In much the same way that you have a computer, clothing, a backpack, and a bed, your characters in games also have equipment, money, and items – however, while you can call your computer your possession, can you say the same for the magic items in your character’s backpack? After all, your computer is a physical object that can be packed up and traded, but your sword is just a row of data in a database that’s rendered into pixels with a model and a texture.
We may accept that virtual items are not entirely like real items, but when we lose them the loss can be profound. As players we spend our own time and money to obtain them for our characters either through ceaseless grinding or we purchase them from the game in question with real money. Getting hacked feels a lot like being robbed: having all of your epic level gear melted down into gold at a vendor, leaving your character naked and penniless – has an impact because you put real hours of game play and effort into getting those items. Being banned is a lot like exile: your investment is still there, but now the fruit of that labor is inaccessible, all at the whim of the game’s administrators.
There are a lot of reasons to feel as if players should have some say in the disposition of our virtual items and there is dissonance between the sentiment that players place on their items and characters and the current state of the law. The dissonance arises from the fact that virtual items only exist in the context of the MMO in which they’re generated: you can’t take your Gran Faust sword out of Spiral Knights and equip it on your warrior in Runes of Magic. No matter how much time, energy, or money you spent on obtaining raw materials and crafting weapons in-game, all of those virtual items will forever be tied to that game, to that publisher, and potentially to the character who equipped them.
Under much current international law virtual items in video games are not property but part of a license. The MMO publisher grants you a temporary service that includes your possession of the virtual items on your character’s person. The Terms of Service you accept when you join the video game spell out that you’re accessing their service and that they can pull the rug out from under you at any time for any reason. And when an MMO goes offline permanently (like Faxion Online, Fantasy Earth Zero, Exteel, among others) many virtual items evanesce out of existence. Your possession of virtual items is contingent entirely on the MMO publisher maintaining the servers that the data is stored on. In this way, the MMO company provides the items on a property-as-a-service basis to the players who possess them. The closest analog to game items are other types of services that are essentially “virtual” but hold value, such as bank accounts or stocks.
However, in each of these instances we contract with an institution to store a virtual representation of real world value – that is, the bank and you agree that the number in your bank account represents real money. In the case of a character or a virtual item there’s no such agreement for the traditional MMO player. For us, the very existence of the items and their ownership is part of the Terms of Service. Under the current laws and standard TOS, we do not own virtual items in the same fashion that we own real property; but, like most virtual things, our possessions in MMO games exist as part of a social contract between us players and the game publisher. Unlike standalone video games, MMO games build communities and it’s from this effect we see that virtual items gain a great deal of their affecting worth.
Because of the mutual interdependence of this social contract, we can argue that MMO game publishers and admins have moral responsibility to players and our virtual possessions. Good MMO publishers and administrators will respect that social contract – and thus the effort and commitment of the players – and players and publishers shall “share” (even if it’s unofficial, ephemeral, and temporary sharing) in the “custodianship” of that virtual property.
By Kyt Dotson