Virtual Capital Punishment

The Main Page - A Review

Governance Structures Found in Several Different Text-Based Online Communities

Ethical and Social Problems that Arise in Online Communities

Identities and Social Interactions in MUDs

Online Gaming Communities and Their Governance Structures

How do online gaming communities deal with troublesome members? One of the most commonly used tools of an admin is some sort of player-elimination command, such as kicking the offending player from the server. Only in severe cases would administrators take more drastic measures. In LambdaMOO, the drastic measure is toading, or deletion, of an offending player’s account and banning the player from connecting to LambdaMOO. Such a measure is rare, and given the amount of emotional investment in a LambdaMOO character by the player, considered quite drastic by its inhabitants. 

So is it ethically right to kill an account and destroy a character? In games where the players do not have persistent characters or own persistent in game objects, this is a non-issue. But in MMOs, where players may have invested years into a character, such a punishment is truly devastating. Fortunately, for symmetry, acts punishable by virtual death are often quite dangerous. Cracking and exploiting the security in LambdaMOO would quickly bring the wrath of the wizards down upon the player. A toading would almost be guaranteed since the wizards’ first priority is to maintain the world’s stability. Likewise, in many other MMOs, such as Blizzard’s World of Warcraft, will close an account if the player of the account has been repeatedly and maliciously exploiting bugs in the game or has been using dangerous third-party software. Such actions, as their website states, can bring the server down or cause harm to other characters. The more damage the action can do to the stability of the community, the more likely it will cause the death of the character. 

Death of the character is just that, the death of a virtual self. The player might be temporarily saddened by the loss of an identity, but then the player’s body and, normally, his psyche did not suffer irreparable damage. Real life execution on the other hand, is permanent. Thus, killing malicious characters is not the same as executing criminals, and thus should not suffer the same ethical dilemmas that the latter does. As cyber journalist Julian Debbell puts it, online gaming communities are like proms: everyone is expected to be on their best behavior and the organizers reserve the right to ban anyone they need to ban. 

But perhaps the ethical issue lies not in whether destroying the character is moral, but rather in what happens to the character’s belongings. In destroying a character account, one also destroys what it created in its time in the game. In LambdaMOO for instance, many players spend time creating extensions to the MUD. Some created new rooms other created objects that other player can carry around and use. Debbell for instance, created a garden for his fellow MOOers. If by deleting the character, one also prevents access by the player to the player’s works, would that be considered stealing? The right to property is an interest explicitly protected in the Constitution. And it is certainly the case that property does not have to be tangible; the value of stocks for instance, lies not in how much the tangible paper is worth, but instead in its representation of one’s stake in a company. 

But consider the following. There are two types of creation in games. One is the creation of other game objects using code provided to the player by the organizer. For example, the World of Warcraft user agreement section three explicitly states that all code and objects, including the magical cloak one’s character tailored, in the game are properties of the licensor. This is hardly a controversial stance since the player is basically using the game’s properties to instantiate a pre-made object that was already stored in the game. But in places that allow more creative freedom, such as in LambdaMOO, where one can manipulate code itself to create new objects, the issue is a bit less one-sided. So on one hand, the player does have a right to his or her in-game creation if it indeed was created, and not instantiated from in-game pre-made code, under US copyright law if nothing else. On the other hand, one has to remember that the creation, on some physical level, is built from the bytes of the game organizer’s server, to which the organizer never gave up property rights. So if the player owns the creation at an intangible level, the organizer owns the physical bytes. Thus, both should have a say in the future of a piece of code. This is joint ownership and disputes would have to be settled with compromises between the game organizer and the expelled player. This problem may be avoided if ownership issues is settled when the player joins the community. Similar to some university’s copyright policies, in which sometimes an author’s request for institutional resources is so large that the university feels compelled to negotiate joint ownership of the result, a game organizer can state up front what the policy on who owns what in-game. 

Recommended Readings:

Dibbell, Julian. My Tiny Life: crime and passion in a virtual world. New York 1998
Chapters 1 and 3 specifically deal with crime and punishment