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Welcome! I am teaching law at St. Petersburg State University and engaged in legal practice with the international law firm Dentons. Major part of my research is connected to virtual worlds and massive multiplayer online games (a broad field which includes Internet law, video game law, virtual law and game studies). My legal practice is focused on providing support to computer game companies. This interest derives from my passion for computer games which I consider as one of the most important cultural artifacts ever created. Please note that this blog conveys my private opinion which is not necessarily shared by any organisations I am associated with. For more formal and detailed introduction please visit my website arkhipov.info which serves more as a 'business card'.

Monday, August 6, 2012

End Of A World: Who To Appeal?

What is in common between such MMORPGs as Tabula Rasa, Acheron's Call 2, Earth Eternal, Star Wars Galaxies and some others?

All of them are SHUT DOWN by now (by the way, I was surprised to know that the first Acheron's Call is still running!).

What can a lawyer say looking at this situation?

There is a commonplace in legal theory - the division between "is" (how it is currently regulated) and "ought" (how it should be).

"Is": usually we have a kind of agreement made by and between a game provider and each separate player, some case law in some jurisdictions and a lot of big black holes of law. Typical terms of service does not provide any guarantees, and legally speaking most players take much risk by playing a game. The more money a player pays for a game, the more risk this entails - the world may be shut down, or the player may be banned permanently. He/she loses all money and time invested, in many cases without any reimbursement. This is not to mention that near to 99,9% of the providers consider players' rights to virtual objects as limited and recallable licenses given out to players.

The outcome is that the players are entitled to legally NOTHING when their world is shut down. When companies reward players with anything (e.g. subscription to new product), this is made deliberately.

"Ought": no answers can be given here yet, and this appears to be a promising area for research in game studies and virtual law. MMORPGs is a really young part of the reality, and thus mostly unregulated. We could not expect any developments in legal regulation of this field if it had not started to become more and more socially relevant, as the overall playerbase grows and includes more adults which tend to care about what they invest their time and money in, even if it is a hobby. 

However, it may be a matter of some ten years, may be even a bit less (not much less though as the legislation is a time-consuming process) when at least the following aspects, which are usually unveiled at the moment when your world shuts down, are governed by law to reasonable extent:
  • Access to virtual world. The most obvious. Of course, this is arguable and may sound childish, but why not to dream a bit? What if there is some mechanism to "freeze" a virtual world at the brink of death at its current state, drastically limit maintenance and support, but still preserve it? I can imagine a way how it would be possible: computer games are officially recognized as art, hence virtual worlds are considered as objects of art, some of them are considered as masterpieces, and if a private company fails to maintain the world, the state provides protection of (a) this object, (b) consitutional right of citizens to access cultural objects. Be sure that I am most skeptical abouth this way, but who knows...
It may sound less fantastic, if we pay attention to the fact that most shut downs we already had were known in advance and relatively well marketed among players. But definitely Star Wars Galaxies or Tabula Rasa deidicated players may have very different attitude towards this. And just another relevant matter comes up: should players have any rights to demand quality updates which do not ruing the design, and if yes what would be the "quality test"?   
  • Virtual property. Most of the current property law could hardly be applied to virtual objects which you obtain by investing your time (e.g. in raids) or money. Probably, it must not be "property" at all, but then it should be something else, legally fresh and new. I do not think that applying current IP law, which in its core proceeds from the XIX century international treaties, to swords and gold is a perfect way to handle virtual market. And, of course, when you spent a lot of time and effort to obtain virtual property, you will agree that it is not right to lose it for nothing due to consequences of some bad managerial decision. 
There must be more issues to fantasize on, for sure.

I welcome any relevant ideas which I can later summarize and give a legal comment to!