Friday, October 19, 2007

Surprise Guest

The best thing about going to conferences is discovering the work of people that you have never heard of, which makes all the airplane lines, hotel room screw-ups, and e-mails from querulous neglected students all worth it.

In this case, the pleasant surprise was the presentation of Sal Humphreys, a bespectacled woman with short gray hair, who was attired in no-nonsense jeans and sweaters during the conference, and who might easily be overlooked at a four-day event full of well-dressed divas, where the outfits included Mia Consalvo's dramatic pink and black crepe numbers, Lisa Nakamura's gorgeous shimmery po-mo skirts, and Lisbeth Klastrup's fabulous Danish design peekaboo outfit. How women who spend all day in front of a computer could be so well-dressed is beyond me, since I basically own two classes of outfits: clean black clothes and dirty black ones.

I had actually had dinner the night before with the game studies interest group that included Humphreys. She was at the table that was watching Star Wars Galaxies machinima and gay porn, and I was at the table with much younger male game developers talking about marriages and careers.

Humphreys is more generally interested in questions involving regulation and online social software, and had at first planned a comparative study of the policy issues in four countries, but soon found that the "spaghetti-like" structure of competing codes in Australia would be plenty to occupy a revealing policy examination of networks with a meditation on macroeconomics and global trends that reminded me more of the work of Manuel Castells than what is generally thought of as game studies.

Humphreys argued that "convergent media challenge the boundaries of silo model" and that “how you characterize a problem characterizes how you think it can be fixed." To characterize those problems, the conventional linear models of media production will not work in which there is a one-way chain of author – text – publisher - audience. Instead Humphreys showed an amazing diagram of MMO policy issues on a slide that I wished I had photographed.

Her analysis of the discourses and domains of MMO games broke down into the following seven areas:

1) As text (governed by intellectual property, classification conventions, trade law, and free speech principles as part of a knowledge economy)
2) As game (governed by separate jurisdictions that included private law and private policing, such as sports law, in which consent to contracts, typically formulated as EULAs, determined power relations)
3) As community (governed by consumer protection and cultural policy, which could be troubled by the problem of mass private media)
4) As data (governed by privacy and consumer protection law)
5) As creative industry (governed by principles for industry development and amateur production concurrently)
6) As production network (governed by labor and consumer protection law)
7) As global media (governed by laws for cross-jurisdiction interchanges)

Following Humphreys, Dan Burk focused on legal issues in his talk on “Owning Avatars: Legal Control of Human and Non-Human Data Representations" that attempted to grapple with questions of "database rights." As a digital parent, he opened his talk with an explanation of his entire family's participation in MapleStory in which different members filled the roles of ice mage, cleric, and assassin. Although his daughter was initially reluctant to play with her uncool enders, she soon discovered that it was a case of the more the merrier if she wanted to bring down a dragon. She was even there when her parents were married in-game for their 25th anniversary.

Much of Burk's talk looked at questions of often competing rights of copyright, the right to privacy, and the right of publicity associated with celebrities who want to maintain control of their images. In looking at how celebrity avators could be used by large corporations, he showed digital animation of Gene Kelly singing in the rain while popping and locking in a plug for Golf GTI. He credited Cassandra Van Buren for her scholarship on celebrity avatars but also looked to the ideas of MIT's theorist of cybernetics, Norbert Wiener, whose work on representations of human beings as "persistent data patterns" included topological features, physiological patterns, genetic coding, and many other ways to think about questions of identity in informational terms.

Like many intellectual property law professors this month, Burk was celebrating a recent court decision that Major League Baseball could not claim ownership of its players statistics for purposes of excluding fantasy sports leagues from using this commonly available data.

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