SEE UPDATE BELOW:

Among the most important changes in the structure of this society is the rise of engineers and the ethics they make manifest. There’s an efficiency, a no bullshit this-is-how-this-obviously-should-work to them, and an incredible (and undeserved) humility to much of what they do. Steve Brill’s story about geeks who rescued Obamacare is a perfect example of the engineers’ power and place in this society — both the only effective intervention, and the one intervention Obama ignored.

When I wrote Code (here’s v2), I spent a great chunk of the book focused on the sovereigns that cyberspace would enable — geek driven sovereigns, as the law of those spaces would be code. And as a lawyer too often disappointed by the limited justice within my own field, I was hopeful that maybe here, something better would be built.

Fifteen years later, I guess I feel the story is mixed. There are of course things which would have boggled the imagination in 1999 which coders and others have built — Wikipedia at the top of that list, and to which Codev2 was dedicated.

But I have often been struck by the limited imagination these code-based sovereigns have when it comes to simple matters of simple justice. The norm is feudalism more than justice, as if its the 15th or 16th century, as if the ideals of due process or simple decency are all lost, as if right is coder-might.

I’ve drawn that sense vaguely, as I’ve watched different struggles develop. But it’s been brought home to me quite literally with a battle I’ve recently watched my 10 year old son wage, and despite my help (or maybe because of it), lose.

My son is a brilliantly focused geek-wannabe who is obsessed with a game that is everything I had hoped cyberspace would become — Minecraft. From its unlikely birth, to its incredible adoption rate, to the potential for innovation and creativity that it has made manifest, Minecraft is, in my view, one of the wonders of this (cyber) world.

One feature of Minecraft is the diversity of Minecraft servers — the company has smartly outsourced the server problem by enabling others to run their own servers. These others run either a simple plain-vanilla installation (my son did this for a bit), or they fancy it up with cool innovations that make their space differently interesting. 

In doing this, many (try to) make money. Servers sell ranks, or other bundles of goods. Some encourage users to earn goods. Not to say that every one of these models for extracting money from users is wonderful. What is wonderful is the diversity and the chance that anyone has to try to add value to either Minecraft or the ecology of Minecraft.

My son has recently tripped onto VillagerDefense, a server developed by LegendaryCraft, which boasts that it’s the “world’s highest populated online gaming community with millions of logins each month!” (Who knew!) In the particular mode he engages, the game encourages you to earn “coins.” That takes work. The father in me is cool with him working hard to earn something. So I was ok with him playing and growing his collection over many weeks. 

Then Monday, something crashed. We were on a trip together (I serving as a single parent trying to give two talks in two states, dragging him along), and he was logged in and playing while I was preparing my slides. He had about 240 coins as he logged off. Six hours later, 175 of those had disappeared. 

He was (inappropriately) devastated (given the real stakes at issue here — but he had worked for many weeks to earn those coins so I was not going to try to persuade him it wasn’t important). I suggested he raise the issue in the forum. He did. But what followed was the sort of justice that Dickens would have mocked. 

The forum moderator informed my son that there had been a bug in the system, and a bunch of people had lost their coins. He suggested my son present a “screen shot” of before and after, “proving” he had had the coins and had now lost them.

When my son reported this response to me, I was genuinely puzzled. A screen shot? Seriously? The moderator explained that people had lied in the past, so they needed better “evidence” than someone’s word. But I hadn’t realized liars couldn’t use Photoshop. Or put differently, this rule of “evidence” didn’t stop liars. It stopped people who had lost coins who were not liars (and so not willing to photoshop a coin count) who hadn’t been taking regular screen shots while playing the game (because who does, for god’s sake). 

I joined the forum and asked where the game ever announced that people were supposed to be taking screen shots of their play? And after all, why would a screenshot be necessary? The game is a database. Are there no snapshots of the database? Isn’t there a backup, or audit trail? 

The moderator wouldn’t budge. It’s screenshot or nothing — except of course he admitted that he himself wasn’t in charge. The actual owners of the site were to busy to respond to mere Villagers. His advice:

Sorry about your son’s missing coins, but for now I recommend for him to play the game some more and attempt to obtain more coins, and we will try to get the coin bug resolved to prevent similar occurrences.

This is amazing at many levels. The site knows it has a bug. That bug is removing assets from its users. To get those assets back, the owners of the site ask, “What would Kafka do?” Obviously, Kafka would require something totally absurd — like the requirement that you take regular screenshots of your game to protect the assets in your game, or photoshop screenshots to get back what you have lost. Mind you, this isn’t real money. This is a totally virtual currency, which the game could restore with no fear of general inflation. But why accept responsibility for a flaw in software when you’re dealing with mere Villagers? I mean, who the ***k do they think they are? 

This attitude is echoed in their completely absurd TOS — absurdity that begins with their coloring the font so it can’t be read. The basic thrust of the TOS: you have NO RIGHTS, villager. Get over it. And not just while you’re a villager, but “indefinitely as soon as the contract is accepted, and … even after you quit, are banished, removed, or if you leave the server/forum in any way.” (Gamer sites: Where lawyers for used car salesmen go to die….)

My advice to my son is not that he “play the game some more.” My advice is that try to find other places more eager to defend villagers that VillagerDefense. I’m sure he won’t follow that advice — being treated like a kid feels normal for a kid. But he shouldn’t feel there’s nothing wrong in what the barons of the site did. There is. Engineers especially should aspire to something more than company town justice. And gamers should reward those that do — by avoiding games that don’t.

UPDATE: 

When I got home tonight, my son told me “Admin” sent him 500 coins. That is impressively good of admin and @Minecade and I’m grateful for it (my son is more than grateful). Thanks to the decent souls who did that villager defending.

It creates a little complication for me and this blog though. I typically don’t complain in this space about issues that — if resolved — would benefit me alone. This isn’t quite me alone but it’s one click over from that. I’d like to keep to that line, but without forcing my kid to give up the coins. So if @Minecade would name a charity, I’ll figure out how much the coins are worth and donate that amount to that charity. Please email me at law.harvard.edu. 

Thanks again. 

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