Coding Control: Governance and Contingency in the Production of Online Worlds

Thomas M. Malaby


Approximately 11 million people worldwide regularly participate in persistent, graphically–realized, online virtual worlds (including EverQuest, Ultima Online, Second Life, and Lineage). Originally built on computer game platforms, these worlds are in many respects the most viable online arenas for broad–based social action; their participants pursue lasting social relations as well as globally consequential economic activities that elide the boundary between offline and online experience. Amidst this startling growth it is the producers of these worlds who are confronting in practical terms unprecedented challenges of governing what are in many cases fundamentally open–ended, yet architected, environments. How are they doing this, and in particular how are they developing their own position as those theoretically (if not effectively) in ultimate control? This article, based on ethnographic research at Linden Lab, the makers of Second Life, considers this question with respect to competing and continually changing ideas of Second Life’s content, a particularly unruly yet central concept in this virtual world’s ongoing governance.

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