I have been playing World of Warcraft again in preparation for the forthcoming Mists of Pandaria expansion (two words: panda monks!). For years I played in European servers the same character, an Alliance Human mage who then switched sides and joined the Horde as a Blood Elf, and finally settled into a Worgen when he was bitten by the cataclysmic bug, and when I discovered that playing a human in a fantasy game is like eating vanilla ice cream, but I digress… The point I was trying to make is that during those years this character accumulated a considerable number of achievements, gear, gold, pets and mounts. Granted, these digital items exists only in-game. They are, for lack of a better word, statistics and numbers in some database hosted on a server somewhere near Paris. As such, they are the sole property of Blizzard Entertainment, the makers of WoW, and players like me do not have any rights over the characters, we just pay for the privilege of pushing pixels around.
However, my current situation got me thinking about avatar rights (again), and has prompted the writing of these lines. As I am in Costa Rica, playing in European servers is not completely feasible, so for years I have had a US-based account where I played other characters, but none has the inventory of my main European avatar. You would think that it would be easy to transfer one character from a European account to the US servers, but you would be wrong. While the character is merely a bunch of zeroes and ones, these tend to have strict jurisdiction from the game owner perspective. So my main character remains in Europe, where he cannot howl through the Western Hemisphere servers. Blizzard does not cater to world travellers unless you are riding on the back of a dragon.
Is it unreasonable of me to expect to be able to move my avatar from one jurisdiction to the other? It might be if we consider avatars as nothing other than the digital property of the game manufacturer. But it is my contention that there might be a sound legal argument to be made towards some form of avatar rights, something that can be transferred to our social media selves as well.
A good part of our lives in the modern, digital, wired world are being conducted online, from email to social media, and entertainment is no exception. iPods, Kindles, video streaming, FB profiles, games, Twitter accounts… it is my contention that all of these should be taken as a digital continuum where we as users should have a set of basic rights to the content that we create and upload. Increasingly, social media platforms are allowing us to download our data, a right that I believe should be enshrined in law, and not just be a gift enforced by the end-user license agreement (EULA). This should also be the case for game content. Digital in-game goods are no different from music on your iPod, or ebooks on your Kindle.
Moreover, there are real world effects of digital content. WoW gold can be sold for real money (just google “WoW Gold” and prepare to be amazed). Similarly, avatars can now be brought to life through 3D printing, and in the future it might be possible to see them over-imposed on the real world through augmented reality. In short, if something has real world effects, then the law should make provisions for it. At the moment, everything is ruled through the tyranny of the EULA. We are told what we can and cannot do with our digital content, while we have spent time, skill and labour in the pursuit of those items. Digital accounts have become valuable assets, just follow the money to discover that the online game economy is still a growing phenomenon. It is no coincidence that cybercriminals have realised that there is money to be made in this environment, and therefore hack into accounts to remove all digital goods from it and sell them later. The amount of game-based phishing emails I receive has only increased in recent years, which serves as evidence of the economic importance of digital works. Heck, my WoW account has better authentication protocols than my bank! If what a person creates has commercial value, it should be protected by law somehow. At the very least, it is akin to “sweat-of-the-brow” arguments for the existence of copyright. The argument towards avatar rights continues unabated.
Avatars of the world, it is time to take our digital bits back and demand avatar data download and upload across the board. Free the trapped bits!
Now, where did I put my game authenticator? The Darkmoon Faire is in town again.