Subscribe to

Virtually Blind Commentary

Back in 1998, a law professor I once met, Paul Joseph (1951-2003), wrote a prescient article entitled Ultima Online: Justice in a Virtual World. The full text of the article is here.Paul Joseph (1951-2003)

Professor Joseph was writing during the days of unfettered PvP combat in Ultima Online, when there were few built-in restrictions regarding when and where players could attack each other.

During this era, “newbie farming” was a popular pastime. Although death wasn’t permanent, if a character was “killed,” the attacker (and anyone on the scene willing to risk a similar fate) got to loot everything the victim was carrying — money, equipment, weapons, and even clothing. Since “dying” could basically bankrupt new players, it was pretty common to see groups of newbies wearing gray resurrection robes begging for food and money near major centers of commerce. Not the best start to one’s great crusade to rid the land of… whatever it was.

Origin Systems (since disbanded by Electronic Arts) eventually changed the rules to make Ultima more accessible to new players. Before they did, however, an interesting thing started happening: players began banding together into communities to enforce private codes of justice.

Essentially, individual vigilantes and local volunteer police forces had stepped in where the programmers at Origin had stopped. Professor Joseph commented on this phenomenon:

The most interesting recent development has been the bare beginning of a “good” player vigilante movement. Some players have styled themselves guardians who routinely patrol areas and kill player-killers when they are found. Other ad-hoc groups of players have confronted particularly egregious player-killers. Such players have been told that their actions are unacceptable and must cease. One notorious player-killer was given an ultimatum to change or be hunted down.

Professor Joseph also predicted that socio-political experiments like those that arose in the early days of Ultima would only grow more robust:

It is my belief that Ultima Online is but a very early and crude example of the types of simulated reality games which will be produced in the future. As computing power expands and the programmers produce ever more sophisticated virtual environments, the new medium of mass on-line virtual reality games may provide a new way to raise issues of law and justice by allowing the “audience” to live those issues within the context of an interactive computer game.

Professor Joseph was absolutely right. If he was still alive, I’m sure he would be loving every minute of the future that he predicted.

Email This Post Email This Post
Print This Post (Printer Friendly Formatting) Print This Post (Printer Friendly Formatting)

Related Posts on Virtually Blind

Leave a Reply

Notes on Comments: Your first comment must be manually approved, but after it is you'll be able to post freely with the same name and email. You can use some HTML (<a> <b> <i> <blockquote> etc.) but know that VB's spam blocker holds posts with five or more <a> links. VB supports gravatars. Got a gravatar? Use the associated email and it'll show with your comment. Need one? Set it up for free here.