Who’s in charge in virtual worlds?

The global population of virtual worlds is growing fast, as is the business of creating and running them (venture capitalists reportedly invested more than $590 million in VWs last year). The question is, when bad stuff happens in VWs – theft, fraud, harassment, etc. – how should it be dealt with? Who’s in charge, and how should “the management” set and enforce policy? “Another Perfect World” – a documentary from the Netherlands on what users and eventually humanity will learn from virtual worlds about governance, self-government, and community building – is about “grownup” spaces online, but the way these issues get worked out will certainly affect kids’ online worlds as well (kids 5-9 are the fastest-growing demographic in a global VW user base expected to grow more than three-fold to 640 million by 2015 – see my coverage).

We’re only at the beginning of this question, so maybe our educational institutions worldwide will have the wisdom to enable children to be part of what society works out – not as guinea pigs but as participants, members and hopefully stakeholders in the health of their own online communities, appropriately supervised but supportive of students’ own agency as community members. For example, Quest Atlantis, an educational virtual world and game involving quests (the curriculum) that was designed at Indiana University, has 7 guiding principles (called “social commitments”): social responsibility, personal agency, healthy communities, diversity affirmation, environmental awareness, creative expression, and compassionate wisdom, which frame all activity and behavior in-world. One of the issues I hope QA ad other educational VWs will address is social stratification and how power is attained and wielded – which, social-media scholar danah boyd pointed out in a talk she gave this week, is happening no less on the social Web than always has happened offline.

“Another Perfect World” gives examples of several adult virtual worlds that are engaged in fascinating governance experiments. The management of US-based Second Life takes as hands-off an approach as it can, leaving it largely to users to work out disputes, which they sometimes do with real-world detectives and lawyers. South Korea-based Lineage’s management takes a similarly hands-off approach, but its users, who are largely Korean and have different cultural expectations of authority and hierarchy (than, e.g., the much more multi-national user population of Second Life) have staged an in-world revolution against the mainly feudal system in Lineage (I’m not sure if its outcomes have totally been worked out). Iceland-based Eve Online’s management has undertaken a fascinating experiment, gathering a kind of parliament of players whose “power” (or influence over management) will grow only in proportion to their ability to grow its influence with fellow users in-world. These are, in some ways, advanced “civilizations” that are starting from scratch, where government is concerned.

The questions they are all being forced to consider are: Should users largely govern themselves in these worlds, as is the current modus operandi in most? When should management step in – when property gets stolen or people get harassed? What is management like – a capricious and arbitrary bunch of “Greek gods,” enforcers of corporate policy, judge and jury? Will in-world user courts or arbitration boards need to be set up, as Philip Rosedale, founder of Second Life parent Linden Lab, predicts? Already, the documentary suggests, it seems clear that a utopian society is no more possible in alternate worlds than it is in this one.

[Readers, pls note that shortly after I posted this, the producers of “Another Perfect World” took their doc off YouTube, so it doesn’t seem to be available in full online (I checked a lot of sites). I could only find their own site with a trailer. Tx to Dennis Richards for the heads-up in Twitter – Anne Collier]

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