“Virtual Worldliness: What the Imaginary Asks of the Real”

By: Dr. Richard A. Bartle

From: New York Law School Law Review2004/2005, Vol. 49 Issue 1, p19-44. 26p.

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legal professionals; judges


To explain how virtual world economies work so that “legal experts may be better informed in their deliberations”. (p. 20)

To persuade judges that designers deserve the right to act upon their virtual worlds with complete authority, according to the End User License Agreement (EULA), and to protect the entirety of the virtual world from individuals who would use the legal system to their own benefit.

Rhetorical Analysis

Bartle’s paper explicitly states:

At the moment, virtual worlds are regulated by a set of industry “standards,” or design principles, unilaterally imposed by their developers. This paper seeks to describe what these design principles are, why they can to be, and what would happen were they to be weakened.” (p. 19)

The main issue at hand is the commodification of virtual items by third parties and the game developers ability to deal with users in accordance with their EULA. Basically, if you purchase a sword inside of World of Warcraft (or a similar virtual world) by spending real money on eBay, and that sword is made worthless because of a patch made down the line, then you should not be allowed to sue the developers for having your “property” devalued.

Bartle defends developers’ rights to add, subtract, divide, and multiply their game’s virtual worlds because they understand what is best for the overall game world even if it hurts a few (or a few thousand) players.

“Virtual world administrators have absolute control over their world vested in the mechanics of that world. As long as this design principle is respected, administrators can protect the game conceit.” (p. 27)

Hampering the progress of a minority of players will no doubt suck for them, but if the developers can’t change the game, then it will ruin the game for everyone.

“If virtual world designers were unable to make changes to their virtual world, that world would become stale, dated, dominated by exploits and its gameplay would become completely disjointed.” (p. 27)

“Virtual world administrators cannot please all their players all the time, no matter how fair they try to be.” (p. 30)

Since Bartle’s overt thesis is:

“This paper makes no argument for or against these virtual world design principles from a legalistic point of view; it merely states the way things work now, so that legal experts may be better informed in their deliberations.” (p. 20)

then Bartle is clearly trying to prevent laws from protecting the user in favor of developers. This might sound treacherous to the people who play these games (i.e. you and me), but most of the paper explains the history of the very game design principles that are in modern games.

Bartle splits the essay into the following hierarchy:

  • Introduction
    1. History
      “MUD (‘Multi-User Dungeon’) was the world’s first virtual world, although we [Richard Bartle & Roy Trubshaw] did not know that at the time.” (p. 20)
    2. The Vision
      “I always knew what virtual world promised: freedom. Freedon to do, to be, to realize.” (p. 22)

      1. The Game Conceit
        “[…]some freedoms must be willingly given up for a time in order that new freedoms can be experienced during that time.” (p. 23)
      2. Evolution
        “Changes to a virtual world affect different characters (and hence different players) in different ways.” (p. 28)
      3. Achievement
        “Players must feel that they are advancing, that the advancement is worthwhile, and that there is some definite goal that indicates they have ‘won.'” (pp. 30-31)
    3. Discussion
      “The game conceit, freedom to evolve, and support of a hero’s journey—without all three of these fundamental characteristics, a virtual world is greatly diminished if not mortally wounded.” (p. 34)

      1. Playing by the Rules
        “[…]a virtual object is only what it is because the designer makes it so. Take away the designer’s ability to make it so, and it ceases to be what it was.” (p. 36)
      2. There’s One Born Every Minute
        “[…]every change to a virtual word has some effect that will impact one player less advantageously than another. If that player can call upon the law for compensation, so can someone else for some other change. The overall effect is to remove the designer’s freedom to change their world however they deem necessary. The result is that virtual worlds will not evolve.” (p. 37)
      3. Meaning
        “Bill Gates could be the world champion high jumper if he wanted to be. All he has to do is go to the current world champion high jumper and buy his world record off him. Once he has got it, maybe he can persuade the courts to prevent other people from attempting to beat it because that would be stealing.” (p. 39)
    4. Summary
      “If virtual worlds are to continue to astound us, to fill us with wonder, to allow us to be who we really are, these threads of similarity [the fundamental characteristics that separate virtual worlds from reality] must be protected—cherished even.” (p. 44)

Bartle’s essay is long because he’s riding a fine line; if he heads into the job of a game designer, he risks antagonizing video gamers. If he argues too much on the side of the developer and not the consumer, his argument is one-sided and won’t convince the legal professionals he lists as his target audience (keep in mind that this article was published in a law journal). By giving his history as a creator and explaining how developers are ultimately looking out for the game’s world, he puts himself on the side of the vast majority of players who aren’t breaking the written or unwritten game rules. By situating himself as a person who enjoys virtual worlds (“They’re not games, they’re places./And I still want to go there.”) then he demonstrates empathy as a player himself. (p. 44)

Potential Uses

Developer Rights

Obviously, the essay can be used to defend those who are seeking legal action against developers for changing their game.

Game Rules: Written vs. Unwritten

Bartle gives a great explanation for how game rules work.

In an example about people playing the board game Clue, Bartle describes a scenario where one player bribes another, with real world money, to see her cards and gain an unfair advantage in the game.

“Although there are no written rules in Clue about bribery, there are, nevertheless, unwritten rules that say this kind of activity stops a game from being a game.” (p. 24)

The idea of written and unwritten rules applies to all games, multiplayer or singleplayer, but can even get into concepts of “griefers”, who enter game worlds with their own goals of annoying, furstrating, or confusing other players. (source)


“They argued that in computer games it was the program, not the players, that defined the rules. Only the code could dictate what they did.” (p. 26)

The “They” above refers to, essentially, “griefers” in Bartle’s MUD.

Griefing is defined by Warner and Raiter as:

“Intentional harassment of other players […] which utilizes aspects of the game structure or physics in unintended ways to cause distress for other players.” 1

This represents griefing as an inherently malicious act. However one could argue how, using these ideas, games can be “griefed” for other reasons, such as bug-testing, creative gameplay conceits, or adaptation. EVE Online is a great example of how communities adapt to griefing.

“Anything the virtual world lets its players do, they can indeed do.” (p. 26)

Goals: Conflict & Resolution

“I always knew what virtual worlds promised: freedom. Freedom to do, to be, to realize.” (p. 22)

Along with Bartle’s Test of Gamer Psychology, this essay can more closely identify the reasons people play games and what different personalities are trying to get from the experience.


“Virtual worlds are not games, but they use the game conceit—that some freedoms must be willingly given up for a time in order that new freedoms can be experienced during that time.” (p. 23)

If games are about giving up control in order to gain other freedoms, then we can look at how people view their own free will in social contexts.

For anymore potential uses, or to list other relevant sources or uses of this page, please leave a friendly comment in the spirit of sharing.



featured image “Jury” by Eric Molinski from CALI Flickr page licensed under Creative Commons Attribution NonCommercial ShareAlike 2.0

  1. Warner, D. & Raiter, M. (2005). “Social Context in Massively-Multiplayer Online Games (MMOGs): Ethical Questions in Shared Space”. International Review of Information Ethics. vol 4. (12/2005).

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