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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.

Can you be a citizen of a virtual world? That's the question that I keep asking myself, whenever anyone tells me about the wonder of multiplayer online games, especially Second Life, the virtual world that is more creative playground than game.

These worlds invite us to take up residence in them, to invest time (and sometimes money) in them. Second Life encourages you to make stuff using their scripting engine and sell it in the game. You Own Your Own Mods -- it's the rallying cry of the new generation of virtual worlds, an updated version of the old BBS adage from the WELL: You Own Your Own Words.

I spend a lot of time in Disney parks. I even own a share of Disney stock. But I don't flatter myself that I'm a citizen of Disney World. I know that when I go to Orlando, the Mouse is going to fingerprint me and search my bags, because the Fourth Amendment isn't a "Disney value."

Disney even has its own virtual currency, symbolic tokens called Disney Dollars that you can spend or exchange at any Disney park. I'm reasonably confident that if Disney refused to turn my Mickeybucks back into US Treasury Department-issue greenbacks that I could make life unpleasant for them in a court of law.

But is the same true of a game? The money in your real-world bank-account and in your in-game bank-account is really just a pointer in a database. But if the bank moves the pointer around arbitrarily (depositing a billion dollars in your account, or wiping you out), they face a regulator. If a game wants to wipe you out, well, you probably agreed to let them do that when you signed up.

Can you amass wealth in such a world? Well, sure. There are rich people in dictatorships all over the world. Stalin's favorites had great big dachas and drove fancy cars. You don't need democratic rights to get rich.

But you do need democratic freedoms to stay rich. In-world wealth is like a Stalin-era dacha, or the diamond fortunes of Apartheid South Africa: valuable, even portable (to a limited extent), but not really yours, not in any stable, long-term sense.

Here are some examples of the difference between being a citizen and a customer:

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