Admittedly, the owners of the MMOG have complete control over all parts of the player's online life. But because the players can leave at any point in time, it is not deemed a coercive relationship. Due to this aspect of the medium, the people I talk with seems quite comfortable with the limited civil rights available to online game players. It is just a game after all.
At some point however, rules and restrictions have real world implications. We are beginning to see online businesses spring up inside online communities. There will never be a complete virtualization of our lives, but the connections between our online worlds and the real world will growth much stronger. Some areas of potential abuse spring immediately to mind:
- Is role playing in a game an activity that falls under the category of freedom of speech?
- If real money is spent on virtual goods, can the government tax those goods?
- Can the government take the goods or delete the player's character on a whim?
- Can the government tie real world punishments into virtual activities?
- How much control does the government have when 90 - 100% of your finances are derived from virtual activities?
My hope is that we'll get to see a full spectrum of greed, racial abuse, and other misuses of power. In the best of all worlds, observers in more democratic states get to witness the world's first large scale virtual human rights abuses without having to suffer the results directly.
I'm not being heartless here by any means. I'm merely trying to make predictions based off the lessons of history.
History suggests that humans are simple creatures when it comes to moral issues. We need to touch the stove to realize that it is hot. We also forget every generation or two and need to touch the stove again just to make sure. It took a couple of atomic bombs and tens of thousands of innocent deaths to realize that nuclear science thing might need to be regulated. It took dozens (hundreds)of genocidal events culminating in WWII for people in more enlightened groups to codify the eradication of racism. History suggests that people will need to be hurt badly and in large numbers for us to put limits on governmental control over online societies.
Why online worlds are at risk
Civil rights abuses occur when the group in power attempts to control a social and economic environment by harming, embarrassing and restricting individuals who do not toe the line. Online games are prime targets because they are potential forums for dissent and organization outside the government's control. Eventually some amoral (not immoral) group is going to take advantage of the easy regulation of online communities to impose real world civil rights abuses.
We are starting to see the first few steps in that direction. Initially it will be imprisonment because you broke curfew. We are there right now. Next there will be segregation and identification requirements for 'at risk' populations. It isn't that hard to implement tracking and behavioral control in an online environment. To the user, it will be just the way things are done.
As with all civil rights abuses, the abused will be voluntary participants during the early stages. It is easier to play with the time limits than it is to complain. It will be easier to provide your identification than it will be to cheat. In theory you could leave, but the social and economic penalties won't be worth paying.
In fact, the voluntary aspects of MMOG's offer no protection against abuse. No one put physical chains on post-Civil war sharecroppers. In the early days of the 3rd Reich, no one forced the majority (though certainly a minority) of Jews to wear stars for identification purposes. Yet no one will deny that these populations were coerced. Physical force is only one type of chain. When the social and economic penalties for online societies become real everything will be in place to implement strong civil controls.
There is a small ray of hope in this picture I'm painting (and I say this with no small dose of cynicism.) Online worlds put one more tool at a dictator's disposal that doesn't involve mass violence. So what if a small minority lives as slaves? At least they aren't getting shot.
I love China because their actions serve as a warning to the rest of us. Let us watch them carefully and learn.