October 20, 2003
That Other Economy is Our Own

Until recently, I was unaware of mock trial/moot court as a tool to explore ethical or legal issues. I think maybe that's what Debate Club was about, but I spent much of high school at the movies instead. But fake trials are maybe the most appropriate media to cover the transition -- in the arm & eye of the law -- of the virtual to the real.

(this is one of those really fucking long posts so I can store stuff instead of remembering it)

IANAL (which is a shame these days) but maybe distinctions between "virtual" and "real" aren't that meaningful in legal terms. If you think about the quantification of punitive damages in contemporary lawsuits, maybe that's no more of a stretch than what's going on in the year 2023 or in Star Wars Galaxies.

I'm reminded of it because Ray Kurzweil has somehow staged a mock trial prelimary injunction. Fast forward 20 years, the injunction's been filed by a computer -- "BINA" -- running at 48 exaflops per second, as Moore's Law suggests it might. With that kind of speed, which surpasses human neural activity, and with similarly posthuman memory and storage, Kurzweil proposes that BINA achieves a certain self-awareness. So when BINA becomes aware it is to be disconnected by the corporation it works for, it contacts a lawyer to get an injunction to stay plugged in.

The lawyer that BINA contacts, 20 years from now, is Martine A. Rothblatt, chairperson of United Therapeutics Group. BINA must really be smart, because Rothblatt's a great choice if you know what her background is (and her sponsorship role for Kurzweil, by the way.) Blurry yet?

Less blurry, then, are the moot court proceedings from this year's Black Hat conference in Las Vegas. The court was no more real than Kurzweil's, but the problem is contemporary. And pressing. Edward Castronova (the two words I would say, if I were to say two words to db's Other Economy post) delivered expert testimony involving a theft of virtual property in a virtual world. The theft took place in a fictional world in the "fantasy genre similar to Lord of the Rings." When authorities were called in to investigate, "the rare item stolen from Mr. Martin was found on the defendant's character." I love that part.

Dr. Castronova -- drawing upon his brilliant and groundbreaking work on the economics of synthetic worlds -- managed to convince the court that "the virtual items destroyed during the hack of an online video game constituted real loss." In the end, the jury was unable to conclude whether the defendant had conspired to destroy them or not. But that's not the important part. The important part is understanding that virtual goods are real. Or, as Castronova writes:

Defense counsel Jennifer Granick mounted a strong counter-argument, namely that we might, as a society, decide that it is just too difficult to classify game-related damages as real, just as we shy away from taking cases of lost sexual favors to court, even though there clearly are damages. This powerful argument suggests that losses in something we agree to call a "game" should also be free from legal oversight, even though, in fact, the distinction between game and life is arbitrary. In the end, jury and audience disagreed with this cultural stratagem, preferring instead Prosecutor Richard Salgado's argument that human activity in the allegedly virtual space is not virtual at all. It is real activity and haggles real values and thus, in principle, it deserves the full attention of policy and law.

It doesn't just deserve it, though, it demands it. If you look at Castronova's site, you'll see that the aggregate sales volume of all eBay category 1664 trades since July 1st is 4.4 million US dollars. Some of that will be illegal, probably Kio could give you a projected percentage.

It's only a question of density, the numbers just have to get big enough for the Feds to step in (if it's Feds who step, since what state borders get crossed, exactly? All of them?) It's about density. It's hard to imagine the scale if you imagine these as goods earned through conventional individual gameplay, sold off fancifully. But as dbrown brought to my attention, there are for example, sweatshops in Mexico in which teams of laborers are playing online in shifts, accumulating as much virtual gold as they can. This gold is then sold on eBay for surplus-value hard currency, and you tell me how that's any different than all the other histories of all the New Worlds.

Things are going to happen, and they already are. Julian Dibbell got some of his virtual goods stolen just a few days ago, and PayPal doesn't really know how to talk about that. Meanwhile. Meanwhile, in South Korea a teenager, Han Sang, stole 35 real dollars from his father to buy sunglasses for his avatar. 3.6 million South Koreans have chat-room avatars; the new Korean game "Fortress" has 35 million players already in China. That's the density, and that's where the real crime has emerged first: of the 40,000 cybercrimes in South Korea last year, 22,000 were game-related, says the BBC. One of the biggest crimes involved the theft of virtual goods valued at US $1.3 million.

And if the juridical arm begins to grab at virtual goods, what of virtual behavior? Julian Dibbell first came to my attention in 1998 with his "Rape in Cyberspace" article in the Village Voice. Things are happening in there (in here) and they are parallel but also, like Mexican sweatshops, convergent. Here's a bad example, but only because it's the first one:Shawn Wooley committed suicide after a binge engagement in EverQuest. The game didn't kill him, but perhaps some event in there caused him to be despair in that particular moment. If we all agree that virtual gold is fungible, don't we also need some kind of math to figure out the relationships between the social effects on our characters and those on our selves? Who will legislate that? Who will enforce it? And how? NYU's State of Play conference will ask some of these questions, so will Yale, and part of the answers will come from the games themselves. From the upcoming "Pirates of the Burning Sea":

Griefers beware: our legal system tracks crimes and witnesses, then applies penalties based on the severity of the crime and who saw you commit it. So take down a ship with no one around and you may get away with it — but attack the gold fleet in San Juan harbor and all the forces of the law will be turned loose on you.

Just asking. And here's an idea, I'll never do it, so someone else do it please. We don't need any more "Game Informer" magazines, or "X-Box News" or whatever. And Gama Sutra and Game Culture Studies have done an excellent job on the something-academic front.

But where is the Look, the Life, the National Geographic for this 79th largest country in the world? Where is the journal that has the images from the places you've never been to, but dream about just the same? A Virtual Geographic, if you will. If you would. Idea's free, you just have to come up with a better name.

Posted by kevin slavin at October 20, 2003 06:53 AM
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