August 25, 2004  ·  Richard Posner

First example: how technology will bring us to the world of The Matrix.

The matrix is a video online world that is so realistic that if one’s “avatar” (one’s electronic self, the player in the video world) is killed, one dies of shock. The current video online worlds, in which you create and manipulate your avatar by means of a computer screen and a mouse or joystick, are insufficiently realistic to cause many deaths; I know of only one, described in a great article by James Meek: ‘In October 2002 a 24-year-old man, Kim Kyung-jae, died of a DVT-like illness after playing an online game, Mu, virtually nonstop for three and a half days. “I told him not to spend so much time on the internet,” his mother told the BBC. “He just said, ‘Yes, Mum’, but kept on playing.” (According to Lance Stites of NCsoft the company has taken steps to encourage players to keep the distinction between real and virtual worlds clear. Now, messages appear periodically on screen reminding subscribers to “stretch your legs and see the sunshine once in a while”.)’ But already there is a video game in which you wear a headset that enables you to manipulate your avatar by brain waves. More matrix-like still is a technology under development whereby chips implanted in the brains of paralyzed people will enable them to operate computers by thought alone: they ‘will have a cable sticking out of their heads to connect them to computers, making them look something like characters in “The Matrix.”‘ Implants.

Even in the current, primitive stage of online video world technology, literally millions of people are participating, many obsessively; the use of real money to purchase game money with which to buy equipment, clothing, and other assets in the video world is already a big business. A few years hence, people will be interacting in the video world by brainwaves alone, and in that “no hands” context they may forget who and where they are. The social consequences could be immense, and the political as well if government obtains control of the chips implanted in people’s brains to enable them to play and of the signals communicated to those chips. It will take many years to create a video online world as complex as that of The Matrix, where millions of avatars interact in a stunningly realistic simulation of a 20th century big city. But short of that, people will find it increasingly difficult to distinguish between the actual and virtual worlds in which they participate.

The law is slowly beginning to notice the video online world phenomenon; there is even a recent case in China in which an online player sued the video game company for allowing a hacker to steal the player’s virtual possessions!

The big question–what if any social controls should be placed on the evolution of video online worlds–is baffling and as far as I am aware has attracted little attention.

  • M. Mortazavi

    In considering these questions, I highly recommend a close reading of Hubert L. Dreyfus’ On the Internet.

    I’ve written a bit about the book here, but only very briefly.

  • raoul

    �More matrix-like still is a technology under development whereby chips implanted in the brains of paralyzed people will enable them to operate computers by thought alone� . . . �the chips implanted in people�s brains�

    I try and discuss these kinds of topics with people all the time and they think I am crazy.

    Judge Posner, if we eventually integrate computer hardware with our brains, how will we treat intellectual property issues when the lines between data stored in our organic tissue and data stored on the memory drives (possibly organic themselves) interfaced with our organic tissue? Will it be copyright infringement to look at a painting and remember it? Will it be copyright infringement to listen to a song and remember it?

    One of the problems that I have with the solutions developed today, be they for the CIA or the RIAA, is that the solutions are mostly shortsighted. Should we not at least attempt to develop legal theories that take into account the possibility that civilization might last beyond the next quarterly report? Potentially, we have a billion years of history on our hands. Do we want to continually come up with decisions like Dred Scott and Mai Systems vs. Peak computers? Different, but both shortsighted in their own respects.

    One quick side question:

    �U.S. agents have raided the homes of five people who allegedly traded hundreds of thousands of songs, movies and other copyrighted material over the Internet, Attorney General John Ashcroft said on Wednesday.�

    �”We do not believe it is appropriate for the Department of Justice to stand by while such theft is taking place,” Ashcroft said at a press conference.

    “P2P does not stand for ‘permission to pilfer,”‘ Ashcroft said.�

    In your average District Court, could one reasonably argue a Motion to Stay a filesharing suit filed at the behest of the RIAA? The general idea being that the RIAA and the DOJ are in bed together and they are seeking to punish the public in any way they can including criminal prosecutions. The biggest problem being that the defendant would most likely not be facing an immediate indictment.

  • Beth Simone Noveck

    The question you raise is one of the subjects of discussion at the State of Play conference, organized by Yale Law School and New York Law School, and taking place again this year from Oct 28-30. See We’d love to have you join us!!! Legal scholars and game designers get together to go beyond the question of regulating life outside the game to discuss if and how constitutional, intellectual property, criminal and other areas of law as well as technology design can foster vibrant and playful environments within the gamespace. This year we’ll continue the conversation about intellectual property protection and the role of the First Amendment in virutal worlds, explore emerging systems of (self)-governance in these immersive, graphical societies and talk about dispute resolution without law.

    Also for excellent further reading (in addition to last year’s conference papers which will shortly be published as a book), see the Terranova Blog

  • mark safranski

    Judge Posner wrote:
    “The law is slowly beginning to notice the video online world phenomenon; there is even a recent case in China in which an online player sued the video game company for allowing a hacker to steal the player�s virtual possessions!”

    Why not ?

    Most online gaming services require a contractual relationship for any type of extended play, Sony’s Everquest being one good example. In order for the gamer to receive value the company must provide the computer security for the player’s account. If the company is negligent to the point where hackers are altering avatars or removing equipment then the service is not being rendered. We would not bat an eye if say an airline were sued because their planes did not take off, stranding passengers.

    And on a related tangent, if China’s judicial system is taking contracts seriously enough to entertain a lawsuit over something as frivolous as online gaming, that bodes well for capitalism.

  • yozhik

    A thought along this lines I’ve wondered about is how do these online communities – be it friendster today or The Matrix tomorrow – affect issues, such as obscenity, where values of the local community are taken in part as the basis for deciding the legality of an act. For example, once the underlying technologies for immersive virtual communities have reached fruition I would assume it’s only a matter of time before immersive pornographic virtual communities are available. When this occurs, who then should be considered the community by whose moral standards the legitimacy or obscenity of pornographic actions is to be evaluated? Should it be limited to the online peers that constitute this virtual community? Or do we stay with the traditional model of using only one�s peers within one�s real world community – often jokingly referred to as �meatspace� – to reckon the legality of their online actions? Will it always be appropriate that people – who may have no interaction whatsoever with a virtual community – should be the judge of actions within it solely because they live within geographic proximity to the defendant(s)?

    I realize that some might point to current rulings on pornography on the Internet as having possibily answered these questions, but with immersive technology I’m not sure we can consider our involvement in virtual communities to be solely one of speech. If the technology continues to improve and evolve, I consider it likely that one day we will have to return to the question of the right to privacy of one’s actions in the bedroom, except that this time it will be virtual in nature.

    Returning to the question of community standards, I realize one could argue that the costs of bringing such online peers into a regular courtroom would preclude the consideration of using virtual peers as a basis for community standards, but if we have immersive virtual technology why does the courtroom need to be a physical experience? Given that the actions took place in a virtual community the need of a physical courtroom to present evidence may not be necessary. The judge, jury, defense, prosecution and even the public and press could possibly participate in the necessary legal processes through an immersive virtual environment. Whether we ever should do so is, of course, an issue to consider above and beyond our concerns over jurisdiction and community standards in these virtual communities.

  • Peter S. Jenkins

    The problems you note could be mitigated by freedom of speech rights in virtual worlds as I recently pointed out in my paper in the July issue of the Journal of Internet Law, entitled “The Virtual World as a Company Town”.–Arti/Journal/journal.doc_cvt.htm
    It is also available electronically on the Social Sciences Research Network

    If you have any comments on the paper, I would be most interested in hearing them.

  • Adrian Lopez

    The guy in China won a lawsuit over the loss of his digital “property”. If such a lawsuit were allowed to proceed in the United States it could create some very harmful precedent. After all, if the game company is held responsible when a hacker steals a player’s in-game possessions, are they also responsible when another player steals them while playing the game as intended?

    Unless the so-called “fourth wall” is broken, courts should stay away from regulating multiplayer games. In fact, courts should stay out of regulating such communities as much as possible.

  • Maureen

    how many people have died of DVT-like illnesses related to sitting on their fannies in front of a television, sucking up the already available virtual worlds? the future is here, virtual video games are simply an extension of current technology and, IMHO, present no real new issues.

    so far as social controls are concerned, experience suggests that the political system will be most interested in trying to impose social controls on virtual sexual content, and somewhat less interested in social controls on violent content, but neither is likely to be successful. for current experience with legal controls over violent video game content, see Video Software Dealers Assn v. Maleng, No. C03-1245L (W.D. Wash. July 15, 2004). The court ruled that the statute prohibiting the distribution of such games to minors was unconstitutional because it was not narrowly tailored to achieve the legislative goal of curbing hostile and antisocial behavior of youths and fostering respect for law enforcement officers. The court also found that legislative finding that the statute would protect youth from psychological desensitization and the development of aggressive feelings and behaviors was not supported by the current state of research on exposure to violent video games. The statute was also found to be unconstitutionally vague.

  • Hungerburg

    Everybody will remember a story from the early days of cinema, where the public fled in fear of being run over by a train. Since then people have learned to distinguish and common sense suggests, that people do it again, when time comes. The contrary is held in Cronenberg’s film “eXistenZ”, and many of Philip K. Dick’s Novels.

    Another complement to “The Matrix” is John Carpenter’s “They Live.” A pessimistic scenario, where illusion is part of the physical reality and fully exploited to turn down people. His portrait seems to me right on the spot: commercial application will be the most prominent. And it only takes a pair of glasses, to learn to distinguish!

  • Hungerburg

    The notion of IP marks the step down from art to service. When reading a book, I no longer reach out of my small world, but let myself get flattered. Would it be possible for somebody to sue the publisher of her dearest novel series, if the author decides, to let her protagonist die?

  • Douglas Galbi

    Jacking the world directly into the mind, which is somewhere inside the head, is a misleading image from Gibson’s novel Neuromancer. The Matrix takes this sort of biological misunderstanding one step further. Personal experience of the world is not the product of separable inputs to a small organ within the head, at least according to the best current scientific understanding of human being. Making sense, traditionally and misleadingly divided into sensation, perception, and cognition, occurs throughout the whole human body. For a review of some relevant research in neuroscience and experimental psychology, see Section I of my work, “Sense in Communication,” at

    Also, you use the term “video online world.” The term “virtual online world” is a better, and more commonly used, term for what you seem to be discussing.

  • Macneil

    Stop watching TV… it’s already made some of us zombies who are detatched from the real world.

  • Edward Castronova

    maybe we’ll have wires in our heads, maybe not. doesn’t matter, i think. today we’ve only got keyboards and CRTs, but there are already millions of people immersing themselves. virtual reality is here.

    so. now that we have practical, easily-accessible, widespread, cheap, virtual reality, what do we do? posner wants us to think about shaping its evolution. one thing seems fairly certain: if there is an ideal evolutionary path here, it is probably not going to be produced by the free market. preferences are very much in play, perhaps not as much as in the case of hallucinatory drugs, but not far from it. not that the potential for preference manipulation has yet been realized; today’s game designers are not evil people. but the potential is there.

    in any case, it would be good to have a wide-angle debate about the ethics of making these places.

  • David Weil

    I think what gets really interesting is when virtual worlds cease to be merely entertainment – wherein people are willing to tolerate a greater degree of risk – and become tools for work. Telepresence, for one. Thus far it hasn’t really taken off, but if the technology is there, why not have the board meeting in a virtual Hawaii, or some other congenial, low-stress locale, especially if nobody actually needs to fly there? Assuming virtual worlds, virtual workplaces follow.

    I think at that point we’ll need to consider the virtual world a semi-real place, with fixed laws based on some real-world locale. (“The laws of the state of Washington will apply at all times in MSN-Reality.”) The alternative is to pretend that sexual harassment, for example, doesn’t happen if it takes place in a virtual world, and that hardly seems reasonable. (The other possibility is the virtual world as its own sovereign territory, with its own laws, police and courts, but I can’t see that happening.)

    Interestingly we had a very interesting discussion about this kind of issue at a convention I was at – in 1993. So “little attention” does not necessarily mean “no attention.”

  • Mojo

    We’re moving to the world of The Matrix? Oh my God! Does that mean the plot of my life is going to just keep getting crappier and more confused? (Matrix fans please don’t kill me through my computer.)
    Seriously, I think we already have virtual laws, courts, etc. People are expelled from virtual worlds or otherwise punished all the time for violations of the rules. That is being done by the owner (service provider) of the virtual world. Appeal of those rulings can only reasonably be done using contract law, just like any other service. Any other approach fails when you consider that the owners of the service may be incorporated in Thailand, one player/disputant may live in Virginia and another player/disputant may live in the UK. “Community Standards” inside the game just means the rules of the service. In the “meat world” there’s no difference as far as community standards is concerned between watching a dirty movie at home and participating in a virtual world where you watch a dirty movie. (Although virtual courts to resolve disputes in the virtual world are a nice gimmick for some game service provider to use.)

  • .hack/jhimm

    The big question–what if any social controls should be placed on the evolution of video online worlds–is baffling and as far as I am aware has attracted little attention.

    that’s probably because the only people who want to see video games regulated are the people who don’t play them. as the demographic for video gamers grows (as it has, by leaps and bounds, in the last 30 years) to include more and more “mainstream” people, and as the original video game generation comes into an age to begin to take political offices, i suspect the will to regulate will fall off even further.

  • Charack

    I think PETER S. JENKINS is probably correct in his general assesment that these new online communities will in the end be almost entirely selfregulating, as has been historically the case here in the US. Whenever faced with governmental regulation or control, most organizations and communities have elected to self regulate themselves to within the tolerable limits of the community as a whole. I don’t foresee these online communities being any different, albeit their cursory nod to the age laws of “meatspace.” Other than that, I think they’ll function much like company town or other countries, each unto itself, will have it’s own set of laws and guidelines which will be roughly parallel to it’s founders’ “meatspace” laws, but which will have little quirks here and there. Fir example: The China case involving Hacking could be likened to similar “meatspace” cases on Smuggling or Piracy