On The Virtual Rights of Avatars, Part I - Avatars are Not Free and Equal

14 years ago Raph Koster, author of A Theory of Fun for Game Design, lead designer of Ultima Online and creative director of Star Wars Galaxies, penned an article called Declaring the Rights of Avatars. In this article he conducted a thought experiment in which he created an avatar's Bill of Rights, using the 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man as his template. In this experiment he penned an alternative version in which he substituted avatar for citizen, and imbued avatars with a host of rights approximating the human rights articulated in the original bill. This bill states that "avatars are created free and equal"; that such avatars have inalienable rights to "liberty, property, security and resistance to oppression"; institutes habeas corpus; protects freedom of speech and assembly; and so on.

My intent in this article is to criticise the bedrock of this virtual bill, namely the concept that all avatars are created free and equal. I would also like to question the wisdom of becoming a virtual citizen, and argue that it is better to remain as a player/consumer rather than to adopt a social contract as envisioned by such a Bill of Rights. Koster's essay was brought to my attention by an article penned by Doone of XP Chronicles, who uses Koster's name as an authority in order to promulgate his own version of an avatar Bill of Rights both on his blog and on the NBI Couch Podtatoes podcast. After reading both articles carefully, however, it is clear that their arguments are substantially different from each other. While Koster ultimately comes to the conclusion that an avatar's Bill of Rights is untenable and incoherent, Doone embraces it wholeheartedly and without reservation. Koster writes:

But there's also some other folks who think that this exercise is plain dangerous. As an example, let me take a co-worker of mine to whom I showed an early draft. He pointed out that virtual world servers run on somebody's hardware. And that most declarations of rights give rights over personal property. By declaring that avatars have rights, we're abrogating that administrator's right to personal property.

I, for one, do not accept the basic premises outlined in this virtual bill, and in the course of this article, I hope to show you why.

Human Rights versus Avatar Rights

I was interested in reading Doone's article because I was hoping for a systemic rebuttal of all the objections raised by Koster and the developers he had interviewed for his paper. After all, 14 years have passed and even Koster leaves open the possibility that changing circumstances could invalidate his initial conclusion:

Instead, Doone's argument completely ignores all of these objection (his sole reference to these objections is a single line saying that “the idea seemed far-fetched at the time”), and adopts a humanistic argument as a means of justifying an avatar Bill of Rights. This is what Koster does, too, but unlike Doone, he realises that this proposition is highly problematic. Doone argues that we are people behind avatars, that avatars haveimplications on our physical well-being, and that emotions are real. In short, he is using our universal humanity as a basis for fundamental rights in the virtual world much in the same way the authors of the Declaration of Man used it as a basis for fundamental rights in the real world.

Avatars are Contingent on Developers

This idea is misconceived in my view, due to the fundamental differences between the nature of avatars and our “meatbag” selves, as well as the differences between virtual space and the real world we live in. An obligation of rights, as set out in Koster and Doone's document, isn't simply a code of conduct. It re-conceptualises avatars as citizens in a synthetic world, with rights and responsibilities. I find it difficult to accept the underlying premise behind an avatar Bill of Rights, namely that “avatars are created free and equal.” If each of us were entitled to make one (and only one) avatar to represent ourselves in one virtual world this Bill might have more substance, because it would more closely reflect the existing conditions which frame human rights in the real world. Human rights are a powerful idea because the axioms underpinning them are universal – we are all the same species, we only have one life, and we live it together in this world. Avatars, on the other hand, are numerous, disposable, have different justifications for being, are created across multiple worlds, and their existence is contingent on the continuing operation of the servers which house their data. Ask the avatars of Warhammer Online, City of Heroes and Vanguard: Saga of Heroes where their rights went. Into the ether when their MMOs were shuttered, that's where. Avatars cannot exist outside the imaginary world which brings them into being, and these imaginary worlds in turn are dependent upon real life considerations such as continued server operation and support from “meatbag” space. Our mundane real life selves, on the other hand, exist beyond the boundaries of these virtual worlds, which is all the more reason why any discussion on player rights should ground themselves in our status as players/consumers, rather than in our avatars.

Avatars are Contingent on Players

Avatars are also contingent on a far more fundamental sense in that they require our focused attention to achieve things in the game world. Avatars require animus, a driving spirit to give them agency and purpose. Without our real selves our avatars are puppets without puppeteers, as useless as marionettes with their strings cut. It is the work that we do in real life which imbues our avatars with value. Left to his own devices, my paladin in WoW would sit next to the mail box in Stormwind until the server collapsed around him, inert, mute, and utterly useless. By contrast my body is always inhabited by my consciousness. There is a continuity and singularity in my experiences which avatars don't have, which is another reason why we should privilege player rights over avatar rights, and why human rights are important while avatar rights are not. Given the disproportionate time I spend between not just alts of the same game, but also between avatars in other games, I find it hard to take seriously the notion that all avatars are created free and equal. If we look at avatars this way it can be argued that avatars are just a series of sock puppets which require a puppeteer to give them motive and motion. Why give them rights at all? The common sense approach is to bestow rights on the motivating force behind the puppets, namely the puppeteer him/herself.

The Price of Virtual Citizenship

Koster recognised the contingent nature of avatars in his original paper, and in fact incorporates this idea into his version of an avatar Bill of Rights. He states:

Contrast this with Doone's summary, which completely omits any reference to the contingent nature of avatars:

On what basis can we argue that authority must proceed solely from the community? After all, there wouldn't be a virtual community if developers didn't spend money and time to create these virtual worlds. Presumably developers are humans, too, and enjoy the same rights and privileges that players have. On what basis can we impose on their rights? Because we're people? Developers are people too, so don't these two ideas cancel each other out? On what basis do we privilege the player's humanity over the developer's humanity? After all, they risk more in terms of time and money invested – check out this article on the trials and tribulations of an independent developer for an inside look at the costs associated with game development. On the other hand, no one disputes a gamer's right to pick and choose the games they want to play. It smacks of entitlement to impose further obligations on developers while maintaining the freedom of players to move from game to game with impunity. Active citizenship in the real world is not limited to rights, but also encompasses the related notion of responsibility. I cannot see how we can impose further obligations on developers without imposing a correlating duty on the players themselves. If a developer acts in good faith and upholds the rights outlined in this Bill, does this create an obligation on players to maintain their subscription in a game? What if I don't like the game anymore? Can I just leave? Surely that makes a mockery of the notion that I am a virtual citizen with rights, since I can just leave anytime I want? Can I have rights without responsibility? I certainly don't think so.

There's also the problem of transience and obsolescence. It makes no sense to create a social contract in a game I'm only going to play for a few days, discard, and then never play again. It is an inevitable fact of life that games grow old and obsolete. Do developers have an obligation to maintain dying, unprofitable and unpopular games by virtue of player's rights? More importantly, should players be obliged to support an ageing game because they are virtual citizens? Are we willing to relinquish our freedom to pick and choose what game we want to play in exchange for a social contract envisioned by an avatar Bill of Rights? The issue of Free to Play games also adds an interesting twist to the idea of equality. Should players who pay to play (and therefore help support the infrastructure of the game) be given proportionally more rights? Consider this:

A social contract is a weighty thing, and it requires concessions from both sides. The question then becomes whether or not both sides are willing. If there is one thing that is clear from the developers interviewed in Koster's paper, it is that developers DO NOT want to cede any ground at all, and if they do so, it is usually because they are compelled to by outside factors such as economics, politics and law. More fundamentally, however, I do not see any kind of wide-spread grass roots movement on the part of gamers to create a type of social contract envisioned by this virtual Bill of Rights. I certainly don't want to become a citizen in a virtual world because I want to preserve my status as a player/consumer. Simply put, I have more power as a consumer than I would have as a virtual citizen. There is a reason why we privilege players over the developers but this reason is not rooted in human rights. It is rooted in the capitalist relationship between buyer and seller, producer and consumer, and developer and player. Human rights in the real world are precious and worth fighting for, simply for the reason that real people cannot choose to log out of their lives (except as a tragic and wasteful final act of dissolution), and the world they are trapped in is the only one they have. Gamers have the luxury of picking and choosing their worlds, and as one developer pointed out in Koster's essay, “the one real right they incontrovertibly have is the right to log off.” Out of this truism flows a tremendous amount of power. Developers cannot make you play a game against your will, and in fact, compete with one another for your time and money.

If we choose to remain as players and consumers we maintain a number of advantages while remaining under the protection of the rights we already have in the real world. We stay beholden to no developer, we remain unshackled, unfettered and completely free to migrate from game to game. A consumer has more power than a citizen – we are completely free to walk away from oppressive, totalitarian regimes with impunity. Article 3 in Doone's declaration states that “developers cannot be gods or tyrants.” Is it possible to be a god or tyrant when your subjects can just say “kiss my ass” and walk away? If a citizen under the regimes of Pol Pot, Stalin, or Kim Jong Il tried to say the same thing, they would have ended up in a mass grave with a bullet to the back of the head. More fundamentally, however, games remain a domain of expression, and their variety and scope are not limited by a universal document which, depending on the severity of its terms, may preclude certain types of gameplay or virtual worlds.

Freedom of Choice

Some people find certain types of gameplay unpalatable to their tastes, and many times appeals to universal principles are actually just thinly disguised attacks on specific types of games. Doone calls all EVE players sociopaths, has a binary “you are either with me or against me” outlook (i.e. you're a cynic if you don't look at games the way Doone does, and if you're not socially active in the spheres Doone considers important then you are part of the problem), and despises open world PvP. My own approach is more to let the players decide what they want to play, and let market forces and player tastes govern the virtual worlds we inhabit. The results might not pan out according to your own preferences (i.e. the most popular game in the world is a PvP MOBA with a reputation, deserved or otherwise, for toxicity), but isn't that democracy and freedom of expression at work? I can't stand Justin Bieber, but I don't begrudge people who like him and his brand of crappy music. Whatever happened Voltaire's 17th century maxim, “I don't agree with what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it?” Couldn't we expand this maxim to include games, and come up with a re-purposed statement of freedom of expression which reads, “I don't agree with what you play, but I will defend to the death your right to play it?” As long as I don't hurt anyone else, and consume my own brand of poison with other consenting adults, then you have no right (there's that word again) to tell me what to play, or how to play, or who to play with. Even trolling is protected by the tenets of free speech, even if it is idiotic, ignorant and devoid of any redeeming qualities. The price of freedom is having to put up with morons and slackers, as Gevlon would put it. If you think having to put up with dissenting, contradictory and inflammatory opinions are the sole province of the Internet, you are dead wrong. Politicians, lawyers, scientists, journalists, philosophers and the like have been trolling each other since time immemorial. Two time British Prime Minister Disraeli once said of his opponent Gladstone (himself a four time British Prime Minister): “The difference between a misfortune and a calamity is this: if Gladstone fell into the Thames, it would be a misfortune. But if someone dragged him out again, that would be a calamity.” It's a little more verbose than the common Internet epithet “die in a fire”, but this kind of discourse has been going on since the birth of democracy and free speech, and society has not yet crumbled into a heap because of it.

A Universal Bill for a Multiplicity of Worlds?

Virtual space at this point is not a unified realm sitting parallel to reality, but rather a series of fragmented spaces governed by wildly different norms. The cultural norms governing A Tale in the Desert are completely different from those that are commonly found in EVE Online and Darkfall. There are a multitude of possible virtual worlds out there, and they vary widely in scope, setting and expectations. Why then, would we try to impose a universal document on a multiplicity of worlds, each with their own norms and justifications for existence? A corollary of our right to log off is our right to choose the virtual worlds which appeal to us, and the people we associate with. There are no real impediments to people creating the kind of communities within virtual spaces which promulgate a world view in accordance with their own. Every modern MMO offers a variety of social tools such as guilds, friends lists, ignore lists, reporting systems and specialised PvE/PvP/RP servers to allow players to develop communities according to their tastes. This doesn't mean however, that these kinds of communities should be adopted universally across virtual spaces, because it would actually serve to limit the scope of the virtual multiverse. I always prefer to err on the side of freedom of expression, and I fear that a universal document may be anathema to this.

I can understand the argument for codes of conduct tailored to specific worlds, and which incorporate both the player and the developer in its clauses. This is, in fact, what happens in the real world. Human rights as we know them evolved in very specific circumstances, namely in the backdrop of our shared humanity and the singular nature of the world we occupy. There are so many fundamental differences between the real and the virtual that a basic importation of rights from real to virtual doesn't always make sense. I'm pretty sure the sanctions placed on murder would be relaxed in real life if all of us just respawned at a shrine point whenever we died, while the ancient prescription of "Thou shalt not kill" would seem ridiculous in Destiny, Titanfall or Planetside 2. A better way is to approach each world on a case by case basis, and hammer out a negotiated settlement which pleases the majority on both sides. Once again, the prescient Koster incorporates this into his own bill:

Contrast this to Doone's version:

Once again Doone completely omits developers in his “summary”. For someone who trumpets human rights he is awfully quick to trample on the rights of developers by writing them out of his version of the Bill. Doone makes two mistakes when citing Koster. The first is completely writing developers out of his version of an avatar Bill of Rights. While Koster's version sounds like a reasonably inclusive document, Doone's just reads as a statement of player entitlement. The second mistake he makes is that he believes that Koster was in earnest when proposing an avatar Bill of Rights. What Koster is arguing is that following a code of conduct based on the principles similar to those espoused in avatar bill of rights is good business for developers because they “are solid administrative principles in terms of practical effect”. Koster writes that "having a clear code of conduct for both players and admins has been shown to make running the space go smoother overall." He is not arguing for an avatar Bill of Rights per se, nor is he advocating player rights at the expense of the developers, something which seems to have sailed over Doone's head when he quotes the article. Koster writes that “the real point of a document like this would be to see how many admins would sign, not how many players”, and concludes that “I'm not seriously proposing that we declare the rights of avatars” because the concept is “riddled with gotchas and logical holes”. As a developer Koster knows that players are an entitled bunch, and his concern is on how to convince developers on his side of the fence to adopt a set of principles, which in his view, make good business sense. It amuses me to see Koster's foresight in predicting that "I don't doubt that there's some folks out there right now seizing on this as an important document" without actually understanding what Koster is actually trying to achieve. Doone does just that, picking out the bits he liked, then using Koster's name as an authority for his own version of avatar rights without ever addressing any of the objections raised by Koster himself, or actually understanding what Koster was trying to do.

Player Rights, not Avatar Rights

I'm not arguing that players don't have rights. They certainly do, and in the future when I have the time and inclination I would like to look at the source of these rights and their application in virtual spaces. I don't disagree with Doone when he says that there are real people behind avatars, and yes, people have feelings and they can be hurt during the process of online interactions. I just wanted to focus on one of the “gotchas and logical holes” Koster refers to, namely the proposition that all avatars are created free and equal. They are not, and any argument which depends on this axiom fails to understand the fundamentally contingent nature of avatars and the virtual worlds which they inhabit. There may come a time where the proposition may not be so far fetched, and that will be the day when our online activities are pooled under the auspices of one easily identifiable avatar which is linked irrevocably to our personal identity outside virtual space. This is another argument entirely, but even in this scenario it seems more efficient just to extend rights and protection from our "meatbag" selves into virtual reality, rather than doubling up and creating a redundant set of rights for our avatar as well. Avatars, in their most common incarnation in games to date, aren't free – they are contingent on both the player and developer and the continued running of the servers which house their data. Nor are they equal – we allocate our time between our avatars differently, and even in the same game not all avatars are treated equally. The cost of maintaining an avatar also varies from game to game, as evidenced by the differing pay models of F2P and subscription. I'm not against the idea of a type of social contract, specific to each game and tailored to the demographics which inhabit that particular universe. What I am against however, is a universal contract based on a maxim which fails to take into account the multiplicity inherent in virtual worlds, and the fundamentally contingent nature of avatars themselves.