Adam Ruch

Adam Ruch is a graduate of the University of Sydney where he completed a "hybrid" degree combining Information Systems, English, and Informatics. His honours thesis addressed World of Warcraft, and a cycle of player self-identification experienced in-game. He is particularly interested in bridging the gap between computer science, technology and the humanities. He studies intersections between society/culture and technological tools/environments. He finds the rapid shifts in human users as they adapt to and appropriate new technology fascinating and is becoming more interested in video games as a particularly intense site of impact. Currently, he is co-convening a joint video games course between Media and Computer Science at Macquarie University.


World of Warcraft: Service or Space?

by Adam Ruch


This article seeks to explore the relationship between the concept of Blizzard's World of Warcraft in legal terms, in Blizzard's End-User License Agreement (EULA) and the Terms of Use (TOU), and the concept of the game as conceived by the players of the game. Blizzard present their product as a service, and themselves as a service provider, in the EULA/TOU. Meanwhile, the product itself seems to be more akin to a space or place, which subjective players move about in. This conflict is essentially a difference between a passive viewer accessing certain content within a range available to him, and an individual who inhabits a space and acts within that space as an agent. The meaning of this subjectivity-in-space (or denial of the same) problematizes the relationship Blizzard has with its customers, and the relationships between those customers and Blizzard's product.

An evolution of the governance of these spaces is inevitable. Where Castronova and Lessig's answers differ, their basic assertion that the virtual political landscape can and will change seems clear. These changes will be influenced by the values placed on the social capital generated within the spaces themselves. The identities as per Turkle, Koster, and Dibble are human identities. Arguments as to why we should pay attention to synthetic worlds have been made by these authors already, so this article seeks to actually pay that attention. This is one practical example of the work that must be done around synthetic/virtual worlds, which directly affects tens of millions of people.

Keywords: World of Warcraft, identity construction, governance, regulation, synthetic worlds, cyberculture, video games

World of Warcraft: Service or Space?

This article explores the relationship between the concept of Blizzard Entertainment's World of Warcraft in legal terms, in Blizzard's End-User License Agreement (EULA) and the Terms of Use (TOU)[1], and the concept of the game as conceived by the players of the game. The main players in this scenario are: a powerful software publishing firm, Blizzard; and a group of over ten million players of the game. Regardless of arguments towards triviality or frivolousness of gameplay, the millions of players are Blizzard's customers and as such represent significant importance due to sheer weight of numbers and their supposed relationship as paying for a product or service. Blizzard present that product as a service, and themselves as a service provider, in the EULA/TOU. Meanwhile, the software itself seems to be more akin to a space or place, within which subjective players move about.

This conflict is essentially a difference between a passive viewer accessing certain content within a range available to him, and a user who inhabits a space and acts within that space as an individual. Secondly, the conflict is between a corporation prepared with legal documents and arguments, and individual players of questionable status in terms of rights. At times, this seems a case of the large corporation exercising questionable control over individuals who could always 'just walk away,' which is a poorer and poorer defense. So while this paper will likely seem antagonistic towards Blizzard, let it be stated that: Blizzard are not the only software company hosting similar synthetic worlds with similar terms and conditions, World of Warcraft is simply (by far) the largest and the one which I have spent time in; and that the defensive stance of this article is a direct result of the 'first shot' fired by the EULA and TOU.

The dichotomy between passive viewer and active user is not unusual in current cyberculture developments: the “Web 2.0” movement suggests a new agency of users who also produce content while they consume. YouTube is a place where the users are the producers. MySpace and FaceBook create 'spaces' where social interaction can 'take place.' Blogs, photo galleries, music hosting sites all encourage not just the browsing of media, but the creation and sharing of new media objects. Above all, these new applications of technology promote the agency of the users as recognizable individuals, and few technologies generate greater user agency than video games. The meaning of this subjectivity-in-space (or denial of the same) problematizes the relationship Blizzard has with its customers, and the relationships between those customers and Blizzard's product.

Blizzard's primary goal is to regulate the space which they have created, so that the game may function as intended. They seek to protect their rights over intellectual property, as well as provide protection for the rights and expectations of their players. Of course, their product is a game, so the over-arching goal of making the game 'fun' is also a concern, fun for all players equally. This task is complicated by the dichotomy between what I will call 'rules' and 'laws.' Lawrence Lessig describes the split which Warcraft players and users of other cyberspaces experience as a matter of course in Code (version 2.0). Lessig argues that cyberspaces have the potential to be the most perfectly regulable spaces ever inhabited by man because the code of a cyberspace serves as both the regulations set in place by a governing body, and as the immutable laws equivalent to physics of the space. (Lessig, 2006) In real space, we have rules that prevent citizens from performing actions which are allowed by laws of physics: stealing a handbag, driving too fast, assaulting another person. Other actions do not require rules to prevent: unlawfully walking through walls or levitating another driver's car is not against the rules, because physics prevent us from behaving in this way. In cyberspaces, if the governing body wants to protect its users from physical assault, the code can be written to prevent this, to 'physically' deny all players the ability to attack each other.

That this perfect regulation is possible does not mean it is necessarily achieved. In fact, there are usually possibilities enabled by the 'laws' of a space which the administrators, such as Blizzard, or some section of the userbase find objectionable. In some cases these are coded out, by patching the system's program. Other times, however, 'rules' are put in place, in documents such as the ToU or EULA which users are subject to. The gap that exists between what is technically possible in the game world and what is allowed by the ToU is a site of tension which has, as yet, not be entirely accounted for. This is true both in cases of inter-player relationships where certain actions are considered unsportsmanlike, or between players and the provider. The resolutions of these conflicts are unpredictable and occasionally drastic.

The most basic indicator of the rift between these two positions at question in World of Warcraft is the concept presence within a space, or the denial of that space entirely. Within a space, there arises an experience of presence, without space there is none. Following from presence come several more implications, including the construction of identity distinct from others encountered in the space and rights of ownership over that identity, and other in-game assets. Each of the areas addressed in this article will build on the concept of space, and lead eventually to grappling with concepts of identity in that space. Firstly, a description of the World of Warcraft environment is necessary. Following this will be the first area of contention: ownership of in-game items. Second will be the ownership of the Account (which contains game characters), and finally will come the exploration of identity, the in-game representation of a bodily human.

In-Game: Rules, Laws and Code

World of Warcraft (Warcraft, or WoW) is a Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG, MMOG, or MMO). Warcraft is not the only MMO, Ultima Online (Origin Systems, 1997) is often regarded as the first, EverQuest I & II(McQuaid, Clover, & Trost, 1999) are also extremely popular. These games are the descendants of multiplayer table-top role playing games such as Dungeons and Dragons (Gygax & Arneson, 1974) and single-player computer RPGs such as Blizzard's own Diablo(Blizzard Entertainment, 1997). WoW combines the concepts of Dungeons and Dragons--the persistent character, the group-focused play, the probability-/statistic-based gameplay--with the graphical representation of modern computer technology. The computer automates the role of table-top Dungeon Master, by maintaining a persistent world that is shared by all players of the game. The computer maintains the laws of physics: gravity, the potency of a fireball, the ability to fly or not to fly depending on certain circumstances, to create a playing field for the adventurers to travel through. As adventurers travel, their characters learn new talents, acquire trinkets, armour and weapons which all help them to advance in the world. The game relies on each individual player joining with other adventurers to travel through increasingly challenging zones, and set themselves against foes of greater and greater power. The result of this kind of gaming architecture is that the persistent World of Warcraft is a social petri dish. Players become recognizable to each other when they consistently spend time in the same, shared world. People grow to know each other by name (character name or otherwise) and so relationships between individuals do form into increasingly complex networks.[2]

The contractual agreements required from each player who wishes to play this game are split into two parts, as the game itself is. The EULA is directed mostly at the software client, as with most other pieces of software. We users are given the limited right to use this copy of the software to do specific things (namely to connect to the Warcraft universe). These are the rules overlain on the laws created by the code of the game world itself. The client is the piece of software residing on each player's computer, which does the work of rendering the graphics and sound of the game. It is the interface through which players issue commands and receive feedback, and supports the laws of the world by giving players only the prescribed options for interactions in-world. The server-side is the WoW universe itself; massive server arrays housed by Blizzard which co-ordinate and control the world of WoW. These machines do the rest of the work of maintaining the integrity of the coded world and its laws. Interacting with these servers is subject to the Terms of Use. The TOU is a larger, seemingly more comprehensive document which is stated to be the overruling guide if the two are found to conflict. In article 15. Miscellaneous, of the EULA: “To the extent that the provisions of this Agreement conflict with the provisions of the Terms of Use, the conflicting provisions in the Terms of Use shall govern.” (Blizzard Entertainment, 2008) This duality presents the first point of departure, and arguably the most important distinction between a common-sense apprehension of World of Warcraft, and the letter of the law.

According to Blizzard, World of Warcraft is perpetually a 'service.' This is quite distinct from their claim on the splash screen of their website that “It's not a game. It's a world,” ( which would indicate that the game is to be thought of as a space, place, or world, rather than a 'service' like cable TV or a telephone line. The name of the game itself suggests this as well. This sets up the entire basis of the company's ownership claims over the entirety of Warcraft, of anything that happens in Warcraft, anything related to or derived from, indeed anything at all to do with Warcraft. The term 'service' allows for the game to be set in relation to the real world in a different way than if Blizzard were to suggest that the gameworld represented a 'space.' A 'space' might entail a sense of public, of open space not directly under the control of Blizzard, which is exactly the notion Blizzard needs to squash before it gets started. Yet, this is precisely the feeling which draws players into the game. The feeling of shared space within which to interact is the major selling point of any MMORPG; offline-RPG games offer more in the way of complexity and interactive gameplay, but none of the sociality that MMOs offer. For an MMO, the space is the thing.

While Blizzard unquestionably provide a great deal of 'content' in the form of a world to explore and monsters to battle, this is not the sole asset of the game. That is the sole value of a typical single-player game, but an MMO provides a new value: social interactions. WoW is marketed as an MMO, it is an MMO, and the average consumer (even those who don't play themselves) have a vague understanding that this means it is a multiplayer game. This is one of the assets, values, which Blizzard are profiting from. Yet they do not create this value, they cannot, because this 'social capital' comes from the general population of its userbase. The fact that there are players playing WoW makes it a more attractive game to play. The way the game is devised to be spatial enables players to join each other 'there.' That is, in a space, to meet up, to explore together, to fight together, to fight against each other, to run away from each other, etc. The persistent nature of the world allows the kind of long-lasting relationships needed to succeed in the end-game adventures to form. The social interaction, which is one of Warcraft's central commercial values, relies on the metaphor of space. In short, the players can 'be together' because there is a space for them to 'be in' and that is of immense commercial value to Blizzard.

Despite the incentive to regard Warcraft as a space, Blizzard seem reluctant to. I will examine a number of ways which the EULA/TOU rely on the concept of 'service' at the expense of 'space' in order to maintain tight control. Firstly, ownership of items. This proclivity also indicates that Blizzard invest more confidence in their rules than in the coded laws of their world. From Article 2 of the TOU, Ownership:

All rights and title in and to the Program and the Service (including without limitation any user accounts, titles, computer code, themes, objects, characters, character names, stories, dialogue, catch phrases, locations, concepts, artwork, animations, sounds, musical compositions, audio-visual effects, methods of operation, moral rights, any related documentation, "applets" incorporated into the Program, transcripts of the chat rooms, character profile information, recordings of games played on the Program, and the Program client and server software) are owned by Blizzard or its licensors. (Blizzard Entertainment, 2008)

In the EULA, the term 'character inventories' is added to a similar clause in Article 3 Ownership.

Blizzard envision Warcraft as a free-standing, complete and operational service which players make use of while they are online. That is to say, the game is a product they have created which we borrow access to, in order to do things allowable by the code they have written. Thus, when a character in-game gathers enough materials and crafts the Primalstrike Vest for his druid, from Blizzard's perspective, nothing new has occurred. The player has simply accessed the pre-existing algorithm which converts particular items in the character's inventory database with a corresponding item with different uses. The player issued a command to the program, and the code responded with the expected outcome. The leather, the thread, the primal might, (all crafting materials), and the vest are neither introduced nor extracted from the game code prior to or following the command. They are simply rearranged, referred to differently in relation to this particular character.

To the player, however, something quite different has occurred. From a player perspective, something new has been added to the world. Where there was no vest before, now there is a vest. Where there were leather, thread, and primal might, there is none. They have become the vest. This is the metaphor supplied by the over-arching spatial metaphor that binds the game together as a 'world' in the first place, which is the primary motivator for any action in the game. Do a thing, and something will react to your actions along predictable lines corresponding vaguely to the physical nature of the real world. Players do not envision the crafting of an item as assembling a password to gain access to a new field in a vast database of possible items (which is more akin to what is physically happening within the code). The action is envisioned as an act of creation, which is what the game interface tells us to think. The button which makes the swap from leather/thread/primal to Vest is labeled 'create.' Every other interpretable sign given to the player by the in-game interface agrees that the item was 'created' out of the materials, as is the case in the real world. The materials disappear out of the player's bag and are replaced with a Vest item. The character cannot wear the leather patches until they are assembled into the vest. Indeed, the leather etc has no use whatsoever until they are fashioned into a vest, and this vest is unattainable any other way. The leather etc can never be extracted from the vest to make something new; the process is permanent and uni-directional. The leather does not indicate that it has the potential to add any kind of attribute value to the character, which the vest does, once completed. In effect the crafting of an item behaves exactly the way the real-world analogue predicts: once turned into a Carrot Cake, neither the eggs, nor flour, nor carrots can be recovered from the cake. And neither can you look at a particular carrot or egg and experience a fraction of 'carrot cake' equivalent to the contribution that item makes to the whole. The recipe is the guide, and the act of creation introduces a new thing into the world at the expense of the materials.

The same argument can be made for items that 'drop' from the corpses of monsters in-game, or the items which come from treasure chests or from 'gatherer' tradeskills (such as skinning, where leather comes from). The metaphor is the strongest and most familiar in terms of crafting, but other forms of object-obtainment correspond to the same metaphor. If a giant ogre is known to carry a particular ring, and the player slays that ogre, he receives the ring from the monster's corpse. Again, he is not provided a password which allows him to 'access' the ring, he is given the ring itself to wear on his finger. Yet the former is precisely what the term 'service' implies. A provider may allow 'access' to different levels of 'content' based on pre-conceived systems of requirements. In the same way that a cable TV company is not selling the episode of The Simpsons to the viewer, but merely allowing the viewer to watch (access) it, Blizzard imply that the vest/ring are simply being accessed by the player, not obtained. Finally, with gathering skills, certain elements of the environment can be interacted with in a way that simulates mining or gathering of herbs. 'Nodes' of these materials materialize sporadically across the game world geography, as herbs will grow in the forests of the real world, and characters can gather these. They then disappear from the ground and reappear in a character's bag, precisely as if a real person picks a real flower and takes it home.

In both of these cases, players interact with the coded laws of the world to experience the game as metaphor. When pushed, however, Blizzard step back from the code, and expect users to also. That is to say that the way the code appears to behave should not be considered the final ruling on the status of things. That function is reserved for the ToU.

The trickle-down effect of this, is the implication to Real-money trading (RMT) activity which surrounds most MMOs like a hazy grey/black market. Some games explicitly encourage RMT, such as ZT Online from Giant Interactive. Ultima Online also supports, or at least tolerates, the sale of its internal items for real-world currency. SecondLife is built specifically on the model that creation does add new objects to the world and that those new objects are owned by their creators, and not by Linden Labs, and that they have a real-world value. World of Warcraft does not in any way tolerate RMT.

The above-quoted paragraph from the TOU should be enough to enforce this, but apparently it was not:

Blizzard does not recognize the transfer of Accounts. You may not purchase, sell, gift or trade any Account, or offer to purchase, sell, gift or trade any Account, and any such attempt shall be null and void. Blizzard owns, has licensed, or otherwise has rights to all of the content that appears in the Program. You agree that you have no right or title in or to any such content, including the virtual goods or currency appearing or originating in the Game, or any other attributes associated with the Account or stored on the Service. Blizzard does not recognize any virtual property transfers executed outside of the Game or the purported sale, gift or trade in the "real world" of anything related to the Game. Accordingly, you may not sell items for "real" money or otherwise exchange items for value outside of the Game. (Blizzard Entertainment, 2008)

Article 8 from the TOU clearly states that because the player never owns anything in the game world, he cannot therefore transfer ownership of anything to any other person, for gain or for free. Ownership of an item is typically a prerequisite for sale of the same. Yet, it is common knowledge to anyone who plays the game that this sort of activity happens anyway, because it is technically possible to do so. A day without an advertisement for a 'cheap gold site' being posted in the general chat channels of major cities is remarkable and could be considered a holiday. Further, players are often spotted quoting “WTT lvl 70 NE Rogue with epic mount and epic gear, 63 paladin, and 55 mage for any horde class 60+” (for example) indicating he wants to swap his account with the listed characters and their inventories for something different, in this case a high-level character of the opposing faction. This of course is against the TOU, but happens anyway. (Sometimes these advertisements are made via a freshly-created level 1 character, unassociated with the account in question and probably a free trial account, presumably to avoid the repercussions of this violation of the TOU.)

The question is why is this sort of trade between players a violation of the TOU, and how can it be phrased to be as such? In the same way that America On-Line users do not 'own' the chat rooms they enter within the AOL interface, Blizzard stipulate that the users of their online world do not own the characters, the items, or any of the other content of the game. Of course I am not suggesting that any player should own the rights to Blackrock Depths, Gruul, the history of the Night Elves, or the mountain behind Ironforge; that sort of content is quite clearly part of the world in terms of the spatial metaphor. However, the player's Account and the player's characters (with their associated inventories of items) seem to be presented differently in-game than other types of content. These types of data (one must remember that these items are just computer data) seem to be generated, rather than accessed. The item seems to be created, dropped, bought, or otherwise introduced into the world where it did not exist before. The character itself is created, by the player. Indeed, there would be no Primalstrike Vests in Warcraft without the agency of a player behind its crafting. Blizzard have every right to claim the original design and implementation of the system of creation, but do they have the right to claim the product of a player's agency?

Julian Dibbell handles the confusion of the rights to items and particularly of accounts beautifully in Play Money. In a conversation with a PayPal official, he attempted to describe the transfer of virtual goods from one person to another, to decide whether this constituted the sale of a tangible or intangible good, in order to obtain buyer or seller insurance. When told firmly that none of the in-game items could be insured as they were all clearly intangible, Dibbell turned to the transfer of an account. The account, too, is intangible. But what if, as Dibbell suggests, he were to sell the password to the account, written on a piece of paper and mailed to the buyer? Would that represent a tangible good? (Dibbell, Play Money: Or, how I quit my day job and made millions trading virtual loot, 2006) Is the password part of what Blizzard owns, or could a player who has decided to move on from Warcraft sell his login information to the highest bidder? Dibbell compares the sale of his password-on-paper to the sale of a ticket to a concert in that the latter is clearly the sale of access to the concert and not the piece of paper--which PayPal will insure. The sale of a password is the same concept: sale of access to an account, not the sale of the account itself.

Can a legal document (especially one so infrequently read) ever hope to deter people from transferring an item, word, document or login detail over which they have sole direct control, and which is invisible to Blizzard because it actually exists outside the world of its panoptic gaze? Users of technology are nothing if not creative in their appropriation of the same. That is, users will do with a technology whatever it allows them to do, rather than checking all relevant legal statutes beforehand. For example, if large corporations trucking in media have learned anything in the last ten to fifteen years, it is that users are going to ignore copyright, and go ahead and transfer their access to media to others because it is so easy to do so. Furthermore, they will continue to do so until it is actually easier to obtain the same access legally. Similarly, Warcraft players will continue to buy items and accounts from each other until the technology itself prevents them from doing so.

The upshot of account sale is two-fold. First, there will always be a market invisible to Blizzard or otherwise outside their control. Blizzard do not have the right to observe any and all conversations pertaining to Warcraft across any medium, and so there will always be a channel for sales to take place that are outside Blizzard's jurisdiction. Whether on eBay, a personal retail site like Dibbell's (or other RMT traders), via IM clients like MSN Messenger, or on the phone, the transactions will take place. Second, what benefit is it to Blizzard to exact their only real punishment on account traders? Suspension or a total ban is Blizzard's only real option for punishment. Hypothetically, one of the violators is already leaving the game, so banning him can't work. Banning the player who has bought the account, by banning the account in question, is tantamount to refusing the subscription fees of a new player. Banning two accounts who are involved in an account-trade is more bewildering still. Why would Blizzard even consider doing it?[3]

So the Account itself is a problematic whatever position taken, because just like Blizzard, the player isn't selling the account itself, but merely the access to that account. The other special case is the character played by players, and the collection of items that character amasses in his or her inventory. The items a character collects are special not because they are especially rare or unusual, but because they are presented to us differently, in comparison to the rest of the gameworld. Anything other than the items a character has in its backpack or bank could be considered environmental content, that is, content developed by Blizzard to be more or less permanent, to be interacted with as part of the world in which the character is situated. Things like castles, monsters, bonfires, lakes to drown in, caves to explore, maps to refer to, are all part of the game's content and are not meant to be taken by the character and put in a bag. The items, however, are treated quite differently by the game interface. The coded laws of the game world suggest a particular metaphor for understanding what items are, and the TOU contradict this. Players are invited to believe that they are in possession of their avatar, and of the items in its possession. This, however, is quite clearly not Blizzard's position.

If the game world is a service, and the space is not space, how does this affect the ownership of a character itself? I hesitate to even use that word, 'ownership' in regards to the manifestation of a human personality within a mediated environment, for reasons I will extract below. If the game world is not a space, how do we exist inside it, as characters, as human beings, or both? What does this weird concept of space-as-service, or service-as-space, do to the concept of self, autonomy, and personal or public liberty?

Personal Identities and Intellectual Property

The re-definition of personal identity is the subject of much post-modern and cyber-culture literature. As a long-time gamer, 'digital native', and cyberculture researcher, I have found that Sherry Turkle's (1995) concepts of distributed presence have remained the most salient and powerful in decoding my own experiences, and observing those of others. I also feel Huzuinga's description of a 'magic circle' (made 'porous' by Castronova (2005), further explored by Juul (2005)) around games and virtual worlds assists in describing the relationship between the online and offline personae. I have myself written at length about the identity construction of players in World of Warcraft, and still hold what I have written there as useful background to further discussion. While much of that literature refers to the interaction of personalities, plural, I would like here to limit my discussion mainly to the circumstances of creating only one character-personality, which exists in a kind of symbiosis with its human controller. What is it that makes up a single character in World of Warcraft, can it be owned, and by whom?

Sherry Turkle would argue that within an environment like Warcraft, much of a character's personality manifests through the interaction with society. (Turkle, 1995) Similarly, Castronova explores the importance of the sociality of virtual worlds in Exodus to the Virtual World. He indicates that the great significance of these new technologies is not the new things which we can do within the synthetic worlds, but stresses that we do them together. (Castronova, Exodus to the Virtual World, 2007) One need only play an MMO regularly for a few months to arrive at similar conclusions. Everything about the game as a game is magnified through the lens of sociality. Accomplishments are shared with a knowledgeable community which understands your pride. Failures are more intense when observed by an audience. Competition occurs between human agents, rather than only between human and computer.

Overall, a huge amount of what it is to play these games (or to exist in a non-game synthetic world like SecondLife) is directly attributed to the fact that your character is one of many human-controlled characters within the realm. The relationships formed between players who recognize each other through the vehicle of their respective characters are every bit as meaningful, whether competitive, co-operative, social, utilitarian, antagonistic, or whatever form they take, as relationships between embodied people. In his “Declaration of the Rights of Avatars”, Raph Koster states unequivocally that it is self-evident that characters in virtual worlds are 'manifestations of actual people in an online medium, and that their utterances, actions, thoughts, and emotions should be considered to be as valid as [those] of people in any other forum…' (Koster, 2007)

So, these are real people in a mediated environment, interacting with each other, through their utterances, actions, thoughts and emotions. Their project of self-creation (either a deliberate project in a role-playing sense, or a subconscious project of simply trying to maintain a stable presence) in this generally unfamiliar but exciting venue occurs largely through their interaction with each other, which is in turn created by utterances between characters, actions performed in relation to other characters, and thoughts and emotions arising from these interactions. A character is as a character says (to other characters), does (with or to other characters), thinks (in the mind of the player, outside the game), and feels (again in the player's mind), which feeds back into the utterances and actions in reaction to the stimuli of the other members of the synthetic world. That is, the things one character says to another leaves the gameworld, enters the real world when being processed by the player, then re-enter the game world through the porous magic circle, translated. The manifestations of the reply are in terms of the world's capacity to express emotive reactions. So, another character tells a joke via text chat that the listening player finds genuinely funny, so the laughing player types 'LOL' into his chat window, and causes his character to laugh on-screen (on his own screen, and on his interlocutor's). The original joke-teller receives this via his perspective, and gains the real-world satisfaction of a well-received joke.

This example seems trivial, but when extrapolated into more complex social situations that inevitably arise from larger social groups with more involved desires, expectations, and interests, the field becomes exponentially more dynamic. The magic circle around this kind of game is a membrane that does not block access, but translates. Events, feelings, words can all pass through, but are transformed in the process. Not unreal, simply different. The words and actions typed into a computer represent the same words and actions we perform with our physical bodies, simply carried via a different medium with its own nuances, limitations and strengths. The combination of dozens, hundreds or thousands of projected selves creates an entropic system one can only define as a society. The projection of self is somewhat more deliberate due to the relative unnaturalness of the medium, but is no less valuable in the cyber-society.[4]

What, then, does it mean for the project of self-identification when Blizzard state in their TOU that the chat between characters is the property of Blizzard? If, in effect, my on-screen persona is what I say to others, does that mean that Blizzard own that part of my personality, the part of my real personality reflected/translated and manifest in the character in Warcraft?

All rights and title in and to the Program and the Service (including without limitation any … transcripts of the chat rooms …) are owned by Blizzard or its licensors, from Article 2 of the TOU. (Blizzard Entertainment, 2008)

Blizzard, then, declare that the speech of its users are its property. This not only seems a statement unlikely to stand the test of a legal trial, but also one signaling a profound under-appreciation of what is actually going on in the game world. Comparing this to the idea of a real-space facility administrator such as a shopping centre management recording the conversations of its shoppers, and claiming they own the rights to that recording immediately seems odd. In realspace it seems natural that conversations between individuals are not to be eavesdropped on, recorded, and owned by someone else. That those conversations are vital to the process of simply living, and are important to the participants is also obvious. What research has told us about cyberspace is very similar: the conversations users of an online space have are just as vital, if not more important given the reduction in other available ways of communicating, as in any other environment.

Blizzard's audacity increases when testing this rule against the Role-play facet of this game. The process of role-play is simple: invent a backstory for your character, and play it out in game. Furthermore, write more story material as you progress, and publish it on the Warcraft forum. Sometimes role players will simply write stories; this 'fan-fic' might involve their personal character, it might not. Some of the stories are interactive; 'forum-RP' is very much like the simming in America On-Line chat rooms, or MUDding[5], only written in prose, replied back and forth in a bulletin board forum rather than line-by-line in real-time. As of this writing, there are 62 pages in the Roleplaying forum on the World of Warcraft website, with 57 topics on each page, totaling 3,534 topics. Clearly not all of them are stories, but a vast majority of the successful threads (with long reply lists) are. One of the now-closed stories on the front page boasts 18 pages of replies, or 337 posts with over seven thousand views. ('A Final Strike {{Closed-Story}}' originally by Agroboy) Several others are 12, 13, 15 pages each. One, still open story being contributed to currently is twenty-four pages, or 449 posts, long. ('The Grim Future {{Open RP}}' originally by Rosia)

Do Blizzard truly assert ownership of this creative output? In a way, they certainly do. Under no circumstances can the authors of these stories sell them. Furthermore, they all appear on the Blizzard-owned forum, subject to the Blizzard-centric copyright notices at the bottom of the page. The exasperating fact of the role-playing situation is not so much that the authors themselves do not own the rights to their material, because clearly, their work is derivative, and while entertaining, well-crafted, and intelligent, is not the kind of original work that is generally sellable. What is problematic is that Blizzard claim that they own this work, rather implicitly, as if the authors were donating their vast creative energies to the company. One can imagine a worst-case hypothetical scenario: Blizzard's lore team at some point in some way adopting a story, character, or other inspiration from the works of these Role-play authors. That this would be 'illegal' theft of intellectual property is unlikely, though.

In this way, Blizzard claim a deeper level of ownership over the personality of RPers and their characters than over the average player. The two share a similar kind of audacity, however, that I am quite sure Blizzard, when drawing up their TOU and EULA could have envisioned, but were loathe to. Sherry Turkle's work, for example, has been in circulation since the 90s. The idea that people invest themselves in real terms in their online personae is not so new as to be a surprise to those in the industry. That is, of course, if people in the industry care to follow research into their work.

I find it telling that Blizzard make an exception to Intellectual Property disputes in their EULA:

You and Blizzard agree that the following Disputes are not subject to the above provisions concerning informal negotiations and binding arbitration: (1) any Disputes seeking to enforce or protect, or concerning the validity of, any of your or Blizzard's intellectual property rights; (2) any Dispute related to, or arising from, allegations of theft, piracy, invasion of privacy or unauthorized use; and (3) any claim for injunctive relief. Article 14 Dispute Resolution and Governing Law, section D, EULA. (Blizzard Entertainment, 2008)

The 'above provisioning' involves informal negotiations which I interpret to mean the first tier of Blizzard's problem-handling division, the Game Masters who will contact the player in-game. Following that would be the legal department itself, via E-mail. The second provision is binding arbitration, where a non-judicial arbiter will seek resolution. So, Blizzard consider intellectual property disputes a special case of problem, and will take those straight to a genuine court. This would suggest that Blizzard are aware of the fickle nature of Intellectual Property, and perhaps imply there is room for the players to carve out their own rights to the results of their agency.

The final confusing twist to this intellectual property debacle I would like to highlight is Blizzard's steadfast refusal to be infringed upon, while maintaining any number of infringements of their own in-game.

In particular, you may not use any name: … 4. That belongs to a popular culture figure, celebrity, or media personality… 5. Rules of Conduct, 1. Rules Related to Usernames and Guild Designations, Terms of Use. (Blizzard Entertainment, 2008)

Despite this rule, there is a plethora of in-game references to celebrities or media figures:

  • 'Haris Pilton' a waify blood elf female who hangs out in a tavern; Paris Hilton.
  • A cook known as 'The Rohk', with a caption: “Can you smell what the Rock is cookin'?” The WWE wrestler, and star of several films including The Scorpion King.
  • 'Adam Eternum' and his pet Battle-tiger who resembles Adam, of the planet Eternia, from Masters of the Universe.
  • 'Floyd Pinkus' the innkeeper in Thrallmar; Pink Floyd.
  • '“King” Dond', the PvP Arena Organizer, next to whom an ogre called 'Ear-Biter' stands; Don King and Mike Tyson.
  • 'Seymour' the grandmaster skinner trainer; Seymour Skinner, from the Simpsons.
  • 'Caregiver Ophera Windfury' innkeeper; Opera Winfrey.
  • 'Smiles O'Bryon (Engineer)'; Miles O'Brian, Star Trek: The Next Generation and Deep Space 9.

(Blizzplanet, 2008)

This list goes on at quite some length. Many of these I noticed before, but never realized the sheer number of references that appear in the game. Quest names, zones, and other objects in-game refer to other games, sci-fi universes, or popular celebrity figures. From the amusing fact that the gorillas in Un'goro crater drop useless, empty barrels as a tribute to Donkey Kong, to the fact that Blizzard's original “Warcraft: Orcs and Humans” is based on the isometric tile system from the Dune video-game. (Blizzplanet, 2008) Collectively, these semi-hidden references are known as 'Easter Eggs' and are little gems for players to stumble across through the course of normal gameplay. They add a funny connection to the real world, demonstrating that the designers of the game are real people, with a sense of humour, even if the legal department is not of the same ilk.

This argument here is not to shame Blizzard as copyright thieves, but to show that the incorporation of various 'cultural capital' is both and unavoidable and natural part of creating a new cultural artifact/space. Should this be made illegal and tantamount to theft?[6] Blizzard would be found wantonly irreverent, if the borrowing of these cultural icons were taken to represent theft of intellectual property by a court. If these cultural references were removed, the integrity of the game would not be compromised, but it would lose some of its witty charm. The contribution to our collective cultural memory made by Paris Hilton (for better or worse) and the Mario Brothers is significant, or meaningful enough, that by linking World of Warcraft to these, the game is made even more relevant to the players who inhabit it. This is not a bad thing! Blizzard have taken advantage of this to enhance their game, but seem very ambivalent, if not outright hostile, towards the subsequent borrowing of their lore or any other reference to what they declare Blizzard's sole property.

So where does this bizarre co-mingling of legal definitions and real-world experiences leave us, the players of MMOs? Is my druid mine? Am I, the parts of me that are expressed in Warcraft, my own? Are the people who think of 'me' (and by 'me' I mean what they know of 'me' via Warcraft) infringing on the intellectual property of Blizzard by recalling the chat session we shared in-game? More to the point, what is the purpose Blizzard's extreme blankets of right reservations? What does the company gain by proclaiming all chat interactions are in fact property of Blizzard?

Finally, whether Blizzard owns a transcript of the chat between myself and other players is probably irrelevant to us as players. What is done with chat after the fact simply doesn't matter, as far as the chat which occurs in Warcraft is not, for players, a document. It is a real-time conversation, which is absorbed at the time, like conversation in other media. We interlocutors have already used the conversation; it is spent and holds no further use to us once we have accessed the meaning. The distinctive physics of synthetic worlds that allow real-time conversation to be effortlessly and indeed automatically recorded in a way that is unfeasible in the real world does not change the mode by which general conversation takes place. The fact that conversation can be crystallized and stored does not make the resulting document all that important in the act of creating personality. The interactions occur at the time, the judgments are made and remembered, and just as we have no need to generally bring forth a recording of the conversation over coffee with a friend in order to make use of it, we have no vested interest in actually 'owning' a 'copy' of our chat transcripts.

So for the intents and purposes of self-identification, and apprehension of others, the fact that Blizzard want to claim ownership of our chat logs is beside the point. Still, it is worth noting that if Blizzard were running a flesh-and-blood, bricks-and-mortar amusement park, the practice of indiscriminately recording the conversations of customers would be highly suspect. Nor would they own the photographs taken by the visitors--Blizzard effectively claim rights to this by way of ownership of video recordings and screenshots, which we are only licensed to display on web pages for the sake of entertainment.

In Exodus to the Virtual World, Castronova describes the need for 'interration' of synthetic worlds, that is, to define them as a particular, different, kind of space or territory, which allows for different laws to be passed there. This legislation would be relevant to the type of world in question, whether it be a sandbox world like SecondLife, or a fantasy game like Warcraft. Whatever the particulars of the laws would become, the first step would be to universally identify these synthetic worlds, legally, as spaces and not as services. This simple fact will lead to an incredible shift in the position of players within the realm. That is, players will suddenly have a position within a realm rather than an access to pre-existing content imagined by its creators to be static and inert.

The process of interration would parallel that of incorporation: that is there would be a statute defining just want kind of synthetic space this project is creating, and what kind of rules apply there. While this process can resemble the definition of a game, in that precise boundaries are created within which certain rules apply, and certain other rules do not, the process and product should not be dismissed as valueless. Interrated spaces could be defined to be very serious indeed, where the provider could be creating a platform for virtual shopping malls, where customers will part with genuine credit card details. A space like this would have to guarantee security and integrity. The fact that the shopper can fly through the mall instead of walk, or could dress up as a small cartoon bear instead of a human, does not immediately invalidate the serious usefulness of the space. Furthermore, the social capital created by allowing humans to coexist in any space is never totally trivial. These interrated spaces would be forced to grapple with the issues raised here, and more, in order to become recognized as valid spaces for the hosting of social interaction of individuals with rights.

As open-source world-building tools become more widely available, and the bandwidth capacity continues to edge ever higher, I am confident we will see more virtual worlds of different types emerging. Even proprietary worlds are advancing at Moore's Law (double every year). Imagine what will happen when any bedroom coder can build a world that anyone can access, just the way HTML and HTTP protocols allowed any coder to create websites. The results would be explosive, in terms of sheer numbers, and as Castronova imagines, the attention of the real world would be drawn to these synthetic worlds at unprecedented levels. While this article is highly critical of the terms and conditions Blizzard have put in place over their virtual world, they are not the only developer/administrator of a virtual world. Nor are they the only developer who rely on EULA or terms of service contracts to maintain control over their virtual world. Both The Sims Online and SecondLife are documented by Peter Ludlow and Mark Wallace as having similar problems. (Ludlow & Wallace, 2007) What Blizzard do represent, however, is the single largest virtual world administered by a single company. So, World of Warcraft stands as the de facto norm for the way virtual worlds are run, due simply to sheer weight of numbers. Further, while the details of the relationship between in-game laws and contractual rules may differ in other gameworlds, there will be tensions and conflicts, as there are in Warcraft. Finally, this article has yet to discover the perfect solution; it is highly unlikely that an article ever will. The challenge to companies like Blizzard is to try new methods, given the conflicts highlighted here and in other papers. This article is not shouting 'Down with Blizzard!' but should be viewed as a part of the dialogue between the designers (government) and their players (citizens).


[1] Because the EULA and TOU are subject to change, I have created an archived copy, and used this as reference. The ‘live’ documents can be found on the World of Warcraft website:

[2] For an in-depth discussion of MMORPGs and their social implications, refer to T.L. Taylor’s Play Between Worlds, a case study of Everquest, which can be broadly applied to most MMOs.

[3] The EULA, applicable to the game client, allows for transfer of the game software itself to another person, provided that the transferor provides all original media, packaging, manuals etc. to the recipient. However, the transferor must delete the game, which, one would assume, would amount to cancelling a subscription as well. Why not allow the recipient to simply take over that account which is now cancelled, since he can, effectively, join the game without paying the initial entry fee represented by purchasing the client software anyway?

[4] Dibbell’s My TinyLife shows that a complex community can form at the intersection of relatively few cyber-selves; TinyMUD had nowhere near the population of Warcraft but nonetheless created a dramatic and lively culture.

[5] Both terms refer to the kind of chat where actions of imagined characters are typed line-by-line in a chat client. Each user will type a short action which other participants will respond to. Cybersex is the most famous kind of imaginative action-chat of this sort. MUD refers to Multi-User Dungeon, and to sim or simming is ‘to simulate.’

[6] See Lessig’s Remix for an in depth discussion of this topic. Essentially, copyright law has become outdated and irrelevant, and must be reconfigured to deal with the potential to re-appropriate existing media in fashioning new works.


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