So China has set up time limits for MMOs. I think this is actually the final implementation of the plan they announced previously, but whatever. People’s Daily Online reports that under-18 players will only be allowed to play for 3 hours a day at full XP rates, with declining XP gain thereafter until at 5 hours there’s no advancement at all. After five hours, you’ll get spam warnings every quarter hour telling you to go log off because it’s unhealthy for you to keep playing. And games not compliant by July 16th will simply be shut down.
In order to enforce this, they are requiring underage players to register with real names and identity card numbers. And this is where the real rub is: the issue of anonymity, rather than the issue of time spent.
To me, this echoes to some degree the issues raised in the recent Tim O’Reilly article calling for a blogger code of conduct, which has been criticized for its reliance on, effectively, open identity practices. As Cory Doctorow said on BoingBoing today,
I was very uncomfortable with Tim’s draft, as it seemed to preclude real anonymity and invite censorship.
The tension between the wild frontier sorts of Netizens, who tend to rely on self-policed environments, and the forces of “law and order” so to speak, continues to grow. A fair amount of the conflict within SL over casinos, for example, is driven by tensions between different ideological approaches — one group says that ageplay or casinos, or whatever, harms no one, so why not permit it; another says it’s illegal or at least immoral, and wants it shut down. There are those who wish real life IP enforcement, and those who don’t. Those who want total accountability for actions and those who don’t. And of course, accountability is largely tied to real-life identity.
There has been a lot of “virtual world exceptionalism” over the years, arguing that these spaces are special in a variety of ways. Among those unique characteristics are the fact that the power of pseudonymity permits a much wider array of behaviors and perhaps self-discovery than we might get otherwise (much of the premise of Bartle’s Designing Virtual Worlds rests on the notion that people explore aspects of self, for example). Another factor is the oft-cited point that as many of these worlds are games, there’s a wide array of notably antisocial activities that go on in them that are perfectly acceptable within the game construct — some have suggested, for example, that the avatar rights document is flawed becaus eit does not take into account the notion of psychological experimentation on users.
One of the commonest counters to this argument is the idea that the worlds reside on servers, and the servers reside in a jurisdiction, and therefore whatever the laws of the jurisdiction are, so go the rules of the environment. While one can easily foresee a time when figuring out what server a world resides on is hard-to-impossible, thanks to distributed world networks, for the meantime this is a reasonable approach. And this means that any exceptionalism must actually be carved out of prevailing law and practices, via advocacy and policymaking.
None of this matters much in China, needless to say, where the government is already firmly on the paternalistic side. But the fact is that the more we vigorously defend libertine behavior as exemplars of the sorts of freedoms we want in virtual spaces, the less likely we are to get said freedoms in today’s climate. It’s a lot harder to make the case for freedom of expression and anonymity in the wake of its use for death threats, it’s a lot harder to make the case of freedom to create unregulated virtual currencies when they are used for gambling, and it’s a lot harder to argue for unverified identities when it’s used to simulate pedophilia.
In the case of Second Life, what we saw was also a pushing off of the issue onto local jurisdictions, and a shift towards requiring a greater sense of real-world identity. As Robin Harper posted in the Linden blog,
We plan to implement features that will enable Residents to optionally confirm aspects of each other’s identity, including age and jurisdictions. Hopefully, these features will help Residents as they conform to their own local laws.
Of course, the one provider who clearly does have that ability right now is the operator of the Grid itself: Linden. The fact that they do not intend to do this policing themselves is of a piece with their desire to be infrastructure as opposed to content provider. Instead, they are planning on opening some degree of transparency on the platform itself, effectively creating a verifiable identity system for the Grid. With that step, the libertarian underpinnings of SL as a Net frontier slip a little further away.
It is this context that results in thread responses like these:
“Your World, Your Imagination..”
What a load of crockery!
please edit to.. “Our world, you stfu and pay your monthly fees, we pwm you”
Freedom of speach will be the next thing @ 24
If governments limit this. I will be sad. There is no place untouchable by greed and arbitrary placement of authority.
BLUE LAWS theres a blast from the past.
Have not seen that since the 70’s in Texas
this is a very slippery slope. I have no love for pedophiles or anything but first ageplay, then casinos, then gorean, then escorts, then something else and something else and etc etc etc.
“With the first link, a chain is forged. The first speech censured, the first thought forbidden, the first freedom denied, chains us all irrevocably.” – Jean-Luc Picard
But of course, blue laws are alive and well all over the world, and show no signs of going away, perhaps ever. In other terminology, they are known as taboos, and they are enforced by law in many countries and frankly, for many reasons.
It is particularly now, when taboos are most under assault from the proliferation of voices and sites, that the cultural reaction is most likely to be severe. Pity the operator of a children’s MMO who does not give lip service to protecting the children, for example, and simply responds that it’s the parents’ job. Networked technologies give far greater power to monitor, curtail, and for that matter exploit individuals. Some part of us demands that these powers be used for our well-being. One of the other commenters in that same thread on the Linden blog plaintively said “Live and let live. Is it really that hard?” And the answer, for better or worse is “yes, yes it is, because we are social animals.”
There is some middle ground here. Societies do not exist without both some degree of societal self-awareness and self-preservation — and without some degree of liberty. Both are essential human urges. The challenge for virtual worlds going forward — indeed, for Internet social media in general — is how to walk that line. There are going to be many more steps taken like the time limits in China, the real-world identity restrictions in South Korea, and the Linden measures. And for each one, we should take care to have the debate not in terms of the red-herring axis of paternalism and libertinism, but instead of the human axis: the scale from encouraging growth and exploration, to making sure that an individual’s actions do not harm others directly or indirectly.