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August 27th, 2000
Do players of virtual worlds have rights?
One of those questions that given my position, I shouldn't write about. No matter what, any answer I give is bound to be wrong, either from the perspective of my employers or my customers. Heck, even over on the non-commercial side of the fence, it's likely to raise some hackles among hardworking mud admins.
The pesky thing about rights is that they keep coming up. Players keep claiming that they have them. Admins keep liberally applying the word like some magic balm ("oh, you have every right to be upsetů"), in every circumstance except the ones where the players want the notion of rights taken seriously. Of course, administrators of any virtual space are loathe to "grant players rights" because it curbs their ability to take action against people, restricts their ability to walk away from it all, holds them to standards they may not be able to live up to.
Here's a great example of a mud rights document from IgorMUD that I had to include, well, because:
Igor has adopted this bill of unalienable player rights, written by
Jacob Hallen aka Tintin:
Every player has the right to be a frog.
Should the system the player is on fail to implement the "being frog"
functionality, the player has a right to pretend he/she/it/Garlic is a frog.
If a player does not exercise the right to be a frog, or to pretend to be one,
other players have a right to pretend it/she/Garlic/he is a frog.
There's at least one theory of rights which says that rights aren't "granted" by anyone. They arise because the populace decides to grant them to themselves. Under this logic, the folks who rose up in France weren't looking for some king with a soon-to-be-foreshortened head to tell them, "You've got the right to live your lives freely." They told themselves that they had that right, and because they had said so, it was so. The flip side of this is that unless you continually fight to make that claim true, then it won't stick. The battleground is not a military one: it's a perception one; as long as everyone is convinced that people have rights, they do. They're inalienable only as long as only a minority does the, uh, aliening. And, of course, especially as long as they are enshrined in some sort of law. In other words, the guys in charge sign away a chunk of power, in writing, that the populace expects them to sign away.
There's another theory of rights which holds them to be intrinsic to people. Under this far more rigid standard, all those cultures which fail to grant them are benighted bastions of savagery. The harder part here is agreeing on what rights are intrinsic to all people everywhere-cultural differences tend to make that hard.
Many mud admins are of the belief that their muds are their private playgrounds. That they have discretion on how enters and who gets to stay. That they can choose to eject someone on any grounds whatsoever, can delete a character at a whim, can play favorites and choose to grant administrative favors to their friends. Even in pay-for-play circles, it is always made very clear who owns the data, who has to sign Terms of Service, etc. There's a bunch of this that is antithetical to the notion of rights.
Now, it's pretty clear that there are some rights which leak over from the real world into the virtual. If your local pay-for-play mud operator isn't providing adequate service, you can report them to the Better Business Bureau; there are probably sexual discrimination laws and harassment laws and slander laws that apply equally well in both kinds of space. But rights (and much less legislation) have not caught up to the notion of virtual spaces very well. Which makes for an interesting thought experiment.
What if we declared the rights of avatars?
I've based what follows on a couple of seminal documents: The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen approved by the National Assembly of France on August 26 of 1789; and the first ten amendments to the Constitution of the United States, perhaps better known as the Bill of Rights. This is, perhaps, not the best basis from which to begin a stab at this hypothetical exercise, given our multicultural world today; some have suggested that a better starting point might be the United Nations Charter of Rights and Freedoms. I admit that one reason for choosing the version I did was its language, not its content per se.
So let's give it a whirl. This is all still hypothetical, OK?
When a time comes that new modes and venues exist for communities, and said modes are different enough from the existing ones that question arises as to the applicability of past custom and law; and when said venues have become a forum for interaction and society for the general public regardless of the intent of the creators of said venue; and at a time when said communities and spaces are rising in popularity and are now widely exploited for commercial gain; it behooves those involved in said communities and venues to affirm and declare the inalienable rights of the members of said communities. Therefore herein have been set forth those rights which are inalienable rights of the inhabitants of virtual spaces of all sorts, in their form henceforth referred to as avatars, in order that this declaration may continually remind those who hold power over virtual spaces and the avatars contained therein of their duties and responsibilities; in order that the forms of administration of a virtual space may be at any time compared to that of other virtual spaces; and in order that the grievances of players may hereafter be judged against the explicit rights set forth, to better govern the virtual space and improve the general welfare and happiness of all.
Therefore this document holds the following truths to be self-evident: That avatars are the manifestation of actual people in an online medium, and that their utterances, actions, thoughts, and emotions should be considered to be as valid as the utterances, actions, thoughts, and emotions of people in any other forum, venue, location, or space. That the well-established rights of man approved by the National Assembly of France on August 26th of 1789 do therefore apply to avatars in full measure saving only the aspects of said rights that do not pertain in a virtual space or which must be abrogated in order to ensure the continued existence of the space in question. That by the act of affirming membership in the community within the virtual space, the avatars form a social contract with the community, forming a populace which may and must self-affirm and self-impose rights and concomitant restrictions upon their behavior. That the nature of virtual spaces is such that there must, by physical law, always be a higher power or administrator who maintains the space and has complete power over all participants, but who is undeniably part of the community formed within the space and who must therefore take action in accord with that which benefits the space as well as the participants, and who therefore also has the rights of avatars and may have other rights as well. That the ease of moving between virtual spaces and the potential transience of the community do not limit or reduce the level of emotional and social involvement that avatars may have with the community, and that therefore the ease of moving between virtual spaces and the potential transience of the community do not in any way limit, curtail, or remove these rights from avatars on the alleged grounds that avatars can always simply leave.
(Yes, I've had this knocking around my desk for that long.)
Lofty, eh? And I don't doubt that there's some folks out there right now seizing on this as an important document. For all I know, maybe it is.
But there's also some other folks who think that this exercise is plain dangerous. As an example, let me take a co-worker of mine to whom I showed an early draft. He pointed out that virtual world servers run on somebody's hardware. And that most declarations of rights give rights over personal property. By declaring that avatars have rights, we're abrogating that administrator's right to personal property.
Others point out that it's superfluous. After all, if virtual worlds are just extensions of the real world, then surely all the rights we already have apply?
What about if the virtual space in question is a game? Doesn't it, by its nature, obviate some of these rights?
And the biggie: what if you don't accept the basic premises in the prefatory paragraphs?
And that's where it gets interesting: in the details. I basically posted the document to a mailing list with a collection of the smartest virtual world admins and designers I know. Here's some of the various comments from admins from various walks of life, who got to see the original draft of this document (names hidden to protect the innocent, and remarks vastly paraphrased, because many of the objections were hypothetical ones).
|A Declaration of the Rights of Avatars||
|When a time comes that new modes and venues exist for communities, and said modes are different enough from the existing ones that question arises as to the applicability of past custom and law;|
|and when said venues have become a forum for interaction and society for the general public regardless of the intent of the creators of said venue; and at a time when said communities and spaces are rising in popularity and are now widely exploited for commercial gain; it behooves those involved in said communities and venues to affirm and declare the inalienable rights of the members of said communities. Therefore herein have been set forth those rights which are inalienable rights of the inhabitants of virtual spaces of all sorts, in their form henceforth referred to as avatars, in order that this declaration may continually remind those who hold power over virtual spaces and the avatars contained therein of their duties and responsibilities; in order that the forms of administration of a virtual space may be at any time compared to that of other virtual spaces; and in order that the grievances of players may hereafter be judged against the explicit rights set forth, to better govern the virtual space and improve the general welfare and happiness of all.|
|Therefore this document holds the following truths to be self-evident: That avatars are the manifestation of actual people in an online medium, and that their utterances, actions, thoughts, and emotions should be considered to be as valid as the utterances, actions, thoughts, and emotions of people in any other forum, venue, location, or space.|
|That the well-established rights of man approved by the National Assembly of France on August 26th of 1789 do therefore apply to avatars in full measure saving only the aspects of said rights that do not pertain in a virtual space or which must be abrogated in order to ensure the continued existence of the space in question.|
|That by the act of affirming membership in the community within the virtual space, the avatars form a social contract with the community, forming a populace which may and must self-affirm and self-impose rights and concomitant restrictions upon their behavior.|
|That the nature of virtual spaces is such that there must, by physical law, always be a higher power or administrator who maintains the space and has complete power over all participants, but who is undeniably part of the community formed within the space and who must therefore take action in accord with that which benefits the space as well as the participants, and who therefore also has the rights of avatars and may have other rights as well.|
|That the ease of moving between virtual spaces and the potential transience of the community do not limit or reduce the level of emotional and social involvement that avatars may have with the community, and that therefore the ease of moving between virtual spaces and the potential transience of the community do not in any way limit, curtail, or remove these rights from avatars on the alleged grounds that avatars can always simply leave.||
1. Avatars are created free and equal in rights. Special powers or privileges shall be founded solely on the common good, and not based on whim, favoritism, nepotism, or the caprice of those who hold power. Those who act as ordinary avatars within the space shall all have only the rights of normal avatars.
|2. The aim of virtual communities is the common good of its citizenry, from which arise the rights of avatars. Foremost among these rights is the right to be treated as people and not as disembodied, meaningless, soulless puppets. Inherent in this right are therefore the natural and inalienable rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.|
|3. The principle of all sovereignty in a virtual space resides in the inalterable fact that somewhere there resides an individual who controls the hardware on which the virtual space is running, and the software with which it is created, and the database which makes up its existence. However, the body populace has the right to know and demand the enforcement of the standards by which this individual uses this power over the community, as authority must proceed from the community; a community that does not know the standards by which the administrators use their power is a community which permits its administrators to have no standards, and is therefore a community abetting in tyranny.|
|4. Liberty consists of the freedom to do anything which injures no one else including the weal of the community as a whole and as an entity instantiated on hardware and by software; the exercise of the natural rights of avatars are therefore limited solely by the rights of other avatars sharing the same space and participating in the same community. These limits can only be determined by a clear code of conduct.|
|5. The code of conduct can only prohibit those actions and utterances that are hurtful to society, inclusive of the harm that may be done to the fabric of the virtual space via hurt done to the hardware, software, or data; and likewise inclusive of the harm that may be done to the individual who maintains said hardware, software, or data, in that harm done to this individual may result in direct harm done to the community.|
|6. The code of conduct is the expression of the general will of the community and the will of the individual who maintains the hardware and software that makes up the virtual space. Every member of the community has the right to contribute either directly or via representatives in the shaping of the code of conduct as the culture of the virtual space evolves, particularly as it evolves in directions that the administrator did not predict; the ultimate right of the administrator to shape and define the code of conduct shall not be abrogated, but it is clear that the administrator therefore has the duty and responsibility to work with the community to arrive at a code of conduct that is shaped by the input of the community. As a member of the community himself, the administrator would be damaging the community itself if he failed in this responsibility, for abrogation of this right of avatars could result in the loss of population and therefore damage to the common weal.|
|7. No avatar shall be accused, muzzled, toaded, jailed, banned, or otherwise punished except in the cases and according to the forms prescribed by the code of conduct. Any one soliciting, transmitting, executing, or causing to be executed, any arbitrary order, shall be punished, even if said individual is one who has been granted special powers or privileges within the virtual space. But any avatar summoned or arrested in virtue of the code of conduct shall submit without delay, as resistance constitutes an offense.|
|8. The code of conduct shall provide for such punishments only as are strictly and obviously necessary, and no one shall suffer punishment except it be legally inflicted according to the provisions of a code of conduct promulgated before the commission of the offense; save in the case where the offense endangered the continued existence of the virtual space by attacking the hardware or software that provide the physical existence of the space.|
|9. As all avatars are held innocent until they shall have been declared guilty, if detainment, temporary banning, jailing, gluing, freezing, or toading shall be deemed indispensable, all harshness not essential to the securing of the prisoner's person shall be severely repressed by the code of conduct.|
|10. No one shall be disquieted on account of his opinions, provided their manifestation does not disturb the public order established by the code of conduct.|
|11. The free communication of ideas and opinions is one of the most precious of the rights of man. Every avatar may, accordingly, speak, write, chat, post, and print with freedom, but shall be responsible for such abuses of this freedom as shall be defined by the code of conduct, most particularly the abuse of affecting the performance of the space or the performance of a given avatar's representation of the space.|
|12. The security of the rights of avatars requires the existence of avatars with special powers and privileges, who are empowered to enforce the provisions of the code of conduct. These powers and privileges are therefore granted for the good of all and not for the personal advantage of those to whom they shall be entrusted. These powers and privileges are also therefore not an entitlement, and can and should be removed in any instance where they are no longer used for the good of all, even if the offense is merely inactivity.|
|13. A common contribution may, at the discretion of the individual who maintains the hardware, the software, and the data that make up the virtual space, be required in order to maintain the existence of avatars who enforce the code of conduct and to maintain the hardware and the software and the continued existence of the virtual space. Avatars have the right to know the nature and amount of the contribution in advance, and said required contribution should be equitably distributed among all the citizens without regard to their social position; special rights and privileges shall never pertain to the avatar who contributes more except insofar as the special powers and privileges require greater resources from the hardware, software, or data store, and would not be possible save for the resources obtainable with the contribution; and as long as any and all avatars are able to make this contribution and therefore gain the powers and privileges if they so choose; nor shall any articles of this declaration be contingent upon a contribution being made.|
|14. The community has the right to require of every administrator or individual with special powers and privileges granted for the purpose of administration, an account of his administration.|
|15. A virtual community in which the observance of the code of conduct is not assured and universal, nor the separation of powers defined, has no constitution at all.|
|16. Since property is an inviolable and sacred right, and the virtual equivalent is integrity and persistence of data, no one shall be deprived thereof except where public necessity, legally determined per the code of conduct, shall clearly demand it, and then only on condition that the avatar shall have been previously and equitably indemnified, saving only cases wherein the continued existence of the space is jeopardized by the existence or integrity of said data.|
|17. The administrators of the virtual space shall not abridge the freedom of assembly, save to preserve the performance and continued viability of the virtual space.|
|18. Avatars have the right to be secure in their persons, communications, designated private spaces, and effects, against unreasonable snooping, eavesdropping, searching and seizures, no activity pertaining thereto shall be undertaken by administrators save with probable cause supported by affirmation, particularly describing the goal of said investigations.|
|19. The enumeration in this document of rights shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by avatars.|
"If I were the United States Secretary of Virtual Worlds and I were shopping around for an administration policy for USMud I would start with something like this. If I were Joe Businessman, I might pay lip-service to to this, but I sure as heck wouldn't put it in my user contract and leave myself open to lawsuits."
There are a lot of interesting points raised above. One of the most interesting is, why should an admin feel bound by the fact that others have made an emotional investment in their work?
A sense of responsibility?
A coworker and I got into a argument over this. Let's say you publicly say, "Hey, my empty lot is now open to the public, anyone can squat there!" In the real world, you can actually get in trouble for not providing adequate sanitation. You'd certainly be reviled as an insensitive slob for kicking the squatters off. The sense here is that by making the invitation, you are entering into a social contract with the people who may or may not come by and use the empty lot.
We can argue endlessly whether this is fair or not. It's not, in my opinion (but what is?). But it's still the case. If I personally invite people to squat in my empty lot and then some of them die because I failed to cover the open mineshaft, well, I'd feel a sense of responsibility. It'd sure be nice not to, but I will because I have developed a certain level of personal ethics that entail feeling that way.
Plenty of mud admins do not have this particular ethic--nor am I arguing that they must. But I think arguing whether they should is a good debate to have.
I would argue that if your goal is to have a thriving empty lot that develops into a small town, then you probably want to feel this sense of responsibility, because the squatters are not likely to thrive unless someone with authority over the lot does have that personal ethic.
In the real world, we actually go further than that--we can be held responsible for things that happen to trespassers on our property.
Now, you may have different intent for your virtual space--or your property. You may have just invited people there for the evening. So shutting down (as long as you announced it in advance) is still fine. There was an expectation established, after all.
It's also been pointed out by my panel of mud-cum-rights experts that technically, the property is intangible, which means we're actually in the realm of Group Intellectual Property Law, which is a nebulous construct even in the real world, much less the virtual. Here there be dragons.
On the point that the document as a whole restricts admins too much in managing the virtual spaces, I'd point out that having a clear code of conduct for both players and admins has been shown to make running the space go much smoother overall. Some argue that having unposted rules, or relying purely on community norms, helps curb the idiots or anarchists who find ways to skirt the posted rules. But we can reference the Minnie case (and the Finn case come to think of it) described in My Tiny Life for what can happen if unwritten rules are used against such a person and then others start to fear that it could be used against them with less cause. It's a very slippery slope.
Of course, having good tracking of patterns of behavior will mean that these people will likely get taken care of anyway. People who break any given rule repeatedly tend to break several of them repeatedly. So concrete advice to admins is, have a history of infractions for every avatar. It doesn't say anything in the document about not keeping records, establishing more severe penalties for repeated infractions, curtailing the freedoms of players with long admin records, etc. Presumably someone who has a long admin record isn't going to be considered a "good customer" anymore, right?
In a commercial endeavor, it makes sense to include money as a factor. Good customers may well get permitted more infractions, because the definition of an admin record is "things that cost us money (via admin time spent)." As long as this is in the code of conduct, and applies equally well to two different good customers who have paid the same amount, then you're fulfilling the letter of the article.
I'd submit that the enhanced recordkeeping alone from doing that would probably streamline your costs and make for better business decisions when the time comes to punish someone.
Perhaps the most interesting thing about all the admin commentary on the document is that the biggest concerns boil down to just a few things:
Then there are the mud admins who don't give a flip about population growth...
When all is said and done, though, I am clearly defending something completely implausible on one key level:
Mud players are people. They don't stop being people when they log on. Therefore they deserve to be treated like people. This means they have the rights of people. By joining a mud, they join a community of people. Rights arise from the community. But there's always someone with their finger on the power switch. But he's part of the community too, and should use his powers for the common good and the survival of the community. The fact that you can easily move to another mud doesn't mean that these rights go away.
The interesting thing is that mud admins find the second doc much more palatable. Phrased in this way, it's not an abrogation of their power. It's concrete advice that will help you retain your playerbase. In fact, some even said they'd be willing to sign to it as a "declaration" because it would make them look good as admins to adhere to such a standard. There are damn few justifiable reasons to deny any of the things in the above version--and if you did, likely you'd be considered a jerk for doing it--or a power-hungry admin with a god complex (is there a difference?).
If admins see themselves as above the community, do they have any responsibilities towards the community whatsoever?
If they do, can they be articulated?
If they can be articulated and generally agreed upon, are they players' rights or are they merely good ethics on the part of a mud administrator?
One camp is going to argue that it's their mud, by god, and therefore they have the right to do whatever they want with it (and with the people in it). Some might temper this by saying that they don't have the right to violate RL law in the process, but I think a sizable faction would argue that even that doesn't curtail their power in any way.
Another camp is going to argue that with great power comes great responsibility, a la Spiderman. And that clear guidelines and the rule of law is the only way to handle a responsibility of such magnitude.
Both sides will agree that they still have their finger on the power button, and that this changes the landscape of "rights" considerably. And if you do feel that you are ethically bound to act responsibly, then you may have to violate some of your ethical principles in order to keep the mud running.
And if it's a commercial environment:
The irony is that it's all probably moot. The reason why players hold admins to this standard is because they have assumed that this standard is what should be there regardless. In other words, the advice works because it's what players expect and say they want. Which is no different from self-affirmed rights. This is probably why players scream that their rights have been violated when one of the above articles is violated (even if the admins are not signatories to any such document).
So the real point of a document like this would be to see how many admins would sign, not how many players. As an admin, yes, I'd probably sign, in the sense that I'd agree that these are solid administrative principles in terms of practical effect.
The question then becomes, if we subscribe in terms of practical effect, and as long as there are sufficient loopholes present that we can exercise power when we need to, who cares whether players think these are rights, laws, doohickeys, or power fantasies? (Welcome to the Machiavellian world of player relations!)
Why do you want freedom to do things that are bad admin or business practice? (even considering that "freedom" and so on are total mirages in this whole situation...)
Especially since "rights" in the real world already have zero power?
(Note that I am not suggesting that all the muds or commercial endeavors should run out and implement this list of "rights," nor am I suggesting that if they don't that they are run by power-hungry maniacs. This is too complex an issue to reduce to that level.)
The last step that would be required to actually make such a document into a Bill of Rights for players would be for it to be codified into "law," (which is probablt a Code of Conduct or Terms of Service agreement signed by all players, account holders, and admins) and thus be something that admins would be bound to. Admins are, by and large, not going to do this, even though some of the commercial MMORPG companies do require their game masters to sign documents saying that they will behave in a manner surprisingly similar to what the document espouses. But there's an interesting forward-thinking pie-in-the-sky reason for admins to contemplate doing so someday...
Someday there won't be any admins. Someday it's gonna be your bank records and your grocery shopping and your credit report and yes, your virtual homepage with data that exists nowhere else. Someday it's gonna be Snow Crash and Neuromancer and Otherland all wrapped up into one, and it may be a little harder to write to Customer Service. Your avatar profile might be your credit record and your resume and your academic transcript, as well as your XP earned.
On the day that happens, I bet we'll all wish we had a few more rights in the face of a very large, distributed server, anarchic, virtual world where it might be very very hard to move to a different service provider. Heck, I would bet that those folks who plan to play Bioware's forthcoming Neverwinter Nights might very well want their admins to sign such a doc. The future is already almost here.
So in the end, all the Declaration of the Rights of Avatars is, is a useful tool for players and admins alike: admins who don't know what they are doing can use it as a blueprint, and players can use it to evaluate mud administrations in search of one they like.
So yeah. I'm not seriously proposing that we declare the rights of avatars. The doc is, as has been shown, riddled with gotchas and logical holes. It's a hypothetical exercise.
The original thread on Declaring the Rights of Avatars can be found at the MUD-Dev Archives.
- Raph Koster