Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Predicting the outcome of a cultural war

Stabs has a post up which predicts that my April Fool's Joke of this year will become reality by 2013, and EVE will get some form of completely safe space. His prediction is not based on the events that already happened, but on the planned "Burn Jita" revenge campaign after the end of The Mittani's 30-day ban. While predicting reactions is always difficult, Stabs does have some good points. CCP long ago published data showing that over 80% of EVE players never leave safe space and never engage in PvP. There simply isn't much choice if you want to play a space trading sim MMORPG, and thus a lot of people who aren't interested in PvP at all play EVE because there isn't much else. If you force these players into PvP by overwhelming the built-in safety mechanisms of "safe" space, it is not unlikely that a significant number of them might quit. And allowing 20% of your players to drive out many of the other 80% isn't a good business strategy.

But ultimately this is just a very narrow battle in a much wider cultural war. Any possible term I could use to describe the two sides is loaded, but to simplify things there is one side which thinks that the internet should provide infinite freedom of expression and behavior, and the other side which thinks that a person's freedom ends where another person's freedom begins.

Predicting the outcome of that cultural war is extremely easy, because it has already been fought in the real world: Absolute freedom lost. You are not free to shout "Fire!" in a theater, or to call somebody a "nigger", or to make overtly sexual remarks to a co-worker. There are various laws and rules against libel, hate speech, harassment, bullying, and other forms of "free expression". There are recognized limitations to freedom of speech. And that isn't likely to ever change. Thus the only remaining question is how fast these limitations and rules and laws will catch up with the internet.

One major obstacle here is anonymity. Both extremes, absolute anonymity and having to post everything under your real name with address attached, have rather obvious problems and dangers. Somebody apparently poster The Mittani's address on the internet, which was followed by various threats against him and his family. Nobody wants that amount of openness. But we are slowly but surely converging to a solution where people can write under pseudonyms on the internet but the authorities will have ways to trace these writings back to the real person. Once that is in place, it becomes possible to treat speech on the internet exactly like speech in any other form.

The other tricky point is separating the virtual lives of avatars from the real lives of the people playing them. There is a huge difference whether somebody is threatened with real world physical or psychical harm, or whether his avatar is under threat of being "killed". As long as virtual property is not recognized as being real property, a Ponzi scheme in EVE Online might be perfectly legal. And it would be perfectly legal too to wipe out an enemy alliance from the map, including threatening them with that. But that doesn't mean that all hate speech, racial slurs, or threats would be legal as long as they are written in a game or on a game forum. Some speech is clearly directed at the player behind the avatar, and the police should treat rape threats to The Mittani's wife on the internet exactly the same as they would treat such a threat made by telephone or by letter or by any other form. And at some point in time they will.

Absolute freedom of expression and behavior on the internet is an illusion created by technical advances moving faster than legislation. There is no doubt that legislation will catch up. There is no reason why somebody should be allowed saying things on the internet that he wouldn't be allowed to say in real life.

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