Saturday, August 9, 2014

More Human Than Human

Sometimes it's not the main argument of a post that grabs your attention but a throwaway line here or there. J3w3l's been writing about Personality and Playstyle and as she discusses her psychopathic tendencies, killer instincts and Bartle scores she observes " I also hold no compunction with my virtual avatars dying either, I do form certain connections to them but not enough to worry about their demise. They’re more tools than anything, tools that I do get connected to but as good as their usefulness."

I can get quite weirdly invested in my characters. At work yesterday, having recently read the news item about a British MP tabling a parliamentary question on the possibility of equating the theft of virtual items with real-life theft, I was idly pondering a world where human rights had been extended not just to animals (for which, of course, there has long been a strong and active lobby) but to imaginary entities.

At first blush this sounds fanciful in the extreme but there have already been murmurs. Both intellectual property rights and copyright law have listed badly under the onslaught of digital technology and the struggle to right those ships is ongoing. A few years back there was a loud buzz around the possibility of digitizing actors. There was much speculation that we might see new movies from long-dead, iconic stars like James Dean or Marilyn Monroe.

That little moneyspinner has turned out to be a lot harder to pull off than early reports suggested but, despite the difficulties, the potential benefits that would come from building a bridge over Uncanny Valley are huge. Spurred on by a series of inconvenient deaths of high-profile and high-value stars, like Heath Ledger and Philip Seymour Hoffman, during the shooting of big-budget movies, development on the necessary technological innovation continues.

AS : Artificial Stupidity.
Much of the discussion on the supposed ethics of this practice, should it ever pass from wishful-thinking to practical reality, revolves around the intellectual property rights, specifically the personal image rights, of the individuals concerned, or those of their estates. Not every country recognizes personal image rights to begin with, of course, and what you or others can or can't do with your own image varies wildly across jurisdictions. Nevertheless, the concept is well understood, as is the concept of ownership of intellectual property rights.

It's not difficult to imagine a not-so-distant future in which this technology has reached such a degree of sophistication that it's no longer possible to differentiate the flesh-and-blood actors in a scene from their digital counterparts. Then add another layer: AI. What if those digitized actors now move and speak according to autonomous algorithms sufficiently advanced to allow them to improvise and ad lib? What if the lines they are delivering have no other author than the imaginary actor himself?

And now flip that back to gaming. Wilhelm and Isey have both been pondering the shortcomings of gaming AI of late. If we ever get our hands on EQNext we'll see the fruit of the StoryBricks project, which purports to be a step change in this regard. I'm not holding my breath on that one, but at some point, just maybe in the lifetime of someone reading this, we might see NPCs in video games that are impossible to distinguish from characters played by humans.

Grawl have rights too! Oh, they don't.
Now we're deep in the rabbit hole. If Mike Weatherly or some future analog were ever to get his way and the theft of items owned and traded in online games was deemed equivalent to the theft of items of equivalent value in what we call, with increasingly ironic inaccuracy, "real life", then, if the digital denizens of those games were by then indistinguishable under the Turing and Voight-Kampf tests or some newly-ordained legal equivalent, shouldn't the destruction of one of those characters be treated as murder?

This is one of those threads that, if you pull it, the world will unravel. At some point stuff like this is going to be an actual, ethical and legal problem for someone. I just hope that someone is never going to be me and won't have to be anyone at all for a good long while yet.

Until that time, I guess we can all carry on our merry way, slaughtering and robbing all before us as is our established custom. The qualms I occasionally have, sending certain of my characters into tricky situations, or the existential angst that grips me, when Mrs Bhagpuss clinically presses the delete button on a character that my characters knew as a friend, all of that can remain as it is now -  an idiosyncratic character quirk, arch affectation, self-indulgent fancy.

All the same I'd be a lot happier if they'd rename the "Delete Character" button to something less disturbing. "Gone To Live On A Farm", say, or "Retired To Grow Roses By The Seaside". That's what really happens when you press it anyway. Everyone knows that. Not that I ever do press it. Hardly ever.

Excuse me, I think I need a lie down.


  1. If I remember correctly, according to a Dutch courtcase involving (again, iirc) someone who robbed someone else's Runsecape Account's assets (not the account itself), was succesfully prosecuted for theft. This lead to people saying that now virtual property is defended by law in the Netherlands.

    Similarly (and I realize this is a rather sordid example), it has been debated that sexual offenses comitted to virtual beings should be a punishable offense as well (possession of virtual 'kiddie porn' - always considered that a rather odd English term - involving animated figures made to look like children being abused etc.) so the 'rights for virtual beings' thing may not be that far off over here.

    So it may not just be a MP's publicity stunt but becoming real in the UK as well.

    Note that in the Dutch legal system, there is a rather distinct seperation of something being an offense and being actually prosecuted (the marihuana selling 'coffee shops' being a prime example, strictly speaking they're illegal but they're tolerated/'gedogen' as long as they follow certain rules; over here we have government rules on how you are allowed to break the law consistently... ) so much of this is theory only.

    1. That's fascinating! It would be nuanced, but I think there is enough room to argue that some digital theft is in character and others are not, though it maybe a slippery slope. Once you start attaching real world value and real world intent to sell, I think the picture becomes a lot clearer though.

    2. Leaving aside the fanciful idea of non-human rights, even just the ownership rights of non-physical property are going to be incredibly difficult to define. There are analogous positions in the physical world that might help, though.

      For example, in UK law it has already been established that actions that would constitute offenses such as assault or actual bodily harm if committed on a public street are not necessarily criminal acts when trey take place in the context of organized sport. If I kick you in the shin as you walk past me in the street I am breaking the law but if I do so on a football pitch, even though the referee may blow his whistle and produce a red card, I'm not committing a criminal act.

      Or, rather, I may not be. It depends. There have been instances where the police (who are always present at professional matches, have intervened. In the end it would have to be decided by a court. Usually, though, it would be accepted that both parties had accepted a certain level of physical conflict when agreeing to take part in the game.

      Similarly, an MMO like EVE or Darkfall might well argue that theft of virtual items, even theft by conspiracy or in-game fraud, constituted part of the accepted contract between players of the games in question. They might argue it, but of course the prosecuting authorities might not agree and neither might a jury.

      As time goes on we will see more and more of this tested in the courts. I strongly suspect that the eventual result will be games designed in such a way as to prevent the issues arising in the first place.

  2. One reason to be an alt pig?

    -- 7rlsy

  3. does that mean when I sold an account with characters that i was committing slavery =p

    1. Heh! Pretty sure it does. Or possibly non-human trafficking.

  4. Indeed, virtual theft has led to arrest not only in the Runescape case but also in earlier cases. This has implications for multiple (online) games where virtual property is considered as real property.


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