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D2.13: Virtual Persons and Identities

Avatars  D2.13 Virtual Persons



The term “virtual person” often refers to avatars, i.e., to characters in a Multi User Dungeon, Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games, or other computer games. Avatars are a special kind of virtual persons. However, as we will see in Sections , and , the concept of virtual person is much broader and should not be reduced to avatars only.


Figure : Two avatars in an online game


Avatars interact in a game; some of them rely on human beings (players) for their actions and/or behavior, while others might be directed by the game itself. Avatars can have rights and obligations associated to them within the game.

In the advent of the Internet a lot of debate arose with regard to its regulation. The first reaction of the developers and the users of the Internet was that it should remain unregulated. As Schellekens describes “the Internet users […] proclaimed that the law was not applicable to the Internet”. He also believed that the Netiquette would be sufficient for this new space. The great implications that the Internet had for activities with economic impact, and mainly for copyright, lead, however, to the approach that “what holds off-line, also holds online”. Both these approaches present a number of advantages and disadvantages, which leads many legal scholars to sustain that the best approach stands somewhere in the middle. There is an undoubted need for equivalent protection, but this would be better accomplished via the application of different rules that would bring the same results.

The wide spreading of Multi User Dungeons (MUD), Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPG), and other types of games (we will further refer to them as “virtual games”) has given rise to a similar problematic with regard to the regulation in these virtual worlds. Shall the virtual worlds be seen as a sui generis representation of the off-line world? Shall the same rules be applied and are similar behaviors to be expected by the virtual persons? What are these virtual persons anyway and what are their rights? Some of these questions we will try to tackle in this section, not daring to believe that we will be able to definitively answer them. These questions, and in particular the issues related to avatars, will be more thoroughly discussed in Deliverable D17.2.

In this section, we will focus on the relation between the players and the avatars (virtual persons) and describe this relation from different perspectives. This use case will be further investigated, with respect to the model of virtual persons, in Deliverable D17.1.  

When people first think of virtual games and virtual worlds, they imagine an environment, where players enter just to spend some of their time and to get engaged in a “game”. However this is quite far from the reality. It has been repeatedly demonstrated by several social scientists that the players of virtual games grow a tight bond with their avatars. They act as if they were themselves really the characters in the virtual game. The players feel pleasure, they get upset or hurt or even insulted, exactly because they have projected themselves into an avatar body. Whilst playing in an online game, the players have simultaneously a dual role and they act as two persons: their avatar and their off-line self. They use “I” or “me” to refer to both and in some cases they invent codes in order to differentiate between the two, when they are discussing with other participants: IRL (in real life), IC (in character), OOC (out of character) etc. Such behavior continues even when they are no longer acting in an online environment: they can narrate to their friends about their online activities using the first person singular. But would this be enough in order to consider the avatar as a partial identity of the player?

Anonymity in virtual games

The player and the avatar are different, but they are undoubtedly linked. We shall however examine how strong this link is between them and what are the legal implications of this link. Players of virtual games take it for granted that their anonymity, especially towards the rest of the participants, will be ensured. The right to anonymity in the off-line world is a very controversial issue and as B.J. Koops says “if a right to anonymity were established as a generic right, it would be so relative as to become meaningless”, There are numerous occasions where the right of identification someone else can hold against you overweighs your own right to remain anonymous. For instance, you can not claim your right to anonymity in order to avoid being interrogated for a crime, let alone if you have committed that crime.

Nevertheless, the players of virtual games have a diverging approach towards identification and anonymity. In virtual games anonymity is considered a condition sine qua non and plays a determining role for your participation in the game and your role therein. Or maybe we should better refer to the anonymity of your offline self and pseudonymity of your online one. In any case, both are rendered absolutely necessary, when acting in virtual game environments. In the game you are “Anshe Chung”, “Malcolm Landgrabb”, or “Jandoleer” and you behave accordingly. You become braver, more compassionate, crueler or more arrogant… And still, you know that the other participants of the game will most likely not be able to find out your civil identity and your physical world social image will always remain intact.

If the avatar is a new way of expressing opinions or adopting behaviors for the modern citizen, what exactly is its relation to the “man behind the avatar”? Undoubtedly the link between the player and the character is stronger than in traditional board games. However, it is broadly sustained that the strength of the link between the player and the character is analogous to the time spent developing the character, something that resembles the case in the traditional “pen & paper” role playing games.

The experiences of the avatars have a great influence on the psychology of the players, who can get traumatized when they become victims of virtual crimes, such as in the case of so called “virtual rape”. In March 1993 a character in the LambdaMOO community called Mr. Bungle forced some other characters into sexually humiliating activities. J. Dibbell described the incident very vividly: “Into the online, text-based, virtual reality known as LambdaMOO strides Mr. Bungle. And after a few weeks’ residence there he finds himself, like a good many of the other inhabitants, in possession of an object known as a voodoo doll. And when I say "object" what I mean is a program, a piece of code, for when you left out the players who interacted in LambdaMOO what you were left with, essentially, was a collection of programs, all designed to enable the players to manipulate the text of which LambdaMOO was constructed in various more and less interesting ways. And more specifically, what the voodoo doll enabled its owner to do was to spoof other players. Spoofing is, of course, a netwide term denoting the appropriation of a user’s identity by other users; and in the context of the MOO this meant that by typing actions into the voodoo doll, its owner could make it appear as if another player were performing those actions. This was something of a violation of the social conventions of virtual reality, a kind of flouting of the sanctity of a player’s control over his or her virtual body, but on the other hand it was an easily detected violation, it could amuse both victim and perpetrator if deployed with the proper esprit de corps, and it was often a big hit at parties.”

This behavior was criticized by the other members of the community and was even called a “virtual rape” by several of them. This incident has given rise to a strong debate as to whether it could be considered as rape or not. Prof. Catherine MacKinnon stated that “a virtual rape leaves the same scars in the soul of the victim as a real rape leaves in the body of the victim”. It seems that the psychological trauma experienced by persons that were behind the “raped” avatars was actually real and they have been used as an example for sexual assault that did not involve physical contact.

This is just one out of many examples that can illustrate that the players project themselves into their avatars. And for this exact reason they expect that their avatars are granted their own identity and are vested with rights. But should there be a response of the law to that? Law naturally has to adjust to the needs of the society; but is there an actual need for regulation via the law? Even if we accept that the player is affected by the experiences and the behavior of his avatar, that as a virtual character he has specific role in a game, making friends and developing a second life; even if we accept that today we have the right to say that “you only live twice”, even then it would be extremely difficult to recognize some kind of identity rights to the avatar.

Crawford has very simply summarized that “Your identity is ‘really’ a database entry”. It is always the player that makes the decisions, that leads the conversations and presses all the buttons. If we accept this position that we need to punish the virtual rapist, considering that just expelling him from the game, eliminating his account and his object – as it happened in the aforementioned example – would not be enough, shall we then punish the virtual killer with the same severity as the real serial killer? make a comparison of virtual games to a real case related to a game of hockey, where social circumstances were also taken into consideration in the ruling of the court. Starting from this example they make the comment that “the harm suffered by victims within virtual worlds is generally only an emotional and social discomfort and, to some extent, a putative financial harm where players have the right to trade virtual properties”.

Privacy concerns in virtual games

Even when questioning that the existing law shall regulate many of the online activities of the avatars and the relevant players, it is beyond question that severe privacy concerns arise in virtual games. Participation in virtual games reveals personal data to the service provider and the owner of the platform. In case of breaches of the EULA, the owner of the platforms will refer to the real identity of the player. Similar will be the case, when online (and not virtual) crimes are committed and law enforcement authorities will demand from the owner of the platform to reveal the identity of a specific player.

But mainly the participation in virtual games is a place where a player, “the man behind the avatar” – as we have already called him – reveals a lot of information about himself: information about their family, friends, job, sex life, habits etc…. Discussions can get very personal and the information revealed can serve as the basis for the creation of profiles or even for identity theft.

Problems also arise with regard to the archiving of the discussions that take place on the platforms that are offered in the virtual games. Service providers store the conversations for a very long period of time. It is usually the impression of the players that the forums are private and hence they express their opinion about a variety of – occasionally even sensitive – issues. However, this is not the case, as the forums are actually public in nature. Furthermore the fact that the discussions are stored for so long, entails the danger that the writer of a comment can be “haunted” by that for a long period of time. Ideas change, beliefs change, but the problem is that scripta manent. So, people can get to the position to justify themselves for something that they wrote – and eventually believed – several years in the past.


Avatars  fidis-wp2-del2.13_Virtual_Persons_v1.0.sxw  Conclusion
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