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Ultima Online: Justice in a Virtual World

by Paul Joseph, Nova Southeastern University Law Center (January 1998)

Many forms of popular culture incorporate images of law or turn on the resolution of issues of justice. A number of academics have argued, from various perspectives, that the presentation of law and justice issues in popular media are worth serious attention. Because popular culture is mass culture, an image of law contained in a television program, for example, is unlikely to stray far from what would be accepted as "probably true" by its audience. In fact, some have also suggested that popular culture can serve a teaching function by raising important issues and by explaining them in ways which are understandable to the general audience. That is, that popular culture can serve as an educational tool.

The initial consumption of popular culture can be a passive experience. The consumers are the audience who watch and listen to a pre-programmed experience. It is hoped that the audience will think about what they are seeing or hearing and will discuss it with others. This may or may not occur. When popular culture materials are used in a classroom setting, there is an explicit focus on the issues raised and there is an increased likelihood that some form of interaction between teacher and students (and, it is to be hoped, among students) will take place.

A different model of popular culture would be an interactive one in which the "audience" has been transformed into participants in a scenario which requires them to resolve issues of justice and law for themselves. Such a model is the "holodeck" from Star Trek: The Next Generation, in which the "players" actually interact with a seemingly real but actually computer simulated environment. Similar is the adult playground portrayed in the movie Westworld.

Some forms of interactivity exist in teaching materials such as the computerized lessons in law developed by CALI and some interesting CD-ROM products which simulate the courtroom experience complete with objections by the product user and rulings by a virtual judge. Limitations on the technology–particularly the limits of the program’s "artificial intelligence" and limits on data storage space–have tended to impose severe limits on the number of choices which a user of the product can actually make. And, of course, these teaching materials are not intended for a mass audience. They are teaching tools for those who already have a growing technical expertise.

Yet, computerization, and especially computer games, may be heading towards the creation of a new popular culture form with the potential for great interactivity and which, within the context of play, can confront the user with issues of justice and law. This article is a brief report on a very early stage of this development.

In most computer games, an individual player matches wits against the program’s artificial intelligence. Recent games have added the ability to match wits with small groups of actual players connected via modems. But these games are still narrow in scope with limited player choices available. They generally have an objective–perhaps to kill the evil Daemon, to capture the castle, or to shoot down the airplane. When this goal is accomplished, the game is over until the next time.

One new offering seems different from the standard computer game offering and may move one step toward a truly interactive popular culture medium. It is Ultima Online, an on-line game produced by Origin, a division of a giant of computer gaming, Electronic Arts. Although set in a familiar medieval fantasy world where magic works and strange beasts abound, U.O. is unusual in several significant respects.

For one thing, the sheer size of the game sets it apart. Literally thousands of players from as far away as Germany and Japan can play at one time. In addition, the game never ends. That is, the servers run 24 hours a day (with the exception of scheduled maintenance), and the game never starts over. Rather, it progresses continuously. Players have a great deal of control over what happens in the game. As with text–based "MUDS," players can make changes in the environment which will continue to exist and with which other players can interact even when the creating player has logged off. For example, if a player builds a house, it will continue to be there even when the builder is off-line. Another player might break into the house and steal an item. When the original player returns, the item will be gone. Finally, Ultima’s stunning graphics and full motion provide the illusion of being present inside the game. The sum total of these elements transcends what has gone before in the field of computer games.

Ultima Online is an environment in which players (through their character alter-egos) have a great many possibilities in deciding what they want to do. They can, of course, go adventuring with the aim of killing evil monsters and discovering hordes of treasure, but they can also form relationships, learn new skills, buy and sell, build homes, run shops, mine ore, mend armor, and fish. They can also kill and they can die. The game is as close as we can yet come to Star Trek’s "holodeck." It is a virtual reality.

Ultima Online has existed for only a few months. Sales have surpassed 40,000 units. Approximately 25% of those who have signed up are on-line at any one time. Thus, there appears to be a continuity in which the same players interact with each other on an ongoing basis.

It was always anticipated that player–controlled characters could come into conflict and even kill each other. It should be noted that the "death" of a character is not final. A "dead" character can be "resurrected" by magic, although the process can result in the loss of some acquired skills which the player may have spent many hours developing. In addition, while the character is "dead," its possessions are at the mercy of anyone who might be tempted to loot the "body." Similarly, it is possible to steal possessions from a character. The loss may represent many hours of game play and cause a player considerable inconvenience.

The game was set up with the assumption that some players would tend to steal and kill and others would resist them. In a sense, issues of justice, morality, and law were built into the structure of the game. One of the fascinating aspects of the game, however, is that, even in its first months of operation, it has developed in ways unanticipated by the game designers.

As originally planned, towns were zones of safety where no crimes could be committed, but the areas outside of towns, the "wilderness," was unregulated. The mechanism of law and order in towns was simple and brutal. Computer–controlled "guards" instantly appear and kill any character who attacks another in town, who steals in town, etc.

Almost immediately, however, an unanticipated problem developed. New players, who started out with 100 gold pieces and a few saleable possessions, were preyed upon by experienced players as soon as the "newbies" left the town. Because it appeared to some players that killing these new players was easier than obtaining wealth by more legitimate means, the level of such activity was much greater than had been anticipated. Players flooded the game staff with complaints, suggestions, and demands for reform. That reform is still in the process of being hammered out, but it has already brought about a number of changes designed to discourage indiscriminate player–killing while not ruling it out altogether.

Under the new rules, many possessions disappear from new player-controlled characters when they are "killed," thus making crimes against them less lucrative. In addition, steps were taken to make it harder to identify new players as new. Thus, the so called "player-killer" can never know for sure whether he or she is attacking a vulnerable opponent. Persistent player–killing of "good" characters can result in the offender being identified as such an evil character that he or she will be killed on sight by the computer-controlled guards merely for entering a town. Essentially, this is a system of "outlawry" in which the condemned are forced to live outside the normal channels of society and commerce available to everybody else. A system of bounties will give players additional incentives to "kill" those who make a habit of indiscriminate "killing."

The "player-killers" have not taken this lying down. Some have established player–controlled fortresses from which they venture out to kill and to steal. Others have found ways to trick "good" players into becoming the aggressors in situations where the guards will kill them, thus doing the player-killer’s work.

The most interesting recent development has been the bare beginning of a "good" player vigilante movement. Some players have styled themselves guardians who routinely patrol areas and kill player-killers when they are found. Other ad-hoc groups of players have confronted particularly egregious player-killers. Such players have been told that their actions are unacceptable and must cease. One notorious player-killer was given an ultimatum to change or be hunted down.

Of course, this is only a game. No real person dies. Even so, its form and structure, and the apparent intensity of the players lead inevitably to questions about what is social and anti-social conduct, what is just and unjust, what is "legal" and what is not. The game rules do not clearly answer this question and it is the participants themselves who will, to a large degree, decide upon and enforce informal means of social control.

It is my belief that Ultima Online is but a very early and crude example of the types of simulated reality games which will be produced in the future. As computing power expands and the programmers produce ever more sophisticated virtual environments, the new medium of mass on-line virtual reality games may provide a new way to raise issues of law and justice–by allowing the "audience" to live those issues within the context of an interactive computer game.

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