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4/16/2007
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Why Online Games Are Dictatorships

Online games like World of Warcraft and Second Life are absolute dictatorships, where the whim of the companies controlling them is law. Cory Doctorow wonders if it's possible to create a game that's a democracy, where your in-world property is really yours.

In January, 2006 a World of Warcraft moderator shut down an advertisement for a "GBLT-friendly" guild. This was a virtual club that players could join, whose mission was to be "friendly" to "Gay/Bi/Lesbian/Transgendered" players. The WoW moderator -- and Blizzard management -- cited a bizarre reason for the shut-down:

"While we appreciate and understand your point of view, we do feel that the advertisement of a 'GLBT friendly' guild is very likely to result in harassment for players that may not have existed otherwise. If you will look at our policy, you will notice the suggested penalty for violating the Sexual Orientation Harassment Policy is to 'be temporarily suspended from the game.' However, as there was clearly no malicious intent on your part, this penalty was reduced to a warning."

Sara Andrews, the guild's creator, made a stink and embarrassed Blizzard (the game's parent company) into reversing the decision.

In 2004, a player in the MMO EVE Online declared that the game's creators had stacked the deck against him, called EVE, "a poorly designed game which rewards the greedy and violent, and punishes the hardworking and honest." He was upset over a change in the game dynamics which made it easier to play a pirate and harder to play a merchant.

The player, "Dentara Rask," wrote those words in the preamble to a tell-all memoir detailing an elaborate Ponzi scheme that he and an accomplice had perpetrated in EVE. The two of them had bilked EVE's merchants out of a substantial fraction of the game's total GDP and then resigned their accounts. The objective was to punish the game's owners for their gameplay decisions by crashing the game's economy.

In both of these instances, players -- residents of virtual worlds -- resolved their conflicts with game management through customer activism. That works in the real world, too, but when it fails, we have the rule of law. We can sue. We can elect new leaders. When all else fails, we can withdraw all our money from the bank, sell our houses, and move to a different country.

But in virtual worlds, these recourses are off-limits. Virtual worlds can and do freeze players' wealth for "cheating" (amassing gold by exploiting loopholes in the system), for participating in real-world gold-for-cash exchanges (eBay recently put an end to this practice on its service), or for violating some other rule. The rules of virtual worlds are embodied in EULAs, not Constitutions, and are always "subject to change without notice."

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