Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Fortnite is down and John Locke is pissed

As of this writing Fortnite, the most popular Massively Multiplayer Online Game in the world is offline, and 17th century political philosopher John Locke would be none too happy about it. Not because Locke had a particular affection for costumed figures running around a virtual island shooting each other, but because Locke was particularly interested in how people come to claim ownership in the things of this world. And make no mistake about it: gamers very much claim that they ownthe resources that they cultivate, refine, curate, trade and purchase in virtual space.

Over 250 million people play the game on a monthly basis, due in part to the fact that it is free to play.[1]On October 14th, players witnessed an in-game cataclysm, which destroyed the entire game world. Anyone logged on witnessed only a blackhole where the game used to be. The game has been offline going on two days now.[2]

The players were stunned. No one doubts that the game will return shortly; permanently pulling the plug on such a popular cash cow is even less likely than the end of the actual world. But until then a quarter of a billion people have been cut off from one of their favorite past-times. For most this is a minor annoyance. But for some it is (or at least portends) a major grievance. Some people literally pay their rent with the game though donations from fans who watch them play on the online streaming service Twitch. Suddenly being cut off from the virtual world they invested in and depended on reveals the precarious nature of staking a claim in the virtual world.[3]

As a matter of law these users are entitled to complain, but little else. Games like Fortnite are governed by meticulously lawyered ‘end-user licence agreements’, which users must agree to before they can play. Those agreements give exclusive authority over the game and everything in it to the company. Our servers, our code, our rules. They are the in-game gods, and if they chose to implode the universe in perpetuity, that is their divine right.

Which brings us back to John Locke. In his lifetime the Aristocracy of Europe propagated a ‘Divine Right of Kings,’ which entailed (among other things) that all property in the kingdom belonged to the Monarch. Locke challenged this doctrine through an alternative theory of property in his “Second Treatise of Government.” Locke argued that “whatsoever then [one] removes out of the State that Nature hath provided, and left in, he hath mixed his Labor with it, and joined to it something that is his own and thereby makes it his Property.”[4]A standard example is a wild apple tree, which belongs to everyone in common. Anyone can come along and pluck an apple from the tree, thereby making the fruit their property. If they plant the seeds, water the soil, and nurture the plant to maturity, the resultant second tree (and all apples that spring from it) become their property as well.

Locke’s “labor mixing argument” has been the focus of much controversy among political philosophers. One major complication has been whether or not his thinking can be extended to ‘intellectual property.’ The tools used to make a film aren’t found in nature the way an apple tree is, so can a filmmaker claim to ‘own’ their film on Lockean grounds? Many scholars think not, so if there are such things as ‘intellectual property rights’ they cannot be justified by the labor mixing argument.

This might seem like the relevant precedent for virtual worlds like Fortnite. But this fails to properly appreciate the role that users play in these worlds. Games like Fortnite encourage and depend on users mixing their labor with ‘virtual resources’ found in the game. Some games, like Farmville have users that spend dozens of hours a week ‘farming’ virtual crops, which they sell on the gray market for real-world cash, which they in turn use to buy real-world food.

Virtual worlds have in-game economies collectively valued at over $52 billion, larger than the GDP of Iceland, Yemen and Belize, combined. World of Warcraft’s virtual gold-mining industry alone is worth more than $2 billion. Nearly all of this value is the result of the labor that users have poured into it. Absent that labor, WoWs ‘gold’ is just worthless zeros and ones. These companies are not merely providing valuable worlds from which users extract enjoyment; they are providing raw materials which users are, as a livelihood, transforming into an economic system that philosophers, lawyers, economists and politicians have only just begun to wrap their heads around.

There are too many challenges to the idea of ‘virtual property rights’, Lockean or otherwise, to address here.[5]Perhaps the ‘property rights framework’ isn’t the best way to understand the relationship between game companies, users, the virtual resources they invest in and the virtual worlds that they, in so doing, are co-creating. 

But such objections miss the forest for the virtual-trees. Somekind of framework that renders moral and legal protections to the users who produce the vast majority of the value of these virtual spaces is imperative. Companies, other users, hackers, even governments pose a potential threat to legitimate claims users have to their corners of these virtual spaces. Issues of fairness, equity, distributive justice, general utility, economic efficiency, informed consent, and other staples of political philosophy run right through the heart of virtual economies.

An ever-increasing share of the Gross World Product exists in virtual space. If we don’t invest our own resources into understanding and structuring the economic rules of that space they will continue to be set by a small fraction the relevant parties. There is little reason to think the rules they write will be in the best interests of all. Just as John Locke did not thoughtlessly acquiesce to the Divine Right of Kings merely because it was the legal and political default, we too should not thoughtlessly acquiesce to the Divine Right of Code.

Garret Merriam
Philosophy Department
Sacramento State

[1]Epic Games, which owns Fortnite makes money through ‘microtransactions’, in-game purchases of costumes and dance-moves for the characters.
[2]Update: before this piece was published Fortnite came back online. It was offline for just under two days. “Fortnite Chapter 2” is now playable.
[3]As it turns out, The End proved to be quite lucrative, at least for some Twitch streamers. It seems that since people couldn’t play the game, many tuned into the Twitch streams of the games’ superstars to see how they reacted to the virtual Ragnarok. 
[5]For example, John William Nelson argues that Locke’s argument can only be applied to the original acquisition of property from nature. Since virtual goods do not exist in nature, but only as a result of the labor of the game’s developer. ‘Farming’ in a virtual space is more like a blacksmith transforming ore which he purchased from a miner. While the miner’s ownership in the ore is justified by Locke’s labor mixing argument, the blacksmith’s ownership must be justified by the prevailing legal theory of property transfer. By extension, any ‘ownership’ a user has over virtual property is justified in terms of the End User License Agreement.


  1. Neat, Garret. But I’m not sure I see a straightforward line from Locke’s rejection of the divine right of kings to claim ownership over kingdom land and resources (which Hume tells us were really “founded originally, either on usurpation or conquest, or both, without any presence of a fair consent or voluntary subjection of the people”) to Lockean worries about people agreeing to a set of conditions to download and use a company’s software.

    1. It certainly isn't a straight line between the two. The connection is more of historical analogy, rather than direct identity. There are (what I take to be) obvious similarities: One group is the 'kings' who claim 'divine right' over the 'natural resources', while the other group is the 'peasants', who cultivate those resources; the first side has absolute power, the second very little power; most of the labor-value derives from the second group, while the benefits of that value are possessed by the first group; the powerless group has a prima-facie legitimate claim to a stake in product of the system; to protect that claim we need to think differently about the legal and moral notions that apportion power in society.

  2. What of the point that based on Locke's property rights, the original creators of the game are the owners (unless the rights have been lawfully transferred)? Hence, they have the ultimate say? The game owners permit others to play the game for entertainment, where some of such players do their own real-world economic transactions on the unlicensed gray market. Yet, ultimately, wouldn't an advocate of Locke's property rights say the inventors of the game have the ultimate rights to the game and to shut down their own game?

    1. I think that would be the straightforward Lockean argument, yes. But my point (despite my clickbait title) wasn't that Locke's argument leads directly to the conclusion that users have a Lockean property right vested in the virtual world that is executable in the real one. Rather, my point is that just as Locke came to challenge the dominant thinking about how labor, value, entitlement and property are related, so to should we challenge our thinking on the same, when it comes to the virtual world, at least.

  3. Interesting piece. This reminded me of the conversation surrounding loot boxes in gaming. They are a highly addictive in-app purchase that make up millions of the dollars in gaming. What reminded me of it is that it appears to be another example of when we should be challenging the companies in question. There are now people advocating for regulation, but it is very recent. https://www.theverge.com/2019/2/19/18226852/loot-boxes-gaming-regulation-gambling-free-to-play