not on people but on characters. Characters - just like game characters. Yes: The shifting of character identified by Turkle and others in social media worlds is verified in DPI of our online behavior in general. In fact our shifting selves are so distinct from one another that someone can make money by identifying and tracing the differences. 

Do we have shifting identities offline as well? Is the person unified, or is each person actually many people in one? The formula for the Trinity is "One God, Three Persons," and if one objects that that seems awfully contradictory, one is told that it is simply a mystery, something that need not make sense to be true. It is true whether logical or not.

Are we mysteries like this? Can we be one person but also several characters at the same time? An 8-sided die is one unified object and 8 different objects, all at the same time. You might also say it is one object with 8 states. Or, it is one object that appears as a different object from time to time, according to some standard of what makes for a relevant difference.

When we play RPGs we typically make not one character but many. This portfolio of characters - does it basically just extend the same process of character creation that we deploy for our offline selves? A new face for the die? When Kindsight examines my packets, will it treat my game characters just as it treats my workday research character, my evening politics character, and my weekend shopper character? "O, that's his female rogue. She never buys anything. Don't send the ad until The Shopper comes back."

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Symbols in Virtual Worlds

Anti-Nazi Commenter Dave wrote to say that he's interested in a discussion about Call of Duty's policies toward user-created images.

Quoth Dave:

Recently a gamer asked a CoD developer if using a swastika as an emblem ingame would be ok. The developer said no and it would result in a ban.

Original question via Twitter; recent coverage; blog post by the developer.

Will it ever be possible to clearly separate the 'real world' from the virtual or will we always carry baggage over from one into the other? Will a red rising sun always mean Japanese imperialism to Chinese gamers?

End Quote

Interesting stuff. Thoughts?

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CFP: Game Behind the Game: April 8-9, 2011

Gamebgame The School of Communication and Information at Rutgers is planning a major conference to be held April 8-9, 2011.  The conference will cover the cultural, business, legal, and artistic aspects of the videogame and virtual worlds industries -- pretty much everything practical and academic about gaming.  If you'd like to spend a couple of days conversing with other folks who think seriously about gamers and the video game industry, please consider submitting to the Call for Papers, which can be found here: http://bit.ly/gbgcall  (Deadline for 500-word abstract = Dec. 15th.)

For more information about the conference see this link:  http://bit.ly/gamebehindgame

More details about the sorts of topics we're looking to explore below the fold:

The conference will feature speakers, panels, and workshops based on abstract papers submitted before the event. The submission deadline for abstracts, panel proposals, and student posters is December 15, 2010, and registration opens January 2011. The conference will also feature a poster session and exhibits from industry-leading vendors. An award, covering travel and lodging expenses, will go to the authors of the best paper and best poster.

Topics of interest include but are not limited to:

Business and Economic
•             Labor, production, demand, and consumption of games
•             Economics and business models in the game industry
•             Virtual goods, money, property and/or services
•             Packaging/bundling of gaming into entertainment of all kinds (books, movies, games, theme parks, etc.)
•             New markets (disenfranchised communities, inexpensive games, etc.)
•             Marketing and market strategies
•             Gaming and the globalization processes
•             The economy within videogames/when “virtual” money becomes real
•             Bandwidth and video games
•             Videogame impacts on telecommunications infrastructure

•             Business applications of gaming platforms
•             New technology and non-traditional applications (e.g. defense)
•             Games as social platforms
•             Developing games in virtual worlds

Law and Policy
•             Legal aspects (e.g. Supreme Court case of California law)
•             Policy/regulatory environment/constraints of videogames
•             “Filters” and videogames; videogame regulation
•             Ethics and games
•             Political role of videogames

•             The role of the press/media in gaming industry
•             Social, political and ethical issues related to digital games and gaming
•             Women and diversity in games/representations and stereotypes in games
•             Gamer culture and community trends
•             Impacts of videogames on society

Conference Website: http://comminfo.rutgers.edu/conferences/game-behind-the-game/
School of Communication and Information: http://comminfo.rutgers.edu
Institute for Information Policy: http://comm.psu.edu/about/centers/institute-for-information-policy/

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Intended and Unintended Consequences (or the Nightmares of Dr. Bombay)

I am with A360 on the current child safety debacle, and it raises a conversation that needs to be had (and re-had) before we get a whole lot further. In 1998's My Tiny Life (free pdf) , Julian Dibell  chronicles, among other things,  the experiences of a virtual rape victim and (her) MOO community.  Seminal on multiple levels, the work explores many aspects of identity, ethics and permission in a post-modern, techno-centric age.  

So here's the question.  In an exodus recession, were do we draw the lines with economies made up of adult, child, and child-like beings in virtual worlds? With their child-like or grown-up avatars?  With AI(s), inhabited or not?  What's appropriate, what's not?  What's criminal, what's not?  What is slavery?  Labor?  How do we simultaneously allow freedom(s) and conversations and experiments and deviations and enterprise, and protect from harm?  Does hacking or enslaving one's or another(s) virtual being(s) to elicit behavior other than intended by the owner consitute criminal activity? At what point(s) are we complicit?  Which pathways of influence do we fear?  Applaud? What precedents exist? What forms can teaching a lesson take?  Is it/can it be therapy? Is it 'promoting hatred'to discuss such things openly, or is opening the can of worms a good thing overall?  Let's summarize and rule.


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An Exodus Recession?

Virtual-world2 The economy continues to move slowly and economists seem as uncertain as ever about the causes and what to do. Months ago, I began to wonder – could this possibly be the first “exodus recession”? In my first book I sketched out the idea. Suppose economic activity moves from the real world into the virtual world. Human happiness is unaffected or even goes up, however, the goods that produce the happiness are now produced and consumed in a virtual environment rather than the real one. Measurements of economic activity, being all based in the real economy, would begin to show weakness. I argued that contemporary political and economic control systems do not tolerate much weakness, thus, there might well be some sort of crisis in the real world, for no good reason, simply because production and consumption was going “off the books” and into virtual environments. One term for this would be an "exodus recession" - an economic downturn caused by the movement of human attention and energy into virtual environments.

Are we in an exodus recession right now?

First, let's consider the reasoning by which an interest in virtual things would cause a recession in real life. Why would a movement to digital living cause a recession? My point of view has to be preceded by a disclaimer. Despite years of training by macroeconomists, I have to confess that I don’t feel that we (they or I) understand the macroeconomy very well. For better or worse, I tend not to look at macroeconomics using the Keynesian and Monetarist models bequeathed to economics students today. Over the years I’ve become convinced that the macroeconomy is primarily a matter of mass psychology. If we believe that the economy will grow, it will. Employers will invest and hire, workers will borrow and spend. If we believe that the economy will shrink, it will. Employers will hang onto cash and lay off workers, workers will save their money. Log-rolling and self-confirming expectation rule the day, in much the same way that money’s value is a huge social convention. So is the safety of your bank deposit a convention, insisting that the deposit is safe. Convention – think of the economy’s health as a social convention, an aspect of culture. After World War II, Germany and Japan – the most beaten down nations in human history – suddenly became the most vibrant economically. Is it because their governments (and ours) gave them a stimulus? Or was it because their governments carefully preserved the real purchasing power of their currency? Probably not. We call these events “miracles” because the models don’t explain them at all. The economic miracles happened because Germans and Japanese decided, on a cultural level, to be vibrant economies. Workers threw themselves into consumption and work. Companies threw themselves into investing and hiring. The economies grew like crazy. Hope is the thing to hope for; fear fear.

The sensitivity of the state of the economy to our cultural understanding of the state of the economy is greater than ever. We live today in a world where the health of the economy is a widely-reported and narrowly-followed pseudo-fact. Business people focus like laser beams on employment figures, GDP growth rates, and so on. If the GDP growth rate falls from 3% per year to -1% per year – Ye Gods! It’s the end of the world! The impact of such changes on the happiness of an individual person is minimal by itself. But when we read about such things, we all react. Hiring doesn’t happen. Purchases are not made. Lo and behold, the drop from 3% to 1% becomes a drop from 1% to -2%, unleashing another round of anguish. People start to lose jobs – which DOES affect their happiness, a great deal.

The central government responds with stimulus and quantitative easing, none of which will work unless we all believe that a stimulus or QE is just the thing to make everyone believe that the economy is turning around. And if we all have some kind of pessimism about the long haul, if we believe that none of this is going to work, it just won’t – whatever Lord Keynes said.

In such an environment, even a little thing, if persistent, could touch off a prolonged mood of pessimism. Is it possible that the virtual economy is that thing?

George Will recently wrote about the increasing speed with which our experiences are going digital. Using data from Robert Weissenstein, chief investor for Credit Suisse, he notes that “In 2001, the iPod arrived. Less than a decade later, the number of employees of music stores has declined from about 80,000 to 20,000.” And “Three million iPods were sold in 2.5 years; 3 million Kindles were sold in two years; 3 million iPads were sold in 80 days; 3 million iPhones were sold in three weeks.”

Let’s construe the notion of “virtual economy” quite broadly: If you receive an experience by yourself through a machine that runs on digital technology, without doing or buying anything physical (other than press a few buttons), it’s virtual. To download a song and listen to it on your iPod is virtual; to go to a concert is real, to buy a CD and play it is real, to play your own instrument is real. The difference I want to highlight is in the physical nature of the economic transaction. The virtual transaction does not require the movement or alteration of anything physical. Not even physical money changes hands. The real transaction involves material being created, moved, consumed, all by human hands.

Using these concepts, there’s some evidence that an exodus from the real to the virtual is not only already underway (as I argued in my second book) but that’s it’s gotten big enough to affect our sense of a whether the real economy is healthy or not. In support, here’s a series of random judgments about the state of the real world.

TV viewing is down among 18-34 year old males, and movie attendance is flat. Meanwhile, more and more time is being spent online or playing videogames. If you want to get 80 hours of fun watching movies, you need $1000. You can get the same fun from a game for $50. Spending time online or playing videogames simply involves less expenditure in the real economy.

Human eyeballs see a lot fewer ads than they used to. As noted, some people are watching less TV. For most others, the TV they’re watching is increasingly DVR’d or Hulu’d, that is, stripped of ad content. On the internet, we avoid ads easily – they are usually in the periphery, and if not we can click them away, or surf to something else. Advertisers have made an industry on the presumption that ads make people buy things. If they are right, it follows that fewer ads would result in us buying less. Ads are less and less a part of our daily experience. HBO’s success with a show about evil advertisers is perhaps apt now, because we feel we finally have gotten the upper hand on these miscreants. The net result of our power over advertisers, according to their own model, would be a weakness in general real-world consumption.

Facebook is a great way for people to connect. In some FB games, you can buy someone else a beer. You can poke them, write on their wall, friend them. None of this causes anything in the real world to be moved or changed. There are 500m people on FB, hundreds of millions more on other, similar social networking sites. If you’re friending people on FB, you’re ever so slightly less likely to be sending them a real Hallmark card, ever so slightly less likely to write them a note on paper, ever so slightly less likely to give them a call. That’s probably not going to turn around, either. Our ability to socialize online puts a crimp in our general need to move stuff or change stuff in the real world.

People who spend time online don’t have to worry about what they are wearing. Suppose that some percent of a given day can be spent in pajama’s, the rest must be spent in decent clothes. For decent clothes, you need a whole and varied wardrobe. For PJ’s, you need a few comfy ones. Now increase the amount of time that can be spent in PJ’s. The demand for decent clothes falls, if ever so slightly. The internet allows us to do all kinds of stuff in our PJ’s – so it must have an ever so slightly dampening effect on the market for fashion.

One could go on. It is possible, slightly, that there’s a general weakness in consumer spending simply because, to get our social, emotional, informational, and needs met, we just need fewer movies, fewer beers, fewer trips, fewer shoes, fewer things in general. What if the world of human beings suddenly became converted to the idea of consuming less stuff? Why, there’d be a recession, of course. Less buying means fewer jobs and less investment, which means economic contraction. It would mean a general pessimism about the prospects of business.

If our culture suddenly went Green, for example, we would have a recession but we would also understand its cause. We would know that a dissatisfaction with materialism led to economic weakness. But if this conversion to less consumption came from a different and more obscure source, how would we identify it? What if real world consumption refused to grow not because people were becoming hippies, but because they remained selfish materialists who had, however, come to enjoy virtual matter? If an exodus recession were underway, what would the world look like?

For one thing, the general pessimism about the economy in an exodus recession would not extend to the industries that produce virtual experience. Indeed, the video game and social networking industries are booming right now. Computer and digital entertainment hardware and software – doing quite well, thank you. Bold innovations in devices happen every year, and the number of apps is skyrocketing.

Another aspect of an exodus recession would be that consumers, in general, would not be expressing much general pessimism about being consumers. There’d be no sign that people had given up on the idea of buying and selling things. They’d be as interested in money, the economy, and jobs as ever. However, they would consistently say that they’re slightly less interested in buying a washing machine than they were last year. You don’t have to do as much washing when you spend more time living through your avatar. They’re going to be slightly less interested in a car because they’re not going to go driving around quite as much. This has nothing to do with malaise or lack of government stimulus or the conversion of a culture to moderate spending. It begins with people buying digital stuff instead of real stuff. And indeed, we find in the recent US election that people are very interested in jobs and the economy. Yet collectively they seemed to react less powerfully than expected to efforts to stimulate their real-world spending. This would make sense if people are turning their consuming energy to mp3s, FB gadgets, and Xbox Live Achievements. Having a new road is not going to have much effect on an economy based on digital goods.

These are all conjectures, of course. It’s a what-if. Is it possible? I thought we would not see a real-world recession caused by the removal of consumption energy into virtual environments until sometime in the far future. But I didn’t think about the possibility that the term “virtual environment,” in its economic meaning, might expand to environments as diverse as Hulu and Facebook. Are people now spending enough time fiddling around with digital stuff that their interest in physical stuff has weakened to the point that it catalyzes an ongoing cycle of economic pessimism? Perhaps not. But some trends certainly point in that direction. Even if this is not the first exodus recession, one wonders how far off that first one may be.  

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Game My Ride

You can now buy a car designed around the IP of a videogame.

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SCOTUS on Game Regulation

A follow-up on Chris Ferguson's post regarding legal challenge to California's anti-game law: The Supreme Court heard oral arguments the other day. Here they are. Kotaku has a summary. We can of course rely on the court's tradition and gravitas to handle this matter properly.

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Virtual Justice


Update 11/2/10:

So as promised, here's the book: http://bit.ly/virtualjustice

That link points to a 2.5 MB PDF that is licensed as Creative Commons Attribution Non-Commercial.   I'm hoping to get a cleaner copy at some point soon--if I do, it will be posted at the same location.  I got a MUCH better copy as of noon on 11/3/10 and it is now posted at the above link.

If you prefer wood pulp, this is the Amazon link: http://amzn.to/virtual-justice


Oct 4, 2010:

So, apologies for the self-promotion, but my new book, Virtual Justice, is now on sale in the bookstores.  It was also recently featured in a short segment of NPR's On The Media, which you can find here

The book is subtitled "The New Laws of Online Worlds," and that's pretty much the topic.  I start out with a pretty in-depth overview of the past and present of virtual worlds.  I cover history, business models, the various genres, demographics, and technology.  Then, around Chapter 4, I jump into the law, covering the law & legal theory surrounding issues like jurisdiction, gaming, property, computer hacking, and copyright.

It has always been the stories that have fascinated me about law and virtual worlds, so I tried to fit as many of the best ones as I could into the book.  There's the Vendroid Scam, the Cally Eve Scam, the EQ dog dupe, Bragg, Qiu Chegwei, Mr. Bungle, Twixt, etc.  But I use them all in support of the book's overarching theme: that virtual worlds offer private alternatives to standard legal ordering.  I restate that theme in the conclusion as follows:

All of this suggests that virtual worlds are becoming, in essence, separate jurisdictions governed by separate rules. As a matter of legal doctrine, these rules may not qualify as “laws,” given that no territorial government has recognized the formal sovereignty of virtual worlds. But as a matter of effective legal practice, the doctrines of contract, property, hacking, and intellectual property all serve to greatly empower those who own and administer virtual worlds, effectively insulating their actions from legal review.

The metaphor I use for this point is the castle, which, although in essence a technology, effectively became a new jurisdiction and source of law during the Middle Ages.

I'm also happy to say that Yale University Press has agreed to let me release the text of the book under a Creative Commons BY-NC license.  That means that (hopefully very soon) I will be able to post a link to the final PDF here so that anyone interested in saving a tree can (legally) download and share the book for free.

Finally, as I stated in the acknowledgement, I owe a profound debt of gratitude to the TN community for educating me over the past seven years about all aspects of virtual worlds.  And with virtual worlds getting bigger every year, I think these issues will only be getting more interesting, so I'm looking forward to more conversations.

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