Tue, Oct 18, 2011 - Page 9 News List

How gaming and social networks are redefining ownership

The question of psychological ownership in the virtual world extends beyond the artifacts you create: even your identity becomes everyone else’s property

By Aleks Krotoski  /  The observer, LONDON

To have and, if possible, to hold is to be and to do, said Jean-Paul Sartre in his essay Being and Nothingness.

“The totality of my possessions reflects the totality of my being,” he wrote in 1949. “I am what I have ... what is mine is myself.”

Researchers have spent hundreds of years trying to define when and how this integrated idea of possessions as something that makes us who we are developed, what it means, its function and whether it is exclusively human. The short answers to these questions are typically evasive, which is probably why the introduction of a new technology that puts this debate to the fore has left us floundering in a social, philosophical and moral morass.

The Web erodes our sense of what can be owned — whether it’s ours or someone else’s creation — because a virtual thing can be “owned” by a vast number of people at the same time. It becomes harder to pinpoint who can claim original rights to the thing and who has access to it. I can have a copy of a photograph, a song, a document or a site on my computer, and a million other people can have the same on theirs. I can exercise ownership rights by giving these assets to whoever I like, and the person who originally created them can’t do a thing about it.

Thus, with no obvious owner, and with a sense that, by virtue of its market abundance, a piece of content’s value is cheap, it can be inferred that it’s psychologically and morally justifiable to take ownership of things online by simply claiming them.

However, is what we’re -witnessing in the marketplace of “the economy of the mind” described by John Perry Barlow, cyberlibertarian, Grateful Dead lyricist and author of A Declaration of the Independence of Cyberspace, a shift in our psychological concept of ownership? Not really: it’s just a matter of context.

There is no indication that theft of physical property is on the rise unless, as observed in the UK riots in August, isolated incidents transform localized social norms to say it’s OK. Contrary to the headlines, downloading stuff online hasn’t made us more likely to steal a DVD from a shop. No, as Brian Sheehan and his colleagues at Syracuse University reported in their paper Motivations for Gratifications of Digital Music Piracy Among College Students, we take control of things that appear —— because of our social environment — to be there for the taking. Just like offline. It doesn’t matter that things that were once physical are now abstractions in the cloud that we tap into when we want them. What has changed is how much stuff we have access to that is — because of the social contracts we operate within online — seemingly free.

The proliferation of digital ephemera has not changed the psychological experience of ownership. Psychological ownership implies an identity transference, often due to some kind of investment. This still happens with digital-only creations and, frankly, is encouraged. Web developers offer extensive libraries of personalization options to appeal to our desire to own.

Take an example from the gaming industry: Massively multiplayer online games -specifically design their products to encourage long-term interactions by giving players “ownership” of their avatars and virtual property. The demise of the game Asheron’s Call 2 at the end of 2005 caused widespread virtual protests and led some traumatized players to real-world therapy sessions because they felt they had lost pieces of themselves at the flip of a switch.

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