Virtual worlds have been with us for a long time. Depending who you listen to, they began in 1979, or 1982, or it may have been the shadows on the walls of Plato's cave. We'll go with the University of Essex MUD, on the grounds that its co-writer Richard Bartle can trace its direct influence on today's worlds.
At State of Play this week, it was clear that just as the issues surrounding the Internet in general have changed very little since about 1988, neither have the issues surrounding virtual worlds.
True, the stakes are higher now and, as Professor Yee Fen Lim noted, when real money starts to be involved people become protective.
Level 70 warrior accounts on World of Warcraft go for as little as $10 (though your level number cannot disguise your complete newbieness), but the unique magic sword you won in a quest may go for much more. The best-known pending case is Bragg versus Second Life over virtual property the world's owners confiscated when they realized that Bragg was taking advantage of a loophole in their system to buy "land" at exceptionally cheap prices. Lim had an interesting take on the Bragg case: as a legal concept, she argued, property is right of control, even though Linden Labs itself defines its virtual property as rental of a processor. As computer science that's fine, but it's not law. Otherwise, she said, "Property is mere illusion."
Ultimately, the issues all come down to this: who owns the user experience? In subscription gaming worlds, the owners tend to keep very tight control of everything – they claim ownership in all intellectual property in the world, limit users' ability to create their own content, and block the sale of cheats as much as possible. In a free-form world like Second Life which may host games but is itself a platform rather than a game, users are much freer to do what they want but the EULAs or Terms of Service may be just as unfair.
Ultimately, no matter what the agreement says, today's privately owned virtual worlds all function under the same reality: the game gods can pull the plug at any time. They own and control the servers. Possession is nine-tenths of the law, and all that. Until someone implements open source world software on a P2P platform, this will always be the way. Linden Labs says, for what it's worth, that its long-term intention is to open-source its platform so that anyone may set up a world. This, too, has been done before, with The Palace.
One consequence of this is that there is no such thing as virtual privacy, a topic that everyone is aware of but no one's talking about. The piecemeal nature of the Net means that your friend's IRC channel doesn't know anything about your Web use, and Amazon.com doesn't track what you do on eBay. But virtual worlds log everything. If you buy a new shirt at a shop and then fly to a distant island to have sex with it, all that is logged. (Just try to ensure the shirt doesn't look like a child's shirt and you don't get into litigation over who owns the island…)
There are, as scholars say, legitimate reasons. Logging everything that happens is important in helping game developers pinpoint the source of crashes and eliminate bugs. Logs help settle disputes over who did what to whose magic sword. And in a court case, they may be important evidence (although how you can ensure that the logs haven't been adjusted to suit the virtual world provider, who is usually one of the parties to the litigation, I don't know).
As long as you think of virtual worlds as games, maybe this isn't that big a problem. After all, no one is forced to spend half their waking hours killing enough monsters in World of Warcraft to join a guild for a six-hour quest.
But something like Second Life aspires to be a lot more than that. The world is adding voice communication, which will be interesting: if you have to use your real voice, the relative anonymity conferred by the synthetic world are gone. Quite apart from bandwidth demands (lag is the bane of every SLer's existence), exploring what virtual life is like in the opposite gender isn't going to work. They're going to need voice synthesizers.
Much of the law in this area is coming out of Asia, where massively multi-player online games took off so early with such ferocity that, according to Judge Unggi Yoon, in a recent case a member of a losing team in one such game ran to the café where the winning team was playing and physically battered one of its members. Yoon, who explained some of the new laws, is an experienced online gamer, all the way back to playing Ultima Online in middle school. In his country, a law has recently come into force taxing virtual world transactions (it works like a VAT threshold – under $100 a month you don't owe anything). For Westerners, who are used to the idea that we make laws and export them rather than the other way around, this is quite a reality shift.
Wendy M. Grossman’s Web site has an extensive archive of her books, articles, and music, and an archive of all the earlier columns in this series. Readers are welcome to post here, at net.wars home, at her personal blog, or by email to firstname.lastname@example.org (but please turn off HTML).