Avatars behaving badly

ulduar1A mage contemplates his doom in Ulduar

I have been reading about a bizarre occurrence that took place in World of Warcraft back in April that has got me thinking about morality, contractual terms, open data, and regulation (whoever said that you could not have serious discussions about games? ) I’ll try to reconstruct the story for WoW newbies, if you are not into games please bear with me, there are interesting legal implications here (you can read the comprehensive WoW Insider reporting here, here, and here).

One of the most exciting things to do in games like WoW is to raid a dungeon, this is a closed-off event available to those who enter the encounter, they are filled with lesser monsters (known as trash) and difficult monsters (known as bosses). The bosses give out improved gear once killed, and very difficult bosses also award achievements, which allow players to provide tangible evidence that they have defeated a boss. The manner in which the boss was killed also gives out achievements, proving the skill used in defeating a boss quickly, with no deaths, or in a specific manner that is considered noteworthy.

This is the story of a WoW guild called The Marvel Family, located in the Vek’nilash US server. For those unfamiliar with the terminology, guilds are groups of players that get together for social purposes, but mostly to raid instances together. There is a well-defined hierarchy of boss encounters in WoW, at the lower end we have easy bosses and instances that give out lesser-quality of gear; and at the higher-end we there are very challenging encounters that give out the most sought-after rewards in the shape of rare loot and achievements. The Marvel Family was an unremarkable guild, it had been progressing slowly through lower boss encounters, and just recently it had cleared the mid-to-high-end level dungeon of Naxxramas. However, something remarkable started to happen, The Marvel Family started killing off the bosses in the highest-level dungeon of Ulduar, and in doing so also started accumulating all sorts of achievements, some of them were world firsts.

One interesting aspect of the achievement system, and of Blizzard’s (the makers of WoW) general strategy about data management, is that the data about almost every aspect of the game is remarkably open and transparent. Blizzard offers an application programming interface (API) that allows programmers to interact with its data in all sorts of ways. This allows people to write programs that will check gear, check achievements, but most importantly, it can be used to rank guilds. Unsurprisingly, a game that draws in obsessive types sparks competitiveness amongst guilds as to who is best, who defeated what boss first, who reached an achievement first, et cetera. Some of us far down the ladder usually are not concerned with such things (my own guild is ranked 14,950 in the world), but there are those who monitor the guild rankings closely. It was these people who noticed The Marvel Family’s meteoric rise through the achievement charts, even landing some that are considered incredibly difficult to get. The obsessives cried foul in Internet forums across the virtual land. Was it possible that someone had managed to hack WoW?

The answer was simple. One of the members of the Marvel Family had his account hacked back in December. When customer support finally got around to reinstating some stuff to the account, one of the game masters  mistakenly sent an innocuous looking shirt called “Martin Fury“. At first glance there’s nothing remarkable about it, until you read what it does, “Use: Kills all enemies in a 30 yard radius.” This is what is known as a developer item. Developers need to test out encounters, and obviously they do not want to have to wade through wave after wave of trash in order to get to the boss, so they implemented an item that will kill everything in its path. Handy for developing, but completely overpowers whoever uses it in a normal fashion.

Imagine you were given the powers of the gods by mistake. What would you do? I like to think of myself as a moral kind of guy, but heck, I think I would try it out just once. We know that Karatechop, the guild leader of the Marvel Family did, he used it to one-shot bosses in Ulduar. By reading the comments of the affair in WoW Insider, this seemed to be considered an unimaginative use of the item.

Needless to say, Blizzard did not take this abuse of power lightly, they promptly suspended Karatechop’s account, and also his guild members. They had to be seen as acting fast because many guilds put a lot of effort in climbing up the guild rankings, and this exploit was unfair on them. They closed Karatechop’s account in this email:

Subject: World of Warcraft – Account Closure
****Notice of Account Closure****
Greetings REMOVED,
Account Name: REMOVED
Realm: Vek’nilash
Character Name: Karatechop
Account Action: Closure
Reason for Action: Terms of Use Violation – Abuse of Game Mechanics

• Using or exploiting errors in design, features which have not been documented, and/or “program bugs” to gain access that is otherwise not available, or to obtain a competitive advantage over other players;
• Anything that Blizzard considers contrary to the “essence” of the Game.

After a thorough investigation, Account Administration has determined that the account above was found to have participated in exploitive activities.

The character, “Karatechop,” on the realm “Vek’nilash” was found to have obtained an item (inaccessible by standard game play) from another player and trivialized the World of Warcraft raid contents with the exploitive use of this item. Consequently, this character was able to assist with the accumulation of items and achievements through the use of this item that is not obtainable by “normal” means.. The character’s actions gave the account an unfair advantage over all other players. As a result of the violation of the World of Warcraft Terms of Use, this account will be permanently closed.

This action has been taken in accordance with the Terms of Use (http://www.worldofwarcraft.com/legal/termsofuse.html) and our In-Game Policies (http://us.blizzard.com/support/article/20309). Any recurring subscriptions on this account have been suspended to prevent further monetary charges.

Only the Account Administration department can address disputes or questions you may have about this account action. To learn more about how we are able to assist you, please visit us at http://us.blizzard.com/support/article/21505.

This brings me to some of the legal implications of the incident. By reading the game’s Terms of Use, it is clear that Blizzard were acting within their rights as Karatechop’s actions fall well within the definition of exploit of an error that gives the player unfair advantage over others. However, one has to wonder about the finality with which they handled Karatechop’s account, as the error originated with a game master’s mistake. Toading an account, to use the term made famous by Dibbell’s A Rape in Cyberspace, is the ultimate punishment in virtual environments. People put a lot of effort into levelling a character, and to see them erased out of existence like that must be quite hard. One has to wonder if there would be a possible legal recourse to such an action. This incident reminds me of the case of Bragg v Linden Lab, where someone used similar exploits within a virtual world for their own advantage. The Bragg case resulted in settlement out of court and the reinstating of a banned account. I think that had Karatechop wanted to litigate, he may have gotten a fair hearing in a court of law. It could be possible to argue that avatars have achieved enough importance as to give them some form of rights and the possibility of a fair hearing.

Having said that, it is clear that Karatechop and the Marvel Family acted in manners that contravened the terms of use. They were not smart about how they used the unlimited power they had been given, if they had reserved it for special occasions, it is possible that this incident would have gone unnoticed. They also should have known that this was a bannable offence. After using it once, they should have notified Blizzard immediately.

Something else that I have been thinking about is just how much power is wielded by programmers and administrators in virtual worlds. As virtual economies grow in importance in real-world transactions, the checks and balances that must exist internally must be staggering. After all, producing gold online has become a real commodity with real monetary value. Exploits such as the Martin Fury would be priceless for gold farmers, and its abuse could lead to real inflation in world. It is not surprising then that Blizzard acted quickly and decisively here, as they have a lot to lose if they are seen as easily hackable.

Now back to work, I have an Ulduar raid tonight.

Comments 1

  1. Dibbell’s A Rape in Cyberspace

    I'd forgotten just how bad that article is. 🙁

    Something else that I have been thinking about is just how much power is wielded by programmers and administrators in virtual worlds.

    Code is the law in VR even more so than on the net. It's the laws of the land and laws of physics.

    Clans could enforce their members' behaviour with code if there was an API for it, making code custom as well as law. Second Life's sex animations approach this in a way.

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