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The Lawbringer: A prelude to avatar rights

Pop law abounds in The Lawbringer, your weekly dose of WoW, the law, video games and the MMO genre. Running parallel to the games we love and enjoy is a world full of rules, regulations, pitfalls and traps. How about you hang out with us as we discuss some of the more esoteric aspects of the games we love to play?

The concept of avatar rights is a strange and new concept, only really going back as far as people have demanded rights for their virtual counterparts. In the early days of the MMO genre, players would populate MUDs (multi-user dungeons) or similarly designed constructs online and do pretty much the same things we do today -- hack, slash, chat, and adventure with other users. From MUDs, we got graphical MMOs, and from graphical MMOs, we got the second and third generations of the massively multiplayers we know today. World of Warcraft comes from a rich history of all of the games that came before it, as did the concept of the virtual self. The one thing all of these games have had in common over the years is the avatar.

This week's Lawbringer is the first in a multi-part series discussing avatar rights -- where the concept came from, where it's going, and who has the power to set the rules. We're going to talk about the venerable Raph Koster and his avatar rights manifesto, who your avatar is and what is so damn special about him, and some really interesting concepts dealing with what people feel they are owed. Strap in -- this may get crazy.

What are avatar rights?

The concept of avatar rights is a bit difficult to explain without a basic foundation or understanding about the way certain societies feel about human rights, inalienable rights, and all that jazz. In the United States, citizens have basic rights that were originally outlined in the first 10 amendments to the constitution, also called the Bill of Rights. The United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. People generally seem to want rights and, in many cases, get them.

Upon entering a taxi here in New York City, you'll see a sign attached to every cab divider that displays the Taxicab Rider Bill of Rights. This short document outlines what you as a taxi passenger are entitled to. These rights include a noise-free trip; access to any destination in a prescribed area; clean, smoke- and scent-free air; and the ability to decline to tip for poor service, among others. The point of the taxicab rider bill of rights is to convey to you, the consumer, these rights that you may or may not have known that you have -- but more importantly, to illustrate that these are expectations that you can have when you enter a taxi.

Does your MMO character deserve the same type of rule set when entering a virtual world? Do you?

Conflict breeds rights

When players began to inhabit virtual worlds in the beginning, these worlds were the Wild West. No one (save for some prolific sci-fi writers) could have predicted what virtual worlds would become. To be honest, we still don't understand or cannot comprehend where the virtual worlds of the future will take us. Humans are terribly bad at predicting the future.

As players began to play and worlds began to take shape, virtual nations rose and fell, and players began to enter into conflict, justice and order were needed. Thus, the onus of rule and power fell to those who created the worlds, the admins. They took matters into their godly hands and wrote what would later constitute terms of use, EULAs, avatar rights, and any other enumeration of expectations a player could have when entering the virtual world. We all want recourse for malicious actions taken against us, right? We all strive to live in a society, albeit virtual, where the rule of law is prominent and followed.

The right to freedom?

Or do we? The beauty of virtual worlds is that they are virtual. They do not exist in our world because they are decidedly otherworldly. Take, for example, Second Life. Second Life allows players to take on the form of anything they desire, be it their perceived perfection or a dolphin that shoots certain anatomy out of its blowhole. The only rules that apply to Second Life and the only rights players have are those enumerated by the developers and the market conditions set forth. Other rules and limitations are implemented in a roundabout way through game mechanics and the limitations of the hardware and software. But where is the basic right of freedom from oppression, if that is even applicable?

Maybe western values and ideologies have no place in virtual worlds. What if the virtual world's location is that of the medieval era, a serfdom, where peasants' rights were seen to by their lordly landowners and freedom wasn't a word that people cared to think about. Is the freedom inherent in the choice to be a part of the virtual world, then, to take on the avatar of a peasant living under lord rule? Is the basic right of freedom the ability to log off at any time and escape the fate of the avatar residing online?

Raph Koster and the bill of avatar rights

Enough about freedom. Raph Koster was the lead developer of Ultima Online, oft cited as my favorite MMO of all time, and the creative director of Star Wars Galaxies, oft cited as my favorite cantina dancing simulator of all time. Above all of that, though, was Koster's hand in creating LegendMUD, one of the more progressive worlds at the time, in which the class system was eschewed for a skill-based character progression. Koster was one of those guys who just knew there was something special about the virtual space, something intrinsically important about how we could transport ourselves into other beings and affect worlds.

In 2000, Koster wrote a now famous post called "Declaring the Rights of Players" that set out to create a declaration of the rights of avatars in the online space. The question he asked at the beginning of the post, Do players of virtual worlds have rights?, set the tone. Is this even needed? Do our avatars have rights when we embody them, or are they just manifestations of a game world that we play by the rules of whatever world we live in? Do we have recourse?

When Koster wrote his avatar bill of rights, he was, for all intents and purposes, a developer trying to run a profitable game world. Writing his list of rights seemed contradictory at the time; by enumerating the rights players should feel that they should have, he was potentially shooting himself in the foot, as players would then demand this level of service from his very own game if it was not being met. That fact did not stop him, and the rights were engraved forever in internet stone.

Koster began his post discussing whether or not virtual worlds are the private playgrounds of the admins who created them or if inhabitants of these worlds are allowed to grant themselves the rights they feel they are deserved, even if they are in someone else's private playground. While rights that bleed in from the real world are not at issue (if Blizzard engaged in criminal acts, there would most likely be recourse), the real concerns come from the players in the virtual worlds themselves.

I invite you to read Raph Koster's 19 articles of the rights of avatars. Go, read them. It is a short read, but a very interesting one. The notions that players are entitled to basic levels of service, restriction from undue punishment, and the creation of a special class of enforcers to police the code of conduct were huge notions back in 2000, when virtual worlds were still in their infancy.

All of this speculation deals with virtual worlds that are purely for fun and enjoyment, not virtual meeting places or business venues. When the real world catches up to the virtual one and contracts are signed and deals are made in virtual space without second thought, the rules for recourse have to change. For now, we can accept that the want of rights in a purely entertainment-driven venue is important for the continuation of that fun.

Next week, we're going to look at how the World of Warcraft terms of use and EULA have incorporated a good deal of avatar and player rights into them, and we'll talk a bit about the future of avatar rights and where this discussion is heading.

This column is for entertainment only; if you need legal advice, contact a lawyer. For comments or general questions about law or for The Lawbringer, contact Mat at mat@wowinsider.com.

Filed under: Analysis / Opinion, The Lawbringer

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