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Games and Law

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Posted by Anthony Martinez on Tue Apr 23 2013


Christian Rivera was a champion, among the best in his league. He won large cash prizes, had major corporate sponsors and fans around the world. But you won’t hear about Christian Rivera on ESPN because he’s a professional gamer: his sport happens completely online.

Rivera plays something called League of Legends, a multiplayer online game set in a fantasy world. The game involves two teams fighting against each other via avatar “Champions,” such as Alistar the minotaur, and Evelynn the assassin. A team wins once they’ve raided and destroyed the other team’s base.

In an annual report, market research firm DFC Intelligence listed League of Legends as the most played PC game in North America and Europe.  The creators of League of Legends, Riot Games, say 32 million people play the game for more than a billion hours each month.

Most players of League of Legends do so over the Internet from the comfort of their homes. But for professional gamers like Rivera, competition happens in public “cyber arenas” with large crowds watching both in person and online. Teams compete for enough big money that the game is their full-time job.

Christian Rivera was on one such team. The was buzz that they were even on their way to becoming one of those world champions in this year’s season of competitive play. But at the end of last year, Rivera’s ambitions were suddenly put on hold as Riot Games made an unprecedented announcement to ban him from competing in its top tournament for one year. The charges against him? In-game harassment, verbal abuse, and offensive language.

The one year ban from this virtual sport has real world consequences for Rivera’s life and finances. He’ll have to start his climb to the top all over again, winning far less money along the way. And since the average pro gaming career lasts only five years, Rivera may never get back to where he was before burning out.

Never before had a League of Legends player—let alone a professional player—been punished so drastically for behavior while playing the game. The body that handed down Rivera’s sentence was something called the Tribunal, a “virtual judiciary” that is built into League of Legends. A panel of Rivera’s skilled gaming peers reviewed the evidence against him and decided the punishment.

Riot Games and other makers of multiplayer online games could just outright delete the accounts of troublesome players like Rivera from their games. Online games are not democracies, after all. But quasi-judicial processes like the Tribunal do exist within many multiplayer online games. Simon Ferrari, a doctoral student at the Georgia Institute of Technology, says that to understand how they came to be, you first need to know more about the history of virtual crime in virtual worlds.

“It’s this kind of experimental look at a model and almost an alternate history. Like, given a society that doesn’t have law, can we record first-hand as this changes to a more democratic system? Because we’ve only got incomplete records of what has happened in real world nations in the past,” Ferrari says.

Online gaming has been around since the late 1970s, with most of the earliest multiplayer online games modeled on the old pen-and-paper Dungeons and Dragons fantasy game. Players interacted with each other via rudimentary text-based chat rooms inputting commands that would display certain actions to other players. Ferrari explains.

“So, if my character’s name was Simon [and] I wrote ‘talk: hello everyone,’ – then the game would tell everyone in the room: ‘Simon says hello everyone’. The other command was emote – to express action or emotion. So if I type ‘emote: feels very happy today,’ everyone in the room would read, ‘Simon feels very happy today.’”

As with Dungeons and Dragons, players had to use their imaginations to get the most out of the game. Some highly skilled players could even program new elements into the game. Typically, they’d craft dramatic narratives or magical items that other players could then interact with in good faith they’d be taken on a rollicking quest for treasure and glory. But in the early 1990s, Ferrari says, that norm was violated inside one game’s most public chat room.

“One night, a character called Mr. Bungle entered the living room with an item described as a “voodoo doll”—kind of a digital voodoo doll.” The so-called voodoo doll was in fact a programming hack that commandeered the game. Ferrari continues, “The problem with Mr. Bungle possessing this voodoo doll was that he was able to fake emotes from other players. And using that ability he created this scene where multiple women within the game were seen violating themselves and each other in horrific and graphic ways.”

Eventually, the game’s developers stopped Mr. Bungle’s grisly scene, but his actions had real world effects on the game’s community. An article later written in The Village Voice about the incident described what Mr. Bungle had done as “cyberrape.” One woman whose character was violated by Mr. Bungle said she suffered from bouts of post-traumatic stress following the attack.

Following the event, players of the game had to come together to figure out how to punish Mr. Bungle, and keep other virtual crimes like his from being committed again. At first, they called for the erasure of Mr. Bungle from the game, but the game’s developers hesitated. They knew that as the game became more popular, more malicious players could be drawn to it. And the developers  knew didn’t have the time or manpower to hear every case and ban every player who acted horribly.

So after some deliberation, they decided to create one of the very first “virtual judiciaries” to deter future in-game crime. “It was basically an adjudication or arbitration system,” Ferrari says. “This was a way of asking one uninterested third party to come in and judge the facts of a case—like in the case of a virtual rape—and determine if there was fault and what the punishment should be.”

With video games, reviewing the facts of a case is the easy part. “Factual evidence is recorded at all times by the game system itself,” Ferrari says. “Every movement of a player: you know exactly where two given players are at any given time. So unlike the real world, where so much of the judicial process is built around this fact that you have firsthand accounts […] delivered via people’s memories and voices that cause all these problems and doubts; in a virtual world, there’s never that doubt. You see it.”

In the case of League of Legends’ Tribunal, if players can find a reported player guilty by majority vote, usually the reported player’s username and IP address are banned for a few days. Their “harassment score”—a metric used by the game to track problem players over time—also goes up. Usually all that is enough for most players to check themselves next time they log onto the game.

Christian Rivera, however, had been through the Tribunal nine times and punished eight. Rivera’s accumulated harassment score at this time had him among the worst-behaved of all North American players and the number one worst ranked pro player. The trouble for these virtual worlds is that problematic players like Mr. Bungle and Christian Rivera tend to spread negativity, bringing out the worst in other players. Game makers will tell you that they want to discourage behavior like this in order to help bring about a sort of virtual world peace.

But Rutgers University law professor Greg Lastowka says that game makers’ motivations aren’t just altruistic. “If a company focuses on the short term and disregards certain users just in order to make a buck, I think that may be profitable in the short term, but ultimately it’s going to mean that the platform has less respect,” he says. Less respect means fewer people want to play to the game.

Lastowka is author of Virtual Justice, a book exploring the social phenomenon of multiplayer online games and how they relate to the law. He believes that “virtual judiciaries” play an important role in keeping real world courts out of the gaming picture

“To the extent that a game company creates clear rules that people understand, that people respect, and doesn’t act in arbitrary ways and gives some degree of due process to gamers when they’re accused of violating rules, then that actually makes the community more healthy and makes the company more profitable,” Lastowka says

After the League of Legends Tribunal banned him from the Championship Series, Christian Rivera released a statement. In it, he apologized for offending other players and his fans. He said he understands professional players are role models and should act accordingly. And he vowed the ban won’t end his aspirations as a professional player.

“League of Legends is my life, and I will do everything in my power to play as long as possible,” he said.

This story was produced with help from Kaitlin Prest, Julia Barton, Nancy Mullane and Shannon Heffernan.

Also read A Rape in Cyberspace