So a close friend and I had a discussion about the rights of players and designers to the properties of MMOGs, which was somewhere along the same subject as the chapter “Whose Game Is This Anyway?” in T.L. Taylor’s Play Between Worlds: Exploring Online Culture.
One of the interesting topics that cropped up was that of the ownership of avatars. For anyone who has played MMOs for a lengthy period of time, especially role-playing games (RPGs), you really come to embody that avatar over time and to even integrate it as a part of your identity. So it is not difficult for a player to think of himself/herself as “owning” that avatar despite its true ownership to the game designers. As my close friend pointed out, the game designers not only own the avatars through copyrights and trademarks, but they “rent” them out to players. Whether it is through money (i.e. monthly subscriptions) or personal investments (i.e. time and effort), the player can be seen as merely renting the avatar for personal enjoyment and identification. Renting through money may be easy to visualize, but some may wonder how personal investments qualify as payment. Players who enjoy building up an avatar often times must put in a great deal of effort for equipment, skins, skills, etc. This time and effort, especially in an MMO environment, contributes in various ways to the game community and fosters further player interactions. By maintaining the game community and encouraging game play, not only in one’s self but also in other players, the player essentially earns his/her keep.
Though I can agree on this “renting” perspective to some degree, I found this last statement by my friend a bit harsh and perhaps failing to acknowledge that MMO players “make” the game. Or as T.L. Taylor puts it, players are the “co-producers.” Players do not merely spend money or invest a lot of time into building an avatar to merely keep or earn it, but because they simply enjoy playing the game and interacting with other players in a virtual world. Sure, the game designers may technically own all the rights to the contents and entities of the game, but it is ultimately the players that truly define and embody it.
This can even carry over to the concept of third-party sites, fanfictions, fanart, etc. While game designers have every right to protest content that may be hazardous to game reputation or game community, there seems to be a problem of where to draw the line. What is considered provocative? What is considered damaging? As long as it does not push moral boundaries, I personally see no problem with these outside-game activities since majority of these are ways for players to extend their enjoyment of the game beyond the virtual world. Even in cases where the moral boundaries are exceeded, you can often times rely on the players themselves to regulate or hinder such activities.