Volume 3, Issue 2
2nd Quarter, 2008

The Rights of Avatars

Dr. William Sims Bainbridge

Page 3 of 5

However, There is a generalized virtual world that adults might want to use for many purposes quite unrelated to children, so the aim of protecting youngsters limits the rights of grown-ups.  Second Life has taken a different approach to the problem, combining a set of global community standards with sets of local standards.  Notably, areas are distinguished as Mature (M) or non-Mature (PG): "Content, communication, or behavior which involves intense language or expletives, nudity or sexual content, the depiction of sex or violence, or anything else broadly offensive must be contained within private land in areas rated Mature (M)."[1]

Rights are social constructions, so they are relative to the social system and the status of the individual in that system.  Today, the rights of avatars (and the people behind them) vary across different virtual worlds. The laws and customs of the host societies shape these differences.  For example, recently the US government closed down the gambling houses in Second Life.

Rights are relative.  For example, an online game world called Roma Victor, which seeks to duplicate historical Roman Britain, advertised it was going to crucify one of the characters, something that modern societies consider to be cruel and unusual punishment. World of Warcraft, which like many games endorses killing enemies by sneak attack, prohibits foul language and would not let me enter the word "bitch" into the text chat even when I was discussing dogs.  My point is that the rights, rules and regulations may differ from one virtual world to another.  The same may also be true, for instance, for other biological or robotic substrates in which our future avatars may live.

The rights of an avatar are not the same as the rights of the associated person.  (When people erase avatars of themselves is that suicide, homicide, or infocide?)  The rights of a computer-generated avatar depend not only upon law and ethics, but also upon technical and economic factors, and the interplay among all of these. Laws related to avatars are often established by corporations and users rather than governments.  Today, most avatars are puppets, operated in realtime by a person.  Increasingly, they can be operated by artificial intelligence systems that mimic the person – autonomous cybernetic clones or cyclones.

Rights are obligations.  You may think of them as obligations that other people or the State has to you, but rights and obligations are inseparable.  When Maxrohn would go questing, whether with fellow members of the Winged Ascension guild or with strangers he had only recently met, he had the obligation to use his healing powers to protect them.  When a guild discovers that a particular member is untrustworthy, it can expel him.  This does not mean the death of a character, because characters are not required to belong to guilds, and it is always possible that another guild would admit him.  Maxrohn had actually started out in the Shadow Clan guild, a perfectly fine guild, and he performed as a perfectly fine member.  However, my research plan required him to move, so he left Shadow Clan and labored over a period of days to prove himself to Winged Ascension, before this second guild invited him to membership.  Thus, avatars can move from one social group to another.  However, at present, it is difficult and often impossible for an avatar to move from one world to another.

Migration Rights

In both business circles and computer science, a topic of lively discussion today is the issue of migration rights.  To be able to go from one virtual world to another is not currently possible.  Technically, legally, and economically I cannot transfer Maxrohn from World of Warcraft into Second Life.  It is possible to move a WoW character between two of the roughly 500 identical copies of the world hosted by different server computers, which are called realms.  In January 2008, I paid $25, which struck me as an entirely reasonable fee, to move him from the Shandris realm to the Earthen Ring realm, so he could have a duel to the death against Catullus, who was already there.  Similarly, I paid $25 to move Catullus from one WoW account to another - while keeping him on the same realm - so he could interact with his bride, Lunette, because only one character can be online from a single account at any given time.  Second Life does possess a World of Warcraft area, where fans have duplicated some of WoW's architecture, but WoW and SL are about as different technically as they could possibly be, so there is no easy way to let Maxrohn meet Interviewer Wilber.  Writing in the New York Times, Steve Lohr suggests that this may change in the near future:

Virtual worlds may be freewheeling environments where cyber-behavior is unconstrained by many terrestrial mores. But they are also gated communities, and the gates keep the digital denizens locked inside. I.B.M. and Linden Lab, the creator of Second Life, think it’s time to free the avatars... [T]he two companies are announcing plans to develop open standards that will allow avatars to roam from one virtual community to the next. The goal is let a person create a digital alter-ego that can travel to many virtual worlds, keeping the same name, look and even digital currency. The companies speak of “a truly interoperable 3D Internet.” Think of it as passports for avatars. So that pink-headed cutie you made for Second Life can also take up residence in There.com, The Lounge, Virtual Laguna Beach and Entropia, for example.[2]

Realm changing in World of Warcraft became a very hot issue for me when I found myself organizing the first major scientific conference inside WoW, May 9-11, 2008.  The inspiration came from John Bohannon, who creates the monthly Gonzo Scientist feature for the highly respected publication, Science, who in turn was inspired by an article I wrote about the scientific potential of virtual worlds that had been featured on the cover of the journal.[3] I quickly invited all the scholars and scientists who had studied World of Warcraft, and began preparing my own resources.

The primary challenge for participants was how to establish an avatar belonging to the Horde faction in the Earthen Ring realm.  Many were experienced players, but their characters were on other realms. Not only would it cost $25 to move one over, but the character could not be moved back to its original home for 30 days.  The primary alternate was to create a new character in the Horde on Earthen Ring, which would not cost dollars if the participant already had a North American account, but could cost time and effort to develop the character through questing to give it the strength to travel to the different conference virtual locations.  Furthermore, the many European participants could not access the realm from their European accounts, and were forced to get additional North American accounts at a cost equivalent to about $55.  These are not huge sums, and much less than the cost of travel to a real-world conference, but still make the point that migration in virtual worlds is both costly and limited.

Exploiting the best social and communications tools in WoW necessitated creating a guild, which I named Science, and inviting all the participants to join.  To help those who needed to create new characters, I prepared a starter pack for each member consisting of virtual gold, a useful carrying bag, a scientific laboratory animal, a telescope, a ceremonial guild tabard, and a souvenir shirt.  Unlike the case with Second Life, in WoW one cannot design things from scratch, but only assemble things from set components.  However, there was a trick that let us put a slogan on the shirt.  As a personification of the conference, I created a female Blood Elf hunter and gave her the name of the journal's website, Sciencemag.  She acquired tailoring skills, and made about 250 red shirts, all carrying the tag, "Made by Sciencemag."

To help with the work, including making the 250 telescopes, I decided to move to Earthen Ring a level 30 character I already had in the Scarlet Crusade realm.  He belonged to the Tauren race, a kind of intelligent cattle, and I had given him the very appropriate name, Minotaurus.  When I tried to move him, I discovered that there already was another character named Minotaurus on Earthen Ring, which forced me to think up a new name.  Many virtual worlds use the avatar's name to address correspondence, so there is a prohibition about assuming a name that is already taken.  In a way, this asserts the most primary kind of identity right for a character bearing a given name.  There was much discussion at my workplace about what might be computable when human and computer work together, so I named this bovine avatar, Computabull.

At the time I was doing statistical research on thousands of WoW characters, using software called CensusPlus that can count all characters currently online in a given realm.  To do so efficiently, I needed an extra character on my second account, so pretty much at random I had created a female Troll rogue on Scarlet Crusade, letting WoW give her the random name, Zeela.  Deciding a rogue might be interesting for the conference, demonstrating abilities as a thief, I also moved her over.  Again, I had to change the name, and my wife gave the character her own name, Marcya.  Figure 7 shows Sciencemag and Marcya, wearing their Science guild tabards, flanking the artificial intelligence character Thrall, who is the leader of the Horde.  Although this non-player character is rather simple, as artificial intelligence goes, he plays several complex roles in WoW, and a novel describes the character's personality in great detail.[4]  Thus, although Thrall has no player behind him, he is probably more real as a person than either of the ladies in the picture.

Figure 7: Sciencemag, Thrall, and Marcya

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2. Steve Lohr, “Free the Avatars,” October 10, 2007, New York Times online; http://bits.blogs.nytimes.com/.../free-the-avatars/

3. John Bohannon, "Scientists, We Need Your Swords!" Science (18 April 2008) 320, pp. 312; William Sims Bainbridge, "The Scientific Research Potential of Virtual Worlds," Science (27 July 2007) 317, pp. 472-476.

4. Christie Golden, Lord of the Clans (New York: Pocket Books, 2001).


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