Game Behind the Video Game at Rutgers University

In case you haven’t heard about this really cool conference on games, I recommend attending The Game Behind the Video Game organized by Rutgers University. I will be co-presenting on the curious leaking operations that took place in Second Life with Peter Ludlow from Northwestern University. Here’s our abstract:

Hacktivism In Online Games:
Negotiating Transparency, Privacy, & and Policy Making

2010 was the year that Wikileaks blew up in the international media and the subsequent 4Chan Operation Payback helped “hacktivism” become a household word around the world.  Less well known is that hacktivist movements and “leaking” operations have taken root in Massively Multiplayer Online Games.  In some cases, these operations have been part of guild-on-guild psy-ops, but in a few recent cases the in-game hacktivists have exposed secrets about online organizations, in-game vigilante groups, the game companies and their affiliated service providers.

In one recent case, reported in Ludlow (2010) and Jenkins & Ludlow (2010), a 4Chan-related group in Second Life known as “The Wrong Hands” infiltrated an online vigilante group (JLU) and exposed a wide surveillance operation that this group had been conducting. More important, the leaked evidence suggested that these illegal activities were being backed by Linden Lab (Second Life’s parent company) which was providing the group with God-mode capabilities that facilitated such an operation. In a later development, The Wrong Hands exposed the shady past of the key programmers of a software company (Modular Systems) which was developing a viewer for Second Life. These programmers, parading under the disguise of  white-hat hackers, had backgrounds not only in writing malicious code, but also other activities that violated the terms of service, in particular, content theft. The Wrong Hands, this time, uncovered an even bigger surveillance/datamining operation conducted through the Modular Systems’s viewer. The company, which had several former Linden Lab employees on staff, folded shortly after the exposé.

Incidents such as these indicate that we are now witnessing the social, political, and even economic restructuring of virtual spaces: one that lays bare the tension, conflict, and resolution between various groups, policy makers, and companies that “own” these spaces. In fact, hacktivist movements inside virtual worlds raise a series of interesting questions that have direct relevance to the real world. For instance, they don’t just expose shady dealings, but rather, question our understanding of online privacy.  Game companies have a responsibility to protect the privacy of their users, but just how far does this responsibility extend?

Hacktivist initiatives that result in similar exposés bring about yet another problem that hinges upon our understanding of intellectual property. As users have claimed intellectual property protection for aspects of their online lives (viewing them as creative works of fiction), the aftermath of such clandestine operations end up being contested through real-world agencies under real-world policies.  For example, the vigilante group exposed by The Wrong Hands claimed that the contents of their database was intellectual property, and they filed DMCA actions to have the leaked material removed from online sites.

In our paper, we argue that any case that can be made for protecting whistleblowers in the physical world extends into virtual worlds and online games. Therefore, we interrogate to what extent transparency and privacy could be established under the policies set forth by the current terms of service, and more important, to whom does the responsibility belong in securing personal information and intellectual property.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *