Text of my presentation at the IGF panel Videogames and their Uniting Power.
Thanks very much to the organisers for the kind invitation to join this panel, it is an honour. I have to start with a disclaimer, I am just an academic who has been writing on the interface between copyright and technology for many years, but I am also talking from the perspective of someone who has been a gamer for most of his life (you can insert the how do you do fellow kids meme here). So, I’m both an industry outsider, but also someone who is keen on looking at the industry from a policy perspective, particularly talking about the interface between games and IP.
As we have heard from the previous panel, this is a very exciting time for the games industry. It was one of the creative industries that managed to weather the pandemic not only unscathed, but thriving as well. This means that the present and future of the industry look bright, but I would like to comment on a few trends from perhaps a more cautious perspective, all with the understanding that these are from a friendly outsider.
The first opportunity is presented by the emergence of the Metaverse. For something that is being talked about so much in recent months, the definition of what exactly is the Metaverse tends to be elusive. Depending on how you define it, some old virtual communities from the early days of the Web would apply as being part of the Metaverse, things like Multi-user dungeons, or MUDs, were some of the first virtual environments. However, the term Metaverse of course was first used in Neal Stephenson’s cyberpunk classic novel “Snow Crash”, and it was used to describe an immersive version of the Internet that one could visit with virtual reality equipment. Over the years the virtual reality element appears to be an important part of what many understand as the Metaverse, but for the most part the most successful implementations have been in virtual world games, particularly MMOs such as Ultima Online, Runescape, City of Heroes, World of Warcraft, Star Wars: The Old Republic, and Elder Scrolls Online, just to name a few.
The Metaverse we’re being presented, the Facebook Metaverse let’s call it, seems to be a platform-based environment where developers will design games to work in a specific development environment, be it hardware of software. This view is more like the OASIS in Ready Player One, where all IP inhabits one single space. The opposite of this vision is an open and decentralised Metaverse with no centralised authority, powered by Web3, more of that a bit later.
Whatever shape the Metaverse takes, it is evident that games will continue to be their main application, which brings me to the second opportunity and challenge. With the potential to have a more prevalent multiverse environment with new businesses and a growing user base, there may be more of a call to make many of the platforms interoperable with one another. As both a gamer and an observer of policy debates around IP, interoperability has been one of the most interesting legal issues arising I this area. From a strict copyright perspective, it is recognised that interoperability and reverse engineering are an important part of how computer programs are allowed to interact with one another. If we encounter a future where Multiverse platforms become centralised, this question will be vital.
The third opportunity in gaming is already happening, and it is the possible tokenization of in-game assets, mostly seen now in the shape of non-fungible tokens and the deployment of the so-called Web3, which are apps and platforms powered by blockchains and cryptocurrencies. There’s quite a lot of hype in this area, so it is important to keep the possible opportunities grounded in reality. What is interesting is that NFTs are being sold as a potential marketplaces to develop. In some games there is already the use of some form of NFTs with which players can purchase characters for resale, such as Axie Infinity, which has been developing an interesting marketplace. There are some issues that in order to enter the game players have to invest massively, and there’s no assurance to the returns on investment, but this is an interesting avenue to explore. The other potential is the possible tokenization of goods, skins, and characters in game. This opens exciting opportunities for future interoperability, you buy an item or skin in one game, and because it’s tokenized it can be moved to another game. I have no idea how or if this would work in reality, but users are abuzz with such opportunities, and it is often mentioned as one of the case uses for Web3 apps in gaming.
Concluding these quick remarks, as users we want the innovation to continue, but I would warn against paying too much attention to some of the hype and buzzwords surrounding the space. While the Metaverse and NFTs could bring about new opportunities, blockchain technology can often be expensive and slow down networks, so whichever solution is chosen will probably not be what we understand as a public blockchain. Only time will tell which versions will eventually be deployed.
One thing is for sure, you’ll find me in the frontiers of these brave new worlds blasting something with magic.