Saturday, April 26, 2008

Corporations, Regulations, and The American Dream in Virtual Worlds

The next panel I attended at the Culture of Virtual World's conference, which was moderated by Paul Dourish, focused on how real-world laws, corporate culture, and popular mainstream Horatio Alger-type mythologies become factors in virtual environments.

Presenters Wendy Ark and Melissa Cefkin of the Almaden Reseach Center discussed how the training of employees in geographically dispersed offices could be managed by expert facilitators using the platform of a virtual world. In the case of a global corporation like IBM, this kind of knowledge about the proper handling of collaboration and corporate identity can be particularly advantageous since 40% of their employees work from home. Ark and Cefkin specialize in "business process rehearsal" and count government agencies among their clients. As someone who studies risk communication, I was interested to see that one crisis management scenario involved California's emergency medical services under the duress of a bio-warfare attack and that the IBM duo credit "social warning theory" as one inspiration for their work. The duo broke down the basic components of the deliverables they provide for their staging activities into the following inventory: observation (apprenticeship), costumes (roles), script (story), props (context), cameras (review), and intelligent objects (facilitation and data and assets). Another case study emphasized procedures in a transnational automobile manufacturer, where supplies may come from China but the parts are assembled in Mexico. Yet the online training of this "lynchpin" company certainly had what corporations euphemistically call "lessons learned." Of the original twenty participants, only three remained by the end. As one informant said, "I thought I could multi-task when playing the game, but this required a lot of effort." (For more about how workers involved in courses of online training may "cheat" or take advantage of desktop distractions, see the overview chapter on "digital rhetoric" in the forthcoming Virtualpolitik book.)

Next Greg Lastowka, Rutgers law professor and co-founder of the blog Terra Nova, gave a talk on law in virtual worlds that may have been more ambitious in scope than the time allowed. Nonetheless, Lastowka managed to cover a lot of material before he got to his main topic, "virtual jurisdiction." Lastowka emphasized the potential economic importance of virtual worlds, given the hundred of millions of dollars at stake in real-money trades and the importance of virtual assets to subscribers who pay hundreds of millions of dollars to the corporate entities that own and run the games with draconian end-license user agreements. He raised a number of tantalizing questions in his talk. Should valuable in-game items earned in World of Warcraft by reported on income taxes? Could the unauthorized seizure of a castle in Ultima Online be analogous to a real world vehicle theft? As he pointed out the "widget factory" model doesn't work to describe virtual property, although it signifies more than "an entry in a database" to those who make meaning from activities involving its circulation. Lastowka discussed how Dutch police had busted Habbo Hotel furniture thieves, and how the benign neglect of virtual wrongdoing by local Chinese authorities could have real-world consequences in the case of the theft of a virtual sword in Legend of Mir III. He also argued that there could be both first amendment and intellectual property grounds upon which to challenge the legitimacy of click-through end-license user agreements, as in the case of those creating software to automate play in parts of World of Warcraft. However, he also cautioned against being too literal minded, given that a critical part of a game like EVE Online is to defraud and cheat other people. By making an analogy to the rules about assault that apply on an athletic field in which sometimes violent physical activity can be expected to take place, Kastowka emphasized how virtual jurisdiction could be understood in the post-Westphalian order of current-day critical legal theory.

Last up on the panel, Jeffrey Snodgrass and his students from Colorado State presented on their field study of World of Warcraft in a paper on "Internet Addiction or Restorative 'Magic Flight.'" Using Nick Yee's schema of six factors that motivate players in online MMO play, Snodgrass and his students played World of Warcraft and studied how "achievement" and "socializing" often trumped motivators such as "exploration," "immersion," "escape," and "manipulation" for both good and bad ends. His team argued that the "American dream" that emphasized acquiring capital -- in the form of both wealth and reputation -- and securing personal relationships worth bragging about could produce both pro-social and anti-social results. At a time when legislators are increasingly likely to regulate game play on the assumption that it encourages pathological addiction, while those same legislators are using it in both military training and K-12 education, this reseach could prove to be particularly relevant. At other times after his session, Snodgrass, an expert on India, reminded those in the conference of the origins of the word "avatar"in Sanskrit and the social function of puppetry in countries outside the United States.

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