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Available under a Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 license.


What would happen if we took seriously the claims of virtual worlds to be genuinely new places? Societies have laws, so why should virtual societies be any different? My topic, then, will not be the law of virtual worlds, but rather law in virtual worlds. If lawyers can learn from studying the legal systems of common law and civil law countries, perhaps we can also learn from studying the legal systems of virtual worlds.

In some cases, these legal systems track our own surprisingly well. In other cases, the contrasts are striking. Both the similarities and differences between real-life law and virtual law are instructive. They can teach us something about what is really going on in virtual worlds, and they can teach us something about what is really going on in our own world. This Article is therefore a thought experiment; an attempt to lay the necessary conceptual foundations for talking coherently about “in-game” law. I will identify four recurring problems in virtual worlds, and discuss what we might gain by thinking about these problems as legal ones.

Part II of this Article will discuss virtual property, which has been one of the most spectacularly successful features of massively multiplayer games. Studying the mechanics and meaning of “ownership” within games has the potential to tell us a great deal about the mechanics and meaning of law in virtual worlds more generally.

Part III will discuss the forms of investment and exchange governed by contract law in the real world. Virtual economies seem to be humming along without extensive bodies of contract law. Explaining this absence provides us a useful framework for thinking about wealth and society and how these concepts do or do not change as they go online.

Part IV explores the social dynamics of groups of players, specifically, how they prevent undesired conduct by others and how they band together for common purposes. Here, the challenge is to find good analogies to similar problems of real-life law.

Finally, Part V turns to one of the most discussed problems in game design: How do we reassure players that designers’ overwhelming powers over game spaces will not be used maliciously? If we look at the corresponding problem from real-life law — how to restrain seemingly unrestrainable sovereign powers — we see that law has a good deal to say about the practical techniques by which a lasting and trusting relationship between seeming unequals can be established.

Publication Citation

49 New York Law School Law Review 147 (2005).



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