We the Avatars

Mark Wallace | 20 Sep 2005 08:04
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This is how governments are born. Remember the Boston Tea Party? That was an economic protest, and one of the key moments in the run-up to the American Revolution. I doubt the Argent Revolution is going to come along anytime soon and set up its own sovereign nation on Blizzard's servers, but the laws governing cyberspace have yet to be written.

Residents of non-game virtual worlds like Second Life find themselves even deeper in the fray, due to their explicit ownership of the intellectual property rights to the things of that online world. Whenever Linden Lab tweaks the Second Life economy, in-world protests break out. Given the many profitable businesses that are run in SL, its Terms of Service has become quite a contentious document. Economic changes and inconsistencies of enforcement have a significant impact on some SL residents' real-world incomes. But like all the rest, SL's ToS says the company can do as it likes.

Sooner or later, this is going to have to change. There will always be game worlds where we agree to give up any say in how they're run in order to get a stable amount of fun out of them. But in non-game virtual worlds and even in some game worlds, players are going to demand more of a voice as those worlds become more deeply entwined with the physical world. Who knows? Maybe one day we'll find ourselves electing representatives to some kind of players' parliament that will be responsible for tweaking loot drops or deciding whether warrior crits do too much damage?

This is pretty far-out stuff, but think of that virtual Consumer Price Index for a moment. There's a reason game companies don't make that kind of information public. As soon as they do, there's going to be a group of gamers somewhere saying, "We're paying you all this money; what are you doing about inflation?" And if it happens in a world that recognizes the value of game currency, the courts could decide that the company had better do something about it after all.

That in itself is a pretty significant (if small) step toward some kind of new legal and/or governmental take on virtual worlds. In the real world, we pay taxes as part of a deal to insure against a "lead designer" coming in and tweaking the economy whenever he wants in order to balance the "gameplay" of our world. Alan Greenspan has a lot of influence over the economy, but that's only because we the people decided he should. Sooner or later, we the avatars are going to have to decide what kinds of virtual worlds we want to live in.

Those virtual worlds will probably never work quite the same way as our physical world, but they're certainly headed in the same direction. How far down the road they come to rest remains to be seen. Places like Roma Victor, Project Entropia and Second Life are pushing them to the next step. The step after that will be largely up to you.

Mark Wallace is a journalist and editor residing in Brooklyn, New York, and at He has written on gaming and other subjects for The New York Times, The New Yorker, Details and many other publications.

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