“We No Longer Watch Stories, We Live Them”

Prof. Joshua Fairfield
Prof. Joshua Fairfield

Professor Fairfield, what is your sphere of activities in the Synthetic Worlds Initiative?

Fairfield: I’m a law professor, which means I’m interested in how laws shape communities. Virtual worlds give us a wonderful place to ask questions like that. So I have consulted with SWI on the creation of Arden – a Center of study of Synthetic Worlds –, and also work to raise awareness of the value that virtual worlds represent. My research ranges from questions of virtual property and analysis of the contracts that govern virtual worlds, to the question of whether assets in virtual worlds are subject to taxation.

Why are virtual worlds so fascinating for SWI, and what benefits do you hope your findings will have for the real world?

Fairfield: Communities are what is “new” about the internet. We had instant communication – the telephone – a long time ago. So social software is what makes the new internet revolution tick. Virtual worlds give us the chance to examine new communities in their purest form.

For example, we used to wonder whether groups of people could enforce rules by means of exclusion from the group. Through study of group behavior online, we find that groups have sophisticated ways of organizing themselves, of maintaining order in online communities, and even of creating private money supplies in the form of points systems traded among members.

What makes the Second Life virtual world so special among the internet communities?

Fairfield: First, Second Life is largely user-created. If we are interested in studying what people do online, as opposed to the less interesting question of what games companies do online, then Second Life is a great place to start.

Second, it permits parties to keep the intellectual property interest in what they create. So if you create a virtual shirt, you own the design of that shirt even though the shirt appears in Second Life. That creates a foundation for innovation and investment.

Do you hold talks in Second Life or do business there yourself?

Fairfield: I’ve spent a good deal of time in Second Life – mostly looking at the currency and economy – but I also spend a lot of time analyzing economies in World of Warcraft.

What’s most interesting is the amount of regular, everyday economics people engage in. We trade money for time every day in the real world. Many people do the same in virtual worlds. It’s strange, because in the real world nobody argues that I am lazy because I bought my house instead of paying someone else to build it. But in virtual worlds there is a big discussion about whether or not it is acceptable to trade your money for someone else’s time.

Second Life has its own economy in which enterprises from the real world also trade. Why is Second Life such an interesting prospect for enterprises?

Fairfield: On the one hand, Second Life seems new, and that draws a lot of businesses. On the other hand, I think it will take some time before we see real world businesses doing profitable trade in virtual worlds. It’s a question of business models – what do people in a virtual world want to buy, and what are they willing to pay for it?

I think that branding is a big opportunity. If Nike wants to enhance its brand recognition, then creating attractive shoes for avatars to wear is going to help. But there are needs people have in virtual worlds that are unique to those worlds. Finding out what those demands are – and meeting them – is the real challenge for businesses seeking to make money in virtual worlds.

Conversely, there are now also virtual companies with branches in the real world. Will this interconnection continue in the future?

Fairfield: I think the real and the virtual worlds are the same. So it is not so much that there is interconnection – like a business having a foreign office in another country – as there is integration. Businesses will integrate a social software strategy into their business plans, just as they currently use other media.

What social and economic effects has this merging of the virtual and real world already had?

Fairfield: I like the language of “merger.” What we’re seeing is that people treat the virtual and real worlds as if they’re just part of the same larger reality. For example, people do make new friends in virtual worlds, but they also spend a lot of time in virtual worlds with people they know from the real world. One really important effect this might have: technology has broken up communities, and spread families across continents. Virtual worlds might be able to bring those communities back together.

Which areas are benefiting from this merging, which are not, and why?

Fairfield: Game companies are obviously benefiting from the current interest in virtual worlds, on one end of the spectrum. And real-world social units – like families or groups of friends, who can get together and feel close online – are benefiting as well.

I think one group that resents the merger of the real and the virtual are people who want to maintain the fantasy. Some players came to virtual worlds because they want a break from reality. So when reality intrudes, they dislike it.

How could virtual worlds change the real world in the long term?

Fairfield: One of the most important things virtual worlds do is to provide a space for real-world communities to meet. I think they can strengthen families and friendships. And, I think that virtual worlds are changing what it means to interact with an artistic medium. We no longer watch stories, we live them.

A virtual world doesn’t have a set outcome. Players, or residents, set the story. What they do is what happens in the world. That’s incredibly attractive when you compare it to passive forms of entertainment – movies, or even scripted videogames, where you have no control over how things turn out.

To what extent do politics and society need to adjust to these changes?

Fairfield: The first and most important thing to do is to avoid political hysteria. In the United States, we are seeing a lot of attempts to blame video games for things that have nothing to do with them. Virtual worlds are frontier towns. It is important to give them the space to grow, before regulating them heavily.

Second Life has taken a very capitalistic direction. What other promising models for virtual worlds are there?

Fairfield: I think there are a lot of people who are primarily interested in the artistic and play aspects of virtual worlds. They desire a place for fantasy, a place to make new and compelling stories. Thus, those play-oriented communities place a lot of constraints on capitalist principles, such as banning the trade of inworld currency for real money, in order to preserve the stories.

What is the legal situation with regard to virtual worlds? Are there recognized standards and laws governing coexistence?

Fairfield: The laws of the real world already govern virtual worlds: if a user engages in bad acts, the law will not shrink back just because the acts were committed online. Linden Lab (Red: The San Fransisco based company is the provider of Second Life) does not have a police force, and virtual worlds will never have a separate “jurisdiction,” but virtual world creators do have the contractual ability to terminate users who violate their terms of service. Their ability to ban users is a limited power – but a very useful one, since they can use it without having to go to court.

What might the internet be like in the future?

Fairfield: The internet is reaching a crossroads. It may be that it continues to evolve as a decentralized network, where information is shared and censorship is limited. However, it is very possible that the internet will increasingly be subject to censorship, regulation, and surveillance of users’ activities. We will choose which way we want to go. The decision is all the more important as we move more of our lives online.