Abstract of Sal Humphreys “Productive Players: Online Computer Games’ Challenge to Conventional Media Forms”
by Tyson Livingston
Description of Article
In this article, Humphreys attempts to articulate the online computer game, specifically the Massive Multiplayer Online Game (MMOG) EverQuest, as a new form of interactive media. She indicates that because players act as producers within the game, it creates an ever-evolving text, with multiple versions being created simultaneously based on the input of players across a vast world and variety of servers. She also indicates that production on the part of the players is composed not only of text, but of relationships and community. She feels that our current laws and structure of copyright and intellectual property are not sufficient to regulate this type of producer/consumer relationship. In addition, she explores the power relations inherent within the MMOG, both between players and publisher, and between players and players, as well as the ethics of the commodification of these online communities.
The article is composed of several sections: the unlabeled introduction; What is New about EverQuest and its Genre?; Productive Players, Implications: Intellectual Property, Regulation, Commerce, and Culture; How Far can Intellectual Property Take Us?; The Regulation of Social Space; Power and Free Labour; and Conclusion.
MMOG (Massive Multi-Player Online Game): EverQuest would probably now be classified as a MMORPG (Massive Multi-Player Online Role-Playing Game)
Intellectual Property (Not to be confused with Internet Protocol. In discussions of technology the abbreviation of IP often refers Internet Protocol Address. This caused me a brief moment of confusion when she started talking about IP in terms of the EULA)
EULA (End User License Agreement)
Comments and Questions:
The first two sections of the piece, the introduction and What is New about EverQuest and its Genre didn’t really stir up too many questions for me. My only real main problem here was one of definition. As a player of EverQuest, and someone who has obviously invested themselves heavily in the game, Humphreys has a tendency to use “game” terms liberally with little definition, i.e. trade skills, mob, guild, etc. While she provides enough definition and explanation of the game in general to get a grasp on the subject matter, I don’t think that the average reader that does not already possess some knowledge of these type of games would feel the resonance with these terms that Humphrey is trying to evoke, and obviously feels herself. In addition, it took me a while to get a real concrete idea of what she meant when she referred to the productivity of the players. After reading several pages, I came across the statement that, “Players are creators of the text; community and networks of relationships, systems of governance and norms; relationships with other players; and characters” (41). This seemed to sum up the most important part of what Humphreys is concerned about, although it still fails to include other aspects she has spoken of such as websites, and snap-in or secondary applications designed to assist players “in-game.”
My real problems with her argument begin to arise when she starts discussing the problems inherent in creating a community within a private sphere (42). She makes it sound as if this type of situation is a new thing. Communities within private spheres have always existed and often share a symbiotic relationship with their texts, even if they do not have the “real-time” response of Internet communication. Religious communities often have a private nature with rules that govern behavior and “production.” They also have texts, some of which are contemporary and are influenced by the leaders, and congregations of their particular sphere. Professional organizations form a similar situation, some of which are sponsored by corporations and have as their goal the generation of continuous “text” which is reactionary and developmental to their particular field. These organizations have dues and oftentimes generate revenue for the sponsoring organization. Microsoft is a prime example of this with their certification and professional programs.
Many other examples of this type of relationship exist. Talk radio has had a very similar relationship, with a host and production company acting as the publisher, and callers as the user/producers. Oftentimes a sense of community develops around different talk shows as regular callers and listeners begin to appear. In addition, the pen and paper-based role-playing community has been embroiled with these issues for over twenty years, with questions of community-generated intellectual property as the subject of lawsuits and debate.
Her generalization that “This is not an online chat room or email list community. The game adds specific layers of rules, governance, fantasy, goals, and constraints” (42) is also somewhat of a fallacy. Most chat or email distribution list communities have strict rules, goals, and constraints, just like an online game. Humphreys continues to stress this issue by pointing out the existence of the EULA, and the power given to the publisher to close accounts and block access if a player does not conform to the guidelines and usages stipulated by the game company. However, even though she mentions that players willingly play the game and follow the rules, she downplays the reality that the license agreement is essentially a contract. EULAs exist in a variety of contexts to govern the legal use of software and the generation of intellectual property. For example, Microsoft’s MSDNAA program allows universities (the community) to obtain certain software packages (the text) for free. This promotes the use of the software in industry (hence the economic benefit), but Microsoft puts strict guidelines on how the MSDNAA software can be used and what can be produced with it, and essentially place restrictions on intellectual property. This situation is similar to that argued by Humphreys. Furthermore, if Humphreys wants to compare game players to unpaid laborers (45), then the EULA becomes the contract of their employment, just as it would for any volunteer employee of a corporation or organization.
Overall, I believe that the points Humphrey’s brings up regarding the interaction between community, media, and commerce to be interesting, as well as her questions regarding the power relations between the game players and the publisher and between each other. However, I think that her insistence that these relationships are a wholly new construct resulting from the MMOG is inaccurate. I believe it would be better described as an evolution, or perhaps even a culmination, of these relationships and power structures in a new media. Furthermore, I believe that her analysis needs further exploration of how copyright laws specifically treat computer code and applications, as well as ownership of Internet resources, both virtual and physical.