Interview with Raph Koster: The Declaration of Rights of Avatars

Raph Koster is a professional game designer, frequent writer on issues of interactive design, and the CEO of Playable Worlds, Inc.

He was the original creative lead on the seminal online world Ultima Online, which first brought online worlds to the mass market. He was Chief Creative Officer for Sony Online Entertainment (SOE), where he led the design of Star Wars Galaxies. After departing SOE, Koster founded Metaplace, a virtual world startup that created groundbreaking technology to allow the creation of cloud-based virtual worlds “working the way the Web does.”

In 2018 he founded Playable Worlds to develop the next generation of immersive online worlds.

Raph Koster’s essays and writings on online world design include widely reprinted and influential pieces such as “The Laws of Online World Design“, “A Story About a Tree“, and his book “A Theory of Fun For Game Design”. He is a frequent speaker and lecturer on issues of game design, community building, and online society, and the maintainer of the canonical history of virtual worlds at his website,

In 2000, Koster approached a simple question: “Do players of virtual worlds have rights?” Behind this question lurked several issues. Some legal and around regulation. Others how to best design and maintain virtual worlds. There were the experiences that players could and should have in virtuality – and more importantly – how these experiences expanded into the real world.

The result was his seminal thought experiment and article “Declaring the Rights of Players.“

I sat down with Raph Koster to discuss the context around the declaration, why player rights in virtual worlds are such a contentious issue, and why the document is still very much relevant today.

Declaring the Rights of Avatars

Dirk Songuer: Raph, thank you so much for taking the time, I really appreciate it. Let’s start by talking about the context around the declaration. What was the state of online gaming and virtual worlds when you wrote it in 2000?

Raph Koster: There are a few pieces of context that matter. One of them is the history of MUD-Dev, and the other one is the legal status of virtual worlds at the time.

Let’s start with the legal context. Today, the predominant assumption is that disputes between users and operators of virtual worlds are basically governed by shrink wrap licenses. Although the actual shrink wrap is long gone, disputes fall firmly back to End User License Agreements (EULAs), Terms of Services (TOS), and a customer-provider type of relationship. That was not always the case.

At the time, there was a lack of clarity whether virtual worlds should be handled under the body of telecommunications law. This is quite different from software-related law and would contain provisions around eavesdropping on somebody. The question was if virtual worlds should be treated as if the user bought a product, or as if the user was on the phone with somebody else. We were also worrying about things like the Communications Decency Act, which contained anti-indecency provisions.

These questions were really not that subtle – for a while they were up in the air. And it wasn’t just virtual worlds, this was true for all of Internet communications.

Dirk Songuer: Was the expectation that virtual worlds required a different set of regulations than the rest of the Internet, or the World Wide Web?

Raph Koster: From the beginning everybody intuitively spoke about virtual worlds as places. Nobody thought of them as being like a party line call. Nobody thought of them as being pieces of software. We casually spoke about “being there.” Everything was using metaphors of ”placeness”, of movement, of embodiment, but none of the legal views reflected that.

The legal community dove into this a little bit later with the State of Play conferences. These were organized between the Institute for Information Law & Policy at New York Law School and the Information Society Project at Yale Law School.

I remember when I went to one of the State of Play conferences, the in-house counsel for Sony Online came along as well. It was one of the few times that we ended up going to the same event, and he was starstruck by who else was attending. He went: “Oh my god! That’s Yochai Benkler over there!

Beth Simone Noveck was the prime mover behind organizing the events, and she went on to work at the White House as the deputy chief technology officer. There were all these prominent legal scholars trying to figure out what to do with virtual worlds.

Dirk Songuer: And MUD-Dev?

Raph Koster: The other piece of context is the MUD-Dev mailing list. J.C. Lawrence was the moderator and the motivating force behind it.

J.C. was an active moderator, and the culture of MUD-Dev was that he reviewed every post before it would get published. If it didn’t have proper grammar, he would refuse to post it. If it didn’t follow proper quote formatting, he would refuse to post it. If he thought it wouldn’t contribute to the discussion in a meaningful way, he would approach you and say: “Why don’t you think about it for a while?” and send it back. He acted like an editor for a journal or a magazine, not for a mailing list.

And in some cases we would end up on the phone talking about issues and topics that we ought to be talking about on the mailing list. The Laws of Online World Design were one of those moments. I made a throwaway comment like: “Oh, look, there goes another aphorism. Has anybody gathered them up?” And J.C. replied: “You should!”. And then he followed up with me on the next phone call: “Have you gathered those up yet? Here are the archives. You should be crawling through them all.

It kind of felt a little like a steering committee, although I don’t know how much of a committee it really was, since J.C. retained the final say. This culture alienated some folks, and that’s why Brad McQuaid (first lead programmer and later lead designer of EverQuest) never participated. The MUD-Dev mailing list never had more than a few hundred active posters. Supposedly the lurking readers were in the many thousands, but most people were too intimidated to post. I heard that many times.

But it’s hard to overstate the degree to which MUD-Dev mattered for thinking about some of these topics. And certainly that that’s how the article around the declaration became what it was in the end, with all the counter arguments and the different sorts of challenges to the core idea. It’s because it was very much a child of MUD-Dev.

Both of those things really provided the genesis and the context: The fact that there was this almost “Think Tank”-like mailing list, alongside the uncertainty around the legal situation.

Dirk Songuer: In the earliest virtual worlds, MUD1 and its descendants, there were essentially two classes of players: Regular players that acted within the normal ruleset of the game. And then you had those that were God-like entities and could do whatever they wanted within that world.

Raph Koster: There is an additional wrinkle here, which makes it even more complicated. The culture that had existed since MUD1 was that you automatically became a wizard or witch once you reached the maximum level. It was an actual entitlement. There was no criterion that said you had to use your powers for “good” while being an immortal.

That entitlement was sort of the original sin, I guess.

Dirk Songuer: One philosophy was that these wizards and witches were to be the moderators and co-creators of the virtual world, taking care of it.

Raph Koster: There were also a lot of philosophies oriented around: “Hey, I’m God and I can do anything I want.” We saw people viewing their powers as “perks” to spy on players. This was fairly common, and people didn’t see it as an ethical breach.

We were running LegendMUD at the time and we never had truly egregious cases of this behavior, other than the one person I had to fired before the game even opened for spying on a couple who were trying to be intimate in their private room.

But LegendMUD had a code of conduct for “immortals”, which was unusual. Part of the context for the Declaration of the Rights of Avatars was that we had been thinking about these kinds of governance problems for LegendMUD.

We were drawing a lot of inspiration for dealing with such problems from LambdaMOO, via Julian Dibbell.

Dirk Songuer: LegendMUD had a code of conduct for administrators?

Raph Koster: The creation and revisions to the code of conduct came along when there were concerns about admins who also actively played the game: Could they be trusted if they were engaging in player-vs-player combat with their characters to not use their God powers? Did they play favourites with one person or another? If somebody was being disruptive, could you disentangle the admin’s way of handling that disruptive person from whether they got along with them as people? Or were friends with them?

In other words, it was a response to bog standard issues around conflicts of interest that arose over the course of play.

Dirk Songuer: I imagine this happened all over the place?

Raph Koster: Countless MUDs ran into this problem, realizing that reaching maximum level is no indication whatsoever that somebody should be given God powers. By the time LegendMUD came around, many worlds had established the requirement that you needed to reach maximum level, but also apply and be accepted.

For example, on the MUD that we played prior to LegendMUD, Worlds of Carnage, my wife Kristen and I both reached the maximum level, and then we had to submit an idea for a new area in the game. Plus we had to answer a questionnaire. If you were accepted, you became an admin. If not, go start a new character.

Dirk Songuer: It is one thing to answer a questionnaire to be accepted, and another to impose a set of rules within a code of conduct. Then it almost becomes a proper job, doesn’t it?

Raph Koster: When LegendMUD introduced the additional rules, everyone became aware that this was a job. People knew that. LambdaMOO had made it super clear that people were perceiving the role that way. OK, then let’s just make it a job: “Admins make the hard decisions. The developers just implement.” But LambdaMOO also realized: “Never mind, that didn’t work.

LegendMUD brought more novel things to the table. One was breaking the whole operation into multiple jobs with different kinds of responsibilities in order to minimize the problems around conflicts of interest. For example, there were some people who were role-players. They ran central characters and helped create PvP drama, storylines, and so on. But frequently those things also turned into admin issues. Having the person who was inciting drama for roleplay purposes also be part of the judge or jury process was a conflict of interest.

That’s why we split the responsibilities. The former we called player relations, today it would be community management. And then we had different people in charge of administration. Their job was to be a cop. And those two cannot be the same people. We even set up reporting structures. We had a head for each of the four departments. There was programming (coder) and administration (admin), there was design (building) and gameplay (public relations).

By separating those domains, we reduced a lot of the conflict-of-interest problems.

Dirk Songuer: Did you take this approach over to Ultima Online when you started at Origin Systems?

Raph Koster: At the time community management wasn’t really seen as a discipline. Prior to that I did the job of community management, which included things like patch notes, the constant conversations on the forums, the gathering of feedback, you know, all that work fell on me while I was leading the design team.

It was an oddity when we had a dedicated community manager on Ultima Online. A lot of people credit Carly Staehlin-Taylor with being the first community manager in AAA games.

In Ultima Online, all this happened gradually over the course of operating the beta. It was not that way from the beginning. Early on, Game Masters also ran events. They were in the world, so they did customer support, and they ran the events. It was all one group. We had a few people on the development team who would jump in as game Masters. In fact, I think we may have required that everybody on the team had to do shifts for a little while. Just to understand what it was like and to gain more sympathy for the live operations side of the house.

The shift to separate departments came about because of some pretty serious abuses of power. There were Game Masters who traded in-game rewards for sexual favours. There were GMs who were spawning items and selling them on eBay for personal profit. There were a whole variety of issues, and so the rules gradually built up and became more professionalized.

By the time EverQuest rolled around, so not very long after, the practice of having staff role-playing and creating events in-game was pretty much dead. And customer support did not report through the development team in any way.

Early on in Ultima Online, players got to know individual Game Masters by their name. The best practice today is that everything gets anonymized and randomized. You cannot form a connection with an individual customer support person. This is to both protect the CS person and to prevent any kind of conflict of interest.

Dirk Songuer: So, initially players that reached the maximum level in a virtual world automatically achieved the title wizards and witches. They were bestowed God-like powers to police the world and to create new experiences for the other players.

In this new, professionalized environment, all the God-like powers were  shifted away from the players, to be distributed over a large professional team within the operator.

Was the Declaration of the Rights of Avatars an attempt to give back some power to the players? Or at least an expectation of not being at the mercy of this anonymized and randomized system?

Raph Koster: If I think back to where I was really coming from, you cannot separate the declaration from the essays “Letters to the Players” that I was writing at the time. “A Story about a Tree” was the first one.

If you read through those, a lot of them are about the ways in which the emotional bonds between players are real. Their investment into the community is real. The social conflicts that we see, and the ways in which they are attempting to reach self-determination, were real. This was the defining story and experience of Ultima Online.

And then there was the “Kazola’s Tavern Saga”. This saga was widely known in the community, but that doesn’t mean that today people remember Kazola’s tavern.

Basically, it was the story of a group of role-players that got together. They didn’t all know each other in advance, but gradually grew into a community. At the heart of it was a female character named Kazola. They used player housing to create a tavern in the forest outside of the city of Yew on one of the servers, Great Lakes I believe.

And they built up this tavern into a place that spun off all kinds of vitality for that entire server. It was the kind of thing where everybody knew each other, and stories were written. There were politics, there was intrigue, there were player killers in the midst who role-played along with it. You’d get posts on the forums, and people would go: “Wow, I can’t believe something like this happened!

There was a whole explosion of culture around this kind of thing. This wasn’t novel per se. LegendMUD ran the “Legendary Times”, which was a newsletter that had lore, fan fiction and gameplay tips in it. A lot of people subscribed to it, even though they didn’t play the game. But the scale was novel. It suddenly reached hundreds of thousands of people rather than maybe a hundred.

And that’s why Kazola’s tavern became a big, fat, juicy target.

The Game Masters liked it, and it got a role-playing award and a plaque on the entrance to the tavern. Which made some people jealous. They came in and started stealing everything out of the house. So, the GMs started locking down the furniture. The building itself was an open space because it was a tavern. It was a business and so players had no capabilities to secure things.

Then we developers had to add lockdown abilities to player housing, which they all immediately used up. Then we granted extra lockdown abilities to Kazola’s because it was valuable to the game, which again made people more jealous. Eventually Kazola’s was put under siege and the tavern regulars had to organize a militia to defend it.

These are the defining stories within a virtual world, right? That is why my letters to the players are full of stories about “flickering lights in the darkness.” It’s so much harder to build up this kind of experience than to destroy it. So, as game designers, how do we structure game incentives to foster these lights?

That’s what the letters are really about. And all of that was also context running up to the Declaration of the Rights of Avatars.

Dirk Songuer: It was a question of how much the operators of the world should again be involved with the world?

Raph Koster: We had gone and built a simulated world. Do we now protect Kazola’s tavern, or do we let it follow its path? When do we intervene? How do we intervene? What rights does Kazola have to demand assistance from us?

Plenty of the people in that community were demanding assistance. They argued that we recognized that they were valuable to the game: “You spotlight us! You share our stories! We’re in your marketing materials!” They screamed that they were getting eradicated by player killers.

Shouldn’t we do something?” is the real question.

Dirk Songuer: And that’s where MUD-Dev came in?

Raph Koster: It’s quite possible, although I don’t remember for sure, that I might have been on the phone with J.C. talking about all this. I said something like: “You know, I’ve got some notes written about this,” and he went: “Well, you should turn that into a post.

“Avatars are the manifestation of actual people in an online medium, and that their utterances, actions, thoughts, and emotions should be considered to be as valid as the utterances, actions, thoughts, and emotions of people in any other forum, venue, location, or space.

Thus, the well-established Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen approved by the National Assembly of France on August 26th of 1789 do therefore apply to avatars in full measure saving only the aspects of said rights that do not pertain in a virtual space or which must be abrogated in order to ensure the continued existence of the space in question.”

Raph Koster, The Declaration of Rights of Avatars, January 26th, 2000

Dirk Songuer: Your answer was to essentially write a Declaration of Independence for the players as a result. Why did you choose to base the rights of avatars on the Declaration of Man?

Raph Koster: The original thought exercise was prompted by a discussion in the front room of our house. Kristen had her desk there, “MUD-ing” and managing LegendMUD. Together with our friend Jame Scholl, who went by the name Satyric back then, we were sitting in that front room having a conversation about this. That kind of thing wasn’t unusual. In fact, the “Theory of Fun” had a very similar genesis, in the same room, chatting with people.

In that conversation with Jame, me pulling up the Declaration of the Rights of Man as opposed to something else was probably tied to me growing up around UNICEF and UN people. The Mafalda Declaration of the Rights of the Child comic booklet was a common sight around my house when I was a kid, and I was more familiar with this kind of thing than the US Constitution at the time.

So, we just took the articles in the declaration and “MUD-ified” them.

Dirk Songuer: How did people on the MUD-Dev list react to this thought experiment?

Raph Koster: I would put the reaction somewhere between “controversial” and “outright rejection”. I threw out this concept, this idea, this premise, and people threw up all up all over it. There were not a lot of positive reactions. I think in hindsight for several good reasons.

Some of the reasons were all about what today we would call “Maintaining the magic circle.” That certainly would be the Richard Bartle side of the reaction. Some of the reactions came from a commercial, or pragmatic place: “Won’t this prevent us from doing what we do?” In many ways that was the dominant mode of the response. And then there was Matt Mihaly for example, who immediately jumped into political science arguments that, frankly, I was not familiar with. I had to read up what he was even talking about.

The initial reaction was certainly chaotic and my memory is fuzzy on how it made the leap to getting thought about more seriously.

Dirk Songuer: Richard Bartle was more concerned with the freedom to use virtual worlds as a form of identity exploration, correct?

Raph Koster: Richard’s objections, even to the very first thought experiments, were rooted in the right to creative freedom. He asked questions like: “What if I want to create a world about psychological torture?” You log in to have an “entertaining” experience in a world that is psychologically torturing you. He argued that he should have the creative freedom to create that.

In other words, as an artist, I should have the freedom to create a world that expresses certain ideas or ideals. And in some cases, particular experiences might violate the rights of others. Richard had that objection right from the beginning. And that perspective is fundamentally a question around the separation of the real from the virtual. He was coming at it from the perspective of protecting the integrity of the game experience.

To my mind, the declaration was framed in terms of governance, not the magic circle. Even if the word wasn’t used in the earliest drafts and in the earliest pieces of the discussion. Because that was the context in which we already talked about these topics in LegendMUD. But this tension between the real world and the and “not real” became gradually more emergent over time.

When I think about it today, we saw a lot more porosity in the boundary between the real and virtual over time. There is a ton of it in Julian Dibbell’s “My Tiny Life” narrative: A Rape in Cyberspace, and one of the first examples of doxing.

Dirk Songuer: This creativity also includes the freedom for players to do what they want. To not be benevolent, but to destroy. And this is what had just led to all these issues. Was the rejection by the MUD-Dev participants a reaction to the learnings that players should maybe not have that power again?

Raph Koster: You know – that nice and tidy narrative of evolution I just gave is total hindsight. In the midst of it, we didn’t see it that way. In the moment it was all reactive: “Oh god, GM XYZ is seducing girls in a hot tub in exchange for giving them a castle! What the hell?!

I don’t think people on MUD-Dev were framing the declaration in the context of the gradual reduction of the rights of players. Instead, I think most of the critiques and confusion looked at it from the angle of reducing their ability to effectively operate their worlds.

Dirk Songuer: But effectively operating the world also means setting up a form of governance that is sustainable, correct?

Raph Koster: Yes, I think that is super important. The word “governance” would be a research project on its own. It would be interesting to search how often the word governance even comes up in the MUD-Dev archives, or in writings about virtual worlds at all. I’m positive that you’ll find it’s extraordinarily scarce – until a small explosion around LambdaMOO. After LambdaMOO, very few people kept talking about it.

I’ve been persistent in using the word “governance” in the context of virtual worlds, and it still came across as a surprise to all the audiences I’ve ever used it with. The frame of governance was itself odd and unusual. “Operator”, sure. But “Governance?” Not so much.

And in MUD-Dev we had plenty of commercial virtual world developers, but zero corporate representation. They might have been lurking, but they weren’t speaking. It was a space where the technical and design creatives, the makers, were talking. The distinction between user and operator was very real, but the commercial side as maybe the third leg wasn’t necessarily huge factor in the debate. With the exception of people like Matt Mihaly, who were doing pay-for-play MUDs.

I personally was looking at a lot of these issues from the user’s point of view, not as an operator. And that was what I was trying to inject into the conversation: The idea that we needed a code of conduct for players. Not just a code of conduct about the players, which had always been there. But one for admins how to interact with players? Not so much.

Dirk Songuer: There were formal structures to involve the players in the design and governance process, while trying to defend the magic circle and the integrity of a virtual world.

Raph Koster: Prior to the declaration we had that Ultima Online House of Commons, where we were doing open development and inviting people to discuss our future plans. It wasn’t formalized power, but we did invite them into the process. And in some cases, for example with player vs. player combat, we implemented a consensus design that was built in cooperation with the user base. That was where the new PvP and reputation system came from, which led to “Trammel.”

Trammel was a version of the Ultima Online world where player fighting required consent, addressing the disruptive player infighting and murdering at the time. Virtual world servers without non-consensual PvP were labelled as “Trammel Rules” at the time, even beyond Ultima Online. For more information, see “A brief history of murder in Ultima Online.”

This line of thinking was picked up again later by both Star Wars Galaxies and EVE Online. SWG had a system of representation for each of the in-game professions. This version of the Galactic Senate was formalized and gave them more power. I assume that EVE’s Council of Stellar Management was also a philosophical outgrowth of the Ultima Online House of Commons. These were direct expressions of the porose boundary between real and virtual, and the need for governance in the game.

But also, they were all examples of surrendering designer control. And this was scarier for game designers than it would have been for LambdaMOO operators. Because LambdaMOO didn’t need any integrity as a game. This is the place where Richard came from: “LambdaMOO can do what LambdaMOO wants.” And I don’t think that narrative is wrong, but I do think that the more community you want, the more you need to build together. I guess that’s how I would put it.

My mentality was definitely: “I don’t want us designers to be parents.” I didn’t want the designers to be the people that sort this out – I wanted the players to be the ones. But I also wanted it to come out in Kazola’s favor. So, how?!

What does that desire mean in terms of what we are as operators?

When people join Ultima Online, they need to be signed up for the fact that there is some degree of social experiment to it. And there we are in legal territory again. The lawyers hated me for saying that: “You used the word ‘experiment’, and therefore it is not a finished product, and we might be liable for putting it on the market.” It is hard to disentangle all of that, I think it’s all tied together.

Dirk Songuer: At that point virtual worlds were so much more than just games. There were social spaces, entertainment venues, artistic experiments, and so on. How can you even approach the question of the role of an admin from a common direction?

Raph Koster: That was another reason why I went with the Rights of Man. I looked for a fundamental commonality that we could have across these disparate spaces. I was thinking about the set of things to put in such a document. And I think a key thing to understand is that I didn’t throw any articles out from the Declaration of the Rights of Man – I just tried to translate them all. I did not try to argue that one shouldn’t be here. This is an established document and many things in the real world have been based on it.

I wanted something that the player killers and Kazola’s group should have in common. Because you need both. The problem is that players came into Ultima Online with vastly different expectations. That was part of the culture clash. If you go around and ask today, there are an incredibly common belief that there never will be another game like Ultima Online. Because as there are more games now, there might never be such a diversity of population shoved together into one setting.

We were dealing with people who came from a MUD background, we had hack-and-slashers, we had people from first-person shooter games that just wanted to kill each other. And we had brand new audiences that we effectively created. All of these people were in conflict with each another. That is part of why we gravitated towards systems like the player councils and player senates, organized by constituency and not by geography. We separated them by play style. There was a representative for player killers, one for crafters, and so on, instead of being organized by servers.

Dirk Songuer: It’s not just about the diversity of player archetypes, it’s also about the diversity of worlds, isn’t it? Different worlds can have very different ideas what they would consider “good” or “harmful” behavior.

Raph Koster: Yes, exactly. The rights were not written for Ultima Online players because by then, I’d been off the game for over a year. It wasn’t for Ultima Online, but it was about the Ultima Online experience. I remember my wife was still running LegendMUD at the exact same time, so there were two virtual worlds getting managed out of our house. And while they had very different scales, they experienced very similar problems.

From the inception, we could ask how the declaration could work for any given world, not just one. And that’s why I wrote that “harm is going to be different for each world”. The context matters. And I never said these articles should be prescriptive. It was framed as a thought experiment.

In the original document, I tried to make a big point of preserving some of what Richard wanted. If you, the operators, designers, the artist, and the people are all coming to the world, all agree that this is this is the experience, for example that this is a world where nobody can talk – then there isn’t any freedom of speech. Because nobody can actually speak. But then that’s part of the experience. I wanted to leave room for that kind of experimentation, for artistic freedom, because the real objective is “Don’t treat people badly.”

The “Right of Exit” was of course the actual core. If the experience is publicly posted and you agree in advance and still participate, then it’s all square. Basically the whole thing hangs on the idea that if your whole user base exits, then you have nothing. Therefore, you’re always working to not have them exit.

So you design the experience to make them not exit. And if you compromise on some of these originally stated design principles, the risk connected with them leaving is going to go up. That’s basically the dynamic that I was trying to elucidate. If there is mutual agreement that players in this world get treated in a particular way, then here is the codified version of that.

Even Codes of Conduct at the time tended to be: “Don’t be bad. We know bad when we see it. And we’ll punish you when we arbitrarily decide what that is.” There was a lot of retroactive invention of penalties and rules. The declaration asked for moving this process forward. To get the consensus first. In theory all of this should be in EULAs and TOS, but we still do a bad job of it. To me, the rule of law, getting the rules defined first, is an important piece of the process.

Dirk Songuer: There is one more thing. At one point you made an intuitive leap in a MUD-Dev comment about the declaration.

You argued that there might be a future need for such a declaration, in a time where virtual profiles might be linked to your real education, to your real professional career, to your actual private life.

“Someday there won’t be any admins. Someday it’s gonna be your bank records and your grocery shopping and your credit report and yes, your virtual homepage with data that exists nowhere else. Your avatar profile might be your credit record and your resume and your academic transcript, as well as your XP earned.

On the day that happens, I bet we’ll all wish we had a few more rights in the face of a very large, distributed server, anarchic, virtual world where it might be very very hard to move to a different service provider.

Raph Koster, comment on The Declaration of Rights of Avatars, January 2000

Dirk Songuer: How did you come up with that leap?

Raph Koster: How did I land on one of my best paragraphs ever? Oh gosh.

There was of course all the information from My Tiny Life and LambdaMOO. I first read My Tiny Life as an advanced reader copy that I happened to find in a used bookstore. I have no idea how that happened. So, the porosity of the membrane around the magic circle was very clear.

Further, there was no shortage of virtual worlds that had non-game applications. For me, this crossover between real and virtual was obvious, but plenty of other people didn’t get that paragraph for years.

Dirk Songuer But there is a difference between “seeing it” and “being conscious enough to express it as a prediction or warning.”

Raph Koster: Another thing that was happening during this time: I was attending the “Turkey City Writer’s Workshop”. That was the workshop that birthed what would become cyberpunk, with members like Lewis Shiner, Bruce Sterling, and William Gibson. But I was a member after that time period.

The first time I met Bruce Sterling, it was because I was introduced by an Ultima Online player that happened to be a family friend, And the first things I said to him, after the introductions were done, was: “How come you guys keep getting virtual worlds wrong?” And he said: “What do you mean?” I said: “Well, I work in virtual worlds, and you keep going on about goggles,” and we went off from there.

I was already seeing the distancing of administration from players. Ironically, back when players could become Gods they were like the Greek Gods, down there with the people. As their powers got reduced in practical terms, the administrators got farther and farther away. Now the admins are distant and remote, disconnected and not in touch with the people anymore. From there, I was extrapolating: “How would that disconnect work within a virtual mall? How does that work within a metaverse?

We had discussions about this in the Turkey City workshops, but I don’t think there’s any good way to give credit or find out who said what. For example, I remember that a popular science article had just come out about scientists developing a new fabric that, due to some chemical properties, destroyed organic particles. So, it’s a self-cleaning cloth. And in the workshop, we were joking around. I said: “I want to read the story about the person who left that sweater on a chair, and it ate their cat.” And Bruce said: “That’s not the story. The story is about the jury trial where they try to find the maker of the cloth liable.

The reason I am bringing up Turkey City is that I was turning this kind of extrapolation into a habit. I would go there and have these kinds of discussions once a month. You know, particularly in the early time period, a lot of us were technolibertarian idealists. And ironically today I find myself asking for a lot more moderation, a lot more regulation. A lot of us are more nuanced now because we’ve seen all this happening in virtual worlds.

Some have seen my keynote “Five Big Metaverse Questions”. On the surface, these questions don’t particularly relate to the metaverse. Instead, many relate to cybersecurity, talking about the NotPetya virus and the Internet as an existential threat. Another one was “How to Build the Scary Future Today?”, which was all about the ways in which the Internet of Things intersects with virtual worlds. And I think that people don’t realize that all of this is part of the metaverse discussion.

For me, the big tension today is that we had a document declaring the rights of avatars. And sure, it was very prescient. But it did not see a a lot of things that ended up also coming into tension with rights. Tensions around freedom of speech versus algorithmic vulnerabilities. Or code as governance versus people as governance. There is a whole host of actively frightening questions.

I was and still am firmly on the side of people as governance, not code. Although “Code is Law” is a position that a lot of smart people have, I think it’s wrong. And I think there are plenty of issues with the original declaration that the modern world exposes.

Dirk Songuer: Well, it has been 24 years since the original thought experiment. What do you think of it today? Would you approach the declaration differently?

Raph Koster: There are specific clauses within the declaration that I would not structure the same way anymore. And I would look closer at certain things. I think property is one of the topics that I’d look more closer at.

We know much more about virtual economics now. Especially the ways in which property rights in a virtual space can blow up due to speculation. When real world interests damage the fabric of the magic circle to such a degree that it breaks and disintegrates. Looking back on the declaration, it passes off property rights like nothing, just walks right along. Well, what if property rights caused the disintegration of the world? Are they still inviolable?

The other one is freedom of speech, which proved to be the most contentious. Laws for what we are currently engaged in, like social media and the metaverse, are a really hard problem. And I think the problem has been made harder by the fact that we didn’t solve it when it was more manageable. It would have been more tractable to get something to evolve from. We were arguing when this was only about a few thousand people at a time. Now we’re dealing with tens of millions and more. And it kind of feels like there were no intermediate stages in between.

Nobody has a good perception of what’s OK to say on Facebook or Twitter anymore. Nobody knows! And it feels like we are all back at the whim of the operator. It all feels deeply arbitrary. Deeply unconsidered. We grew so big without having done the hard work that it makes today’s problems so much harder to deal with.

When I think about how to “fix” something like freedom of speech versus misinformation, it would be easy to define misinformation as a net detriment to a community in the spirit of the Declaration of the Rights of Avatars. Within that thought experiment, it would not be a difficult argument to make. And so it would be incumbent on the operators to prevent it, similar to direct slander against another individual. Within such a community it might not be an issue that this runs headlong against free speech.

The premise of the declaration would argue that in this case, free speech shouldn’t be a right because preserving the space and the community is what it holds at the center of its argument. And that points to the bigger issue: That the declaration of rights is not paired with a constitutional document, or even a constitutional set of practices.

When we go back and look at the real world, a declaration of rights tends to get followed by the need for actual operating principles that form the basis of governance. You write a Declaration of Independence, but then you follow it with a constitution.

You declare the Rights of Man, but then the criminal court comes along after and asks all these questions. Because rights tend to be very lofty and idealistic, but they don’t always survive on practicalities when the rubber meets the road.

And I think that’s true of this one, too.

Dirk Songuer: Raph, thank you so much for your time. 

Raph Koster: Thank you! 

One response to “Interview with Raph Koster: The Declaration of Rights of Avatars”

Leave a Reply

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

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.