Thursday, September 22, 2011

MMO Judiciary - Functions and Solutions

In the United States we are used to a court system whose focus centers on rule elaboration and enforcing public norms by handing down rulings. Joanne Scott, in her essay Courts as Catalysts, discusses the changing role of courts by focusing on their capacity to share information, fact check, and test the authenticity of government decisions by weighing their evidence. It’s a new model meant to reflect the role the courts may play in a steadily de-centralizing government. She inadvertently presents a potential template for resolving the conflict between Coding Authority and player.

The basic idea in Scott’s paper is that courts can serve to check the evidence of the governing authority while still fulfilling important obligations in the community. It’s a kind of PR, a government institution separate from the authority who handles disputes in the system. The institution does not have the power to make new rules, only legitimize or overturn existing ones. Scott’s vision of a system where, “courts become a source of communicating ideas and experience, without being the source of their creation, and without being specifically prescriptive in relation to any particular form” may find its most useful application in virtual space rather than reality.

The necessity for this kind of system, as noted in the previous essay, crops up when you have the strange type of tyranny that’s possible in an MMO. All laws are automatically enforced, traditional methods of feedback are cut-off and players are often forced to quit. It’s unlikely any developer would actually do this on purpose, it’s just inevitably going to happen in any system of rules. An essay by Leslie Green on the causes of Judicial Decisions reminds one that rules are indeterminate, not merely in dramatic or marginal cases, but in most cases, because indeterminacy flows not only from vagueness but also from pervasive unresolved conflicts among the laws of the system. There is always an unintended consequence or unexpected application stemming from the rules of conduct or the code itself.

Application of this will vary from game to game. You probably do not want the judiciary to have any authority over the actual design such as nerfing items. A more debatable issue, such as perching in Asheron’s call, duplication, hording or some other in-game strategy, is more ideal because it’s allowed by the Coding Authority. It just has the unintended consequence of disrupting the entire game for players. Rather than have the designers fret over financial impacts or disrupting the economy, you just have a hearing where people make their case. Evidence is drawn from the servers and personal accounts. The dispute gets resolved quickly, transparently, and with player involvement occurring throughout.

It’s important to remember that in many cases transparency just means communicating your reasons for acting clearly. Most concerns about the language of a judiciary becoming unwieldly aren’t really necessary. As Peter M. Tiersma notes in his book Parchment, Paper, Pixels, the reason the modern legal system is so wordy and difficult to understand is because the language is meant to only have one meaning. In America we practice common law, meaning each court ruling is binding on all future rulings. To avoid multiple interpretations of a contract, bill, or law you have to phrase it a manner that’s very alien to most people.

That’s especially true today where the internet has enabled rapid communication. People write like they talk now and it’s understood in the same manner. Unless the judicial system wanted to impose some kind of common law model, precision in the writing to that degree would be unnecessary. You just ask the judge for clarification. You can already see an example of this practice with Xbox Live’s Why Was I Banned? forums. Having a clear explanation from another person helps give authority and clarity to the rules of the Xbox Live service. The average person should be able to understand everything going on but having a model for dealing with people always helps.

The same goes for pleading a complaint: if they can form a complete sentence then there’s no reason they couldn’t make a complaint. Lawyers exist because just one part of the legal system takes months or even years of study to understand. It got this way because the bigger the population, the more rules you need to protect all those competing interests. An MMO is not ever going to become large enough that the average player does not already know everything they need to when crafting a complaint.

Diversity in judicial opinion, both between judges and their views vs the Coding Authority, should also not be taken as a huge problem. Uniformity must occur in the results of rules, but not necessarily in the way those results are reached. A textualist approach, where the Judge reads everything literally, may have various uses and appeals depending on the game. Alternatively a Judge who discusses the issue with the Coding Authority and adds weight to the views might be more favorable. A great Judge would be able to juggle multiple perspectives to get a result satisfactory to all. As Lawrence B. Solum explains, “Good judges are clever in using the resources within existing law to solve the legal problems that come before them. The very best judges are experts at avoiding originality. And the very worst judges may be the most original. Very bad judges may use the cases that come before them as the vehicles for changing the law, transforming the rules laid down into the rules that the judges prefer.”

At the end of the day, the existence of a judicial system would ultimately be derived from the Coding Authority, who is in turn controlled by the Developer, Publisher, and their shareholders. While mounting arbitration costs and threats from the outside world are a good reason for creating a means of resolving disputes in-game, perhaps the best reason of all is simply advertising. In his guide to building a successful MMO Raph Koster explains that the key is ownership of something in the game. Whether it’s buildings, characters, or a job the player needs to, “feel a sense of responsibility to something that cannot be removed from the game.”

Examples of MMOs violating this sense of ownership are everywhere. Despite the strong sales of the latest WoW expansion, players quitting the game by the thousands. The anger at the expansion varies from being being too short to stripping the game of all complexity for newplayers. One scathing comment explains, “Cataclysm is the end result of an MMO design by numbers philosophy inspired the wishes of accountants and avarice of shareholders. This is one picnic basket of childish quests and facile gameplay expressly designed to appeal to the lowest common denominator out there.” These complaints have nowhere to go and no one who will listen to them. And while the expansion might make money in the long term, it’s also costing them the veteran players who have stuck with the game for years.

At other times it’s problems that arise from a GM acting carelessly. A huge controversy arose in a Bioware forum when a moderator closed a thread because a group was debating homosexuality in the Star Wars universe. Such blank and total censorship generated massive amounts of negative PR even though the forum moderator was only attempting to prevent a flamewar. A similar example was the removal of Nazi soldier’s name from an in-game badge. No discussion, no explanation, and nothing but negative PR for the game for operating in a totalitarian manner.

The benefits of this will vary depending on the game, there is no one model for every MMO. A judicial branch mediates the conflicts that arise between the hard laws, the social standards and the general strangeness of humanity. All of these things clash and overlap in constantly changing ways, creating indeterminacy for the outcome of disputes. Introducing a third party relieves the Coding Authority from assuming a totalitarian approach to all conflicts, gives transparency to the process, and creates a more legitimate avenue for conflict resolution outside of enforcing the EULA.

Judith Williamson, in her seminal text on Decoding Advertising, explains that an ad is essentially the transference of human qualities and characteristics to consumer products. Concepts like fairness, loyalty and safety are generated and projected onto the game. An internal MMO judiciary represents a concentrated effort to form that connection with the player as a kind of background association. First and foremost, they should be enjoying the game and having fun. But if things go wrong, they can know they won’t need to deal with an expensive legal system or negotiate a EULA. Their problems can be resolved in-game, fairly and transparently.

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