Gamers Need a Bill of Rights

Diablo III shows why.

Activision Blizzard Inc.

About a year ago, the video game company Blizzard made a huge announcement about the latest edition of its beloved Diablo franchise: The long-awaited Diablo III would feature an in-game "auction house" where virtual goods could be bought and sold using both the game's gold coins and real-world currency. This was a big change for the Diablo series, and it meant adding a newly stringent forms of digital rights management for players. Gamers would have to be online all the time while playing Diablo III (which had never been the case before), and would be limited in how they could use their auction-house items after buying them.

Long-time fans of the series complained that these changes infringed on their rights. Why should they have to be online while playing the game? What if they don't have access to an Internet connection secure enough to share personal information? And why can't they have more control over items that they bought with their own money? In true Blizzard form, the company refused to budge, maintaining that these changes would revolutionize the way people play games together. Critics have continued to protest Blizzard's new plan, but for real change to occur, gamers themselves need a clearer sense of their own capacity for civic engagement in these virtual worlds.

Diablo III was finally released on May 15th, 2012. It became the fastest-selling PC game of all time and received an impressive number of glowing reviews. But there was a problem, even before the auction house was launched. Players began reporting that their accounts had been hacked and their in-game property—virtual hordes of weapons, armor, and treasure that players had labored countless hours to acquire—had been stolen.

Reading reviews for Diablo III, it's easy to see why people take virtual property so seriously. "The main element in Diablo...isn't really your persona," Seth Schiesel wrote in the New York Times, "It's your equipment." Arthur Gies of Polygon called loot "the beating heart of Diablo III." Mike Schramm explained in Joystiq that the thrill of playing was continuous reward: "That loot, that sweet loot, always falls right into your pack with satisfaction." Even the more critical reviews in PC Gamer, Eurogamer, and Edge all faulted the game for failing to make the loot as satisfying as it was in Diablo II. (In my review I called the loot "tchotchkes" and insisted that the game is still very fun without taking it so seriously.)

The full figures are not available, but Blizzard stated that several thousand users were banned from the game for cheating or hacking. The company released a number of gracious apologies and explanations accounting for performance issues. The launch of the real-money auction house was delayed three separate times, until finally the company unveiled new security measures last week to assure customers that their virtual property would be safe. As of early last week, the real-money auction house is officially live. It's too early to judge the relative success or stability of the platform, but one thing is abundantly clear: Blizzard is poised to reinvent both the internal economics of virtual game worlds and their corresponding precedent for legitimate digital rights management. And, as fellow industry leader Tim Willits said in support of the company, they're using a "juggernaut" title to force gamers to accept this.

The need for gamers to assert their rights becomes immediately apparent now that real money has been introduced to the Diablo world. As Edward Castronova, Professor of Telecommunications at Indiana University Bloomington and scholar of virtual economies, explained to me, multiplayer videogames have long featured complex economic interactions with real-world implications—whether in money gained or lost, or simply the amount of time sunk into a virtual world. Since EverQuest first launched in 1999, games often used a "dual currency model"—where all goods within a virtual world are exchanged with a unique virtual currency.

But within any dual-currency model, a third party market invariably arose where users could trade virtual goods through a platform like eBay. Lacking the regulation of either the game itself or a real-world government, these sales gave rise to "gold farming" (harvesting virtual goods or currency to sell to other users, such as this Diablo III player claiming to make 60 million coins an hour) and periodic charges of de facto "virtual sweatshops" arising (a more insidious form of gold farming where groups of players work inhumane hours for substandard pay)—transforming a leisure activity presumed to be fun into a geopolitical nightmare.

Blizzard reasons that taking control of the entire economy will allow it to be more safely regulated. As they explained in a statement when reached for comment on this story:

Knowing from the previous games in the series that many players would seek out a means of selling and purchasing items for real currency, we felt it was important to provide a convenient, high-quality mechanism for this completely within the game environment and enable players to directly benefit from participating.

Could a company offer such an intricate economy without requiring digital rights management? "Probably not," John Walker, a writer for the British PC gaming site Rock, Paper, Shotgun told me. "So the question is: Do we actually need this in the first place?"

"I think there's two choices to be made in that situation," he explained. "One is the publisher can say, 'Let's not do a real money auction house if it requires bringing our game to this level.' Or customers can respond, 'Well, I'm not going to buy that game if I'm going to be treated that way.'"

Walker's comment gets at the heart of the issue consumers face today: If they don't like one aspect of a virtual world, they can either stomach it, or leave entirely. And as virtual worlds become progressively more complex, the gaming company's power necessarily expands. Just this year, players of Star Wars: The Old Republic were banned for dancing in the game. It was actually a clever form of cheating, but the controversy nevertheless drew many Footloose comparisons. And sometime next year, Bethesda will release The Elder Scrolls Online, an massive multiplayer online counterpart to Skyrim—a game that lets you get married, buy a house, and work an unsatisfying minimum-wage job chopping wood for gold. I don't know why anybody would play a game to do these things. But once a virtual online world begins facilitating these sorts of interactions, the developer will essentially have all the same domestic powers that a real-world government holds over its people.

Gamers already have an established tradition of negotiating with game developers and publishers. Through Kickstarter, fans have been able to lend their support to indie games and long-dead classics traditional publishers shy away from. Earlier this year, a ferocious response to Mass Effect 3's ending forced Bioware and its publisher, EA Games, to bow to player demands and offer a neater resolution.

But the stakes are much higher with a game like Diablo III, which involves virtual goods traded with real-world currency. Just last year, for instance, Bigpoint Games made two million euros in four days through sales of one €1000 item in its game DarkOrbit. That was in a free-to-play, browser-based game made by a relatively obscure developer. Now imagine the amount of money potentially trafficked through the fastest-selling PC game ever, made by a company that creates videogames so popular, some players get addicted to them.

Because of those higher stakes, companies like Blizzard will have to take their role as guardians and mediators of real-world currency more seriously. As Castronova put it, "This notion that you would rise in protest of something shows that games are really more like governments than they are like Hollywood." Then online spaces like Facebook, Twitter, and community forums aren't just offering undigested nerd-rage, but legitimate, as Castronova calls it, "policy commentary."

But posting on Twitter or Forums is nothing like voting, Castronova admits, nor are publishers being "democratic." And I'm left wondering if a game developer with the ability to develop a more coherent internal economy than ever seen before in a videogame couldn't just as easily build an internal platform for users to engage with one another not simply "socially," but as a genuine civil society.

It's impossible to say exactly what this would look like—citing the work of Joshua Fairfield, Castronova likens the current system in games and social media to a Hobbesian primeval state: "Imagine a village where one guy was the mayor, and anyone who came in had to sign a one-on-one contract with him." Instead, he concludes, "We need to evolve a new kind of contract that allows a covenant to emerge."

Even the most radical libertarian would probably agree that a government must perform two essential functions: keep you alive, and protect your property. Blizzard, then, failed in both tasks once users began losing control of their virtual selves or the goods they had earned. To its credit, the company has already gone to great lengths to repair this. But a more pressing issue is how gamers themselves process these concerns. Maybe the arbitrary cultural taxonomy "gamer" itself is defunct. Instead, a new notion of citizenship is needed as people enter into these increasingly elaborate digital universes. As Castronova reasoned in his seminal essay "On Virtual Economies":

To anyone versed in political history, it should be no surprise that the game companies have made themselves vulnerable by approaching these matters as customer service issues rather than governance. In their own minds, the players are not customers, but citizens, with corresponding rights.

Given the muddled reactions and petitions brought against everything ranging from the artistic direction of Diablo III or the ending of Mass Effect, I'm less convinced that gamers have a full sense of themselves as citizens. "It became incorrect and bad manners to use this," Walker admitted of the protest over the Mass Effect 3 ending, "but it was an entitled reaction, which is why it's so peculiar that people are willingly allowing every last scrap of a notion of ownership of gaming to be taken from them." Gamers should approach these platforms with the same wariness users have when entering a digital space like, say, Facebook or Google. But it remains the imperative of developers to offer spaces where this kind of negotiation can happen between players forced to rely on forums and tweets alone.

In 2000, Raph Koster penned "A Declaration of the Rights of Avatars" making just such a case. In one of its most ambitious passages, the document petitioned for "free and equal rights," foremost amount these being "the right to be treated as people and not as disembodied, meaningless, soulless puppets." Ultimately, Koster wrote his argument off as a "hypothetical exercise" that was "riddled with gotchas and logical holes." If Diablo III is a sign of things to come, it's probably time to dust off the parchment again.