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The Lawbringer: Avatar rights as expectations

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?

Last week, I introduced the concept that the denizens of a virtual world may have gained, over time, the right to rights within that virtual world. Raph Koster, the lead developer of Ultima Online, explored the idea over 10 years ago when the MMO genre was in its developmental infancy. These rights synced up with a world where there was a distinction between free-to-play MUDs and for-pay subscription worlds in the U.S. and European markets. Today, the MMO has transformed into a new beast from the close-knit communities of MUDs and the relatively forgiving user base of EverQuest and Ultima Online.

The people who made WoW are the contemporaries of Raph Koster and children of the MMO genre that EverQuest cemented as important. How then, in over 10 years, has Koster's declaration of the rights of avatars held up to the incredible growth of the industry and Blizzard's own impressive growth? The short answer: The code of conduct you follow in World of Warcraft is pretty lenient, all things considered. The long answer: Well, there's always a long answer.

I believe that the rights of avatars in the modern MMO setting are less about player demands and more about player expectations. I ask myself this question: What can I expect as I engage myself in the World of Warcraft?

A clear code of conduct

In my opinion, one of the most important rights in Koster's bill of avatar rights is the expectation of a clear code of conduct. Blizzard's record with code of conduct violations is a pretty good one. For the most part, the system is transparent and fair. The people who deserve reprimand in our virtual society are given that reprimand. And, probably most importantly, the punishment usually fits the crime. Bans are for days, not months, unless the offense is so severe that severing the player from the game is warranted.

There is one odd duck in the violations acted upon by Blizzard, though. This violation is a little too opaque, never as transparent as people would like. I speak of the dreaded economy issue -- a player who is removed from the game for "exploiting the economy." Over time, we've gleaned a little information about what constitutes an economy exploitation ban.

Players who engage in a large amount of gold trading or gold purchasing seem to be the targets of most of these bans, and while Blizzard doesn't expressly state that it bans or takes action against against gold buyers, many of these players coincidentally have some type of gold buying in their history. Others who have been banned under the economy exploitation rule deal in massive amounts of gold from the auction house or trade between characters, potentially setting off the software looking for gold buyers and sellers in the WoW economy.

Where Koster states that the playerbase should have input through representation into the code of conduct is a different story when dealing with such a large game and such a large corporation as WoW and Activision Blizzard. The players' representatives are the players themselves, being able to voice their opinions on official forums and through suggestion submission forms. The avenues to discuss code of conduct issues with Blizzard is fairly open. In recent history, the only game to not have official forums was Warhammer Online, with an eventual opening of official Mythic forums.

The rules set by players

Over time, World of Warcraft has changed substantially thanks to the input of players and pressures from the community. Koster's rights seem to have an undercurrent of player involvement, as well as a clear delineation between player and support staff who facilitate the continued existence of the virtual world. Do you as a player have a right to impact the world in ways that differ from just existing within it?

Players have set the rules in WoW for a long time, through shared experience and societal norms. Before Frozen Orbs were made greed-only, players from various realms had already created a ruleset that dictated how pickup groups would deal with these specific items. Players who did not adhere to the rules were ostracized in one of many different ways.

Before Blizzard made it standard practice to investigate loot ninjas in pickup raids, after clear rolling requirements and rules were stipulated, players took it upon themselves to work out the rules and the punishment. Ninjas were rarely seen in those raids again, clutching their oft-stolen Deathbringer's Wills to their chest, never to return to a pickup group on the server again.

Loot rules have been and still are being directly influenced by players to a large degree, demanding a certain amount of fairness. The rights of the party leader and the abilities of a group leader in the random dungeon finder are limited because of the criticisms of players and the outspoken nature of WoW. If rights are a set of expectations, players have the right to a fair instance run because of the uneven amount of innate greed of people and the ease of changing the rules to mitigate that greed.

The random dungeon finder in general is a response to the player concern of "here's what I want to do after work," for the most part. People wanted better and easier dungeon run facilitation, and they got it. A unique aspect of the MMO genre is the "sharding" of people across various realms. Games like EVE Online don't have this problem, obviously, but the traditional setup of shards or realms makes population balance tricky. Enter the random dungeon finder, a way to negate the realm disparity issue while allowing server community to flourish in its common forums. Players wanted a larger pool of people looking for dungeons, and they got it.

Reacting to player demands is part of the ecosystem of the MMO service and expected of world facilitators. For over a decade, players have expected to be in the spotlight while making demands of the virtual worlds they inhabit. Again, if rights are expectations, then players can expect the game world to change constantly for the better of players in ways that the players themselves want, like the new dungeon finder loot roll rule for BoE items, as well as ways Blizzard feels the game world will be bettered, like the new Call to Arms feature.

The integrity of data

Finally, Koster's 16th article discusses the virtual equivalent of property concerns within the MMO world, and it rings true today in a very interesting fashion. No, we are not talking about account ownership or your right to sell your account or gold. Rather, Koster's point is that data integrity is important because at the end of the day, all you have are bits and pieces, entries into a spreadsheet that must be calculated the same time, every time, for your character to be consistent.

In 2000, the integrity of character data was something that was a limitation on the services and systems. I remember times when MMOs that I would play would have character purges on characters who were not played in a certain time period to make room for more characters. Nowadays, this concept is completely foreign to WoW, where your characters never leave -- they live in perpetuity, even when you are not paying the access the service.

We can extrapolate new meaning from this right -- players have the right, or expectation, that their data will not be compromised. In the new world of account hacking and account compromises, this seems like a big deal and potentially the most upsetting expectation of all. Blizzard could say that you have the right or expectation to a safe, hack-free user experience, and it does provide authenticators for people who have been hacked and previously did not own one. How, then, do we deal with the expectation that players should not have to worry about hacking and compromises to their accounts? Do we really need to include an authenticator in every box?

Back in the day, the only hack I had to worry about was if my little brother found out the password to my Ultima Online account. These days, I'm a little more paranoid over my WoW account. It has value to me. Maybe it isn't monetary value, but there is value associated with it. The point is that players should (and rightfully so) expect a game world free from that paranoia. Is that to say it's Blizzard's fault? No, of course not. However, as a player, you have the right to know that your account matters and the data associated with it matters as well. So far, I think Blizzard has had a great track record of making sure the people who are hacked are made whole.

End of the line

So do players and avatars have rights within the virtual worlds that they occupy? Absolutely. They are enumerated in every code of conduct, terms of use, and EULA that ever passes you by before you quickly hit "I Accept." Raph Koster's articles of avatar rights might not be all relevant these days, but they still ring true to a notion that players could and should have expectations about the virtual worlds they inhabit, and those expectations become those players' rights.

Maybe that's why so many MMOs have failed after World of Warcraft's success. The players' demands for large amounts of content, the right to have an expansive marketplace for auctions and commerce, and the expectations that have dominated the landscape of World of Warcraft and Blizzard's willingness to provide it has created a very hostile MMO environment. This is not because of the costs associated or the perceived-static user base, but because players have actually been trumpeting the demand for the rights they believe they deserve -- bug-free games, consistent content, clear rules, some type of playstyle for everyone, and data integrity.

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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