Friday, June 19, 2009

Virtual Worlds Law at NYLS State of Play

I was in the midst of semi-live blogging about today's State of Play VI conference, when I noticed that Greg Lastowka is already doing a darn thorough job of it over at Terra Nova. Since there's no need to reproduce his notes, I'll just provide you with some highlights and some of my thoughts on what's gone on so far today...see comments section (below) for (possibly) more updates later on.

Biggest highlight so far has been the fact that nearly every speaker so far has mentioned kids' rights and legal/content trickiness in their talks to some degree. Raph Koster's keynote (which largely centered around his current project, Metaplace, a ugc virtual worlds building platform/community, which seems pretty neat) had a bit about kids, the problems (logistical and ethical) of restricting minors, or trying to. He also raised a pretty provocative question re: how "big" does a virtual space need to be to qualify as a world...he gave the example of The Little Prince, whose planet is tiny, but a world nonetheless...which I really liked since I've often struggled with defining (or defending) some of the kids' vw's I look at as truly qualifying as "VWs"

This morning, I also attended the session on virtual worlds law, "Current Legal Issues for Virtual Worlds". Here, Roxanne E. Christ presented a historical typology of UGC, which was a little sketchy, but I liked her categories (if not the categorizations of sites/activities that went with them) - "user-moved content" (space shifting, content shifting, customization), "user-shared content" a.k.a. peer to peer (e.g. napster, grokster, etc.), "user-mashed content" a.k.a. bricollage (YouTube, Jaydiohead, but in here she also talks about sites like Veoh, which stream and allow individuals to post and stream content, but don't actually store files or allow for download...are they protected under Safe Harbour clause of the DMCA?, etc.); and "user-created content". Included in this last category are virtual rooms (like Metaplace), machinima, "mini-me's". She says that the UGC revolution is coming - virtual goods as property, user rights in ugc, the eula as the law, and the ownership and use of player data are all current and ongoing issues of relevance here. In terms of the idea of the EULA as law, Christ says (wow...that is so strange to write in a blog post) that this is probably not realistic - there are already cracks in this system, and it raises the issue of minors contracts. (e.g. she mentions that in California, which has the "Jackie Cooley Law" passed in response to the abuse of child actors in the 1940s, minors contracts are voidable, etc. and so in the case of kids' the EULA can't be the law). She suggests that resolution to this issue might be piggybacked onto privacy laws/policies (which already delineate special rights for kids under 13 years, as well as a special set of responsibilities for sites and data brokers dealing with child users). She even listed the issue of the "capacity of minors to contract" as #1 on her list of top 5 issues that need to be resolved now in relation to UGC. Agreed!

On the same panel, Sean F. Kane (who spoke about drafting better, more comprehensible EULAs) - also addresses minors and the issue of "who is accepting it" as a huge question when dealing with minors, complications between parents and kids, age and consent. He and his panel mate should discuss the ethical and legal problems with suggesting that parents can sign for their kids and provide verifiable adult consent through, say, credit card verification. This might cover some bases, but really doesn't deal with the extra challenges presented by children's own rights of ownership and consent (or at the very least to be protected from exploitation and from adults mismanaging their rights and making decisions that may not be in their interest). Examples such as the "Jackie Cooley Law" [**need to find a link to verify spelling, etc.**) raise the huge importance of approaching children's rights and parents' rights as intertwined but also separate.

Speaking of UGC, mash-ups, etc., I finally had the opportunity to see Brett Gaylor's brilliant, fun, awesomely soundtracked, RIP: A Remix Manifesto...on the planeride here, of all places. Shout to to Air Canada (for the first time ever) for including such innovative selections in its Canadian film section. You can watch it for free online. And show it to your students. Or remix it yourself and add more/new content. very cool.

But anyway, I should get back to conferencing like a good delegate. In the meantime, check for updates on Terra Nova, as well as the NYLS State of Play website (currently down, but should be back up and running soon) for video of the keynotes and at least some of the panels.

Update: Afternoon
The afternoon panels have had quite a different tone from the morning sessions...I've attended the industry panel ("Beyond the Magic Circle", which focused on how intangible and affective digital-game based reward systems can be used as motivators for participation in various communities and/or activities...many of them corporate, it seems), and am now in the midst of the "Economies and Economics" session featuring heavy hitters Julian Dibbell (!) and Edward Castronova (!). An an entire panel on virtual economies and economics might sound dry, but what it really comes down to is property, user struggles, democratic rationalization (in some cases), in others, commercialization of play, and some higher level discussion of the blurring of play and trade. In a sense a great follow up to the discussion on Huizinga's magic circle, in particular the one that took place on the backchannels during the panel and Q&A (in fact, Dibbell states as much himself near the end of his panel intro).

First up, Stephanie Rothenberg, a mixed media artist whose work explores user experience, labour and labour issues, and most recently the academic research of Castronova and Dibbell - how cool is that! Rothenberg presented a piece she created with Jeffrey Krausse, which exhibited at last year's Sundance Film Festival, called Invisible Threads, which uses a virtual sweatshop based in Second Life within an installation piece that people could then interact with "irl". The exhibit aims to explore and represent invisible labour flows, making conceptual and tangible connections between goldfarming (which produce immaterial goods out of real labour) and material sweatshops (which produce material goods out of "hidden" or suppressed labour), as well as "playing" at being a labourer (which seems to be the experience of many of the participants who became labourers in the installation piece virtual sweatshop. (She also recommends checking out this film

Next up, Margaret Wallace from Rebel Monkey, the game design company behind a new virtual world for tweens CampFu. Wallace's talk provided a rare inside look at the discourse, rationale and strategies behind micro-transaction model vw's aimed at kids. She talked about "monetizing engagement", and all the different ways that their company sees user engagement translating into RMT transactions (e.g. Users play together, which makes them want to buy virtual items to show off/communicate to each other; players form teams and make friends, which might make them want to buy gifts for other players, etc.). Like SO many (too many) kids' vw's these days, the game basically offers players the option of playing games or shopping, or else chatting and interacting with other players (community building, social networking, chatting, some collaborative play).

With a look and feel similar to Nicktropolis or BarbieGirls (though with more sophisticated graphics). Wallace describes the game as currently limited to a "sharded experience" environment (i.e. a series of "rooms" term!), but the company plans to switch to a "scrollable world" design in a few months. Wallace reports that even among the players, much of the chat is focused on the goods themselves - avatar customization as fashion statement. Again, like most kids' games, CampFu self-describes as "free-to-play", but really what we're looking at here is a micro-transaction model, in conjunction with a velvet-rope marketing strategy (i.e. we'll let you "in" for free, but you can only access the good stuff if you pay for it). They even have a segregated "two currencies" system, which Wallace claims was designed to "offer opportunities to everyone to participate" - both those who pay and those who don't or can't. There's a currency that you pay for with real-world or "hard" money, and then there's a "tickets" system. Tickets are the rewards won by playing the mini-games, and can only be used to purchase consumable items (items that expire after a certain number of uses). Th currencies - that you pay for. The tickets are described to be aimed at increasing engagement (and time spent in the site), to "engage players whether they buy or not", as well as "introduce players to virtual currencies" and currency systems, idea of virtual items collection and shopping, in the hopes of fostering future behaviours. Velvet rope + pedagogy of consumption...yikes.

But CampFu doesn't want to miss out on other, more subtle ways of extracting exchange value out of their players. Players can also earn the "FuCash", the game's virtual currency by filling out surveys and "special offers" (not sure what those are) it looks like becoming uninformed participants in market research is the only way to get the FuCash required to buy avatar clothes and other coveted items, other than to buy it with real world money. Wallace showed some graphs demonstrating player participation (although not overall numbers), showing that since the site launched in Feb.09, the average session duration rose from an average of 21 minutes to over an hour (as of May 09). I wonder how their business model is working out, where kids are getting their FuCash (if any) or if they're just using the free components for a novel place to socialize...we'll see.

Andrew Schneider of RMT (Real Money Trading) says that today's black market for virtual items (for real money) has surpassed $2 billion in gross transactions worldwide.

Edward Castronova, in addition to telling us that no one has to use his term "synthetic worlds" when speaking to him about vw's, reasserted the need for some form of official, formal, hopefully democratic delineation of economic relationships within virtual worlds, one that defends user rights as well as those of corporations. It's an old argument, esp. coming from him, but one that certainly needs continued reiteration, particularly now that vw's have become so pervasive...while still using basically the same corporately-biased EULAs and IP (and governance) claims that have dominated the market since he first wrote about all this in 2002. I really liked his tempered delivery, acknowledging the importance of economic recuperation, but also reminding us that market downturn isn't justification for ignoring player rights...hinting that it's in fact further indication that EULA reform (although he doubts that EULAs can provide what they need to, he also thinks its more likely that this type of thing would happen in the market than initiated by governments) and an alternative (player-driven?) discourse for establishing/regulating vw laws and social (incl. economic) relationships is exactly what's called for given the exploitative relationships that so often emerge when corporations are left to regulate themselves. Or at least, that's what I got from it.

And then, in Q&A, Jim Bower, the founder of Whyville zinged the entire panel by championing "kids as the future" of responsible governance and democratically-articulated covenants, pointing to the large Kafai-led project on Whyville players (including this article on cheating in Whyville and "Stealing from Grandma", written by Deborah Fields and Yasmin Kafai, which is fantastic). He also admitted that Whyville is actively and purposefully "training" its players in civic responsibility, which Castronova had a really hilarious and zinging response to, though props to Bower for admitting that his vw is not some neutral, innocuous or so-called "safe" haven, but rather a very ideological and discursive system (social and technological) where players are indeed learning all kinds of rules and norms, not just from the explicitly pedagogical tools, but everything else as well (each other!). Also, funny that no one pointed out that CampFu is putting just as much effort into training its players, in how to want and believe in virtual currency systems and subjectivites of consumption.



Sara M. Grimes said...

More notes on State of Play can be found here:
Might also want to link to this, as it looks to be a great resource all around.

Sara M. Grimes said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Sara M. Grimes said...

Re: Day 2: Simply too much going on throughout the second day to find time to blog it, though once I've had a chance to digest everything (including the panel on Kids and Tweens Virtual Worlds and meeting Erin Hoffman) I'll likely put up a related post.