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Dark Half Cleaning

Can Players Have Rights?

1689 Bill of Rights Could there be a viable concept of ‘player rights’, and if not, are there any grounds for legally restricting games?

There have been several attempts to propose a ‘Player’s Bill of Rights’ (e.g. Graham Nelson in 1994, Raph Koster in 2000, Peterb of Tea Leaves in 2004, Ernest Adams in 2005, and Brad Wardell in 2008), but the tendency of these has been to present wish lists of requirements game developers should adhere to, motivated partly by personal frustrations, and partly by professional expertise. Such statements can be exceptionally useful as proposals of best practices for game design or commercial game development, but the ‘bill of rights’ aspect of such manifestos is best understood as an imaginative framing. It certainly helps such claims get noticed, but it does not rise to the level of a genuine claim to rights.

There are two possible ways that we might get clear of this problem. Firstly, we could involve many different players in a discourse on their issues – which will prove intractable in the face of the immense diversity of players, and the vocal bloody-mindedness of certain factions among them. The alternative, which I take up here, is to pursue a concept of player rights from similar philosophical groundings to the US Bill of Rights and the so-called Universal Declaration of Human Rights, namely Kant’s concept of Recht (what I will call ‘the rightful state’ or ‘rightful conditions’). This idea has been a substantial influence in the emergence of what are now asserted as ‘rights’, although it should be noted that the very first Bill of Rights (pictured above) was written in 1689 and reflected the earlier philosophy of John Locke (although this was also an influence on Kant’s work).

It is worth observing that of the above mentioned bills of player rights, Raph Koster’s A Declaration of the Rights of Avatars is closest in form to historical documents of this kind (being partly modelled upon them). But for these kinds of player rights claim to hold up, they must hold up on grounds parallel to historical rights legislature – and this is far from obviously the case, for reasons this enquiry will undertake to make clear.

Ethics vs. Rightful Conditions

Kant divided morals into ethics (which he saw as rational self-constraint) and the rightful state (which concerns civil law). Rightful conditions are distinct from ethics because Kant thought, as many of us do today, that freedom consists in setting your own ends (that is, your own life goals), without being unnecessarily constrained by others.

As Allen Wood explains, it was Kant’s proposal that the only justifiable role for coercion of any kind was to secure the external freedom of citizens – this and this alone is the rightful state for any nation. Kant did not consider it reasonable for anyone to be forced to adopt other people’s ends, since anyone who is constrained in this way is not free. But ensuring that everyone was able to set their own ends in a civil society means protecting against attempts to force other people to adopt ends that are not their own – and the only reasonable use of coercion would be to prevent this.

Such enforcement does not require anyone to adopt any specific end, it merely protects everyone against any such attempts to dominate their freedom. We are only free, the argument goes, if we are free to choose our own ends, our life goals, although we may be rightfully constrained in the pursuit of those ends because some things that we might intend to do would violate the rightful condition (e.g. murdering people who block your chosen end).

It is thus from the idea of a rightful condition that the authority of civil police arises, and also from the rightful state that concepts of human rights develop, to protect against external coercion. This sets the background to exploring the idea of player rights: if such an idea is valid, there must be a rightful condition for games.

The Ends of Games

To begin with we must ask: do we ever possess ends when we play? It is important to appreciate that an end is far more than just something you want. As I explain in Chaos Ethics, ends are imagined future states in your life that you actively commit to pursuing. You may heartily crave an ice cold beer but it cannot be one of your ends – although it could be one of your ends to own a brewery, say.

Either our gaming-ends – to reach Level 70, build a castle, 100% a game etc. – are truly ends in the sense that freedom implies, or else they are something akin to fictional-ends, hence (analogously to Walton’s quasi-emotions) quasi-ends i.e. imagined ends whose meaning occurs solely within fictional worlds and not in everyday life as such. This distinction is not that easy to settle, however. A player may genuinely want to 100% a game, but then lose interest and play something else – or may become so obsessed with World of Warcraft that they drop out of college.

Notice also that some kinds of game are difficult to imagine quasi-ends for – what I have called thin play games such as Dear Esther and Proteus do not afford much room for willing future states, as they are experiential, like other artworks. Similarly, you may want to win at Snakes & Ladders but it is not a plausible end to set, nor is becoming a master at this particular game a particularly plausible end, as it might be (potentially) for Chess or Tetris.

The safest answer is to provisionally treat ends within the fictional worlds of games as quasi-ends that nonetheless can affect the ends we set in life – such as the undergraduate who succumbs to the lure of Azeroth, and thus frustrates his original end to earn a degree. This approach helps us deal with ambiguities about the diversity of player responses to the very same games that should affect our assessment of whether and how players set ends in the games they (freely) choose to play.

Do Games Coerce Players?

For there to be a question of player rights in Kant’s philosophy there must be a possibility of coercion that should be excluded – so we must ask: can game developers force quasi-ends upon players against their will? It is not entirely clear that they can.

In the case of the MMO drop-out, it does not seem entirely reasonable to suggest the player was coerced by Blizzard so much as suffered a personal moral failure after playing their game (i.e. this is an ethical problem, not an issue with rightful conditions). Blizzard, World of Warcraft, and other players who know the drop-out are all implicated in the network of moral agency here, but implying coercion seems to massively overstate the level of responsibility of anyone involved. The same would appear to apply to scurrilous microtransactions that take advantage of frustrated players – they may be ethically questionable, but preying upon the impulses of players does not quite seem to be of the magnitude required to constitute coercion. After all, isn’t this more or less what casinos do?

What this suggests is that there cannot be any player rights based upon this idea of rightful conditions, which is where all our other uses of ‘rights’ descend from (even those older conceptions drawing against Locke). It may be immoral for developers to produce games that take advantage of compulsive tendencies, but it does not qualify as a breach of rightful condition. The developer, on the other hand, does have its ends unrightfully frustrated by players who acquire access to their game via piracy – namely their end of being compensated for their own work. But this was not the subject of this particular enquiry.

No Rights, Many Wrongs

The reason it sometimes feels as if there should be player rights is that some decisions developers make frustrate players and seem thoroughly unnecessary – not allowing cut scenes to be skipped being a classic example (included in both Ernest’s and Peterb’s bills of rights), or using inadequately specified puzzles (as Graham Nelson’s bill of rights argues against).

However, at best we can say that it is bad business sense not to appreciate the needs of players in this regard, and (on the other side of this coin) players ought to be aware that software development is expensive and time-consuming and even small features place significant burdens on developers if they are required to implement them. In this regard, ‘player rights’ as lists of bugbears are not something that can be justified as anything other than advice for best practices. (Of course, this doesn’t mean developers shouldn’t pay attention to such issues, only that they cannot be compelled to adhere to them!)

In other cases (such as with Brad Wardell’s bill of rights), certain specific demands concern the commercial relationship between a player and a supplier that do not actually relate to games at all. For instance, it might indeed be a breach of rightful condition to secretly install hidden software drivers in so much as the individual’s ends regarding being in control of their own computer are being thwarted. But this has nothing to do with playing games.

Issues like this do, however, suggest there might be software rights that could be pursued, depending in part upon the rather important question of whether users are effectively forced to use certain instances of software. Again, this idea lies beyond the scope of this enquiry.

Conclusion

On purely philosophical grounds, I can draw several conclusions:

  1. Games are not clearly coercive, and as such are not a suitable venue for protective rights.
  2. Software (including game software) can potentially be coercive and might qualify as breaching rightful condition.
  3. There is a moral distinction between games that do not cause players to set specific quasi-ends (some of which share kinship with other kinds of artworks) and those that do.

These latter games, where they are especially compulsive, might justifiably be subjected to legal limitations in so much as civil societies restrict narcotics and gambling for similar (moral) reasons – and it could be argued (although I will not do so here) that such things do breach rightful conditions, although this claim is certainly a matter of debate.

Along similar lines, game developers who prey upon players through manipulative microtransactions cannot necessarily be prevented from doing so as a question of rightful conditions – but this does not preclude them from being judged immoral, and as such communities might decide to institute laws to restrict access to such games by (say) age, or some other appropriate criterion.

Such laws would not necessarily be consistent with Kant’s concept of rightful conditions, except where in so doing they clearly protected external freedom. This might be justifiable when dealing with children, who we tend to treat as being more susceptible to external influences, but if we think an adult is sufficiently autonomous to get drunk, we should equally think them capable of being in control of their games. It is not that players have rights so much as it is that players have responsibilities – and not least of all, to themselves.

Comments

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You seem to be making a qualitative distinction that I consider to be a mere difference of degree. Given that an end need not be a goal that lasts the remainder of your life (you cite getting a degree as a legitimate end), where does an end stop and why (for example) is aiming for a cold beer not an end? I admit that I've not (yet!) read Chaos Ethics, which may clarify that, so feel free to point me in its direction.

Blizzard has forced an unexpected quasi-end on me recently: I've stopped playing WoW without reaching my own desired quasi-end of settling my characters somewhere peaceful, because it has become clear that in order to maintain what they refer to as a "hero crucible" that peaceful place must not exist in the game. Because WoW is an evolving world controlled by the developers, it's possible for a games company such as Blizzard to change the game world so that one's ends are unachievable. Whether or not this meets any sensible definition of "rights" can be debated, but to the person at the sharp end it does rather feel like the laws have been arbitrarily changed!

Hi Peter,
Thanks for your challenge here - I appreciate it!

Drinking a cold beer is not an end because it is transient and impossible to 'will' (in Kant's sense). Ends are states that you will, and this implies an ongoing (future) state of affairs. You *could* will to drink a cold beer everyday, I suppose - that could qualify! :)

I also thought long and hard about the movie "Ice Cold in Alex" while I was writing this piece. In the film, the characters who are lost in the desert dream of having a cold beer in Alexandria when they finally escape and reach their destination... Is this an end? They certainly will it fervently, but it appears to be transient. But then I compare it to my willing that I wrote "Chaos Ethics" - is that not transient? In the case of the book, the book persists even though the act of publication was transient (as does the university degree, for that matter). I think the beer in "Ice Cold in Alex" *could* qualify as an end along parallel lines, but because surviving the desert and going onto do other things is an end with persistence conditions - the beer, in this case, is only symbolic of that continuing state.

However, I do concede that there is a difference of degree entailed here. For Kant, it is the difference between (merely) wanting and willing something. To will something is to commit to taking all steps in your power to bring it about (as far as Kant is concerned). It is not clear you can 'will a beer' in this sense - except, perhaps, in the case of something like "Ice Cold in Alex"! :)

(Christine Korsgaard has dug into this issue more than I have, but I think my understanding here is not far from the sources).

As for your Blizzard example - developers often thwart player's quasi-ends, but because what we are dealing with is a game (I am suggesting) it would not qualify as something to be protected by rights i.e. something that could be coerced. This could change if the culture we lived in began to take the actions in game worlds more seriously than they do - I can imagine a world in which what happened in a game could be willed in a way that the culture would consider worth permitting coercion in its connection. (For professional sports, this might already be the case, actually!). But this is not our world - and for this, I think we should be thankful. :D

I have to say, I have experienced the problem you outline here in almost all games that I have played as services, and have made the decision that I am very reluctant to continue supporting games that are run as services. This is a tricky decision, as almost all games are now run this way! Still, this is the way my will is turning now... But of course, this is a moral question for me as an ethical being, and not something that could be coerced, and hence not a question for rights.

I welcome further challenges if you have them! :)

All the best!

Chris.

"To will something is to commit to taking all steps in your power to bring it about (as far as Kant is concerned)."

By that definition I have no ends*, and never have had. I will take *reasonable* steps in my power, subject to re-evaluation of priorities in the future. I may want something, but I do not will it in that sense. Part of me's saying "why the bloody hell would anyone ever be that crazy?"

Regarding the transience of ends, might we perhaps approach a definition based on the end being sufficiently significant to the person that they will remember the event in the future and attach significance to that memory?

* Arguably one: to protect my wife. The argument is beyond the scope of this comment ;-).

Hi Peter,
This is an interesting point, actually, because I suspect that from Kant's perspective the quintessential moral problem of the 21st century is that our will has been depleted (what others would call widespread apathy).

But I think that you do and have had ends - you completed your degree, you pursue your company, you are committed to your wife. I think the 'reasonable' you have added probably belongs in my original definition as 'all reasonable steps within your power'. Kant never advocated irrational action!

As for transience, I am wary of making the act of remembering as the criteria for the obvious point that amnesia would not seem *not* to be relevant to working out an end, but does affect this definition. But you are definitely gesturing in a sensible direction here: I might be tempted to say that an end affects the story you tell of yourself, but this reflects my rather poetic bent on such matters. :)

Thanks for continuing our discussion!

Chris.

I like your poetic description, actually - how one thinks/speaks of oneself is probably closer to what I was getting at.

OK, so to bring this back towards the original discussion, how about "There's a new World of Warcraft expansion coming out in a couple of weeks and I, as a member of a world-leading guild that gains fame and fortune by its successes, will take all reasonable steps in my power to make sure I'm in on the world-first clear of the first raid." Is that an end? If so, might they be affected by rights?

Peter:
It's a quasi-end, because it is an end set within a fictional world. Now of course, some fictional worlds we take to be part of our shared political world - but that does not seem to be the case here. And as such, it does not qualify for the coercive protection of rights at the level of everyday politics.

My key point in this piece about quasi-ends is precisely that there is no prima facie reason for thinking that the coercive protections of rights extend to the ends we set in the fictional worlds of games.

That said, I think there's an interesting question here about whether the community that players in a multiplayer fictional world is not *also* a political entity, and thus that quasi-ends might lead to quasi-rights within that world. But this is a politics of virtual worlds question that I think remains intriguingly open.

A big question here is: if these quasi-rights do not qualify as rights in a wider political sense, then what could players do to bring them about in their chosen fictional worlds? And here, we have come interestingly parallel to the situation of rights in the everyday world. ;)

All the best,

Chris.

The idea that a human being can't have the basic rights of freedom and choice is absurd. Regardless of the moral philosophy. Governments and Companies that limit rights in ANY fashion have been rebelled against and ultimately brought down. Simply put, no authority should be given the right to usurp or limit the rights of any individual whom is acting in good faith. Gaming Companies and Tech Companies in general use TOS and EULA's to hold a gun to players heads so that they can either give up all their rights and privileges just so they can access a service or be barred from access because they refuse to accept unreasonable terms. Those terms often include clauses that piss in the face of the rights most of the world holds dear because they are the most effective ways to silence people in courtrooms and have been used in other industries to create prejudices which cannot be overcome legally.

Any argument for or against whether a person can have rights is simply absurd. People have rights. It's a matter of whether their government can enforce those rights and whether companies can use legalities to usurp those rights.

The question "can players have rights?" is absurd.
Just as absurd as "can women have rights?"

Although questions of this nature have been debated throughout history it has become truly apparent that ANYONE who doesn't answer "YES, people have rights." is utterly wrong, regardless of the philosophy they use to justify themselves (frankly, I don't like you dragged Kant into this debate the way you did and would argue passionately that the moral imperative destroys any argument you made and certainly counters your false conclusions). Whether an end is met or if it's just a want is irrelevant. The person has a right. A right to fair trials (impossible with ToS's and EULA's), a right to freedom of speech, the right to exist, the right to protest and many other rights which are specifically destroyed by gaming companies.

The question isn't IF gamers get rights or not. The question is whether we respect people enough to ensure they have rights. Fair Trial, Freedom of Speech, Appropriate Recourse and Compensation for damages and many other freedoms are specifically destroyed by these documents which I can't even call a contract. That would imply two sides sat down and agreed upon them. The EULA and ToS's which companies put out are simply a gun to players heads. They are an ultimatum. No one would agree to them in any other situation. There are constitutional rights being violated because these companies (with more citizens than many nations) aren't required to uphold them. Ask not IF people have rights. Ask if we're read to stand up for the rights we hold dear.

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