Lawrence Lessig learns there are no laws on his son’s Minecraft server


Lawrence Lessig (Photo via Joi Ito)

Lawrence Lessig is a looming figure in the tech policy world. Currently the faculty director of Harvard's Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, his "code is law" mantra has helped shape the way users across the Internet experience cyberspace. But on Wednesday, he wrote about the rules of governing a much more specific part of the Internet: The Minecraft server where his son plays.

The younger Lessig, who his father describes as "a brilliantly focused geek-wannabe," has been playing a lot of the Minecraft lately, according to Lessig's Tumblr post -- specifically on a server called Villager Defense, which is run under the umbrella of the Minecade brand. The version Lessig's son plays focuses on earning coins -- and by Monday his son had accumulated "about 240" of the virtual currency.

Then, Lessig writes, something crashed and six hours later 175 of those coins had disappeared. He encouraged his son to raise the issue in the forums associated with the server. There Lessig says a moderator told his son there was a bug in the system, but he needed to present a screenshot of before and after as evidence that he had, in fact, lost the coin.

That's when the older Lessig stepped in:

I joined the forum and asked where the game ever announced that people were supposed to be taking screen shots of their play? And after all, why would a screenshot be necessary? The game is a database. Are there no snapshots of the database? Isn’t there a backup, or audit trail?

But, alas, Lessig writes the forum moderator "wouldn't budge" and ultimately admitted he didn't actually have the power to fix the situation anyhow -- instead advising Lessig's son to "play the game more and attempt to obtain more coins, and we will try to get the coin bug resolved to prevent similar occurrences."

This seemed Kafkaesque, Lessig wrote. The site knows it has a bug which is taking assets from players, he explained, and since the bug is related to virtual currency, it could presumably fix it without fear of general inflation. But instead of taking responsibility for a flaw in the software, it asked for proof of the incident that could be rather easily faked with Photoshop.

To Lessig that's an injustice -- although one he thinks is unsurprising based on servers' Terms of Service which appears to essentially require users to acknowledge they have zero rights whatsoever.

Minecade did not respond to a request for comment about the situation on Twitter, and doesn't appear to have public phone number or e-mail listed on its Web site. But there is a post from its lead developer on its forum apologizing for the issue, saying that an individual with access to the backend data showed Lessig's son had lost coins due to the bug and has been credited with 500 coins for his trouble.

Lessig did not immediately respond to a request for comment on whether his son's account had been credited. But in his original Tumblr post he had some advice for his son:  Find another server to play on. "Engineers especially should aspire to something more than company town justice," he writes. "And gamers should reward those that do — by avoiding games that don’t."

Andrea Peterson covers technology policy for The Washington Post, with an emphasis on cybersecurity, consumer privacy, transparency, surveillance and open government.
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