Why Virtual Worlds Matter

Why Virtual Worlds Matter

Angela Adrian (University of Bournemouth, UK)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-61520-795-4.ch010

Abstract

To return to the quote which began this book, what is man? He has existence. He uses his faculties to improve his existence. He assimilates the world around him. Bastiat labelled these personality, liberty and property. What is an avatar but a manifestation of self beyond the realm of the physical? He has existence in a virtual world. He has a distinct personality. The avatar must use his faculties to improve his existence. He must level himself into a more powerful character to survive in his virtual world. He must have the liberty to become what he wants or needs to become. The avatar assimilates the world around him. By questing and click slavery, an avatar can acquire property. Personality, liberty and property are intrinsic traits of avatars as well as men. And they exist whether laws have been passed by governments or game companies. If there is a world to exist in, then these traits exist and men will want to set limits on them. Gaming identities are becoming indistinguishable from ‘real’ identities – just as e-commerce has become indistinguishable from ‘commerce’. Control over these online avatar identities has real-world consequences. As soon as something is valuable and persistent, people seek to associate rights and duties with it. The questions posed in this book revolved around the ideas of personality (personhood, identity), liberty (freedom v servitude), and property (copyright and intangible property).
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“Existence, faculties, assimilation - in other words, personality, liberty, property - that is what man is.

Of these three things one may say, without any demagogic quibbling, that they are anterior and superior to all human legislation.

It is not because men have passed laws that personality, liberty, and property exist.

On the contrary, it is because personality, liberty, and property already exist that men make laws.”

Frederic Bastiat (1993 trans.)

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Introduction

To return to the quote which began this book, what is man? He has existence. He uses his faculties to improve his existence. He assimilates the world around him. Bastiat labelled these personality, liberty and property. What is an avatar but a manifestation of self beyond the realm of the physical? He has existence in a virtual world. He has a distinct personality. The avatar must use his faculties to improve his existence. He must level himself into a more powerful character to survive in his virtual world. He must have the liberty to become what he wants or needs to become. The avatar assimilates the world around him. By questing and click slavery, an avatar can acquire property. Personality, liberty and property are intrinsic traits of avatars as well as men. And they exist whether laws have been passed by governments or game companies. If there is a world to exist in, then these traits exist and men will want to set limits on them.

Gaming identities are becoming indistinguishable from ‘real’ identities – just as e-commerce has become indistinguishable from ‘commerce’. Control over these online avatar identities has real-world consequences. As soon as something is valuable and persistent, people seek to associate rights and duties with it. The questions posed in this book revolved around the ideas of personality (personhood, identity), liberty (freedom v servitude), and property (copyright and intangible property).

People in the gaming community already focus on their real, rich identities online from a human perspective, and who is in charge of it. Online identities are emergent. Identity is by definition a group project. It is created by the context in which the identified operates. Identity is not a matter of ‘rights’ in the abstract or in advance. Thus, having some centralized one-size-fits-all ‘law of identity’ (and associated rights) does not make sense. The context for identities does not arrive before us fully formed, and different groups have and will continue to have different ways for dealing with identity-removal questions in virtual worlds. (Crawford, 2005)

However, just as the thought of contextual yet customized online avatar identities shaped by its chosen group becomes a norm, it is alarming to learn that the online intermediaries have ‘ownership’ of these online identities. They also have hooks which allow them to remove identities they do not like, as seen in Bragg v Linden Lab. In other words, the ‘gods’ or ‘wizards’ of the virtual worlds are formulating all the rules (or laws) about identity. But because there is no norm of transparency with respect to these laws -- no way for an individual to understand or predict how his/her identity will be treated by the intermediary -- accountability is difficult. The question “who is in charge of who I am?” is not a usual question to pose. Often we prefer to think of ourselves as fully formed by our own actions within our chosen environment. Or, if we think of ourselves as having various role-playing identities, we imagine ourselves to be voluntarily, purposefully role-playing. These assumptions are only partial. In fact, we are constantly bumping up against and watching and learning from everyone around us. Everyone who makes up our ‘group’ has a hand in our identity. We emerge over and over again changed by the interactions we have with that group (or those groups). The duet played by groups and individuals is constant, seamless and endlessly productive of identity.

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