A profile piece in PC Gamer sparked a class discussion on the ethics of ramifications of virtual murder in EVE Online, causing me to wonder further about issues of ownership in MMORPGs. Given the situation described in the assigned reading, one might very well make the argument that much fuss was raised over Negroponte’s bits, essentially a meaningless commodity in and of itself. By all accounts, however, the sense of loss felt by victims of online theft seems very real. In order to better explain this phenomenon, I would suggest that what is lost is not just the item, but the representation of that item; badges, achievements, and trophies have become a method for us to gauge ourselves against one another and provide a palatable way for us to measure up. Status and identity have coalesced into (worthless if meaningful?) bytes, and the stealing of these items represents a loss in our sense of self. Can we ever go back to valuing what the badges are supposed to represent? Can we ever go back to an appreciation for having had an experience?
In a broader sense, the question of possession becomes increasingly relevant as we also seem to be moving toward a culture in which the lines of ownership have suddenly become much blurrier. We freely (if perhaps unknowingly) release personal data online, engage in a continual process of remix through sites like YouTube, and have begun to realize the power of crowdsourcing. Facebook owns the data that we upload and yet we bristle when the company chooses to use that information in a way that violates our assumptions regarding fair use. Where and why do we draw the line regarding ownership?
Going back to EVE Online as an example of an MMORPG, why is that we feel that anything in the game is ours in the first place? Put another way, all of the loot/drops/rares are the property of the game company—although we may have them temporarily in our inventories, we do not necessarily “own” them. Do we unavoidably apply the principles gleaned from real life (e.g., physically possessing an object means that we, in some way, own it) to the online realm? As we increasingly integrate virtual worlds into our lives, will we develop new rules and/or standards regarding the ownership of information as opposed to property? Is information in fact property and, if so, to what extent?