There is no ownership system in video games. Or rather, there are plenty of ownership systems but they don’t necessarily make sense on their own terms (or any other). This has lead to some interesting phenomena like the game-within-a-game or how players can build off each others’ work and progress without penalty.
The proliferation of in-game items, digital collectibles and other virtual goods has sparked debates over who owns the rights to these assets. What are the issues that arise when players own an item?
Who owns the content found in video games? Raph Koster’s most recent blog is about this. Of course, Koster is a long-time MMO developer, and he’s now the CEO of Playable Worlds, a new firm that’s working on a sandbox MMORPG based on its own proprietary metaverse — if the world doesn’t completely destroy the phrase first. His previous two essays have focused on how game items are made and recognized; this one is nominally about ownership, but it’s really about economics.
“Ownership of anything digital is illusory, and always will be,” he says, claiming that although data requires a physical container, it is completely reproducible and a limitless resource — and hence valuable. And he doesn’t necessary mean via crypto-style artificial scarcity, but he does have strong feelings on the subject.
“To put it another way, things that only one person can have are referred to as ‘rivalrous goods,’ whereas products that many people can have at the same time are referred to as ‘non-rival goods,’” he explains. “There’s also the concept of ‘Veblen goods,’ which are commodities that gain worth simply by signaling status.” Consider a high-end, rare, and fancy shoe: it isn’t any more practical than any other shoe, yet it is more ‘valued’ because it is high-end, scarce, and elegant. The nice shoe is chosen since it demonstrates your ability to get one. Every piece of digital material, like every piece of information, is essentially a non-rival product. Most concepts regarding ‘decentralized object ownership’ or ‘virtual objects’ in general, on the other hand, are attempting to transform them back into competitor commodities or even Veblen goods (in the case of NFTs).”
This round, his analogies are excellent; he compares digital items to music or books, emphasizing that when you purchase a book, you “possess the container but not the content.” Similarly, in a video game, digital items are essentially simply copyrighted data structures, and you don’t own a virtual object; you just own the container for its duplicate in a database someplace else.
“As a consequence, digital items genuinely pose a threat to the concept of ownership.” There can’t be a first-sale philosophy for data, only for its container. Instead, we live in a world of software licensing, where subscribing to every piece of software that can get away with it has progressively emerged. Furthermore, since “software consumes everything,” we’re witnessing the licensing regime go the opposite direction, whereby containers becoming copyright-protected things rather than objects. […] So, what does this mean in terms of digital object ownership? ‘Uncomfortable’ is the only true response. Because, whether you like the orderly Veblen good markets around high quality generative art NFTs or not, you’ll run into the reality that all that tech will conflict with copyright law in a nasty manner. […] To put it another way, ownership is just a small part of the greater problem of governance. Believing that technology can address governance is a massive category fallacy. But it hasn’t prevented idealistic technologists – including myself! – from attempting to solve the problem.”