Monday, January 4, 2010

Ganked IRL

This story hit the news a few days ago. Police tracked a criminal across the Canadian border with the help of Blizzard providing the guy's WoW account information.

I always get an itchy feeling when I read about games in the news. It's always this weird pseudo-news, where a game and "those people" who play them briefly interact with the real world. The whole article is structured just as any crime-report would be, but there are little disconnects from the norm that lets you know everyone is a little uncomfortable with the whole process.

The "two worlds" really are portrayed as two different places. The writer, Patrick Munsey, sets up the dichotomy: "Indeed, World of Warcraft is among the most popular online pastimes today, boasting more than 14 million players in dozens of countries — including Canada. But this is the Internet, and Blizzard is in California." But this is the internet, indeed. Beware those who enter not knowing the rules of this strange realm.

The media struggles in bringing these two worlds together. There is a clear standoff between the two sides of the line. There is a simultaneous acknowledgement that the two are different and a push to shove the two together. Look at the uses of the word "subpoena:"

"...putting everything we had together gave me enough evidence to send a subpoena to Blizzard Entertainment," said the deputy. The problem here is that he didn't actually subpoena Blizzard in the real legal sense, his subpoena was "nothing more than a politely worded request, considering the limits of his law enforcement jurisdiction and the ambiguity of the online world."

The point of a subpoena, from what I understand, is to require a certain kind of compliance by an individual (by it appearance by a witness, or to divulge information) under threat of punishment. It is not a politely worded request that Roberson was "under the assumption that they wouldn't [respond to his request]." Roberson, straddling the line as someone who as both played WoW and works as a cop, seems to be twisting in the wind, buffeted by the obscure internet forces who seem to be impervious to real legal action. I grant that this isn't actually the case, but it's hard to read this article and not feel that way.

Roberson's use of the word subpoena shows how no one really understands how to handle when the real world and the internet clash. The article portrays the real world, and Roberson, as continuing to bow down to the internet and its rules. Roberson used the IP address to get a home address and "I got a longitude and latitude. Then I went to Google Earth. It works wonders. It uses longitude and latitude. Boom! I had an address." Surreal.

Don't get me wrong, I applaud Roberson for using creative means to nail this criminal. The fact that law professionals are considering games and the internet to use toward their advantage is interesting and appropriate for these times. But in reading an article like this, it's hard not to look at Roberson and think of just how subservient he was to this internet culture (or, at least, how subservient he was portrayed).

It was like reading an article where an undercover guy had to know all the right gang handshakes and passwords to take the kingpin down. If I "subpoenaed" a gang I'd predict they wouldn't respond, too. It feels like he just got lucky that Blizzard threw him a bone.

I'm aware that there are legal issues and otherwise involved in asking Blizzard to provide account information. My point is that the way this story was covered really illustrates the startling disparity in the way the world actually views the internet and its subculture(s) of gaming. People don't know how to talk about it, and the media doesn't know exactly how to cover it. People pull familiar words and concepts and ideas to fit games into the mold, but a next step needs to be taken where gaming has its own definition and associated culture.

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