A recent post by Tobold on virtual property rights was interesting to me because it’s a very common player perception. His argument, roughly, is that it would be great if the courts could rule on virtual property, so we know whether we “own” what our characters own, or if game companies do. If a character is worth $10,000, should we be allowed to sell it regardless of what the game companies want? The courts should rule on this.
Well, actually, that’s a terrible idea — given the level of knowledge the courts have, they couldn’t possibly make an informed and nuanced decision. Hell, we as an industry can’t do it because the rules are changing all the time, and forming a meaningful question is impossible.
But the interesting thing to me is that this argument exists only because of how successful MMOs have been at veiling their true nature. By tying into concepts players are already familiar with, they hide the game.
“Virtual property is property. It’s my stuff. Shouldn’t I be allowed to keep it regardless of what the game company wants? Virtual land is land, so somebody owns it — and if I paid for it with virtual currency, why should the game company be able to take it away?” These are the questions of someone who has bought hook, line, and sinker into the fiction of the virtual world.
Game companies reject these questions at a more base level than these players can even see! From a game company point of view, it’s like a FPS player demanding that they should be able to keep the shotgun from the map they just played, because they “own” it and the game company shouldn’t be able to take it away. It’s so illogical to game companies that it doesn’t mean anything at all: players are effectively talking nonsense.
Suppose that the company had instead chosen to make an epic single-player RPG. But the storyline has a tragic twist (not unlike the one in Ultima 6 or Final Fantasy 7): about 100 hours into the game, one of your most powerful characters dies. Did the company take away something you owned? Can you sue? Most gamers instinctively know the answer is “no” — they no more own the character’s possessions than they own their favorite character on Lost. They are playing through a story told by the game developers. If Mr. Eko dies, you might feel sad, but you didn’t suffer material loss.
But what if you were about to sell your copy of the game, along with your save file? You could have sold it for $100 yesterday on eBay, but now that you’ve overwritten your save game, you lost your most powerful character and your account is now only worth $70. Does the company owe you $30? Again, most people understand that the answer is “no”: even though you found a sucker who would have paid you $30 more for your old save games, that value was tangential on something you didn’t actually control. (Leaving aside your idiocy for overwriting your saved game; or perhaps the game only has one save slot, like Nethack.)
What if the answer was “yes”? Well, then games could never have bad things happen. If the value of your saved game can only go up as you play it, then there can be no losing. This would destroy games as we know them.
From a game company’s point of view, you don’t own your character any more than you own Aeris in Final Fantasy 7. You license a copy of the game in order to enjoy it, but you don’t own what happens in the story.
The neat thing is that players think they do own their characters. The sense of identity is so strong, and the open-endedness of MMO games is so broad, that they perceive things differently. They aren’t in a story, they are in a virtual world where they (the player, not the character) should have rights not unlike those in the real world. Nevermind that those rights would have devastating effects on all of gaming. It just feels like players are being abused unfairly. This is a case of MMO companies being too successful for their own good. If only games weren’t so open-ended, if only the character wasn’t so customizable and nameable, then they wouldn’t have this problem. The very illusion of open-endedness is what creates the belief of ownership.
In fact, the very open-endedness causes some people to feel that it needs a new categorization. “It’s not a game,” some argue — “It’s a virtual world, and should have different laws to protect it!” That argument is hard to defend because nobody can agree on when a game becomes a world. Final Fantasy 12 was a single-player virtual world, and had very similar mechanics to an MMO. It was just offline. Or would you argue that a virtual world can only happen when a LAN cable is connected to your box? What makes MMOs more of a virtual world than FPSes? Is it the persistence of your character? Okay, fine, let’s make an MMO that resets every three months. Is it still a virtual world? How about an MMO that resets every week? When does it stop being a world? These and other questions are very hard to answer because we don’t have enough concepts and definitions to even pose particularly meaningful questions, let alone get answers to them.
The very worst thing that could happen would be for a judge to step in and try to rule on virtual property, because they’d have to define what that means. First off, they would have to distinguish virtual worlds from games somehow. Next, they would have to distinguish designer intent from game player intent. Finally, they would have to rule on how much control game developers have over their own game rules. Imagine Parker Brothers having this trouble with Monopoly and you can see why game companies fight this tooth and nail: they are unwilling to give up any aspect of creative control.
Are there questions a judge might usefully rule on? Sure, someday. For instance, at some point we might need a clearer picture of who owns the rights to player-created content. But questions about player-created content are a million miles away from questions about who owns your level 70 Troll Shaman with all epic gear. The game developers made every aspect of your character and allowed you to license it.
Maybe after twenty or thirty more years of game creation, the distinctions will be clearer, and we might see our way to asking more meaningful questions. Right now, there aren’t any questions that a judge could usefully answer.