Online animals and the law

By Legal Eagle

For people who haven’t experienced online virtual worlds, no doubt they sound like a pretty weird thing. Although if you’re reading this post, you’re probably more than usually open to the idea of online communities in the first place – what is a blog but an online discussion point? Nonetheless, I don’t think I could have understood the lure of online virtual worlds so well if I hadn’t had a period of my life where I was obsessed with World of Warcraft (described here). One of the aspects of the game that fascinated me then was the WoW Auction houses:

My husband was not so good as I at levelling his characters, but he was really awesome at making money by selling stuff at the Auction House. He always had 10 times the money that I did. It was a very interesting study in marketplaces and economics. What is more, “virtual” goods have a real life price, and rare weapons and the like can be purchased online.

Logically, you know it’s just a bunch of pixels and none of the commodities you are “buying” are real. But humans will create a market for anything (of course, the game aids and abets this with its “rare drops” and the like).

I got quite fond of the pets my hunter had. At about Level 7, you “tame” an animal who accompanies you everywhere, fights for you and is generally with you for a long time. You have to look after the animal to keep it happy or else it will leave you. When the time came to retire my first pet (Glittercat), I didn’t free her. I kept her “stabled” because I couldn’t bear to lose her. She’d been with me since the beginning. I had cared for her and kept her happy. I felt loyalty towards her. Which is silly because logically, I knew none of it was real; it was virtual.

This is known as the Tamagotchi effect, named after the virtual Japanese pets which became a worldwide sensation. People can become emotionally attached to things which have no emotion, particularly, I suspect, if they have had to care for and feed the virtual thing. The amateur psychologist and mother in me suspects that perhaps it is related to how we care for our babies. Newborn babies do not have much complex emotion, and initially are incapable of responding to us in anything but the simplest ways, nor do they really “care” for us until they are older, but we care for them deeply, and this must be built into our psyches.

This interesting piece at Mindjack discusses the Japanese phenomenon of virtual and robotic pets:

Japan is world leader in the areas of research and development of robots. In 1999 it was home to 55% of all industrial robots in the world…and an even larger percentage of recreational robots. From Japan came the first robot-pets, be it the bygone Tamagotchi™; or the brand new Aibo™, a dog with adaptive behavior. These inventions coexist with large scale, business-oriented applications, such as Honda’s Asimo&trade™, a 4-foot, 95-pound, humanoid robot; and with a series of robots that defy classification, such as the healing-robots, robots whose only goal is to be looked at for therapeutic purposes of relaxation, for instance jellyfish robots… .

In fact, the proliferation and acceptance of robots in Japanese culture is so large that when Sony first released its Aibo, it sold out so quickly that Sony was flooded with letters begging for more! The demand was so overwhelming that Sony decided to do some research into Aibo’s target group. Sony found that it was constituted mainly of two main types of consumers: young men who like new gadgets and/or who are interested in computers (robots as a way to enjoy science and technology), and people who genuinely enjoy having a robot as their pet.

Aibo’s proud owners dress up their puppies (although this is not recommended by Sony) and teach them personalized tricks that help them develop their own personality. The connection between owners and their pets is so strong and personal, that “that at one Aibo get-together, owners were able to distinguish their pets from other Aibo dogs”… .

The differences become apparent here: Japanese industry invests heavily into the recreational/leisure robots that seem to nourish emotions in their users (rather than trying to create robots that decipher their users emotional states). These users, in turn, are open to think of these robotic pets as intelligent and emotional living beings (rather than considering them mere machines to serve us).

The robot industry is years away of creating the perfect Jeeves butler, the servant that cares for its owner. However, the technology to create a robot that is “merely” a friend is already in place. Pets like Aibo, or the older Tamagotchi, are good examples of this. These robots do not strive to understand their owner’s emotional state, although Aibo will “understand” when its owner is angry and pats him (or it?), but they do have the ability to create emotions in their owners.

In fact, rather than aiming for absolute perfection, in Japan, a commonly used strategy is to use failure as a way to increase the realism of the robot. (This is only possible given its entertainment oriented goals.) For instance, one famous traditional Japanese automata, the “Bow and Arrow Boy” (yumihiki doji), a doll that shoots 10 arrows, is programmed to fail at least once for each set [7]. Aibo is also programmed to ignore its owner every once and then, giving it an attitude.

By releasing thousands of ‘friendly’ robots into the commercial market, Japanese robotic industry progresses not only by getting feedback from users, but also because these robots have to get adapted to a variety of people, situations and environments. The knowledge learned here can then be applied to the creation of more sophisticated, business-oriented applications. There is a continuum in the progression from entertainment to “serious” enterprises. But it does more than this, it also helps people get acquainted, and sympathetic towards, different life-forms: The robot as a friend that needs attention and care.

But, why are robot pets such a mass phenomenon in Japan, whereas in the West, they are regarded suspiciously?

In Japan, says Machico, robots are deemed considerate and friendly. They are said to have thoughts and souls. This concurs with Japanese religious beliefs (Shinto and Buddhism). While in the Christian view of the world God created only people in its own image, in Japan it is believed that all things in nature have a spirit, there is not clear distinction between human beings and other life forms. As a Japanese saying goes, even a 1 inch worm has a half inch soul. Once you extend this line, how do you distinguish between life and nonlife?

Think, for instance, of the old Tamagotchi that died when it wasn’t fed properly or simply when it didn’t get enough attention and caring. The consequences of Tamagotchi death were so serious and emotional for many owners that cemeteries were created for them. When a Tamagotchi has this kind of reaction in its owner, and when the boundaries between humans and others is not clear cut, clearly the “life” category has been extended to it. (footnotes omitted)

Of course, when you’ve got property (even virtual property) you get disputes, particularly if virtual property is worth real money. And what happens then? Virtual life mirrors real life — people attempt to settle matters in game at first — but things end up in court, and real writs start flying. When you’ve got virtual pets involved, things get emotional.

The WSJ reports that there is presently a dispute in US courts regarding virtual pets in Second Life, a virtual online world in which people interact via online avatars. A company named Ozanimals Inc developed software creating virtual rabbits within the game, which proved very popular. Later, a company named Amaretto Ranch Breedables LLC developed software creating virtual horses. Legal proceedings ensued after Ozanimals alleged Amaretto had copied its virtual rabbit software, and demanded that Amaretto close down its store, which mean that people’s horses would starve, and Amaretto would no longer profit from selling feed. Amaretto counterclaimed, alleging Ozanimals was harming its business, and denying that it had copied Ozanimals’ software. The WSJ continues:

The suit between the faux-animal peddlers is just one of the real-world legal battles breaking out over imaginary goods. In a suit currently in San Francisco federal court, Linden is being sued by “Second Life” “landowners” over who owns virtual property. And in Oklahoma, a case filed in federal court earlier this year pitted another virtual-horse company against a former employee. The horse maker claimed the ex-employee was violating his employment agreement by starting a competing online-equine firm.The virtual-animal litigation comes several years after hype around “Second Life” seemed to be soaring. Once expected to grow to tens of millions of users, the virtual world had about 800,000 people who regularly visited the site in the first quarter of this year, according to Linden, down slightly from a year earlier.

People devoted to “Second Life” form relationships, go to virtual concerts and engage in a virtual economy in the online world. They buy and sell goods in “Linden Dollars.” One U.S. dollar is roughly equivalent to 250 Linden dollars.

“Virtual items are still increasingly popular,” says Justin Kwong, a lawyer who teaches a class on virtual goods law at William Mitchell College of Law in St. Paul, Minn. In the last quarter, “Second Life” users held virtual currency worth a total of $29.3 million in real-life cash, says the company. That’s up 11% from a year earlier, Linden says.

Naturally virtual horse owners in Second Life are worried, as the introduction to the WSJ piece makes clear:

A palomino mare named Star grazes on Debbie DeLouise’s clover meadow, hanging out at a salt lick there and frolicking with her foal Holly.

But a legal dispute may imperil their pastoral bliss: It threatens to close the only store where Ms. DeLouise can buy food for Star and Holly. Without their special diet, the horses would waste away and turn green.

[VIRTUAL-Ahed]A virtual horse.

“If there’s no food, I’m not sure what will happen,” says Ms. DeLouise, a Long Island, N.Y., librarian. “I certainly hope no one has to find out.”

Aren’t human beings strange things? I guess we’ll wait and see what happens to the virtual horses.


  1. Posted August 1, 2011 at 7:45 am | Permalink

    There are a couple of things here:

    Aaah: the dog in WoW obviously comes from the dog of dungeonsofdoom/nethack, an olde single-person character-mode game. (It needn’t be a dog, if you edited the config file, so theoretically “blue whale” underground, able to squeeze through holes to small for you, eating tripe rations,and in the template “you have a little X” was amusing.

    It’s amazing how easily we can treat constructions as worthy of emotional investment with relatively little behavioural complexity, and I’d love to see fMRI studies of frontal lobe activation of this correlated with politics, empathy/independence and sociopathy.

    The old Eliza program (a fairly simple psychoanalyst, rephrasing your previous statements as questions and then if getting nowhere because your responses were circular or unladen with emotion words, would randomly ask things like “how did you get along with your mother”) is a case in point… Although it could be fun driving it batty, to a point where you could easily feel the progra, was frustrated with your non-cooperation.

    The emotion we assign to simple constructs hints at how simple a construct humans with supposedly free will might be – how little we, or dogs, or cats, differ from automata.

    I actually had to use my emotions once to assess a program, a medical history taker, thousands of multiple choice questions (each allowing combinations, not single answers), all previous responses weighting the choice of the next question. There had to be /some/ randomness otherwise it would concentrate too much on, say, cardiovascular questions and family history, but single-minded enough to get more detail on significant things that cropped up … And choosing wisely out of thousands of questions as it only had time to ask a hundred or so.

    There was no right or wrong behaviour, only more or less suitable, no way of scoring it rationally – I had to judge it by how human it /felt/, indeed, how /wise/ it felt. In the end it felt like an experienced stern nurse who’d left the stress of a hospital and gone to work in a GP’s clinic.

    And when I pretended to be a real unlucky person who’d had lots of different disorders, I could almost sense panic, it flailing around to get enough coverage in questions in the time frame, as it could be in more different states than it had in its entire question bank. Aaaah, then I knew I’d got it tuned about right.

  2. Posted August 1, 2011 at 8:31 am | Permalink

    So people invent a virtual world to escape horrible reality and the courts have invaded and fucked it all up for them. Who’d a thought.

    It makes perfect sense that the Japanese would invent virtual pets. Deep unhappiness is a great aid to the imagination.

  3. AJ
    Posted August 1, 2011 at 9:06 am | Permalink

    Aren’t human beings strange things?

    Yep, and it doesn’t even really take simulated personalities. Stick a face on it and people will anthropomorphise it. I know I always felt personally slighted when Montezuma would inevitably betray a 1000 year old alliance in Civilization and launch a surprise attack.

  4. Posted August 1, 2011 at 9:47 am | Permalink

    It’s the Buddhist argument, I suppose: ‘it’s not the thing, but your attachment to the thing that’s causing all the angst’.

    Even so, I thought programming those Tamagotchi what nots to die from lack of attention was mean and skeevy on the manufacturer’s part. Way to give the kiddies a complex right there!

  5. Posted August 1, 2011 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    Stick a face on it and people will anthropomorphise it.

    Don’t even need to do that. Just think about how people keep pet rocks. Geting attached to digital horses seems normal in comparision.

  6. Posted August 1, 2011 at 2:09 pm | Permalink

    I love this blog 🙂

  7. conrad
    Posted August 1, 2011 at 3:03 pm | Permalink


    This is not the toughest sounding name for a pet that helps fight battles for you. Perhaps he was really the legend of the WoW disco (or drag show).

  8. kvd
    Posted August 1, 2011 at 3:41 pm | Permalink

    Don’t tell me – I get it. This post is a clever metaphor for the US debt ceiling negotiations. I am really impressed!

    Except, who’s the green horse? That just seems too sad.

  9. Posted August 1, 2011 at 3:52 pm | Permalink

    Ok… Not just attachment…. How many of you said “Mr Clippy must die… Horribly!”?

  10. Posted August 1, 2011 at 4:00 pm | Permalink

    aaaah…. Yes…. It doesn’t surprise me that the attachment is a form of the Eliza effect … I suppose it’s more effective with faces, but without faces and just strings of symbols, it still works.

    Did anybody see the film “Moon” where the bot spoke but would also have an emoticon on its display?

  11. kvd
    Posted August 1, 2011 at 5:08 pm | Permalink

    Oh. Well. fwiw that’s the closest anyone has come to explaining “it’s just a bunch of pixels and none of the commodities you are “buying” are real”

    Except for the green horse, which is just kind of sad, and also, I was worried it was us..

  12. Posted August 1, 2011 at 5:16 pm | Permalink

    Speaking of Eliza, my favourite twist is Cleverbot, which essentially gets people to talk to each other over time. It stores a database of all conversations and uses AI techniques to pick out phrases and snippets from previous conversations.

    The database has a lot of knock-knock jokes.

  13. conrad
    Posted August 1, 2011 at 5:17 pm | Permalink

    Yes, everyone hated Mr Clippy, who was almost as as bad as Windows Vista. Also, excuse me for incorrectly assuming the gender of glittercat. I’m not sure why it sounds a like a male name to me (for an online animal character…) but it does! Perhaps it’s the general blokeyness of those games (or at least my memories of them from eons ago).

  14. Posted August 1, 2011 at 5:18 pm | Permalink

    (thinking if virtual beasties need special virtual feed, it might be possible to craft an evil virtual-world species-specific haemorrhagic fever, or sudden death by virtual lighning bolts, meteorites…. I mean, if you want a meaningful ‘verse, it’s got to have something that could be ascribed to a nasty sky-fairy)

    Oh… Question, can the virtual cats get out when on heat and come back with kittens?

  15. Posted August 1, 2011 at 5:19 pm | Permalink

    Oh. Well. fwiw that’s the closest anyone has come to explaining “it’s just a bunch of pixels and none of the commodities you are “buying” are real”

    The common law has dealt with abstract property for centuries. That the physical representation of such property is either on spinning rust or flattened wood pulp should be neither here nor there.

  16. Posted August 1, 2011 at 6:32 pm | Permalink

    The common law has dealt with abstract property for centuries. That the physical representation of such property is either on spinning rust or flattened wood pulp should be neither here nor there.

    I like the Norman French words for it too: chose in possession referred to the stuff you could touch and feel, like land or jewels; chose in action referred to the stuff that was worth something and conferred a cause of action, but that only existed on a piece of paper (a share certificate, say).

    The Romans had the same division: res corporealis was their chose in possession, res incorporealis was their chose in action. Both ‘res’ and ‘chose’ mean ‘thing’.

    Only two cultures came up with this distinction, independently of each other once again.

  17. Movius
    Posted August 1, 2011 at 9:27 pm | Permalink

    Everyone knows virtual cats adopt you, not the other way around.

    Thankfully I’ve avoided any major MMO addictions, Though I always wonder about the appeal of many of them, or rather why they are worth the monthly fee. I’m also interested in what happens to the diehards when such a game shuts down for good.

  18. kvd
    Posted August 2, 2011 at 6:24 am | Permalink

    [email protected] “That the physical representation of such property is either on spinning rust or flattened wood pulp should be neither here nor there”

    It’s not an original thought (of which I have but few) but I’m thinking the stock exchange screen jockeys must sometimes find it hard to exit from the WoWs etc. back to the “really real” world in which they play with other people’s money, hunt out successful trades, know when to cut and run. No doubt it’s been done, but I wonder what percentage of the wonderkids involve themselves in their screens, for relaxation after a hard day’s involvement with their screens?

  19. RipleyP
    Posted August 2, 2011 at 7:18 am | Permalink

    It reminds me of my WoW addiction. Took me a long time to break that habit. I remember spending weeks and weeks trying to get the perfect companion pet or hunters pet. Of interest is the investment phenomena where you value something due to the effort invested in getting it or supporting the position.

    So glad I kicked the WoW habit but giving up the percieved investment was the hardest part of all.

  20. Patrick
    Posted August 2, 2011 at 7:50 am | Permalink

    In my experience kvd not many, they don’t have that much leisure time usually!

  21. Mel
    Posted August 2, 2011 at 9:53 am | Permalink

    I can’t say I’ve ever been interested in computer games. I once bought a play station only to give it away a month later because I just couldn’t get into it.

  22. Posted August 2, 2011 at 6:43 pm | Permalink

    Doesn’t anyone think there’s something twisted about this? Humans do apply anthropomorphic affections to inanimate objects but there’s something really strange going on where we can start to regard a computer-generated image/algorithm as if it were something living. Are we going to be entirely physically isolated entities connecting emotionally with cyber-fiction now?

    Serious question.

  23. Posted August 2, 2011 at 7:18 pm | Permalink

    [email protected]: Serious question? Um…. I think you are a person and all I perceive of you is letters on a screen. Computers, especially when using dialog, with their complexity and idiosyncracies, push the same buttons. Gaaa!…. if I waited for intelligent behaviour from biological entities before treating them with respect……

    I cry when HAL gets lobotomized while concious, singing “Daisy”.

  24. RipleyP
    Posted August 3, 2011 at 9:41 am | Permalink

    LE, no please not Locke, anything but Locke, I promise I will be good.

    I can’t dip back into the game for the exact same reason as you state. I would just go down the path of addiction.

    I was lucky, after I stopped playing that my account got hacked and stolen. As a result I can’t get back to where I left off and the investment is gone. Never thought that theft of intangable property could actually benifit the victim before that

  25. Posted August 3, 2011 at 11:11 am | Permalink

    *Sigh* As a regular reader of, it depresses me that people like Ms DeLouise are spending money and expending mental effort on virtual horses when thousands of real, live horses in her country are being starved on a daily basis. Perhaps it the worst does come to the worst with her virtual horse she could switch her concern to them.

  26. Posted August 3, 2011 at 11:12 am | Permalink

    Dave – I think you are a person and all I perceive of you is letters on a screen.

    Yeah but we are people actually interacting – I think. Sometimes I reckon I shoulda picked the red pill.

    I cry when HAL gets lobotomized while concious, singing “Daisy”.

    You can feel it too Dave? 🙂

  27. Posted August 3, 2011 at 11:21 am | Permalink

    The problem is when you start to believe that online reality is more real than the real world. I think this is quite common in Japan

    The Japan problem is not just virtual. It’s…

    In terms of people connecting with cyber-entities, I think in some ways it shows that the people in question are empathetic. If they were torturing the horses or starving them, it would be a worry.

    Yeah. I knew a guy who played Grand Theft Auto a bit. This game allows you to shoot everyone, it also allows you to pick up hookers and have sex with them. Basically she gets in the car and you go somewhere isolated and the car rocks up and down and then she gets out.

    This is funny exactly once but boring afterwards.

    Because of the game you can shoot her afterwards. This guy used to do this every time he played the game.

    You’d think his girlfriend would’ve, y’know, snapped about him. But no.

  28. Patrick
    Posted August 3, 2011 at 1:09 pm | Permalink

    I too used to play GTA, with my wife in fact. I also often killed the hooker because you could then steal her money…

    Poor Helen, it must be quite draining to be always wishing that other people would care more about what you care about.

  29. Posted August 3, 2011 at 3:16 pm | Permalink

    Thing about GTA is that it’s a deeply ethical game. Counter-intuitive perhaps but true. You can earn a living honestly in it but it’s hard. As a criminal you must do increasingly difficult things to rise up and as you do more and more people hate your guts. Then there’s the irony: why do the cops have a double-ended dildo in the shower.

    I don’t play computer games anymore but I used to enjoy playing that one. Cathartic. Particularly the samurai sword in the shopping mall routine. 🙂

  30. Posted August 3, 2011 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    But cleaning up the pet’s room is easy – you just click on the rubbish and it vanishes. Cleaning up the real room is hard – it involves crawling around picking up crap, trying to find places to put it, trying to organise stuff, real physical effort…

    Where’s Mary Poppins when you need her.

  31. Patrick
    Posted August 3, 2011 at 6:36 pm | Permalink

    You can earn a living honestly in it but it’s hard

    Well, if by honestly you aren’t excluding killing and stealing? I’m not sure it is honest just because you are getting paid to do it!

  32. Movius
    Posted August 3, 2011 at 10:23 pm | Permalink

    The hookers (or rather the ability to “attack them” (read as: interact on the same level as every single other character)) are what GTA3 in trouble with the censors way back when. They were subsequently removed from the Australian version.

    The series has an unfair reputation for being childishly violent. I always thought it had a rather sophisticated sense of humour, much of which wouldn’t be understood by those under 25… with a touch of needless slaughter on top of it.

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  1. […] may starve if the real life company that sells their virtual feed loses a real life court battle. Legal Eagle explains at Skepticlawyer. This entry was posted on Friday, August 5th, 2011 at 7:00 AM and filed under Missing Link. […]

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