Thursday, March 09, 2006

Law and Order on the Virtual Frontier

What happens in online virtual reality games when simulated people need to invent rules to get along with each other? They have to create some version of law. This is a fascinating new development that should be eye-opening to legal scholars and everybody who interested in human nature. I was awakened to the issue by an article in Discover Magazine, April, 2006. At p. 24, Steven Berlin Johnson writes “Virtual Law and Order: Online fantasy worlds put our democratic ideals to the test.”

Several legal scholars are already thinking about this, though the earliest thinking is limited to how law in the real world is going to deal with law suits about the games:

Jack M. Balkin, Virtual Liberty: Freedom to Design and Freedom to Play in Virtual Worlds, 90 Va. L. Rev. 2043 (Dec., 2004).
(An economist’s-eye-view; interesting thought-piece on the value of the game.)

More recently, F. Gregory Lastowka and Dan Hunter have an article forthcoming in the California Law Review, and abstracted at SSRN (Abstract, “The Laws of the Virtual Worlds.” Their abstract states, in part:

First, we focus on property, and ask whether it is possible to say that virtual world users have real world property interests in virtual objects. Adopting economic accounts that demonstrate the real world value of these objects and the exchange mechanisms for trading these objects, we show that, descriptively, these types of objects are indistinguishable from real world property interests. Further, the normative justifications for property interests in the real world apply - sometimes more strongly - in the virtual worlds.

Second, we discuss whether avatars have enforceable legal and moral rights. Avatars, the user-controlled entities that interact with virtual worlds, are a persistent extension of their human users, and users identify with them so closely that the human-avatar being can be thought of as a cyborg. We examine the issue of cyborg rights within virtual worlds and whether they may have real world significance.

The issues of virtual property and avatar rights constitute legal challenges for our online future. Though virtual worlds may be games now, they are rapidly becoming as significant as real-world places where people interact, shop, sell, and work. As society and law begin to develop within virtual worlds, we need to have a better understanding of the interaction of the laws of the virtual worlds with the law of this world.

Avatars are the pretend personas that you can assume in the virtual worlds of multi-player or single player games. Examples of these games are Sim Life, Second Life, War Craft. Some of these games are free, some require a fee to join. Most require the player to build up some sort of equity (in game money) to purchase land and equipment or body upgrades for their avatar. And here is the rub. Some bad actors are trying to steal the money or goods in these games. I have heard of one game where it is allowed under the rules to mug each other. But a bad actor has created a “bot,” a computerized avatar that is nearly impossible for a human-driven avatar to beat in combat. The bot travels around, mugging and stealing goods for its creator. The creator then sells the goods on E-bay in the real world for real cash, which evidently real people will pay to acquire these virtual goods for the game. Now, has a crime been committed? And is it a crime for a district attorney in the real world or is it a crime for a jury of avatars?

This is a new and interesting area of law, and sociology. Watch these blogs and take a look at these writings if you want to educate yourself a bit about the topic:

Interesting blog at
These guys include Castronova (the economist-thinker from NYLS above)
Interesting blog that has many aspects pulled together - pdf articles, sub-blogs.

And this interesting article about the social aspects of virtual reality gaming. The author discusses how the game begins to morph into reality for the participants at

but she never discusses the development of legal or much about political aspects. That is a newer development. See the blog entries of Tony Walsh at:

By Tony Walsh, Clickable Culture notes that forums on the popular game Warcraft are chattering

... popular multiplayer game World of Warcraft, the game's maker has taken measures to stop players from working together to achieve a game-play goal. The objective, put in play earlier this month, is to amass hundreds of thousands of in-game items in order to open the locked gates of "Ahn'Quiraj," an expanded area of the game.

A player-run guild called Eternal Reign decided that the best way to achieve this goal, was to encourage player-collaboration by holding a raffle, selling over 2,000 tickets in two days. The chief player responsible for the raffle was reported to Blizzard, the maker of Warcraft, whose representative ultimately decided the player was guilty of the offenses of Advertising and Running a Casino, effectively clamping down on the raffle.

This case is noteworthy because of the way Blizzard has reacted to an emergent player response to a game challenge. The expected response was that players would simply collect hundreds of thousands of items, but since there wasn't apparently enough incentive for this collection, players turned to other means. Designers of complex, open-ended game worlds can't usually anticipate exactly how players will deal with a given problem, and are capable of expecting only a limited number of responses. In the case at hand, players found a way around the explicit rules of the game to defeat the problem. Instead of addressing the shortcoming in the design of the challenge, Blizzard has punished the players.

By Tony Walsh, Clickable Culture notes

Linden Lab, maker of the virtual world Second Life is celebrating the one-year anniversary of its real-time Police Blotter by explaining how residents of the digital world are banned.

According to Linden Lab, residents naughty enough to earn a 2-week suspension are automatically treated to a "Review for Ban." Linden staffers review the disciplinary history of the offender "to see if there’s a pattern and if a permanent expulsion is in order." A panel of 25 residents is chosen at random to participate in the review process. "Ultimately, the decision to permanently eject a resident from Second Life belongs to Linden Lab. But the comments and opinions of the [Resident] Review Panel is used to enhance the process and to help us question our assumptions about when and why resident should be removed from our community."

Linden Lab provides two case studies of banned residents, where among the more serious charges of assault and intolerance, we learn offenses also include "swearing," "obscenity," and "aggression." One assumes that these lesser behaviours were exhibited inappropriately (but I wonder if anyone on the Review Panel asked for clarification). Second Life has numerous "Mature" areas where swearing and obscenity is commonplace; many resident avatars carry aggressive-looking weapons in hand in both Mature and "PG" areas; at one time, there are official combat areas of Second Life that invite open warfare.

Getting banned is dandy, but what are the rules for getting sent to Linden Lab's Corn Field?

Linden Lab’s Second Life Newsletter: Police Blotter (referred to above), so you can see for yourself the rules and procedures set out for Second Life gamers to live by. As far as I can tell, there is no “death penalty.” The most extreme punishment ever was reported in Discover Magazine and Tony Walsh’s blog. A bad actor who had tried to reverse-engineer code to create virtual items from a vendor in Second Life was sentenced to three days in a virtual corn field. The pictures are a hoot. The prisoner arrives on a red tractor under an ominous dark sky. The corn field appears endless, and is inescapable. There is a black and white television endlessly showing “Boy in Court” on its screen.

The image of Second Life avatars above is from a blog entry on

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