Vigilantism and Self-Governance in Virtual Worlds

Informal systems of regulation have arisen in virtual worlds where formal legal/governmental regulation has been impractical, either because “real-world” law is unavailable or because virtual world participants have resisted external interference.[1] So far, the only “real world” law that touches virtual worlds in any significant way is the law of contract, since terms of service and license agreements govern all activity in most virtual worlds.  As Joshua Fairfield explained in his “Antisocial Contracts” Metanomics presentation, contract law alone is not sufficient to grow any healthy community or economy, because contract law does not provide default rules which bind everyone.[2] Contract law binds only the particular parties to a particular agreement, and as virtual world activity becomes more complex, it becomes less and less practical to do business by entering into agreement after agreement after agreement.[3] Participants in virtual worlds have begun to self-regulate in order to fill in the necessary default rules, so as to achieve some measure of security and autonomy.[4] Self-regulation by users or players themselves has most notably taken the forms of vigilantism and self-governance.

Vigilantism arose in Ultima Online because the creators failed to anticipate abuse and misbehavior.  Ultima Online was originally designed so that “towns” were safe spaces, policed by guards, but the “wilderness” outside the towns was not monitored.[5] Some players started using the lawless wilderness as an arena for killing inexperienced players.  Reform came from players themselves, who not only demanded changes from the providers but also began to police the space themselves by guarding newbies and hunting “player-killers” to kill or threaten them.[6] Thus the rules of the game were informally changed by the players themselves to provide some form of retribution, punishment, and justice, all of which are long-standing legal principles of the criminal law system in the “real world.”[7]

Users in Second Life also engage in self-regulation.  One method of informal regulation within Second Life is the practice of “shunning,” which means refusing in-world services, trade, and access to in-world businesses to avatars who have engaged in abuse or antisocial behavior.[8] A Second Life project called the Metaverse Republic is attempting to systematize shunning.  MR wants to establish a judiciary to convict avatars who misbehave.  Convicted avatars would be placed on a list to be shunned, and landowners could place an object on their land which would prevent any avatar on that list from accessing the land.[9]

The broader goal of MR is self-governance for Second Life residents.  Under the MR model, users would cede power to their land to a governmental body which, in exchange, would enforce certain rules designed to keep in-world businesses more stable and secure.  Benjamin Duranske hosted a roundtable discussion about Metaverse Republic on his blog, Virtually Blind, on which users posted reactions to the idea of MR and online self-governance in general.  One user wrote, “Given that Linden Labs has made it quite clear that sim owners have completely dictatorial powers, including the power to abrogate any agreement they might make, the whole thing strikes me as one giant waste of time.”[10] Another user commented, “I don’t see how or why a system that requires people to cede power to their land in which they invested (even for some “greater good”) or which involves giving the magistrate (Ashcroft) access or hold over land as “collateral” to obtain “justice” can possibly get any serious subscribers.”[11] Ashcroft Burham, the founder of MR, responded to these concerns as follows:

To have any hope of building a serious service-sector economy, with sophisticated transactions and arrangements, a sophisticated and enforcable means of resolving actual and potential disputes about such transactions and arrangements is necessary. . . . [12]

[A]lthough Linden Lab could, in theory, change SecondLife somehow to prevent this sort of thing from working, doing so would require a considerable effort on their part, and not only have they no motive to do so, there is no precedent for such intervention: BanLink, for instance, has never been interfered with. Indeed, what reactions that we have had so far from the Lindens are encouraging.[13]

Several other micro-governments have sprung up within Second Life, where avatars who reside within the certain boundaries cede some power over their property in exchange for enforcement of certain rules.  The Confederation of Democratic Simulators[14] is governed by a constitution and three branches of government with checks and balances among them.  Citizens vote in general elections every six months to elect their legislature (the “Representative Assembly”).  The Scientific Council is a judicial body with veto power over the R.A., and the R.A. elects the Executive Branch to carry out administrative acts.[15] There is a video about CDS at http://metaverselaw.blogspot.com/2008/05/confederation-fo-democratic-simulatiors.html.

While self-government in virtual worlds avoids the pitfalls discussed above—of users who are resistant to external interference and laws which are poorly suited to the online context—it comes with problems of its own.  The limitations of self-governance within Second Life have been summarized as follows:

To have an effective government, you need to have two key concepts: one is people willingly delegate their absolute freedom in exchange for protection; and the other is the power of the government to make enforcements. In Second Life, the first concept depends on the people; the second one doesn’t exist. Linden Lab does not formally recognize “governments”; also, the only “enforcement” a virtual government has is claiming the deeded land, expelling a citizen (ban), and preventing a resident to become a citizen. Fines can be applied, but only if people are willing to continue their participation in the governed land (they might simply pack and go).[16]


[1] Benjamin Tyson Duranske, Virtual Law: Navigating the Legal Landscape of Virtual Worlds 59, 60 (2008).

[2] Joshua Fairfield, Antisocial Contracts Presentation at Metanomics Session Three (Sept. 24, 2007) (transcript available at www.slideshare.net/WeAreRemedy/092407-anti-social-contracts-metanomics-transcript).

[3] Id.

[4] Nicolas Suzor, Gods, Dictators, and Democracies: Roles and Rights of Communities, http://nic.suzor.com/_media/blog/2009/20090801-gco-leipzig-suzor-gods.pdf

[5] Duranske, supra note 1, at 65.

[6] Id. at 66.

[7] Id. at 65.

[8] Id. at 69.

[9] Id.

[10] Comment by Mike Gunderloy, July 17, 2007 at 5:11 p.m., http://virtuallyblind.com/2007/07/17/reader-roundtable-metaverse-republic/

[11] Comment by Prokovy Neva, July 17, 2007 at 7:09 p.m., http://virtuallyblind.com/2007/07/17/reader-roundtable-metaverse-republic/

[12] Comment by Ashcroft Burham, July 17, 2007 at 10:52 p.m., http://virtuallyblind.com/2007/07/17/reader-roundtable-metaverse-republic/

[13] Comment by Ashcroft Burham, July 18, 2007 at 11:07 a.m., http://virtuallyblind.com/2007/07/17/reader-roundtable-metaverse-republic/

[14] Other micro-governments in Second Life include the Independent State of Caledon, Al-Andalus Caliphate, and Extropia.  Duranske, supra note 1, at 69-71.

[15] Confederation of Democratic Simulators, http://secondlife.wikia.com/wiki/Confederation_of_Democratic_Simulators (last visited Nov. 29, 2009).

[16] Id.

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~ by cstockard on December 2, 2009.

6 Responses to “Vigilantism and Self-Governance in Virtual Worlds”

  1. I do not understand self-governance fully and perhaps that is the reason why it makes me somewhat uncomfortable. I know that the laws have not caught up to virtual worlds yet, and when they do I am not sure they will accurately regulate what needs to be regulated, but instead of this self-governance that seems to be able to take many forms, the laws should get up to speed with the virtual world.

    Self-governance does not seem it be fully formed or held to any rigid standard and it makes me concerned that some group will just take over, keep people from their property and impose fines on others. Until our government interferes, I believe in only in the Terms of Service and shutting people out completely if they do not comply.

  2. I think you did a good job of describing the status quo of governance in virtual worlds, such as Second Life, and the road that has brought us to the present system. As discussed in your closing quote, the real problem is how self-governance will develop from this point into the future without a guarantee of enforcement. Sadly, I suppose, it is likely that self-governance will break down without a centrally applied enforcement mechanism. The risk is too high that some users would be able to make a profit by carving out a niche in the market to cater to those users that would otherwise be shunned. If enough people decide that they want a piece of that profit, the “shunning” mechanism would merely become a sporadic annoyance that rule-breaking users must overcome rather than an absolute deterrent.

    I’m not too concerned about the inverse problem, that of self-governing bodies gaining too much power and imposing tyrannical rule on their fellow users. Along the same line of thought as I discussed above, if users are unhappy with the imposition of a rule or set of rules by a self-governing body, they will stop following those rules regardless of the consequences. Even if methods of punishment, such as “shunning”, have a detrimental effect on individual users, if enough users become disenchanted with the self-governing body then the punishments will lose all (or most) of their effectiveness.

    Self-governance of virtual worlds is a balancing act that can too easily tip to either extreme – not enough protection of “societal” norms or oppressive restrictions on free choice and behavior. Without the legitimacy of “real world” laws or official recognition by virtual world developers, we are probably quickly approaching the limit of the positive purpose self-governance can serve.

  3. I found this unit to be particularly interesting. The idea of self-regulation in virtual worlds seems like a fascinating idea, the type of Utopian society that Philip Rosedale envisioned creating when he developed Second Life. The democratic process involved when a society’s members create their own set of morals and norms and decide for themselves what type of governmental structure will preside over them, if any, seems like a truly grand undertaking. Second Life seems like a very appropriate place to test self-governance on this scale too because of its reputation as a “social laboratory” in which to test and perfect tricky real-world endeavors. The notions of “equality” and “justice” which self-governing bodies such as Metaverse Republic aspire to are truly lofty goals.
    That being said however, I simply do not see how self-regulation like this could ever really work on a large scale with no real way to enforce self-propagated rules or punish those who break them. I agree with Benjamin Duranske’s comment in the Roundtable Discussion mentioned in the blog that “It can only be as powerful as it is widespread, and the only way it can get widespread acceptance is if the people running it don’t turn out to be power-mad, wig-wearing, banstick-wielding, maniacs. If they run things badly, or make terrible decisions, or use their powers to ban their personal enemies, nobody will trust the outcome of their proceedings and so only an insignificant number of people will subscribe to their tools.” However I believe as Heather pointed out that the inverse is also true; even if a self-regulating government such as this does gain a widespread following, without Linden Labs backing them up what power to enforce their norms do they really have? They can try to “ban” or “shun” those that break their laws, but in the end how effective can that be when all someone needs to do to circumvent any punishment is to create a new account and act as if nothing ever happened. I guess what I’m saying is that self-regulation such as MR is wonderful in theory, but difficult to execute effectively in practice.

  4. It seems that self-governance is most effective when people who share like-minded views and goals are able to work together and further those goals. In a platform such as Second Life where people of all walks of life are able to participate, the idea of self-governance becomes more muddled. It seems to me that one of the dividing characteristics between people participating in Second Life is the reason why they participate in Second Life. If someone participates meaningfully, within the spirit of the game, they may be more willing to cede a certain amount of personal freedoms for the protections offered by some form of government. Conversely, if someone participates in Second Life only to fulfill a desire to disrupt and cause harm to fellow avitars, the willingness to abide by any self-governing body seems quite slim. In this regard, it would almost be easier to dedicate a Second Life area to people who absolutely want no form of governance whatsoever. This waiver of self-governance would need to take the form of an adult website where the person logging on must click through various warning pages to access the content. Although not a permanent solution to the issues surrounding self-governance, it may be a step in the direction. To me, this situation is akin to a liberal arts college versus a university steeped in tradition and form. Each school produces top students; however different types of people are attracted to various types of schools. Because people have choices, they are more willing to abide by the customs and rules of that particular community.

  5. Self-governance seems great in theory. At first, I thought, where is the power of the collective? In real life, the power of a group of people working together is pretty obvious. Even if not physical power, there is a recognizable force even in a virtual world, if people band together. Of course, power, even in the virtual world, is not spread the same way. Some people hold more sway with their voice, even if only because others will follow their lead. If the right people sign on to MR, then it would be able to be effective much sooner, but if a bunch of random people go with it, it would probably take more time, if it were to ever work.
    I think that the characteristics of the individuals would matter, because I’m very individualistic. I can do well in a group setting, but I don’t see the reason to go with everyone else. If I have a problem, then I try to solve it on my own. I probably would not join MR. I like the Hobbesian idea behind it, but I think it will come down to the fact even in SL, not everyone starts in the same playing field.

  6. Maybe I’m looking at this too simply, but I don’t see why we need self-governance to be widespread or have a stronger enforcement mechanism. I think that once a user becomes too much of a problem in-world, the service providers will be made aware of the problem and can step in and intervene. It’s on the SMALL scale that service providers are ineffective, because there is simply no way for them to police every wrongdoer. However, self-governance allows for those that are directly affected to “push” the offenders away. I understand that this doesn’t solve the underlying problem, but it does make it harder for the wrongdoers to continue their behavior, at least within that group. A user that can’t find users to prey on has to go elsewhere, and at least it creates an annoyance for them and attempts to stop their behavior from becoming widespread. The service providers can step in once someone becomes a larger problem (like griefers), and self-governance can handle those that are just really irritating.

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