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Oct 03, 2011



Hmm... if it gets you to rejecting the useless "real/virtual" distinction, it's probably a win.

*However,* I don't see most virtual goods - or even the rook in your example - as being simulations in any meaningful sense. "Ceci n'est pas un pipe," right?

There may be some metaphorical linkage, in that a rook has some (few, and secondary) attributes of a castle, and that fez I bought for my character in Glitch has some attributes of a material hat (but only some, right?).

The "simulation" concept, I'd think, still traps you in that referential cycle of pointing back to a physical good, which is exactly the problem with the whole "virtual" concept in the first instance.

That fez is "virtual" in the sense that my bank balance, my health insurance and my right to vote are: they're not embodied in physical objects in any meaningful way.

But that's not very interesting. And neither is the concept of virtuality, IMO. Let's toss it onto a simulation of the ash heap of history.


Is that even ontology? I'd need a better definition...



My student medical insurance doesn't cover visits to the ontologist :p


John, it sounds like you would prefer us to simply use words like tangible and intangible, because they have clear meanings. Whereas virtual is almost empty. Is that right? And simulation is too close to virtual, right, because it also points to some other thing. Ideally (if I'm grasping your arg) we would understand a chess piece as a chess piece, not as a sign pointing to something else.

I like that. But it does leave out the narrative part. The castleness of the rook imparts something. That narrative element, if missing, would have almost no effect on chess (look at Go). It would have a huge effect on LOTRO.


I'm with Ted here, John -- I'm not a fan of "virtual" as a synonym for "unreal" aka "fantasy" aka "let's not worry about that" But I do find the distinction really interesting from the perspective of people playing in virtual environments and mapping physical expectations and reactions onto symbolic experiences. The social role of mimesis, simulacra -- that's all really interesting to me.


Good points, Greg and Ted - and, since I'm sitting in a talk by Jeremy Bailenson, I think we can count him in with you too.

OTOH, he just said "I study people." And I'd add, I study technologies - but not "technology." Ted's LOTRO example is an excellent one, but where I get lost is at the level of generalization, e.g., "what happens when we turn medieval archetypes into game tokens" is an interesting question. "What happens when we make Middle Earth a persistent environment with avatar representation" is an interesting question.

Aggregating those questions into a discrete realm of...metaphor? transmedia adaption? broad affordances of self-design? digital fezzes? I think loses the specificity of platform and technology on the one hand and of a generality of coherently similar questions on the other.

I think the danger of aggregating a whole bunch of diverse things into "virtual" and setting them in contradistinction to the "real" is more trouble than it's worth. But I think that's an area where YMMV.

Thanks for the engagement, and for pushing me to some more clarity.


John -- I'm curious about what Jeremy Bailenson said -- was it about his new book? I think the last time I heard him talk was in Daegu, South Korea.

By the way, having read the monograph, I don't think I have any problem with the paper's logic or conclusions. In fact, it ends up at more or less the same place I end up in Chapter 7 of my book.
One small note, though, the Lockean objection has been made by some others (John Nelson, for instance - http://works.bepress.com/john_nelson/3/ )
Personally, I still think there's something to the Lockean point if you see Locke as speaking about the psychology of property ownership instead of making a claim about the causation of production. I think Locke's statement can be read either way, but in any event, I think the psychological dimension plays an important part in law.


If I may elaborate a bit, I agree with all of you that the term 'virtual' is misleading, but at the same time I don't think it can be ignored.

When discussing virtual objects with outsiders, they often equate virtual to unreal, especially when it concerns a case where gamers or the law seem to people seem tot treat virtual items as real. Intuitively it simply seems strange to take such entities seriously.

So, I think it's important to have an answer to that and to explain first of all that virtual (in the sense of 'seeming to existing on a computer') is not synonymous to unreal.

There are some virtual entities that we would characterise as 'computer versions' of real world phenomena because they perform the same function. A 'virtual' book is a real book, though it's not tangible like traditional books are. (Which is why the tangible/intangible distinction doesn't work out.)

However many other virtual entities cannot be said to be real 'versions' of physical phenomena such as virtual jackets or birds. They are indeed unreal jackets and birds, and mere simulations of clothing and animals. But the crucial thing is to not dismiss them as insignificant at that point but to ask: so what are they? How do they fit into the real world?

In the case of the jacket, it is a piece of software that simulates a jacket, which can be nice to use in MUVE's as it'll give your avatar a certain look.
Simulations in games have a narrative function, as Edward pointed out. A simulation in an MMOG represents the fantasy of the game and communicates to players what is going on. But in addition to that, owning a (huge) bird in an MMOG might grant you the right to fly as well. So when virtual objects such as that are sold, players are really paying for rights in a game.

So what we're really talking about is software and gamerights. I don't think that software in virtual worlds raises any fundamentally new questions, so the question for me is: what is an appropriate way to deal with gamerights?

@Gregory, interesting take on Locke. Do I understand correctly that it's more important that gamers feel they've worked for it, than that there was actually any labour involved in the production process?


@Freek Well, how do we define what is labour and what is play? When I teach first year property, I always introduce students to Locke. I don't do this because his notions of property are legally binding, but because his explanation of the root of property rights is predictive of human behavior. If I feel I have invested labor in doing something, I feel entitled to keep that thing or at least to be compensated when I am deprived of that thing. Even if the common law does not vindicate a property right in every case like that, I think you'll see people acting as if they possess one.


@Gregory No easy question. I'd have to think it over, but I guess I'd say that labour and play are not mutually exclusive. I remember years ago tricking my sister into cleaning the dishes as fast as possible to break my imaginary record (she thinks it's funny now too). Anyway, it could've been a real game, and in such a way labour and play can be combined.

You're absolutely right on peoples intuition concerning labour and property. However, isn't their sense of entitlement based on the assumption that their labour was essential in the creation of that thing? And if you point out that that is not the case, couldn't that feeling of entitlement change?

I'm not sure, but maybe the situation is more like this. What if my next door neighbour lets me use in his garden for an hour, in exchange for me playing him a song on my guitar? The playing of a song is labour and play simultaneously, but is non essential in creating the right to use his garden (he could've let me use it anyway). It's just a matter of what we agreed upon beforehand and that is where my sense of entitlement comes from.


Right, but you're proposing a hypothetical with a contractual relationship. I'm saying that if you play a song (playing) and your neighbor records that song and then sells it for money, you may be upset because your neighbor is profiting from your play/labor. And if you were to come up with an interesting name for a candy you wanted to create -- e.g. "Fizzlewix" -- and then your friend used that name for their own candy, and your friend's became wildly successful, you would be upset if you weren't compensated in some way. (For what it's worth, it's possible that copyright applies to the first situation, but it clearly doesn't apply to the second.)

I think, in the virtual world context, the player's claim that "I spent 100 hours trying to get that thing and then it was taken away" is not going to be trumped (on a Lockean basis) by the game developer saying "Well, you only think you worked 100 hours. Actually, the only reason you spent that long to get that thing was because I designed the game that way."

But I suppose it might depend on the personality of the laborer.


Just Googled "Fizzlewix" -- curious what the first result was for me: http://us.battle.net/wow/en/character/eldrethalas/Fizzlewix/simple


Well, I'd say that the players claim actually logically would be trumped by the game developers reply… But, what I was getting at with the hypothetical, is that there might a different reason for a gamer to feel unfairly treated. It might feel unfair that something gets taken away because the deal was (according to the gamer): I play in a certain way, and you provide me with a virtual item in return. It might feel like that is part of the contractual relationship.
Now clearly, a player and game provider are in a contractual relationship. My question would be: from a legal point of view, what are the game providers obligations?

I don't see how the counterexample applies to MMOG's. How does the game provider profit from a gamers play/labour? Also, obtaining a virtual item in an MMOG is not the same as coming up with an idea or creating original content.
On the other hand, I think that you are absolutely correct when the situation is applied to MUVE's. If you design an object or a building in Second Life, it seems to me like you'd have a strong claim to the intellectual property of those entities (or to be more accurate: the pieces of code).


On the contractual question of the game provider's obligations, I do get at that in my book. Chapters 5 and 7 are probably the most on point. I don't think it is a question with a simple legal answer. I see it as a political question of what we want virtual worlds / MMOGs to be. If we don't mind ceding authority to creators of simulated environments, they gain the ability to make their own rule for virtual property. (I go into some detail about what those "rules" might be -- they are not just the terms of service.) But if we want law to intercede, we need to draw other lines -- perhaps based on the "core" rules of the game, e.g., a line of consent and/or assumed risk. This accords with some things that Josh Fairfield has writtem

My book is free here: http://bit.ly/virtualjustice


Thanks, I'll read it soon! And yes, in the end it's a political question. Just like with consumer law in general, it depends on the extent to which you want to protect customers of virtual worlds.


Right! Or "citizens," even.

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