Opinion: 'Bot Life In Second Life'

In his latest 'Blogged Out' column, veteran UK writer Jim Rossignol looks at the Copybot plague in virtual world Second Life, discuss the problems of online game item cloning, and suggesting that "as the tools are there to distort and vandalize the
Welcome to 'Blogged Out', the regular news report that looks at the world of developer blogging and the conversations being had with the community at large. This week: Raph Koster and Prokofy Neva, round two. Bot Life Although the topic is now a couple of weeks old, I wanted to highlight a debate that took place on Raph 'Theory Of Fun' Koster's blog concerning the recent cloning exploits in Second Life. Over the last month virtual game world Second Life has been ravaged by 'Copybot'. This innocent-sounding invention allows users to copy objects made by folks in Second Life without the originator of the design having any control over the copying process. It seems that the bot actually utilizes the raw data that the game server sends out to clients, translating the information and sending it back as a copied object. This, of course, threatens the capitalist model that has made Second Life so popular, an idea that leans heavily on controlled, essentially 'copyright' controlled manufacture. It seems clear that Second Life's enormous success has rested heavily on the trade in designed items. Such objects could be sold for virtual cash specifically because they could not be easily replicated. As in the real world, making things in Second Life is tricky and time consuming. Of course now that all 'Lifers can be equipped with what is essentially a Star Trek replicator, as Koster points out, the cost of items (and the profits made by their creators) must now plummet. Inevitability Koster's main point however is that such a situation was inevitable. The fact that information travels to and from the server to the client, information that cannot easily be protected, means that such exploits were inevitable. This might not be too big an issue in other MMOs, and is most likely to lead to just a few gold farm bots, but in a user-created world like Second Life the effect is devastating. So long as it's possible to capture the data stream and make it do things in the world then people like the copy-bot inventors can do pretty much do what they like with other people's materials. Koster points out just how damaging this was, and how the 'information wants to be free' lobby have ended up looking foolish in the light of this episode. Following on from Koster's observations is a huge string of comments in which Koster is challenged by Second Life agitator Prokofy Neva. She observes that another group, the Libertarian 'Libsecondlife' had made similar claims for the inevitability of Copybot. However, they failed to mention that it was also griefing: dumb and malevolent, like crude bullying: "When confronted about this bad faith and bad behaviour, the leaders of Libsecondlife, some of whom are V-5 and W-Hat [the Something Awful affiliated groups] supporters, kept hammering on all the points you make about how basically, it's all a big stream, and anybody with a metal tin cup can dip in it and get the stuff out of it. OK, but...they don't. They restrain themselves. They don't harm others. They don't strip others. It's one thing downloading a song from an artist whom you feel already earned millions in his contracts with rich record companies (so the mentality goes); it's another when you swipe a $3.50 US skin off somebody who spent 20 hours unpaid to make it who lives next door to you in a virtual world." Just Griefly And this is what the Copybot issue amounts to: how much do we respect game worlds? The answer seems to be: "not a great deal". As long as the tools are there to distort and vandalize the game world then someone will do it. Linden Lab are able to say that they will ban anyone found using such tools, but they are nevertheless essentially helpless. Copybot isn't a challenge to technology, it's a challenge to online culture: how do we want it to work, and will be respect institutions and social conventions that emerge from it? Perhaps, for the time being, we will remain in a Wild West scenario. But perhaps, as the social and psychological significance of virtual worlds generate greater currency, we will see attitudes, and the advent of griefing, change for good. [Jim Rossignol is a freelance journalist based in the UK – his game journalism has appeared in PC Gamer UK, Edge and The London Times.]

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