Framing Virtual Law
Conference of the Digital Games Research Association
Building on the work of games theorists and virtual world designers, this paper proposes a framework for understanding the real-virtual dichotomy in terms of a series of five frames or layers which interact simultaneously in creating the phenomena associated with virtual worlds. At the outermost edges of the model are the two poles commonly referred to as real and virtual. The interface consists of the input/output and communication mechanisms through which the virtual world participant
... to the virtual world system. This could include, among other things, a screen and keyboard, network architecture and relevant software. The system is a rulebased structure which controls and manages input and output streams in relation to activity in the virtual world. The instantiation consists of the discourse produced or permitted by the system layer. Depending on the world in question, the instantiation could take the form of simple text, or some combination of text with graphics or audio. Finally, the virtual frame is the fully immersed world as it would be experienced by a fictional character who is not aware they live in a fictional world. Applying the model to the legal aspects of virtual worlds allows issues which have been explored by a number of authors to be placed in a more coherent context. The laws of the actual world, and in particular recourse to courts and sanctions of the actual world can be understood in the context of that frame. The interface layer subsumes a number of issues specific to cyberspace law, but more importantly is the level at which the virtual world participant and the owner enter into the contractual agreement or EULA which will define much of the power dynamics in the other frames. At the system level, programming code operates in a regulatory capacity by making certain types of behaviour possible or impossible within the virtual world. The instantiation level is interesting in two capacities. First, the ownership of the images or text which form the discourse is an active area of contention between various stakeholders. Secondly, the instantiation is the frame in which the discourse which gives rise to and maintains the magic circle around the virtual world is uttered. Finally, within the virtual frame, a nomos is developed and maintained by both formal and informal means. In-world justice systems and political structures are common, arising even without intervention by the owners, possibly even challenging their control over the world. Although this paper will only provide a cursory overview of a large number of legal issues related to virtual worlds, it is not the goal to explore any one aspect in depth. In effect, many of the areas touched on have been explored with significant insight by others, and it is to be hoped that work of similar quality will continue in the future. The goal of this excercise is to provide a framework within which existing and future work can be situated, and will hopefully assist others in identifying relevant aspects of their chosen areas of study. While law is the focus of this paper, the model is equally applicable to a number of other aspects of virtual worlds, ranging from geography and economics to identity and literary theory.