Who owns the stuff inside video games? That’s the subject of Raph Koster’s latest blog. Koster, of course, is a long-time MMO developer, and he’s currently at the helm of a new studio, Playable Worlds, which is building a sandbox MMORPG atop its own proprietary metaverse – if the world doesn’t fully ruin the term first. His last couple of articles have been all about how objects in games are created and identified; this piece is ostensibly all about ownership, although it’s just as much about economics.
“Ownership of anything digital is illusory, and always will be,” he begins, arguing that data might need a physical container, but it’s perfectly replicable and an infinite resource – and valuable. And he doesn’t necessarily mean through crypto-esque artificial scarcity, although that’s definitely something he clearly has opinions on.
“To oversimplify, goods that only one person can have are called ‘rivalrous goods’, and goods that many people can have at the same time are ‘non-rival,'” he says. “There’s also the notion of ‘Veblen goods’ which are items that have increased value just because they signal status. Think of a really fashionable shoe – they aren’t any more useful than any other shoe, but they are more ‘valuable’ because they are high-end, scarce, and fancy. You get the fancy shoe because it shows off the fact that you can get one. All digital content, like all information, is effectively a non-rival good. But most ideas about ‘decentralized object ownership’ or about ‘virtual items’ in general are trying to turn them back into rival goods or even (in the case of NFTs) Veblen goods.”
His examples this round are good; he compares digital goods to songs or books, noting that buying a book means that you “own the container and not the content.” Similarly, digital objects in a video game are really just copyrighted arrangements of data, and you don’t own a virtual object, just the container for its copy in a database stored somewhere else.
“As a result, digital stuff actually challenges the notion of ownership itself. You can’t have a doctrine of first sale for data, only for its container. Instead, we live in a world of software licenses, which has gradually evolved into subscribing to every bit of software that can get away with it. Further, because ‘software eats everything,’ we are seeing that license regime creep the other way and start making containers into something protected by copyright instead of being objects. […] Where does this leave you with digital object ownership? The only real answer is ‘uncomfortable.’ Because even when you explore cutting edge stuff like NFTs; delve into the controversies over right-click-save-as, pump-and-dumps, or energy consumption; whether you admire the tidy Veblen good markets around high end generative art NFTs or not – you still run headlong into the fact that all that tech is going to collide with copyright law in a messy way. […] In other words, ownership is actually just a tiny category in the larger issue of governance. It’s a huge category error to believe that tech can solve governance. But that hasn’t stopped idealistic technologists – myself included! – from trying.”