I had occasion to quote extensively from Are Microtransactions Actually the Future? in response to a post from Terra Nova which heavily referenced the word “property.” Basically, I cited the part about how all this stuff is just bits and bytes on a server, and the illusion that they are objects is just that, an illusion.
I got back some varied replies I feel compelled to repost here:
Please, make that argument to the SEC, that your stocks aren’t property because they’re data entries. It’s not even a remotely tenable argument in law. Sorry, but economic reality, not tangibility, is the measure of property.
– Joshua Fairfield
No, the stocks are a bad example. There are actual, real stock certificates that represent actual real ownership of part of an actual real company. The database entries are measurements of the trading activity happening faster than the real life items can keep up. But there are real things there.
when I pay my mortgage bill online, that is also “just a reduction of a number in one field” (the field my bank says represents the amount of dollars I have a contractual right to ask it for) and “the addition of some data to another” (the field that my mortgage company says represents the amount of dollars that it has a contractual right to ask me for).
And then if I itemize, I can transfer some of that reduction in numbers in my bank account field to Schedule A and reduce the numbers in the data field on the Form 1040 that says “TAXES DUE” Now THAT’s a transfer I like to see.
No, the mortgage is a bad example too. Again, there is actual real money involved, and an actual house, and actual property values, and so on. Again, the database is just tracking changes in the state of the real market. It isn’t in itself the real market, it’s a reflection of it.
The virtual stuff is not a reflection of anything and that is what makes it different and unique.
If person A wants a web site built and pays a designer to do so, what is he buying? an item, a collection of bytes, or a service? I would say that it’s clearly a service. Why did be buy it? Well, 1. because he wanted it, and 2. because he was unable or unwilling to get it himself.
If person B wants a Blade of Carnage and pays a farmer to get it, is he buying the bytes or the service of acquiring the bites?
Well, I would say that both people are buying something for the same reason and getting the same result. I don’t think the point that the sword is no more than a pointer to an entry in a db somewhere is any more valid than saying hiring someone to move your furniture around in a furnished apartment is silly because they just changed around things you don’t even own. Either way, you pay money, someone else does some work, and you get what you want. RMT is really a service, not a buying of items.
I couldn’t agree more. In the apartment analogy, the analogous claim to “virtual property” would be the renter or the furniture mover claiming ownership of the furnishings when in fact both of them know quite well that they belong to the owner of the furnished apartment — it doesn’t matter that one of them moves them and the other one sits or sleeps in them. It was part of the deal when they walked in the door.
Raph, you’re citing *one point of view on this*. And it is not the game-god incentive view — unless of course you’re willing to concede that game gods like and huckster people into worlds to get them to believe in the emulation of property and IP and then dump them.
– Prokofy Neva
I don’t think there’s any huckstering involved. None of the services that have, well, content provided by the operator makes any pretense whatsoever that these items can be owned by players. In fact, they explicitly disclaim it.
In the case of the worlds where you can upload content, there are two pieces of property to keep an eye on: the intellectual property, and the ownership of the container for said IP. In SL’s case, they explicitly say that you own the IP. But they also explicitly say that they own the database on the server side, which is the container. It’s just one of many possible containers for your IP. But it’s still their container, and they can do as they like with it.
Indeed they *are* objects when an avatar enters into a 3-d, streaming, real-time interaction with them. They emulate objects. They may be bits and bytes but the avatar and the person typing for the avatar treats them as tangible commodities in a commodities-based market system.
– Prokofy Neva
We may choose to perceive the bits and bytes as objects, Prokofy. But we can perceive a house of cards as a house, too.
If each and every thing made can always be snatched back by either server owners or code owners — my table I just bought as an object for $100 is snatchable in some constant, destructive way — then who will play?
Perhaps nobody. I quite agree that it’s an uncomfortable situation and not at all the desirable way for things to run. But the issue here is not the ownership of the database. The issue here is actually the snatchability.
It is easy to envision a server where every person’s upload is encrypted and concealed from the operators. And where it is easily and transparently transferrable using open standards to alternate platforms. Then your concern would be assuaged — not eliminated, but alleviated somewhat. Your data and its container would both be “yours” and it’d just sit on someone’s server temporarily as a copy, but the real thing is back on your machine where you made it.
I can definitely see that as a way forward.
if someone makes a table and sells me a table, what I have isn’t a license to use his representation of a table like I do Word for Windows, what I have is a table, dammit.
You’re assuming here that the someone who sold you the table was actually doing so. I think there’s three legit ways to look at it:
- They sold you the table in good faith and were not thinking about the fact that they sold you something they don’t actually have to sell.
- They did know that, but were engaged in a polite fiction that simplifies the actual nature of the transaction, and assumed you too were playing along.
- They were exploiting you by claiming it was a sale when they knew damn well it wasn’t really.
What you have isn’t a table. What you have is some new bits and bytes added to your character record in the database. If you played them in an MP3 player, they wouldn’t be a table, they’d be hideous noise. If you opened them in an image manipulation program, they’d be malformed data files. If you transcribed them into Braille, they’d be gibberish.
Depending on the architecture of the server in question, you might not even be able to load them into any 3d modeling software, because they might not even be the description of the table. They might only be a pointer to where the description of the table actually is.
If you don’t like this, or find it fanciful, or find it deeply self-delusional, that you have no moral right to go on making tables in virtual worlds. People take them for tables, set them, put lamps on them, use them and enter into an entire host of 3-d interactive relationships with them. This web and hive of activity and relationship means the object is not just a piece of data.
No, it speaks to the immense power of the medium. And I agree that emotional investment can confer special meaning on all sorts of things, including random bits and bytes in a database. But I reject the argument that emotional attachment confers ownership. It’s just not how it goes.
I could go to a bowling alley, consider a certain lane “mine,” lose my virginity there, scratch my girlfriend’s name into the table, get married to her there, and form a special emotional relationship with the one chipped pin that always tips over and with the blue bowling shoes that I always get because I am a regular.
And neither the shoes, nor the table, nor the pin, nor the alley, nor in fact the girl are actually “mine.” The girl belongs to herself despite her bad taste in associating with me, and everything else belongs to the owner of the bowling alley.
We do not speak of how he does not have the moral right to change the bowling alley into a bingo hall. We mourn, but we do not use those terms.
We take a table for a table and don’t imagine it disappears when we leave the room or can be snatched back by those running the Platonic ideals. So people take the tables in virtual worlds — and game gods deliberately set up the system like that to get people to come and play.
So insult this concept by calling it a “property meme” all you want, Raph, and dismiss the social and psychological realities that people create around virtuality if you like by your ownership of the code, but I’m here to say this: you cannot get people to play if you keep insisting on this code-as-law and code-as-reality approach. It is insufficient for not only the explanation but the governance of virtual worlds.
At this point, we’re not even talking code-is-law. We’re talking something more fundamental than that. In the way that most virtual worlds are run, it’s best to think of them as bowling alleys.
Raph, okay – take Machinamina. Or modern art. Arrangements of otherwise worthless “bits” into something prized. Peoples perception gives things value. (And spending your time to create things of value is gives you certain rights under some countries laws).
I feel you’re trying to draw an artificial distinction – and when I talk to casual gamer (the REALLY casual ones – java games, fantasy football and such) friends, they can’t see your point. Trying to say “this collection of computer bits has value” and “this does not” SIMPLY because one is in one VW (say, SWG) and one is another VW (say, SL) baffles them.
– Andrew Crystall
Machinima, modern art (and in fact ALL art) is in fact intellectual property fixed into a form. The value lies minorly in the container (though some containers can be very valuable) and majorly in the work contained.
The vast majority of digital “items” (excepting SL and other user-created items) are the company’s intellectual property.
And the SL case is one where the value does indeed reside in the IP, not the container, since the container is SL itself.
It baffles them because the value in SL lies not in the item, but in the DESIGN of the item, which a user uploaded. In SWG, a user didn’t upload it, and the design belongs to the company, and there is no container except SWG itself, and therefore there is no property on the user’s part whatsoever. They are likely baffled because they are also baffled by copyright and intellectual property, which baffle most everyone.
Look, I am no anti-RMT firebrand. But it’s important to look at how things actually work. It simply isn’t a spoon, it’s a rendering of one on screen. It isn’t even YOUR rendering of it on screen. It’s the company’s rendering of it. You just happen to have permission to look at it.