Virtual Worlds Talk Moves at Warp Speed

Lots happening on the Virtual Worlds front. Our paper on Virtutal Worlds, Real Rules has generated some interesting comments. Over at Crooked Timber, Henry Farrell suggests in More Broadswords, Less Crime? that the experiment we propose has already been run once, with an ugly result:

My tuppence worth: one theory has already been ‘tested’ in this way; the argument that easing restrictions on weapons and their use will lead to a drop in violent crime. If you grant the assumption that MMORPGs are analogous to everyday life (a whopping assumption to be granting, I’ll admit), then the evidence is unequivocal. A society where each can use weapons against each without restriction is likely to deteriorate into Hobbesian anarchy. People will positively beg for a Leviathan to come in and put an end to the Warre of All against All.

I think this is intuitively plausible (although very sensitive to the counter-argument that people choose to play violent games precisely to do things they would never do in real life—an argument of unreality that might not damn experiements based on more realistic representations of ordinary life), although I have to admit that a lot of work is done by the word “and” in the phrase “easing restrictions on weapons and their use”.

Over at Yale's Law Meme James Grimmelmann offers a fascinating account of the popular tax revolt in the game Second Life . I was particularly intrigued by this story because some of the most thoughtful commentators on our Virtual Worlds paper have asked whether this online environment is one that could be used to empower participants instead of using them as glorified lab rats. Is there some way the participants could be empowered to self-organized, create new governance structures, meet to plan new modes of production, or collaborate in ways? These are all tantalizing thoughts, but my cautious reaction has been that that's for version 2.0—we need to start with slightly less grand ambitions. Reading the Second Life saga makes me wonder whether I'm being too tame.

And, at TerraNova , Greg Lastowka suggests in The Author as Autarch that there is an even greater obstacle to using Virtual Worlds to experiment with Intellectual Property (IP) rules than the one we contemplated:

…a bigger problem with using virtual worlds as testbeds for experimental intellectual property rules is that virtual worlds are intellectual property. Putting aside trademarks, patents, and other relevant forms of intellectual property, software is protected by copyright. The copyright is not just limited to a game's source code and object code, but also extends (to an unclear extent) to other salient aspects of the program.

Here, I think I disagree. While it's certainly right that there are some IP obstacles to using existing games as research tools, if one is setting up a set of parallel games to serve as testbeds for legal rules then rather than be subject to IP constraints one is actually aided by them. Our suggestion is not that experimenters should colonize existing versions of Ultima Online or something and run trials on them. The idea is to purchase the rights to an existing game engine, customize it, and then run parallel versions of the game, or perhaps to license some shards/facets of a game and customize them. Any serious attempt to use Virtual Worlds to test legal rules will require careful design, and a control group. The IP issues will get sorted as part of the design process.

Meanwhile, New York Law School's Institute for Information Law and Policy & Yale Law School's Information Society Project are planning a conference on “The State of Play: Law, Games and Virtual Worlds” to be held in New York city, Nov. 13-15. They've now posted their tantalizing conference program .

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