Gaius in Cyberspace (I): The Law of Video Games

Alec Thompson

Tis the season of 80’s culture1: to fit the theme of the times I have decided to a write a series of distinctly 80s themed articles. The topic: massively multiplayer online games (MMOs) and the law which forms within them. I’ll take you on a relaxed and academically dubious journey through worlds which players spend tens of thousands of hours exploring2, and whose economies have now begun to approach those of small countries3.

Game: Start!

MMOs truly open up a new world: radical ways of being, interacting, producing and selling desires unimaginable decades ago. This is the equivalent of primordial ooze for law; who can imagine what legal creatures these games may generate? If this sounds familiar, it might be memories of similar lines coming from the mouths of visionaries in the early days of the internet. Dreamers and drug addicts who saw the internet as more than a way of augmenting real life- it was life itself, a ‘new digital frontier’. In our 80’s spirit, let’s take a break from the drab post-capitalist 21st century’s ‘wearable tech’ and lifestyle app: let’s imagine new worlds and the electronic form of the human condition.

Where does that take us with law? Legal constructs, such as ‘legal property’ and ‘duty of care’ are designed to fit a world filled with people with specific desires and wants, and more profoundly one which operates according to well-known laws of nature. Property reflects a desire to control and fence off what is ‘mine’; duty reflects the inevitability of physical injury as a result of Newtonian motion. But what if we change the dynamics of the world? What if physical injury ceased to exist4? What if desires were not to take physical control of patches of dirt but to collect wholly incorporeal ‘experience points’, or undefined and potentially limitless sectors of virtual space? Hitherto player-made legal systems in games have been copies of those found in real life. What I propose is a legal system unrecognisable in the world of ‘meat mechs5’ - something fitting for the virtual revolution which began, and maybe died, at the tail end of the 20th century6.


But first, to clarify what I am looking for. We can distinguish a whole series of ‘laws’ which cover games, some with real world parallels and some without. First, there are real laws which bind players and developers, e.g., the EULA which forms the terms and conditions of the game7, or regulations on video game content. Second, in some games there are rules enforced by admins, usually via bans or suspension of accounts, e.g., ’no hate speech’. Third, conventions and etiquette, which are communally enforced and upheld largely on a reputation basis. Fourth, there are the systems of laws and rules some players create, enforced wholly socially and without recourse to the particular game’s code. Finally, there are the game mechanics, written in code rather than language. This last category corresponds not to human law but to the law of nature8. It governs everything - what happens when a player drops an apple to the winning move. Its creators are not legislators but gods. Of course, even code is fallible – e.g. by cheating and editing it to give yourself an advantage. This is where the community comes in, as it will with ‘house rules’ in a board game, to decide what is ‘fair play’9

The law this article writer searched for was the fourth: systems of rules made by players socially, to be obeyed and enforced by players. They are not using a ‘legislate function’, or a real world legislature: they are self-organising into political units, producing and enforcing their own rules. But this is natural: in my new legal world, who else but the virtual citizens of the digital could produce a new species of law? It took me a couple of months of hunting, digging, even exhuming, but I eventually found four prime examples of where law forms, and why, in MMO games.

Level 1: Custom; E-Bushido; and International Treaties

Starting at the ‘lowest-level’ of law, we find systems which resemble those of customary legal systems and international law. Whereas the former may use law to maintain societal peace, and the latter to ensure global order, in video games we see a different purpose altogether: fun. A big win for legal instrumentalism10, video game law at this level fills gaps in game mechanics to make the experience more ‘playable’. For example, in the real-time strategy game ‘Astro-Empires’, the developers neglected to code a diplomacy feature. In response to this artificial state of nature, player factions resorted to ‘pacts’11, the equivalent of early 20th century international treaties. These range from non-aggression pacts and alliances, to MAP (mutual aggression pacts), trade pacts, and ceasefires. They are all communally enforced: if you decide that you have had enough of playing nice, it’s the other players who get the sticks out.

Equally, in some games there are systems which are essentially customary. One particularly well-known instance of this is the ‘honour’ code in Dark Souls12, a medieval-fantasy action-roleplaying game with multiplayer combat. When a player enters another’s realm to duel, there are a series of rules, known as ‘e-bushido’1314, they are expected to follow. These require bowing before fighting, abstaining from ‘chugging’ health potions, and avoiding computer monsters during the clash. The enforcement of these is purely social, regulated through the close-knit community of Dark Souls duellers in online forums15. Interestingly, unlike real-world customary systems, these are not designed to maintain a hierarchy: rather they ensure duels are a balanced and fun experience. Indeed, it is said16 the use of these rules has ensured Dark Souls retains a lasting community despite its relatively ancient status (in internet terms). Likewise, in World of Warcraft17, a fantasy-based MMO, there are complicated systems designed to divide rare resources18. For some end-game items, players will use ‘dragon points’ as a way of fairly dividing up the booty after a team adventure. The motivation behind this system seems to lie in functionality: some in-game items take so long to obtain, or require such an investment of a team’s resources, that it would be unplayable if the goods were assigned randomly.

These examples unearth some of the deeply unusual characteristics of video-game legal logic. First, the ‘goods’ of video games are not quite the same as the physical world: time-commitment (ie, ‘grinding’), is a far-more relevant measure of value than, say, personal risk or scarcity.19 Similarly, the premium on ‘fun’ is much higher: players consistently create rules which ensure the effects of unfair or dysfunctional mechanics are minimised. Fun, or ‘playability’ acts as unifying goal for players to make their rules, but equally it divides them: there are often deep-rooted divisions about how a game ought to be played. Second, the players are far more concerned about ensuring new ‘subjects’ stay than any real-world legal system would be. This is in part due to the low cost of exit in games: whereas you’d be reluctant to emigrate to Argentina after getting a parking ticket, you might quit Dark Souls if you consistently got ‘cheesed’20 in duels. I’ll explore this more later, but for now it’s worth keeping in mind as a subtext to the many seemingly generous rules for new players.

Next Time

In the next instalment I move to more sophisticated laws. These range from elaborate contract law; socially constructed sovereign space; a new legal entity: the 'newbie', and the effect of being able to easily opt-out of a legal system. Also, find out the ‘One Weird Trick to Create a Legal System!’, or, alternatively ‘You won’t believe what Amish, piratical, ancient Roman, and spaceship-MMO laws have in common!’.

1. Eg, the runaway success of the adorkable nostalgia of stranger things, IT, vapourwave audiovisual music, the ubiquity of white converse low tops etc. One need not look further than the fact one of youtube’s most popular music videos is a pop song from 80s Japan (Plastic Love, Mariya Takeuchi. Truly a masterpiece).

2. MMORPGS have replaced TV (; total play times across the board have not been calculated, but WoW alone has a total playtime of over 50 billion hours (

3. On Virtual Economies, Edward Castronova.

4. Or even more radically, the possibility of creating entirely new forms of injury. See Dibbell’s gripping account of ‘A rape in cyberspace’ (



7. This is the main topic legal academics have looked at when they research law in video games. For those interested, a hot debate is the legality of RMT (real money trading) - the conversion of in game goods into real world currency.

8. For a more in depth look at the role of ‘architecture’ (ie, the code which makes up the possible actions in a virtual setting) take a look at the research of Lawrence Lessig in his free ‘Code v2’:

9. For example, a glitch in the game ‘super smash brothers melee’ called ‘wavedashing’ allowed players to move faster, but the skill required to trigger it and the fun it added led to it being accepted as a new game mechanic.

10.Though it would seem the creators of video-game legal systems had a look at Finnis’s ‘basic goods’ and decided ‘play’ was all they needed.




14.Also, see the ban in the game ‘Mabinogi’ designed to prevent players using overpowered skills as it renders the game less fun (‘unplayable’). “" - Caekie.

15. Indeed, in much the same way that Californian prisons were able to use a socially enforced prison code when the prison population was small enough that a reputation system could work. See David Friedmann ‘legal systems very different from ours’.



18. Strimling, P., & Frey, S. (2018). Emergent Cultural Differences in Online Communities’ Norms of Fairness. Games and Culture.

19. Very few video game items are actually limited in the same way precious gems or minerals are. If you have the time, a potentially unlimited volume of any item can be secured. The exception would be limited offers and special event giveaways.

20. Ie, killed in unfair or ‘broken’ ways considered unsportsmanlike. A possible RL example would be the use of underhand service in tennis

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