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by L.B. Jeffries

29 Sep 2008

I’m going to start this blog of by saying two things.

One, I am in no way a qualified legal expert and you should consult a licensed attorney if you have further questions. Actually, it would be awesome if you didn’t even mention me. Two, all the opinions stated here are conjecture. I am simply making guesses about the future.

There, now that all that noise is out of the way, let’s talk about something that doesn’t often come up with video games: the law. More specifically, the potential lawsuits and rights that people are going to start fighting for as the internet develops. Up until this point, video game litigation hasn’t exactly been a page turner. A lot of patent, copyright, and intellectual property disputes make up the bulk of the legal questions that have gone to court. Is Donkey Kong ripping off King Kong? Nope. Does Game Genie violate Nintendo’s Intended Use policy? Nope. A couple of inventive companies have started patenting game designs…which might lead to some interesting exchanges, but given the millions it would cost to declare these illegal, most companies will just tweak their own games to not violate the patent. I could go into video game violence cases but these won’t go anywhere until quantifiable proof that games (as opposed to bad parenting, drugs, or boredom) caused the violence. But with the growing market of MMORPG’s and online services, a whole new breed of virtual lawsuit is on the horizon.

 

Griefing is when someone in an online game or community disrupts someone who is taking it seriously or having fun for the sake of getting them to lighten up. Whether it’s by screwing with an online match or hacking Second Life, playing pranks with people online can be pretty funny. I can honestly say that back when I was first getting used to internet culture, the first time I made a fool of myself by spazzing online was both humbling and helpful. You have a couple of beers, realize it’s not that big of a deal, and become a better person for it. Nor is there much to discuss in terms of legal issues. The general reaction of most courts to “they said mean things to me” is to recommend the person grow a thick skin. Short of being able to show quantifiable damage (therapy bills or worse), there isn’t really a law (depending on where the lawsuit is filed) to base a legal claim on.

What’s becoming tricky is that people ARE starting to need therapy. This is usually a little clause in the average insurance contract which explains that in the event you make a damage claim caused by someone else, the company can sue that person to get their money back. So when someone hands their insurance company a massive therapy bill for a destructive prank pulled online, the company doesn’t pay the Piper. They find the townsfolk who ticked him off. Most of this trauma is coming from MMORPG’s, where people invest years of their life into property and characters within the game. Erin Hoffman explains in an article for The Escapist the extreme trauma one player went through from losing her character and items due to pirates. We’re a long way from players buying insurance for their virtual lives, but they can certainly be traumatized by the loss at this point.

Another reality is that property with genuine economic value is now at risk in-game. A recent article in Wired points out that a lot of these online games are starting to have in-game items that are worth real world money. 20 million game dollars and a fully trained technician on EVE can get you 150 dollars on Ebay, which is chump-change when you factor in Player-controlled Empires that can get into the tens of thousands in value and have hundreds of people working for them. The culture of griefing may be relatively harmless in something like Second Life or online competitions, but costing someone real money is another issue entirely. That’s a quantifiable loss you’ve inflicted. Micro-transactions make this more complicated. If the person spent real money on that starship and you just blew it up…how is that different from blowing up their car? The main defense the griefers use is a sound one: the in-game policy you’ve agreed to clearly states that it isn’t your property. The thing is, none of those companies are going to defend this once some enraged player files a class action lawsuit. This is an amateurish guess, but why would the company not merrily hand out the ID of any player someone has a claim against? Why would they spend money defending your right to make their clients miserable? The alternative is start doling out items to anyone claiming a loss, which would work fine except once these things have an economic value the company can no longer just print more money when things go sour. Other players will cry foul when their own hard earned battlecruisers are suddenly worth less.

 

Which brings us to the inevitable debate of whether anyone owns the virtual stuff in those video games anyways. As a blog post at tobolds explains, the heart of the issue is whether you really want to own stuff in an online world. The author isn’t a lawyer but the conversation in the comments properly highlights most of the problems from the gamer’s perspective. An expansion pack devalues your virtual property, but does that mean we sue over it? If it becomes recognized as property, does that mean I can be taxed for my Level 70 Paladin? What if I’m selling him? Does the company get a cut of that? If you want to get technical, the game company handed me a Level 1 Paladin and I invested hundreds of hours making him into an epic Level 70 Warlord. Who gets to keep those improvements to the property? Virtual Property rights are hardly a simple “Make it like Real life” situation. A completely different set of laws and conduct need to be established and accepted by people in the real and the virtual community.

Griefers are hardly a unified club or sect, as the Wired article mentioned above notes many are just having fun. But like any good party or fun joke, eventually someone is going to take it way, way too far. California’s reaction to such a tragedy is already setting a precedent for the Federal level, Congress is looking at drafts of a cyber bully law as I write this. Nor does allowing a company to completely own their virtual property make sense after a certain point. A lot of those games are, quite frankly, worthy of a place in history. World of Warcraft has over ten million users and changed the entire economic model of video games. Once that game stops being economically viable…what’s to keep them from just shutting it down? How do we ensure people will have an accurate understanding of the names and places of the game world? Should a historical preservation society step in, create servers, and keep the game running? Is it really all that different from preserving a piece of land? It’s hard to say where the hammer is going to come down in all this, only that it has to eventually.

by Lara Killian

29 Sep 2008

This weekend I finished reading Sue Monk Kidd’s The Secret Life of Bees. This book is very readable and has a number of thought-provoking themes, taking place as it does in the summer of 1964 in South Carolina when racial tensions ran high.

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Lily, the protagonist, is a white teenager whose life has been full of misery, her mother having died in an accident when she was a toddler, and her father sinking deeper into anger and violent tendencies over the years. Fed up, Lily runs away and take with her the few mementos of her mother that have survived, including a strange picture of a Black Madonna.

Lily’s wild nature and spontaneous actions are offset by the calm presence of August, the black beekeeper whose home Lily ends up invading, led to it by the Black Madonna, in a way. The personalities of Lily and August keep this book wonderfully balanced. They’re both quirky in their own right; Lily notices that in August’s bedroom, “On her dressing table, where less interesting people would’ve put a jewelry box or a picture frame, August had a fish aquarium turned upside down with a giant piece of honeycomb inside it.” Later on, Lily takes to carrying around a pile of mouse bones in her pocket. “Every day I carried them around in my pocket and could not imagine why I was doing it.”

Such details, along with the intense racial and emotional themes that permeate this book, make Kidd a great storyteller. I’m glad this book landed in my hands.

What are you reading this week?

by Rob Horning

29 Sep 2008

PSFK has a post about Of Montreal’s eagerness to seize upon branding as a way to make money as revenue streams from intellectual property collapses. Like some sort of would-be futurist, frontman Kevin Barnes has even written a manifesto on the subject.

Once we’ve established a comfortable self-sense of our current identity, we want to parade it. We want to campaign for it. We want the whole world to know, “look look, this is me, how you like me now?”. To project our self identity into the outer and, to amplify the howl of our self expression, we have many tools at our disposal; our art, our clothing and hair style, the way we talk…, and, for a lot of us, the objects that populate our living spaces….

of Montreal has, from the beginning, taken great pains to always put a lot of thought and care into the art packaging for our records. We’ve always felt that the packaging was just as important as the music inside of it. We’ve worked within the constraints of conventional album packaging, and have tried to create something fantastically uncommon every time. Now, we find ourselves in the middle of an exciting epoch: A time, when new technology has shattered the conventional business model and has set a paradigm shift in motion. For some people in the music biz, this is terrifying. For us, it is a fucking miracle! While the kings are in a stupor, we are going to take full advantage of the changing guard.

It seems inevitable that music would become secondary to a band’s ability to have a large-scale impact. To use some guru manifesto rhetoric of my own for a second, music longs to be intimate, local, small-scale, human, as befits its roots in unifying small communities with rhythmic rituals. Brands evolve from the demands of mass marketing, of packaging a lifestyle that allows individuals to transcend or reject the constraints of whatever community they might otherwise have to be attached to. As music’s viability as a commercial product wanes, its original significance returns and it becomes a local and live phenomenon open to universal participation. Anyone can make music and share it, and the meaningful music of the future will be made by you or your friends. Bands can’t simply be musicians anymore and expect to function in the mass market; they need to underscore the elements of brand marketing that have always been latent and make them the total package. They need to be lifestyle-promoting companies who happen to use sound as one of their tools.

But the music-identity nexus that Of Montreal wants to exploit to sell its “exceptional object” hinges on the product not being regarded as slick marketing but as the authentic outpouring of artists that people in subcultures want to emulate or experience vicariously. But who wants to experience vicariously the excitement of coming up with a hot new way of selling T-shirts and posters? Of his grand idea to make packaging more interesting than what is packaged, Barnes writes, “We hope this idea catches on and, in the future, square CD packaging will be abandoned forever and only interesting art objects will fill record stores.” So in other words, he hopes record stores will in fact cease to be record stores and become either hipster knickknack shops or variants on Hot Topic.

 

 

by Bill Gibron

29 Sep 2008

For now, a picture says it all:



Read our complete tribute to Paul Newman in tomorrow’s blog post.

by Mike Schiller

28 Sep 2008

Old allegiances die hard.  Most gamers gave up on Sonic the Hedgehog a long time ago—granted, his first three games on the Sega Genesis are all but universally acknowledged as classics, themselves arguments for the merits of the Genesis over the Super Nintendo.  As a middle-to-high schooler who only had a Genesis and not a Super Nintendo, I looked for any reason I could to favor my system of choice over the one that all my friends seemed to like.  “Blast processing” was a sufficiently impressive-sounding (not to mention ambiguous) argument that Sega had something in their arsenal that Nintendo didn’t.  To this day, I thank the marketing minds behind Sega for coming up with that two-token buzzword.

Obviously, the more recent incarnations of Sonic, without the fate of a console on his shoulders, hasn’t fared as well.  Perhaps he no longer feels the pressure that he once did, and feels content to coast on the strength of his name alone; regardless of the reasons, though, we’ve been “treated” to debacles like the Xbox 360 / PS3 Sonic the Hedgehog, not to mention forced to spend more than 50% of games with “Sonic” in the name as characters who are very much not Sonic.  Who’s here to save the day but Bioware, the heroes of such well-regarded games as Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect taking Sonic into the realm of Western-style role playing, on the DS no less.  It’s called Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood, and if you’re into the whole role-playing thing, it actually looks pretty solid.

The early returns on the game have been mixed, but if anyone can pull the blue-haired wonder from the depths of mediocrity, Bioware can.  As such, my own hopes are guardedly high.

Also showing up this week on the Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 is Silent Hill: Homecoming, the latest entry in the well-established (and some would say best) survival horror series.  Hey, have you noticed that survival horror, once a genre threatening to burst at the seams with knockoffs and sequels, seems awfully sparse lately?  The Silent Hill and Resident Evil series are still out there and doing just fine, but the second-tier entries just don’t seem to be garnering the sales or the recognition that they once did.  It’s not that I miss it, it’s just that it almost seems weird that the release of a survival horror game, any survival horror game, feels like a notable event.

The Wii has We Cheer, a cheerleading game that uses two Wiimotes as pom-poms, which has been (somewhat unfairly, if you asked me) largely mocked in the gaming press.  I say any game that has the musical knowledge to include two tracks from The Go! Team in a cheerleading game is worth supporting.  Plus, my (and your) daughter will probably dig it.  The more literary-inclined puzzle-solvers among you may enjoy some Hardy Boys action on the PC, a game that may well have been greenlighted in the recognition that Nancy Drew‘s business has been just fine in the PC puzzle arena.

As always, I ask you—did I miss anything?  What are you looking forward to this week?  Contemplate the question (and go ahead and comment!) as you look over this week’s release list and a trailer for Sonic Chronicles: The Dark Brotherhood after the hop.

//Mixed media
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St. Vincent, Beck, and More Heat Up Boston Calling on Memorial Day Weekend

// Notes from the Road

"With vibrant performances by artists including St. Vincent and TV on the Radio, the first half of the bi-annual Boston Calling Festival brought additional excitement to Memorial Day weekend.

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