Capitalism FAQ: Should You Respect or Abuse Your Customers?

No one likes to see a winner kicking the loser on the ground (unless we really, really hate the loser). We accept within our society that there are differences between people: that some will be more powerful or wealthy than others, and that’s just part of life. One of the limits on our acceptance of some inequality is the visceral rejection we have of abuse, of excessive exercises of power that do more to satisfy a desire to exercise power than actually further some external cause.

So, that’s one reason to be unhappy with Taylor Swift and Katy Perry right now.

These two ladies, through their lawyers and legal entities, are making great efforts to enforce intellectual property law against their fans– the very people who support and adore and ultimately finance their lives. There is good reason for us to judge harshly the multi-millionaires who attack the average citizen, but this is not a blog on Marxism or justice or truth. I’m here to write about law and video games.

So, let’s compare two approaches to intellectual property law in the 21st century. Let’s compare the business models and legal approaches of TS/KP with RiotGames, Inc. The framework to keep in mind is that most intellectual property laws don’t have to be enforced. There is no rule that you have to go after people for copyright or trademark infringements (generally). Yes, there are some sacrifices you make by not enforcing some of your rights, but it’s still a choice.

Though neither of them would like it (I guess they’re in some kind of feud, because being rich, acclaimed, and famous isn’t enough to overcome basic human failures), I’m comfortable using TS and KP interchangeably for this analysis. They offer the same goods and services for pretty much the same prices. So, their business model is $1 songs on iTunes, monetizing YouTube music videos, $100 concert tickets, royalties for radio and online audio services, sponsorships, appearances, and merchandise. They (with their enormous business operations) make musical products and sell them in the same way that musicians have since radio (with basic adaptations of the same model for television and internet).

RiotGames, Inc. develops, publishes, and maintains one of the most played video games in the world. Riot does not charge anyone to play the game. They do not charge for downloading, registering, playing, or for any other use of the game permitted by the EULA and TOS agreements. They will accept money for optional, purely aesthetic enhancements to the game, but this is the extent of their revenue (not counting their e-sports operation, which is distinct from the game and heavily guarded by NDAs that make analysis and explication difficult, if not impossible).

It seems obvious— even intuitive– that the business approach which demands more money would be the one to allow fans leniency with intellectual property. After all, KP/TS take in millions each year, so they certainly don’t need the extra potential money from meager merchandise sales to cover their expenses. Of course, for reasons we don’t need to explore, TS/KP are hell-bent on making sure their fans get no enjoyment from their manufactured musical entertainment apparatus without permission and a fee.

Equally intuitive is the idea that a company that gives away its only product must certainly be cautious and guarded with its intellectual property. That company needs alternative revenue sources, and almost everything it does is only recognized in a world of strong copyright and trademark protection. And yet, RiotGames has actively encouraged fans to interact with their work in every medium of creative expression. They even created a venue for fans to share and display their art, music, videos, poetry, and sculptures.

Here we have two different models, laid out for comparison. There are several questions worth asking: Which model is ethical? Which model shows respect for the fans, for the art, and for the artist? Which model engenders a sense of community and mutual appreciation? Which model will thrive in the 21st century?

For those who feel that, at the end of the day, the bottom line on the balance sheet is what matters and what guides and justifies business and legal choices:

KP: 110 million

TS: 180 million

RiotGames, Inc: 624 million (2013), maybe over 999 million in 2014.

GG.

Child of Light Teaches About Data Vulnerability

I.

Like so many other gamers, I usually have some complaints about a game- some buggy feature in the UI, some design choice that manages to annoy me throughout the entire game, repetitive  music that grates on my nerves, etc. It doesn’t mean the game is bad, but just that I see some room for improvement.

I don’t know how I would improve Child of Light.

It has a wonderful story, beautiful art, fun and interesting combat, characters I can care about, and not much else. I think that was one of the strongest points of the game—its leanness. The developers did not burden the game with extra fluff; they edified the game down to what was essential, and worked to make that as excellent as they could.

The only thing that I didn’t love about the game was that I had to play it through Uplay (after buying and installing it through Steam). The absurdity and frustration of one game distribution platform directing me to another game distribution platform occupied my mind as I played the opening levels of Child of Light. As I played a coming-of-age tale about a loss of innocence and the fight to defend oneself and loved ones in a hostile world, I saw the obvious comparison to the coming-of-age of cyberspace, and the fight to defend data and identity in a hostile world. The first point I thought of was how efforts to protect against piracy are often misguided, but I then thought about data protection more generally.

II.

As the protagonist, young Aurora grows as she faces a dangerous world. Coming-of-age stories are about the loss of protection and the discovery of vulnerability in a dangerous and unforgiving world.

The internet has had its own coming-of-age progress. It is grown from a nascent state of limited, careful users who protected and cared for it to being used by billions of people every day, with billions of dollars spent maintaining and attempting to control or harness it in one way or another. From businesses who use the internet to conduct business, to businesses whose business is conducting internet through cables and wireless transmissions, to government agencies to anarchist hackers, everyone wants to govern the data of the internet.

III.

So, in response to the rising threat of hackers and errors, passwords and encryption became ubiquitous. But despite putting a deadbolt on the door, the data frequently seeps through cracks at the hinges or under a window left slightly ajar. Think about the ways our “data” escapes our control:

– Large-scale Database hacks (PlayStation Network, HomeDepot, Target, AT&T, Steam, etc.)

– Private, small hacks (phishing scams, ATM card readers, discarded paper mail, keylogging)

– Third party purchases

– We publish it without realizing it, or thinking about the consequences.

We don’t hear about a lot of people losing their data because of weak personal  passwords. In the 80s and 90s (and sometimes beyond), most films that depicted some kind of cybersecurity breach showed someone sneaking into a researched area and guessing (or using a previously obtained) a password.  I have a constant background fear for my data, but not because I think someone might guess one of my passwords. It’s because my data is already out there, entrusted to dozens of companies.

IV.

In Child of Light, combat allows for either physical or magical attacks. Each character has corresponding defensive stats for each kind of attack: physical resistance and magical resistance (nothing new for the RPG genre); high physical resistances do nothing to protect against magical attacks. In the same way, my setting an extremely strong, 28-character login for my laptop does not protect my credit card information from getting stolen from the servers of Steam or AT&T or AcmeCorp. (Hopefully, their hash functions do!)

As we come of age, we learn to lock doors to houses and cars, and exercise basic, sound judgment about safety in public. People need to become educated about cybersecurity. Everyone, from the most average consumer purchasing on Amazon, to network and IT administrators of large corporations and government offices, needs to think about what the real threats are and what measures are helpful and productive in protecting data. Given the way data has been compromised in the last two years, I am inclined to think that monthly password changes with the usual set of enormously restrictive requirements is not always the best or most pertinent protection.

Year-End Special Four-Part Special: Methods of Power in and around StarCraft II

One of the central questions in both Philosophy of Law and Social and Political Philosophy is “What is power?” Quite a bit of philosophy is interested in understanding the concept of power, often before making value judgments about its use and limits. StarCraft II is a multi-leveled study in power, through gameplay, story, and the impact of the game on the world.

As a real-time strategy game StarCraft II is about controlling and using resources to gain power. Furthermore, each of the three races within the game explores this theme in a unique way, and each of those different explorations illustrates a piece of the way that StarCraft II explains and demonstrates South Korea’s pioneering and excellence in e-sports.

For the Terrans, power is about building and controlling infrastructure—the media and information are key elements in the story and game. For the Zerg, power comes largely through infestation—through being present and connecting with sources of power and with the general Zerg population. For the Protoss, power is considered to be the result of knowledge and wisdom. All of these different approaches can be used to understand why South Korea is such a consistently dominant force in e-Sports.

[Part 1] The Wind Beneath the Wings of Liberty: “For Universe News Network, I’m Kate Lockwell.”

One of my favorite options throughout the Terran campaign was the interaction with the UNN news reports, and the obvious government control and bias against the heroes. What I thought was a fun gimmick took center stage in the plot when the protagonist rebels discovered incriminating recordings of the corrupt Emperor. The heroes chose to hack into the broadcast network and disseminate the incriminating statements, thus turning the “hearts and minds” of the people against the corrupt government. Advancing the revolution was a matter of controlling the infrastructure (in this case, the media infrastructure). For Raynor’s Raiders, power was about controlling information through existing systems, and was worth “a hundred battles.”

In more broad terms, power came from controlling the resources of information and the means of distributing that information. Jim Raynor’s observations that the government had used the media against his cause for years, and his fear that the government would only spin the incident and regain control, show the power of the media. While this is a largely a statement about media as a special kind of access to the power of controlling a very large population, it is also a commentary on the strategic value of controlling any element of infrastructure. For the Rebellion against Mengk’s Confederacy, control over UNN was as important as any military base or research facility or arms manufacturing plant.

It is easy to see the strategic value in controlling existing infrastructures and making them work for your own cause—indeed, there may seem to be no reasonable alternative. However, the Zerg’s interaction with existing differs a little from the Terran method.

[Part 2] One Swarm, One Heart: Being and Infestation.

The Zerg campaign uses the word “essence” in almost every conversation. There are lots of interesting questions about “essence,” such as questions in constructivism and the challenge of natural kinds. Setting aside such puzzles, we can see that the Zerg obsession with essence is in the context of furthering power through connection and infestation. Unlike the Terran approach of controlling systems of power, the Zerg connect with power and weave some element of that power into themselves. They break down the barriers of distinction between themselves and the other thing. They seek to permeate and be permeated by those things around them, and are drawn to power to be permeated by it and integrate it into themselves; their infestation is presence, or “Being” in a sense Heidegger might approve of.

Even the essential game mechanic of the Zerg, “Creep,” illustrates the role of connection for this race. A growing, living carpet is the foundation of all Zerg bases and provides bonuses to Zerg units. Everything about the Zerg is a matter of connection: their hive mind, their sprawling, organic physical connection, and even the origin of all units from the same structure are all directed towards breaking down distinctions between beings into a single whole.

A lot of this is rightly alien to humans, if only because we don’t cover ourselves, each other, and our world in mucus. However, we do form a less tangible sort of organic carpet that connects us to everyone around us, which we call our culture. This living background also directs how we connect to power, each other, and ourselves.

[Part 3] The Future Legacy: Why Zeratul Reads the Writing on the Wall

The glimpse of Protoss that we get in StarCraft II (until the release of Legacy of the Void) is through the experiences of a single Protoss mystic, Zeratul. Zeratul is on a sort of spirit journey to understand ancient prophecies about the end of the universe. He believes that understanding these predictions will give all three races the direction they need to avoid apocalyptic catastrophe. For the Protoss (at least this particular one), power begins with knowledge and understanding, which directs further efforts at power.

Rather than rushing into power to subjugate enemies or create even greater power, Zeratul wanted to know how power should be used and what should be done. He wanted mastery over context and direction, and certainty in his goals. Zeratul relied on writings from the past about the future to know what to do in the present. This optimizes his context and understanding, as it allows him to see the direction of forces by understanding the causes of their shapes. By understanding the origins of the Zerg, he understands the potential for Kerrigan to become powerful enough to thwart the overarching threat to the universe. By understanding the tensions between the three races, he understands the risk of Kerrigan’s destruction that would make possible the end of all things. For Zeratul, this view—brought by knowledge and understanding—is the most important resource. He wishes to begin at the beginning, and understand what should be understood.

[Part 4] StarCraft II in the World: How Korean E-Sports Power Makes Us “Foreigners”

All of these approaches are played out in answering the oft-asked question: “Why is South Korea so good at e-Sports?”
The answer begins with the Asian Economic Crisis of 1997. After a devastating economic collapse, governments like South Korea’s were faced with questions of rebuilding and moving forward. South Korea invested heavily in telecommunications infrastructure. As the economy steadily rebounded, one small business plan that grew around a strong telecommunications infrastructure was computer gaming cafes. These became so numerous and omnipresent that they became a major element in the culture of young people growing up in South Korea around 2000. As the culture integrated computer gaming as an important social medium, the quality of players grew. In the late 90s, there were not as many games that lent themselves to the kind of competitive, head-to-head, high-speed gameplay that fit the cultural need of young people gathered in a social setting, but StarCraft was a near-perfect fit. Just as Brazilian children gravitate towards soccer fields and so many American children hang out near basketball courts, sizable portions of Korean children spent free time at gaming cafes. It follows quite obviously that spending time practicing and learning leads to excellence. That excellence is so dramatic that it is even noted in the parlance of StarCraft II tournaments: competitors are either Korean or “Foreigners.”

[Of course, there are other factors that led to S. Korean unique dominance in e-sports—Japan’s anti-gambling laws undermined the growth of a competitive gaming scene, the US was sold on consoles like Xbox and PS2 over computer gaming, etc.]

There is a simple analysis of the story of South Korea’s success in e-Sports: Economics, legal possibility, and technological availability lead to the creation of a new infrastructure (Terran). This infrastructure was integrated into the culture, leading to the development of a specific kind of power (Zerg). The path of past events created a direction for power to be used (Protoss).

There is so much more to talk about in StarCraft II. Its rich story is filled with characters and ideas, and the storytelling and gameplay add depth and perspective to further enhance the potential subjects of discussion. For the considerations on power, there is a takeaway lesson about understanding and recognizing the inorganic structures and organic cultures that produce certain types of power, and realizing the direction that power wants to go. Whether it’s telecommunications, biotechnology, energy management, or sports and entertainment, these points are relevant and recognizable. Future outcomes will depend on how we make our systems and culture, and how we allow our creations to shape us.