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Emergent Problem

The promise of user-generated content is beset by fears of litigation.

Like a great many Nintendo DS owners, several of my friends play Animal Crossing: Wild World. In this cute, bouncy and nonetheless intriguing game, players interact with a village full of different animals, and are frequently given the chance to customise major elements of the game - everything from how the animals speak, to the flag of their local town or the clothes available in the store. Designing custom content is a major part of the game for many players; another key element is the ability to connect to Nintendo's Wi-Fi Connection service and visit the towns of other players who have given you their Friend Code for the game.

An intriguing element of that particular function is that when you do so, animals who live in your town may choose to move between towns - packing up their belongings and heading off to your friend's DS, and potentially bringing with them phrases, designs and so on which you created for them. Through a sort of viral propagation, this means that some phrases and designs can pass along chains of dozens of players, and as the six degrees of separation concept implies, this essentially allows player-created content which has been released into the wild to end up almost anywhere.

Which, in a nutshell, is why one friend of mine turned on her Nintendo DS recently to discover that the latest inhabitant of her Animal Crossing village was a pink elephant in a swastika shirt who said "sieg heil!" at the end of every sentence.

While not exactly impressed, she took it rather well - and a little investigation traced the origins of the offending creature to its origins. It transpired that it had been created by someone she didn't know and had never even heard of, and had hopped through four DS consoles before arriving on hers.

Now, this isn't intended as a criticism of Animal Crossing in any way; Nintendo went out of its way to ensure that the game would be safe for everyone to play, implementing a Friend Code system which some people actually argued was too draconian in who it allowed to join in your game. However, as this example proves, allowing user-generated content which can propagate between systems is in itself a loophole that cannot be entirely closed, and it encourages emergent behaviour which is wonderful, playful and fascinating most of the time - but on very rare occasions, brings with it payloads of content we'd rather not see.

Ultimately, if you allow people to communicate with one another - even in a manner as obscure as the swapping of user-generated game items - eventually, someone will say something that someone else doesn't like. This shouldn't stop game creators from exploring user-generated content or emergent behaviour, by any means; these are among the most promising and fascinating fields which designers are experimenting with at present, and they hold promise which the industry cannot ignore, both on a creative and on a commercial level.

However, it does mean that a framework needs to be established which clearly defines who is responsible for content created by users and transmitted between games. At present, legislation on this matter is either woefully lacking, or utterly vague - not exactly a surprising state of affairs when legislators in most countries can't even seem to work out how on earth the Internet works, let alone user-generated content in videogames, but a worrying one nonetheless. If the recipient of the goose-stepping pink elephant in Animal Crossing had been a child with litigation-happy parents, would the ESRB warning about the game experience changing during online play have protected Nintendo, either legally or from the PR backlash?

Another online title which relies heavily on user-generated content - entirely so, in fact - is Second Life, which recently hit massive problems when a malicious user released a piece of content which replicated itself endlessly and ultimately brought down the game's servers. It's the kind of almost cyberpunk online mischief which can't help but raise a grin on the face of anyone who's ever read Neal Stephenson or William Gibson, but it raises questions for anyone who's ever read law. Had this attack damaged genuinely valuable in-game "property", who would be responsible? If user-generated content in a game offends you, who is responsible for that? Our society is one in which someone must always be responsible (and it's rarely the user of a product, unfortunately) - and until a legal framework establishes who that is, those who would experiment in the field of user-generated content must tread very carefully.

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Rob Fahey avatar
Rob Fahey: Rob Fahey is a former editor of who spent several years living in Japan and probably still has a mint condition Dreamcast Samba de Amigo set.