Virtual World Feudalism

I have a short (1500-word) essay online at the Yale Law Journal Pocket Part as part of a new symposium issue on virtual worlds. My contribution, “Virtual World Feudalism,” looks inside the common metaphor of virtual worlds as “feudal societies” and concludes that feudalism might not be such a bad thing for them. Feudal property—based on a personal relationship between a lord and a vassal—turns out to be a pretty good fit for the current state of Second Life. It gives players some stability and a powerful ally while giving Linden Labs the flexibility it needs to keep he world running.

I’m extremely happy with how this one turned out. There’s something about short-form academic writing that’s especially satisfying, and my editors genuinely cared about making every word count. t also provided me a good excuse to renew my acquaintance with S.F.C. Milsom and some of the other fascinating scholarship on feudal property law. The resulting piece is a bit of a provocation, but it’s also a serious argument about the purpose and nature of “property.”

Hey, James: Thanks for mentioning S.F.C. Milsom, emeritus professor of law at Cambridge. The course in early English legal history I took with him in 1974 or so, when he used to visit at Yale Law every couple of years, was one of the great intellectual adventures of my education. The man absolutely lived (in his mind) in the Middle Ages, obviously understood that era as some sort of insider, and so made it come alive for young Americans of the “don’t trust anyone over 30” generation. Your mention caused me to do a little looking, and I was so glad to see he is still alive and writing at 85.

Feudalism is a reasonable fit, but it doesn’t help with that other awkward metaphor: developers as gods. Medieval kings may have had the attitude of “all this is mine, and although I’m going to let you use it as if it were yours, ultimately it’s still mine”, but the justification they had for this was “because God says so”. Otherwise, God wouldn’t have let the king’s armies prevail, but he did, so clearly he must support the king.

When the king and the deity are the same entity, and the deity actually takes an active part in running the world (when was the last time your god of choice patched our universe?), this makes the feudalism metaphor much more confused. It’s still useful, though.