14 years ago the highly regarded designer Raph Koster penned an essay titled Declaration of the Rights of Avatars. In it, he laid out the rights that players should have in virtual worlds. MMORPGs. I’m not sure of the impact it’s had on the development of MMORPGs, but players seem to have a sense of their right to exist within virtual worlds anyway. On the digital frontier, it’s interesting that Koster had the foresight to understand the implications of avatars on our physical well-being.
I’ve summarized the declaration:
- Avatars are created free and equal in rights.
- Avatars should be treated as people, not pixels.
- Authority of the virtual space must proceed from the community; server admins shouldn’t see themselves as gods or tyrants.
- Liberty is the freedom to do things which don’t injure someone else and should be defined in a code of conduct.
- The code of conduct should prohibit actions AND utterances harmful to the community.
- The code of conduct is the will of the community.
- Avatars cannot be unfairly punished and no one, not even administrators, are exempt from punishment.
- Punishments can’t be excessive.
- Avatars are innocent until proven guilty.
- Avatars have freedom of speech as long as the speech doesn’t violate the rights of others or the code of conduct.
- Avatars are responsible for their conduct and must be accountable for it.
- For the administration of the virtual space, some avatars must have special powers.
- Subscription fees are legit as long as they grant all avatars equal rights and no special privileges can be bought.
- Avatars have the right to know what administrators do to maintain the virtual space.
- A virtual community without a code of conduct is lawless.
- Avatars have a right to their digital data; it is their property.
- Avatars have a right to gather in great numbers, limited only by technical capacity.
- Avatars have a right to privacy and shouldn’t be deprived of it.
- This bill of rights shouldn’t be used to abuse avatars.
This frontier is critical. It’s here that the fate of societies for the next 100 years is being decided. We’ll either choose to make them exactly like current societies, or we’ll wake up and see this as the opportunity to do better. Will the things which hold us back in the real world be recreated? Or will we see an opportunity to be free of them, not by ignoring, forgetting or pretending they don’t exist, but by remembering that they do? These questions are the reason talking about structural social issues are a huge deal in the gaming world.
MMOs tend to have codes of conduct published, but you can tell they’re written by the legal team and guided less by ethics than by the need to protect one’s pocket book. But many games really do try to ban bad behavior because it ruins the experience for everyone. Blizzard has a rather broad, but shallow code which covers just about everything. Rift has taken the approach of grading violations by severity, which I find interesting. Wildstar has their own code as well. All three are pretty similar, probably a cut and paste of each other, but with modifications. That’s how similar in wording and spirit they are.
None of them really speak in terms of player rights in the virtual space. Which is interesting for companies who want to sell their players on their virtual worlds. What rights do players have in the virtual space? All any company has to say about that is in the EULA and ToS, which often runs counter to what Koster envisioned (for example, companies deny that players own their digital selves). Don’t you find it interesting MMO developers have nothing to say about player rights within the game?
What distinguishes something like a bill of rights from rote laws is that they tell people what they are permitted to do. They’re like a statement of liberty, almost celebrating rights. The above codes are strictly designed to tell players what NOT to do, and they leave no room for talking about what players can and ought to do in game, and importantly what developers can’t do to players. Imagine if you visited a restaurant and the menu, instead of telling you what’s available to order, told you instead what you could not order. It would be an awkward place to eat, wouldn’t it? Maybe this explains the awkward interactions of players within MMOs, who these days require a tangible reason to interact (raids, dungeons, battlegrounds, etc). It’s as thought players can sense they’re not entirely welcome, like they’re guests in a strange world. How do guests act?
While Koster’s Declaration may have seemed absurd at the time, it was also kind of inevitable when we think about it. Gamers talk everyday about how we treat one another in our games. One of the most important rights according to Koster is the second one:
The aim of virtual communities is the common good of its citizenry, from which arise the rights of avatars. Foremost among these rights is the right to be treated as people and not as disembodied, meaningless, soulless puppets. Inherent in this right are therefore the natural and inalienable rights of man. These rights are liberty, property, security, and resistance to oppression.
We’re people behind the avatars. We should be treated as such by developers and fellow gamers alike. To see the next generation of gamers make the jump even further away from seeing their virtual selves as real shows that on the frontier, we’re not succeeding at advancing human rights. In fact, in the virtual space those rights are receding as players and developers see their behavior in games as insignificant and unreal.
Will griefing and harassment still be seen as necessary evils in open worlds? Will the Tribunal of League of Legends evolve into a more complex and more successful tool for policing communities? Will representation finally be seen as important? That all depends on developers taking social issues within their games seriously. Few developers see their trade as a serious thing it seems. They sincerely believe “it’s just a game” and “game” means something completely unreal, inconsequential, non-life changing, pure shits and giggles. Yet they post a code of conduct for MMOs as if acknowledging the damage player behavior can do. So which is it?
MMO developers are slightly better than other genres in this case, but they also still tend to reduce players to mere pixels in their virtual worlds. Pointing out the lack of diversity in a game or discrimination are seen as making a big deal out of something that’s fake. Even MMO developers, in the end, adopt the stance that in-game experiences are ultimately not real. They therefore think trollish behavior a nuisance at worse, instead of seeing it as a very serious problem for their players. Emotions and experiences are never virtual.
And what about the rights of developers? Can’t they make whatever they want? I think a better question is should developers make whatever they want without regard for it’s impacts on players. And to me the answer is clearly no. They can’t do whatever they want any more than the rest of us can. That doesn’t mean there’s no room for plenty of creativity and freedom. I think that’s why many developers tend to err on the side of “its just a game” kind of thinking, because that line of reasoning is it’s own justification for doing whatever they want. It can always be written off as unreal and insignificant.
Still, I think the Declaration is only recently becoming more important. With VR well underway, we’re approaching the moment where our avatars will require digital rights in order to protect ourselves. If the digital frontier is to become anything relevant, it can’t be a place without consequence. On the contrary, it has to be a place of pure consequence.
Scree Tags: #playerrights #digitalfrontier #MMORPG