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[...] it is not only the world’s fastest growing medium, but also the fastest growing area of global expertise in how to entertain, retain and connect twenty-first-century consumers. If the future is looking more and more like a game, it’s partly because the science of satisfaction has never before been so precise, so powerful, or so profitable. Where play goes, the world will follow.

As you perhaps may have gathered, I spent most of my childhood reading books. This was not due to choice on my part. I have never owned a gaming console. In fact I did not even really start to experiment with computer games until Massively Multiplayer Online titles really began to take off.

Of course I quickly learned what other MMO players know quite well – you go online to fight goblins and monsters you can kiss your social life goodbye. What is interesting is to observe just how mainstream this behaviour actually is. As today’s author Tom Chatfield points out in Fun Inc. there is not a world of difference between online gaming and social network sites such as Facebook. In fact, users of Mark Zuckerberg’s private nation spend an awful lot of time – notably during work hours – playing game applications on the site. Yet these people are not regarded with the same measure of contempt as the proverbial gamer ‘man-child‘ is.

Chatfield’s account gives a history of computer gaming, from its early development in 1962 as an experimental programming model in M.I.T. through to the evolution of the text-based games that led to genre defining titles such as Ultima and then onward through the console wars between Nintendo and Sega, which made clear just how much money could be earned from this evolving entertainment medium. Which was advanced to even more dizzying heights by the entry of Sony Entertainment, with their own console the PlayStation. Gaming is now a billion dollar industry, even threatening the box office clout of big budget Hollywood movies, with the console now poised to become the central entertainment hub of the family home.

Three heavily critical quotes of three very different mediums are presented to the reader at the beginning of Fun Inc.’s fifth chapter. The first is taken from Plato’s Phaedrus and describes Socrates’ disapproval of the written word. The second is taken from Georges Duhamel‘s book Scenes from the Life of the Future, insisting on the corruptive influence of film. Finally we come to a lambasting of gaming as an activity in itself, with London’s Mayor Boris Johnson stepping up to the plate, denouncing gamers as follows:

They become like blinking lizards, motionless, absorbed, only the twitching of their hands showing they are still conscious. [It] teaches them nothing. It stimulates no ratiocination, discovery or feat of memory.

Of course the fear of the new is nothing, um, new. What Chatfield is describing here is a fatal inability to recognize the pervasiveness of gaming. The teenage boy is the typical symbolic game player and yet many professionals, male and female, indulge in virtual worlds after work. One fascinating anecdote has a corporate position interviewee be scolded by a executive for not mentioning on his C.V. that he ran a guild in World of Warcraft. It showed team-building skills and managerial potential. However, there remain scare stories of gaming inspiring acts of real world violence. Chatfield treats of the media furore, as well as the many psychological studies of the effect of games.

There is even an unfortunate quote from Roger Scruton, taken from a 2008 article for The Times “Can Virtual Life Take Over From Real Life?“, where he rails against the ephemeral nature of virtual relationships, be they online communication or in-game narratives. I wonder has he since played Dragon Age?

In the second half of this book, Chatfield’s analysis really takes off. There are some very revealing discussions of online gaming profits, gold farming, Europe’s Pirate Party, as well as spotlighting the work of literate game writers/creators such as Rhianna Pratchett and Jason Rohrer – his game Passage sounds like a genuinely affecting, as well as intentionally morbid, game.

Unfortunately having read Greg Lastowka’s Virtual Justice recently, much of the material here was already familiar to me. In fact the early chapters resembled a superficial a potted history of the game industry. Once again there is discussion of Qui Chengwei, as well as the World of Warcraftblood plague‘.

Then again I read PC PowerPlay a very stimulating games magazine. So hit and miss fare overall.

Researchers today estimate that over two billion dollars changed hands in 2009 in exchange for items that exist only within virtual worlds. When tens of millions of people start spending billions of dollars on virtual objects, there will inevitably be disputes that lead to lawsuits. The questions that these lawsuits raise seem unusual enough to warrant a separate field of legal analysis. The generic term for this new field is “virtual law.”

I have been really looking forward to writing this review, as not only do I get to talk about this book – I can direct you to where you can find the book in PDF form (Here). The author’s website has further information on his research. I should mention I was originally directed to Lastowka by io9’s article published this week.

That felt good. I like to share.

Greg Lastowka opens his book on the legal ramifications of online conduct by comparing three castles, representing three states of law. Firstly he introduces the era of the physical castle itself, a fortified site of power for regants and later gentrified land-owners. Property law today still descends from the relationship of those who lived on the land of these castle inhabitants, with ‘landlord’, and ‘tenants’, the tell-tale references to the past. Then we have Disney’s Cinderella Castle, that fantastical gateway to the Magical Kingdom(TM) that actually enjoys surprising autonomy in its zoning laws, courtesy of clever negotiation on the part of Disney with Florida state officials. Finally we have the castle of Lord Britain. You may not of heard of him. He exists in the game series Ultima, has occasionally served as an alter-ego for developer Richard Garriott.

Lastowka relays two interesting anecdotes in regards to Ultima. The first describes how ‘virtual property’, such as a castle that can be owned within the game by a player, has become so desirable that it holds actual financial value. This is something that is common to many game series. In fact developers now market downloadable content for games such as Oblivion to players for a nominal fee. Lastowka asks, if virtual property has value, then shouldn’t the laws regarding ‘real property’, also apply?

The second Ultima tale also presents something of a riddle. In what almost sounds like the beginnings of a fairy tale, it appears Garriott as Lord Britain witnessed a player being robbed by another player. He intervened and using his in-game abilities, defeated the thief. Then moments later the ‘criminal’, repeated the same act. Garriott this time banned the player from Ultima, only to be confronted with the argument that if the game did not explicitly ban such behaviour, theft in this instance, the player should not therefore be punished so disproportionately.

Lastowka discusses how other online and virtual platforms such as Second Life, World of Warcraft, even Facebook’s Farmville (and I would include social networking sites like Facebook, Twitter, Myspace and the like also) have continually frustrated legal precedence, as the laws relating to theft, assault, libel are bound to geographical jurisdictions. Where is the jurisdiction when the perpetrator and the victim are separated by thousands of miles, with the servers where the event, in situ, happened in an entirely different location again?

Even online behaviour is held to a different standard from the Real World. Are husbands and wives who indulge in in-game relationships with virtual avatars guilty of adultery? Can an emotional attachment to a stranger wearing a digital body be considered real? We have the tragic case of Qiu Chengwei, who committed murder after his virtual sword was stolen and the police refused to get involved. As much as the ‘Dragon Saber’, sword may not have seemed important to the police, in Qui Chengwei’s eyes it was something worth killing for.

How does the law regulate such acts if some see the matter relating to fantasy and others a profoundly personal reality? John Perry Barlow’s A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace articulates the feeling of many online pioneers, that the internet is a virtual state and not beholden to the legalities of the physical world. This is a notion that often crops up in discussions of online censorship.

However, such appeals to freedom and group self-policing do not account for the need for legal protection and prosecution of cybercrime. This conflict between the idealised anarchist online state and legal precedent continues today.

As a causal online gamer, I found this to be a very interesting book. It eschews legalese and is quite well argued. Recommended.

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