Volume 3, Issue 2
2nd Quarter, 2008

The Rights of Avatars

Dr. William Sims Bainbridge

Page 5 of 5

Figure 12: A Team Working to Create Content in Second Life

Figure 12 shows Interviewer Wilber and two associates pretending to affix a combination lock to a door in Second Life, as we evaluate the potential of this environment. Interviewer Wilber is on the left, having exchanged his monk's outfit for a salesman suite. On the right is a leading scientist of avatars and virtual worlds, Mary Lou Maher, and in the center is our student intern, Stephanie Nieves. It took us a while to learn how to manage permissions among us, letting one person make an object, other members of our team copy or modify it, while preventing outsiders from doing anything with it. A major challenge for Second Life has been how to protect individual rights to intellectual property, while encouraging creativity. This is not just a matter of deciding the best policy, but enacting it effectively. A nagging problem has been the fact that some residents of Second Life use software that can crack open the technical barriers to copying and modifying objects made by others. This leads to the interesting question of what, technical or legal, should prevent people from copying, modifying, or deleting avatars.

Right to Life

If avatars in virtual worlds are to become our cyclone descendants, they will need to be able to survive. Consider what would happen if the avatars were residents of The Sims Online, a popular virtual world based on the Sims software toy, which is more like a computerized dollhouse than a game. Launched at the end of 2002, The Sims Online did not receive major updates during its life and was officially shut down in February 2008, although participants could move over to a different version, EA-Land. Now, EA-Land is scheduled to be shut down, unless a groundswell movement to preserve it somehow succeeds.

The aim, of course, is not merely to preserve avatars, but to allow them to live. Figure 13 shows my There avatar, Bainbridge, visiting a duplicate of the ancient Egyptian pyramids and the Sphinx. The precariousness of the virtual world industry gives deeper meaning to issues of migration and property rights. Cyclones will need to be able to migrate simply to survive, as well as to grow and experience new environments. Migration is technically similar to downloading of their data, then uploading it into a suitable new host. At present, there are significant limitations on downloading data representing avatars from most virtual worlds.

Figure 13: Virtual Tomb or Virtual World

All of the virtual worlds allow one to take screenshot still pictures, and Second Life even has a built-in movie camera. In organizing the scientific conference in World of Warcraft, both John Bohannon and I were very concerned about capturing both video images and text. A simple "/chatlog" command makes the WoW interface save an open format text file of everything available to the chat display window, and I used it to preserve the complete discussion of all three plenary sessions, such as the second session shown in Figure 14. This session specifically concerned the relationship between the virtual world and real world. In was held in a virtual sewer, filled with green pus, to make the point that appearances and reality differ. The sewer had no stench, and no avatar was infected by the decay. Many participants preserved both still pictures and movies, posting them for all to see on Flickr and YouTube. It is notable, however, that movies on YouTube cannot be downloaded and saved, although still pictures on Flickr can be.

Figure 14: A Scientific Conference Held in a Virtual Sewer

It is a relatively straightforward task to write a computer program to record the movements of an avatar in Second Life, and then play those movements back by making the avatar repeat them. This is well worth doing, and I am exploring the technology for doing so in my research right now. But this does not capture the player's thoughts and motivations while going through those motions. In the past, I have developed a set of software program to administer huge but comfortable personality and attitude questionnaires, precisely to capture more of the inner life of a person. Through its CyBeRev project, I am happy to say that the Movement built a portal to that system in Second Life, illustrated in Figure 15. This picture shows my rather vacuous avatar, Interviewer Wilber, in front of my computer input display, approximating the pose of Christ in Salvador Dali's 1954 painting sometimes called Christus Hypercubus. This avatar may lack a well-developed personality, but he does seem to have a sense of humor.

Figure 15:
Second Life Avatar Levitating before Personality Capture Interface

With support from the Terasem Movement, Inc., I am currently carrying out research evaluating how much of a personality is automatically captured by the World of Warcraft database, and archived in an online system called The Armory.[1] Each of millions of characters is represented by four web pages which can be downloaded manually as XML files, then run through a parser program to port the data into a spreadsheet or other form.

The Blizzard Company actually is sensitive to the issue of preserving some aspects of human beings. I know of three memorials to deceased persons in this virtual world, one of which is shown in Figure 16, where participants in the conference are kneeling at the Shrine of the Fallen Warrior. This is a memorial to an artist named Michel Koiter, who died unexpectedly at the age of 19. Even more remarkable is a memorial to a deceased player, Dak Krause, in the form of exactly the character he played, but it situated in a virtual location that members of the conference could not access.

Figure 16: The Shrine of the Fallen Warrior


Research projects of many kinds will be needed to learn how best to capture personality from the avatars and characters operated by people in virtual worlds, and how best to employ artificial intelligence techniques to reanimate them to live autonomous lives in new virtual worlds. The restrictions governing avatars today are, therefore, already salient for cyclones, not merely harbingers of the limitations that might be put on avatars' rights in the distant future. Humans gain increased freedom if they can have the liberty to express themselves through multiple avatars, living under various ethical codes, migrating at will from world to world, possessing rights to property and to life. We have much to learn, if we are to realize the cyclone vision, including developing the words needed to talk cogently about the options, and the data formats needed to capture personalities. Transcendence is a problem of translation: First we must learn the language.



bio picWilliam Sims Bainbridge, Ph.D.
Dr. Bainbridge holds a degree in sociology from Harvard University but has worked for many years in computer and information science. He is the author of 17 books, about 200 scientific articles, and dozens of computer programs. The first human being to have answered 100,000 questionaire questions, he is a leading researcher in personality capture.

1 2 3 4 5 <Back to Issue Contents