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(Originally published as “Why Online Games Are Dictatorships,” InformationWeek, April 16, 2007)

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Can you be a citizen of a virtual world? That’s the question that I keep asking myself whenever anyone tells me about the wonder of multiplayer online games, especially Second Life, the virtual world that is more creative playground than game.

These worlds invite us to take up residence in them, to invest time (and sometimes money) in them. Second Life encourages you to make stuff using their scripting engine and sell it in the game. You Own Your Own Mods—it’s the rallying cry of the new generation of virtual worlds, an updated version of the old BBS adage from the WELL: You Own Your Own Words.

I spend a lot of time in Disney parks. I even own a share of Disney stock. But I don’t flatter myself that I’m a citizen of Disney World. I know that when I go to Orlando, the Mouse is going to fingerprint me and search my bags, because the Fourth Amendment isn’t a “Disney value.”

Disney even has its own virtual currency, symbolic tokens called Disney Dollars that you can spend or exchange at any Disney park. I’m reasonably confident that if Disney refused to turn my Mickeybucks back into US Treasury Department-issue greenbacks that I could make life unpleasant for them in a court of law.

But is the same true of a game? The money in your real-world bank-account and in your in-game bank-account is really just a pointer in a database. But if the bank moves the pointer around arbitrarily (depositing a billion dollars in your account, or wiping you out), they face a regulator. If a game wants to wipe you out, well, you probably agreed to let them do that when you signed up.

Can you amass wealth in such a world? Well, sure. There are rich people in dictatorships all over the world. Stalin’s favorites had great big dachas and drove fancy cars. You don’t need democratic rights to get rich.

But you do need democratic freedoms to stay rich. In-world wealth is like a Stalin-era dacha, or the diamond fortunes of Apartheid South Africa: valuable, even portable (to a limited extent), but not really yours, not in any stable, long-term sense.

Here are some examples of the difference between being a citizen and a customer:

In January, 2006, a World of Warcraft moderator shut down an advertisement for a “GBLT-friendly” guild. This was a virtual club that players could join, whose mission was to be “friendly” to “Gay/Bi/Lesbian/Transgendered” players. The WoW moderator—and Blizzard management—cited a bizarre reason for the shut-down:

“While we appreciate and understand your point of view, we do feel that the advertisement of a ‘GLBT friendly’ guild is very likely to result in harassment for players that may not have existed otherwise. If you will look at our policy, you will notice the suggested penalty for violating the Sexual Orientation Harassment Policy is to ‘be temporarily suspended from the game.’ However, as there was clearly no malicious intent on your part, this penalty was reduced to a warning.”

Sara Andrews, the guild’s creator, made a stink and embarrassed Blizzard (the game’s parent company) into reversing the decision.

In 2004, a player in the MMO EVE Online declared that the game’s creators had stacked the deck against him, called EVE, “a poorly designed game which rewards the greedy and violent, and punishes the hardworking and honest.” He was upset over a change in the game dynamics, which made it easier to play a pirate and harder to play a merchant.

The player, “Dentara Rask,” wrote those words in the preamble to a tell-all memoir detailing an elaborate Ponzi scheme that he and an accomplice had perpetrated in EVE. The two of them had bilked EVE‘s merchants out of a substantial fraction of the game’s total GDP and then resigned their accounts. The objective was to punish the game’s owners for their gameplay decisions by crashing the game’s economy.

In both of these instances, players—residents of virtual worlds—resolved their conflicts with game management through customer activism. That works in the real world, too, but when it fails, we have the rule of law. We can sue. We can elect new leaders. When all else fails, we can withdraw all our money from the bank, sell our houses, and move to a different country.

But in virtual worlds, these recourses are off-limits. Virtual worlds can and do freeze players’ wealth for “cheating” (amassing gold by exploiting loopholes in the system), for participating in real-world gold-for-cash exchanges (eBay recently put an end to this practice on its service), or for violating some other rule. The rules of virtual worlds are embodied in EULAs, not constitutions, and are always “subject to change without notice.”

So, what does it mean to be “rich” in Second Life? Sure, you can have a thriving virtual penis business in game, one that returns a healthy sum of cash every month. You can even protect your profits by regularly converting them to real money. But if you lose an argument with Second Life‘s parent company, your business vanishes. In other worlds, the only stable in-game wealth is the wealth you take out of the game. Your virtual capital investments are totally contingent. Piss off the wrong exec at Linden Labs, Blizzard, Sony Online Entertainment, or Sularke and your little in-world business could disappear for good.

Well, what of it? Why not just create a “democratic” game that has a constitution, full citizenship for players, and all the prerequisites for stable wealth? Such a game would be open source (so that other, interoperable “nations” could be established for you to emigrate to if you don’t like the will of the majority in one game-world), and run by elected representatives who would instruct the administrators and programmers as to how to run the virtual world. In the real world, the TSA sets the rules for aviation—in a virtual world, the equivalent agency would determine the physics of flight.

The question is, would this game be any fun? Well, democracy itself is pretty fun—where “fun” means “engrossing and engaging.” Lots of people like to play the democracy game, whether by voting every four years or by moving to K Street and setting up a lobbying operation.

But video games aren’t quite the same thing. Gameplay conventions like “grinding” (repeating a task), “leveling up” (attaining a higher level of accomplishment), “questing” and so on are functions of artificial scarcity. The difference between a character with 10,000,000 gold pieces and a giant, rare, terrifying crossbow and a newbie player is which pointers are associated with each character’s database entry. If the elected representatives direct that every player should have the shiniest armor, best space-ships, and largest bank-balances possible (this sounds like a pretty good election platform to me!), then what’s left to do?

Oh sure, in Second Life they have an interesting crafting economy based on creating and exchanging virtual objects. But these objects are also artificially scarce—that is, the ability of these objects to propagate freely throughout the world is limited only by the software that supports them. It’s basically the same economics of the music industry, but applied to every field of human endeavor in the entire (virtual) world.

Fun matters. Real world currencies rise and fall based, in part, by the economic might of the nations that issue them. Virtual world currencies are more strongly tied to whether there’s any reason to spend the virtual currency on the objects that are denominated in it. 10,000 EverQuest golds might trade for $100 on a day when that same sum will buy you a magic EQ sword that enables you to play alongside the most interesting people online, running the most fun missions online. But if all those players out-migrate to World of Warcraft, and word gets around that Warlord’s Command is way more fun than anything in poor old creaky EverQuest, your EverQuest gold turns into Weimar Deutschemarks, a devalued currency that you can’t even give away.

This is where the plausibility of my democratic, cooperative, open source virtual world starts to break down. Elected governments can field armies, run schools, provide health care (I’m a Canadian), and bring acid lakes back to health. But I’ve never done anything run by a government agency that was a lot of fun. It’s my sneaking suspicion that the only people who’d enjoy playing World of Democracycraft would be the people running for office there. The players would soon find themselves playing IRSQuest, Second Notice of Proposed Rulemaking Life, and Caves of 27 Stroke B.

Maybe I’m wrong. Maybe customership is enough of a rock to build a platform of sustainable industry upon. It’s not like entrepreneurs in Dubai have a lot of recourse if they get on the wrong side of the Emir; or like Singaporeans get to appeal the decisions of President Nathan, and there’s plenty of industry there.

And hell, maybe bureaucracies have hidden reserves of fun that have been lurking there, waiting for the chance to bust out and surprise us all.

I sure hope so. These online worlds are endlessly diverting places. It’d be a shame if it turned out that cyberspace was a dictatorship—benevolent or otherwise.

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