Gaius in Cyberspace (II): Genesis of a Legal System

Alec Thompson

Last Time on ‘Gaius in Cyberspace’

Welcome back: it’s not quite a new millennium but at the rate digital information is being produced it might as well be.1 Last time we looked at baby legal systems: loose customs akin to tribal rules and communally enforced treaties. We are now in the clearest sighted year ever and it’s time to hunt the bigger, badder social structures producing law. Level 2 here we go!

Level 2: EVE Online and Club-Rules

We enter the limitless world of Eve Online: at its most basic, a spaceship combat simulator, at its peak, a raucous society with sovereign territory, a market economy, socially constructed jobs, treaties, and codes. The stakes are high: tens of thousands of players log-in daily, and the cost of wars can reach hundreds of thousands of dollars,2 all with the bare minimum of in-game rules. Unlike AstroEmpires, the developers intended this: they wanted the equivalent of a digital ‘wild west’. However, it’s not always mad-max: if you get tired of shooting strangers you can join a ‘corp’, essentially a micro-state which hold sovereign space (territory on the map where they are entitled to build) and combine with others to form larger alliances. These corps are built into the game, thus falling under ‘category five’ mentioned in the tutorial,3 and have various coded functions, ie like tax collection and the ability for leaders to kick members. But the corp structure is just a skeleton: the true organisation comes from the rules our spacefarers socially create.

Using what we learnt in level 1, we find some of the expected low-level legal institutions in Eve: the corps draft loose treaties with one another and there are customs floating about (such as buying new players a ship after they lose one). However, unlike AstroEmpires and Wow, some of the corps are powerful enough to enforce their own laws by themselves4, allowing complex renting agreements5, signed commercial contracts, and elaborate treaties to function. More intriguing are the internal rules these corporations impose on their members: each corp has a different ‘flavour’ of code corresponding to its play-style. As with the customs in the previous article, ‘fun’ is the engine behind many of these legal developments: the excursus below will slowly probe the hidden forces pushing these systems to develop increasingly complex law.

2.1 Legal Pluralism, Amish Custom, and Pirate Law

In the first level we looked briefly at the ‘cost of exit’ effect: in EVE Online the effect is juiced up to the extreme. The corps form a network of fiefdoms, each with their own rule-culture allowing players to easily move from one group to the other, as you would with a club or social clique. Two physical rule-forming communities resemble this system: pirate ships and amish communities6. Although the two differ in some other minor ways, they share a low-exit cost (at least at harbour) coupled with semi-sovereign control of their territory7. Accordingly, they are unexpectedly democratic8 and though usually run by dictatorial captains/elders have to be both successful and responsive to their crew/followers’ demands. Eve corps are in a different stratosphere: with exit on the click of a button and no limitations based on family, national culture, or language, the effect is Darwinian in strength. The ’venue shopping’ effects ensures the corps inexorably end up representing the collective play-style of players: the alternative is extinction. As the game has raged on, waves of different rule-cultures have risen and fallen, sometimes being strict and demanding intense player participation, sometimes being lax and giving more freedom to muck-about. All depends on what the community regarded as ‘fun’. However, this effect alone is not enough to form a complex legal system:9 all it produces is a variety of equally limited ‘club-rules’. What is that added ‘secret-sauce’ which turns their rules into ‘law’?

2.2 Codes, Law, and Chinese Penal Statutes

Although the online legal system was meant to be a ‘brave new world’ of law, it seems EVE online is still inescapably conditioned by two fundamental RL factors: the sophistication of information gathering and the minimum order the system needs to create. Because of these structural forces, Eve corp rules end up resembling the world’s oldest law codes, such as ’Ur-nammu’, the Roman ‘XII tables’, and ancient Chinese penal law. We see the classic use of simple lists of behaviour, encapsulated in the equation: ’If you do X then face punishment Y’10. The psychology of the ancient draftsman’s strategy repeats across the eons: lay out the most common actions which need to be regulated, potentially requiring quite a long list, without trying to create a general formula.11

Eve’s virtual spaceship corporations are helpless before this socio-legal necessity: they draft and apply their rules using the eternal formula: ’if you AFK mine you get kicked from the group’12,13, and take very little ‘lawyering’14 (playing with the technicalities of language). The intersection between ancient farmers and 21st Century computer-game players is caused by the two factors above. The first is something known as ‘legal technology’15: a phenomenon where the existing state of technology will limit the detail and substance which a legal rule can grasp. Just as we could not have legal territory until cartography was invented, we could not have detailed criminal law without state machinery to investigate precise facts. As a result, the Romans drafted their criminal law using obvious acts to make it easy to verify when someone was a criminal.16 In the same vein as Ancient Rome’s lack of a full-time police force, EVE online’s massive open space and the corps’ hesitancy to make players act as detectives makes investigation virtually impossible. In response, their rules contain equally blatant ‘black and white’ penalties.

The second is the purpose which the systems serve. Both ancient and Eve Online civilisation require a basic degree of order to secure their ‘goods’, something which, when communities become too large for reputation based systems, requires rules. Where they depart from their little siblings in level 1, ie RL tribes and ‘duelling custom’, is that ‘survival’ and ‘fun’ can no longer be secured by a loosely regulated free for all. Instead, they seek these goals primarily through order: ‘survival’ means a higher standard of living than blood feuds, and ‘fun’ means more than just bashing swords mindlessly: it requires organisation to build fleets and larger infrastructure. The use of the basic formulae, and crude interpretation, lies in these limited ambitions: an acceptable level of order, for ancient society and corporate organisation, can be achieved without lawyering or complex abstraction.

But how about the next level? For RL it is clear why more precise rules may be required: for complex commerce, banking, and the vagaries of chaotic city living. In video games it would look at first as if ‘fun’ can be secured in the more basic level of order: warlords building fleets to conquer don’t need complex law. What pushes players to go further is one of the central nerves of this investigation.

2.3 Is it a Legal-System?

One system in particular gives a hint to this doorway. In contrast to the normal dog eat dog world of Eve, one alliance managed to create their own socially constructed sovereign state. Going by the name of ‘provi-bloc’, these role-players rejected the normal ‘if it isn’t a ‘blue’ (ally) obliterate’ approach and instead created their own (excel) list of blacklisted players. In practice this means they accepted neutral ‘grey’ players within their territory, whereas most other factions reject these non-aligned spacefarers. We learn two interesting things from these fanatics: first, despite their community being formed by the venue shopping effect, the theoretically non-optional nature of their rules, which apply regardless of whether you join ‘provi-bloc’, and its normative claim to legitimacy make it more ‘law-like’ than the other systems mentioned above. In corps you choose the rule system by joining and as a result are limited in how much you can complain (if you are unhappy you should just ‘vote with your feet’). With a non-optional system, one which makes you a subject whether you like it or not, the individual’s stake in the law being a certain way suddenly becomes far more important.17

Second, we encounter the cohesive effect role play (pretending to be part of a fictional, fantasy empire) and legal culture has in forming legal systems. If we create a spectrum of players, with one end being those who just want to fight, the other extreme are role-players. For their enacted fantasy world to function in a video game, and for them to have fun, there needs to be a fairly high degree of order. You cannot role play in an empire which has no territory or resources, and if the empire requires a monolithic code then you may need to enforce quite elaborate rules to match your play-group’s vision. For example, ‘provi-bloc’ regarded themselves as part of the ‘Andarr Empire’,18 and accordingly made a variety of ‘non-thematic behaviour’ illegal, such as scamming, swearing, disrespecting the empire, and piracy. Despite eventually being extinguished in Eve, the path begins to open: find players who derive fun from following a restrictive code. These deviants are the magnificent engine of our new legal system: shared enjoyment in following a seemingly irrational code, cutting away game ‘playability’, is the common bond which allows complex rules to emerge and receive acceptance.

Next Time:

The final video game system we will explore is the most ambitious. It takes things to an entirely new level: there is a court system on online forums; trained judges who must pass exams; precedents; and elaborate, evolving codes of law produced democratically. As we’ve learned from Eve Online’s legal systems, the motivator for this lies in the power of role-play: the legal system we are studying is Medieval England in miniature, complete with royalty, lords, and peasants.


  1. we now produce more information every two years than in the previous 10,000.
  3. That is, the ‘corps’ are coded into the game as a function, rather than being entirely socially constructed.
  6. Friedman, David D., "Legal Systems Very Different From Ours" (2012). Legal Monographs and Treatises. 7.
  7. ‘Semi’ insofar as they are ‘embedded’ systems of rules operating within a larger, more powerful legal system. See the fascinating study of legal pluralism for more
  8. Friedman ‘Legal Systems’
  9. Nonetheless, the sociological possibilities are profound, revealing the possibility for economic market forces to develop law and suggesting the traditional ‘central-planning’ model of a single judiciary is not exhaustive.
  10. S. N. Kramer. (1954). "Ur-Nammu Law Code". Orientalia, 23(1), 40.
  11. Modern statutory drafting uses general terms, such as ‘grievous bodily harm’ and ‘cause’. Contrast this to older crimes, which involve lists of actions like ‘to kill using explosives on a train track’.
  14. See Dr Vikernes’s comment: “it's community enforcement. Where we are its in the form of screenshots of the violation to the people in charge of enforcing the rules. Whatever happens from there is up to the director in charge and their word/decision is final. "lawyering" of the rules is generally frowned upon as well. The spirit of the rule is what's enforced not the specific wording.”
  15. Elden, S. (2010). Land, terrain, territory. Progress in Human Geography, 34(6), 799–817.
  16. For example, though debated, it is highly likely the early law on theft was centred on the idea of ‘carrying off’ rather than merely ‘touching’. It is much easier to establish someone is a thief if they are in the process of grabbing your property than if they are merely touching it.
  17. The ramifications these systems have for jurisprudence are numerous and unexplored. Does the claim to legitimacy vindicate Raz’s claim over Hart? Would Finnis really accept any legal system could exist online, focused solely on the basic good of ‘play’?
  18. see their website for more details:
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