Virtual Worlds as Comparative Law

38 Pages Posted: 26 Apr 2005


Societies have laws, so why should virtual societies be any different? This article is a thought experiment in comparative law, an attempt to lay the necessary conceptual foundations for talking coherently about the internal legal systems of virtual worlds. I identify four recurring problems in virtual worlds, and discuss what we might gain by thinking about these problems as legal ones.

First, I discuss virtual property, which has been one of the most spectacularly successful features of massively multiplayer games. Studying the mechanics and meaning of ownership within games has the potential to tell us a great deal about the mechanics and meaning of law in virtual worlds more generally.

Second, I discuss the forms of investment and exchange governed by contract law in the real world. Virtual economies seem to be humming along without extensive bodies of contract law. Explaining this absence provides us a useful framework for thinking about wealth and society and how these concepts do or do not change as they go online.

Third, I explore the social dynamics of groups of players, specifically how they prevent undesired conduct by others and how they band together for common purposes. Here, the challenge is to find good analogies to similar problems of real-life law.

Finally, I turn to one of the most-discussed problems in game design: How does one reassure players that designers' overwhelming powers over game spaces will not be used maliciously? If we look at the corresponding problem from real-life law - how to restrain seemingly unrestrainable sovereign powers - we see that law has a good deal to say about the practical techniques by which a lasting and trusting relationship between seeming unequals can be established.

Keywords: Virtual worlds, cyberlaw

JEL Classification: K11, K12

Suggested Citation

Grimmelmann, James and Grimmelmann, James, Virtual Worlds as Comparative Law. Available at SSRN:

James Grimmelmann (Contact Author)

Cornell Tech ( email )

2 West Loop Road
New York, NY 10044
United States

Cornell Law School ( email )

Myron Taylor Hall
Cornell University
Ithaca, NY 14853-4901
United States

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