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All is fair in web and play : building ethical self in gameworlds through the word of others Boskic, Natasha 2011-07-05

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 1 All is Fair in Web and Play: Building Ethical Self in Gameworlds through the Word of Others Natasha Boskic, University of British Columbia Abstract:  This paper is a result of a doctoral study on an Alternate Reality Game, “Urgent Evoke”, conducted in 2010. The discussion presented here specifically focuses on the appearance of “borrowing” from the web, which occurred as part of a game play. The paper describes one of the research participant’s sudden change from writing about and giving examples from his own personal experiences to copying and pasting sections from various pages on the web. It attempts to make sense of his behaviour and of the reactions of other players in the game, raising a question about understanding plagiarism in the context of cross-cultural interpretations. Keywords: illegitimate_textual_appropriation, ARG, plagiarism, culture, copyright Theoretical Background Illegitimate textual appropriation or plagiarism has been a matter of heated debate between various theorists and experts, especially today in the digital era where ‘borrowing’ becomes so easy and fast.  The issue is not as simple as it may seem at the first sight because “using someone else’s words” can be understood in more ways than one.  Ronning, Thomas, Tomaselli, & Teer-Tomasselli see “creative ownership as a purely post-capitalist concept” (2006, p. 13), i.e. a legal construction that is a result of the specific social economic relationships and understanding of those relationships.  This means that the societies or communities with different perceptions of those relationships will have different views on where ownership resides. There are two sides to this issue, like two sides of a coin. One side of the coin displays a picture of “illegitimate users” whose first language is not the one they are borrowing  2 from.  A number of studies (Abasi & Graves, 2008; Ellery, 2008; Shi, 2006) whose focus was L1 and L2 plagiarism, have shown that the second language users’ practice of borrowing text without proper referencing or with very slight modifications might be a way of learning the language. It also may be due to their lack of ability to express themselves in the second language.  The other side of the coin shows “illegitimate users” who, in addition to speaking a non-native language, come from a different cultural background which might not perceive using someone else’s words as a criminal and punishable act.  On the contrary, some cultures promote collective ownership of the creative material believing that there is no individual ownership over an idea (Shi, 2006).  The exact reciting of the text is considered an expression of education and familiarity with good sources (Beute, Aswegen & Winberg, 2008).  In addition, “the re-oralisation of literature or of mediated art forms is a very common (and not always negative) practice in a culture where access to books and electronic media is restricted” (Ronning et al., 2006, p. 13). The game  “Urgent Evoke” ran online from March 2, 2010 to May 12, 2010. It used NING (a social networking platform), where each member/player was allowed space (seemingly unlimited) for his/her own blog, image and video contributions. The game designer, Jane McGonigal, described it as a “10-week crash course in changing the world” (McGonigal, 2010). As its title suggests, the game was perceived as an opportunity to make positive social changes on a global scale.  The focus of Jane McGonigal and her designer team  3 was on the African continent, seen as a broad region in need of urgent solutions to challenging issues. The game was officially launched on March 2, 2010. The game blog was in fact open a few months before that date, from the end of January, to explain some of the game rules and expectations.  There were questions in the blog posed by a few high-school teachers inquiring whether they could use “Urgent Evoke” in their classrooms, suggesting that this would be a site of interest to educators. The game lasted for ten weeks.  Each week a quest and a mission were identified that Agents needed to complete.  The topics were revealed, or “unlocked” each Wednesday during the game period. The missions that the participants needed to accomplish were based on real life issues, such as poverty, hunger, water supply, etc. The players had to discuss the problems and potential solutions, and make active contributions in their local communities by taking a leadership role. Their engagement needed to be reported back to “Evoke” members. Borrowing  Sentwali (a pseudonym) from Rwanda was a very active player from the time he joined the “Urgent Evoke” community, sometimes uploading a posting more than once per day.  His maximum number of postings was six in one day.  As he explained in his pre-game interview, he was very excited to be a part of this international group of people and to learn from others.  He was aware of this rare opportunity, compared to other citizens of Rwanda who did not have access to a computer, or required skills, to contribute to the “world conversation” (Sentwali_Profile).   4 After almost a month of participation, Sentwali posted a text in his blog that was not exactly related to the previous dialogues or the game topics, but was general enough to fit into any dialogue.  It talked about making a difference in society.  Another interesting thing about this particular post was that there were a few sentences in quotation marks, but with no reference to the author.  In addition, it was evident that English was his second language, based on previous Sentwali’s previous posts. However, the English in these new posts suddenly ran smoothly with no grammatical errors or difficulties in understanding.  All other blog postings almost to the very end of the game followed the same principle.  It was soon obvious to the other players as well that Sentwali was not writing his own thoughts, but was borrowing from somewhere.  This resulted in fewer and fewer comments by other people, as well as some almost unfriendly requests for Sentwali to reference his sources.  While analyzing Sentwali’s contribution, I tried to track down the content that was in question.  It did not take me long to find on the web every single part of the text that he posted.  Sometimes Sentwali copied the whole section from another website, blog or magazine article, and sometimes he interwove it with his own few sentences.  What was strange to me was that Sentwali, although not acknowledging the sources, in some cases did not even try to make them appear as if they were his, so the piece would contain names or references to something written earlier in the text, that Sentwali did not use in his posting, therefore making the content incomprehensible, or at least confusing.  For example,  5 "I will never hire employees who look down on the poor," Luo said.  And then, Sentwali added a question, inviting other players to respond, What do you think? (Sentwali, Blog_82146) Furthermore, the purpose of the postings in the game blog was far from academic writing, and even further from creating a piece of literary work.  A common practice on the Web is to “borrow” a piece of news from one web page and publish it on another, especially among bloggers who purposefully make that link evident.  Why were some players upset then, with Sentwali’s content taken from another Web page?  If he had spent so much time searching for something that would coincide with his own ideas, made an effort to adapt it with a few of his personal comments, and offered it in understandable and correct English, why was he “punished” by a few unfriendly responses? Why did some game participants focus on pointing out that his practice was “wrong” rather than talk about the ideas Sentwali wanted to share?  Why would those who asked for references feel that Sentwali’s practice was unethical (Glenn, 2006)? Sentwali talked about the time spent on the game and his “search for words,” I worked during the day and I played this game at the night because I had many problems, you see, I had problem of my language. I don’t know, I am not strong in English.  I spend my time with develop a topic I spent longtime for one topic and to collect some words, too many such. […] I did not post many blogs for my own topics.  That is why I have done the search and I have found spend many times to the Internet and the readings.  Because of time I spent to the internet doing the research. (Sentwali, Exit Interview_1381)  6 Sentwali showed his confusion with the “accident:” Yeah, some countries, like the continent of America or Europe, are somehow able to know what I was talking about maybe they did the researches or they lived in Africa.  Because if you write something, they go direct in Google, they got to search where you have picked that, you have, where, what can I say?  Those persons from Europe or America are developed for comparative, they know technology, they use technology, you can’t lie for them, you can’t do something from Internet or from anywhere, because they watch even your country, they got in the different websites, you see, with computer, you can’t lie about a country or region because even many news are there.  With technology we are somehow in the same group, nearby, one nearby other person. (Sentwali, Exit Interview_13620) Sentwali used the word “lie,” even though he did not “lie about a country or region,” understanding that everything he posted was traceable, and that the Internet made ‘the world shrink.”  He felt as if he were part of it (“we are somehow in the same group”) and proudly so.   There might have been other reasons why Sentwali chose to “play safe” by using someone else’s words instead of his own.  This is explained in the next section of this paper about moral judgment.  It is evident, however, that the “illegitimate appropriation” of text is a gray area, particularly in a digital environment where those who write for the web often play with words, information, and even personal identities.  Those who are strict advocates of copyright laws and infringement, and want to see each ownership rightly acknowledged, and those who believe that the difficulty of determining what is an  7 original idea makes it right to have no ownership over it at all, have still to find a middle ground.  It remains an open question, as Ronning at al. (2006) state, How can individuals, communities and groups protect their own intellectual and cultural creations, earning due royalties, while simultaneously ensuring that they remain part of the global information commons? (p. 14) Critical Literacy Perspective The argument about authorship goes far beyond the issue of intellectual property and copyright.  From a critical literacy standpoint, we can look at the work of Bakhtin (1981), Benjamin (1936) and Barthes (1997) at the beginning of the last century, and their theories of language and text, and their relationship with writers and readers.  All three of them were concerned with the changes that manifested themselves as a result of technological and mechanical progress at their time.  As Turkle (1995), or McLuhan (1998) would claim a few decades later, the technologies meant more than simple modifications of the ways we physically did our work.  They also had a significant impact on how we thought and perceived things around us. Although none of them (that is Barthes, Bakhtin or Benjamin) could probably have even imagined the invention of Internet and hypertext, they all critically looked at the ways text was created, the possibilities it carried for its interpretations, and the directions it took to build a life of its own, without its original author.  Barthes even proclaims the “death of the author.”  According to him, the meaning of the text comes from the ways it resides within other texts and references, none of them original, and is brought to light by its reader, “because it is language which speaks, not the author” (1997, p. 143).   8 Language is always referential of itself, quoting prior instances of itself in perpetuity, so that “the writer can only imitate a gesture that is always anterior, never original” (1997, p. 146).  According to Barthes, the author is a term created in modern times as a part of bourgeois ideology.  Therefore, it is not in the writer where the meaning lies, but in the reader, who is the place where all the multiplicity of references makes sense; “a text’s unity lies not in its origin but in its destination”(1997, p. 148). If we agree with Bakhtinian dialogic theory, the intertextuality is a characteristic of a language, and every word or sentence has its reflection or occurrence elsewhere.  Language is by itself multivocal, and thus an utterance can only be properly understood within the context of the conflicting social/linguistic forces at a given moment.  As any utterance is a representation of a particular worldview, it continually creates and conveys new meanings.  Once we realize that language is shaped by the social contexts of its use, we have to agree that the form of a work of art tells us as much about the specific social conditions surrounding its production, as does the content.  According to Benjamin (1936) the value of the authentic artwork is rooted in its tradition and originality.  Once the criterion is no longer in existence and the art is reproducible, its function becomes political. Although Eco (1989) does not negate the presence of the author as Barthes does, he proclaims a work of art as open to numerous interpretations.  The artist presents the reader only with possibilities, but how the work of art will be understood and performed (e.g. music) depends on the reader.  The appearance of the world has everything to do with one's relative position in it (Eco, 14).  Whatever route the reader takes to construct the world around him/her is equally valid.  Even though Eco does not talk about the  9 Internet and hypertextuality, his position can be applied to the digital environment and current theories of constructivism.  Conclusion Positioning Sentwali in the modern set of understandings of text and its relationship with the readers makes the issue of illegitimate appropriation even more complex.  It raises a question of cross-cultural interpretation of what is ethically acceptable and what not, especially in the digital environment where every typed utterance can be easily traced.   Depending on one’s perspective, the reasons for Sentwali’s usage of someone else’s words may be as equally justified as they may be condemned. Some players, especially those coming from Western cultures, openly criticized those who copied and pasted from websites. They saw such behaviour as a way to easily gain game points, and “cheat.”  The tension between “it is just a game, so why not” and “be fair and do something important here” was present throughout the whole duration of the game. References Abasi, A. R., & Graves, B. (2008). Academic literacy and plagiarism: Conversations with international graduate students and disciplinary professors. Journal of English for Academic Purposes 7, 221-233.  Bakhtin, M. M. (1981). The dialogic imagination. Austin, TX: University of Texas Press. Barthes, R. (1997). Image, music, text. New York: Hill & Wong. Benjamin, W. (1936). The work of art in the age of mechanical reproduction. Retrieved from  10 Beute, N., van Aswegen, E. S., & Winberg, C. (2008). Avoiding plagiarism in contexts of development and change. Transactions on Education, 51(2), 201-205. Eco, U. (1976): A theory of semiotics. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press/London: Macmillan. Eco, U. (1989). The open work. Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press. Ellery, K. (2008). Undergraduate plagiarism: a pedagogical perspective. Assessment & Evaluation in Higher Education, 33(5), 507-516. Glenn, I. (2006). Begging, borrowing, stealing: The context for media plagiarism in twenty-first century South Africa. Critical Arts: A South-North Journal of Cultural & Media Studies, 20(1), 122-131. McGonigal, J. (2010, January 11). URGENT EVOKE: Help us run a 10-week crash course in changing the world [Web log post]. Retrieved February 2, 2010 from McLuhan, M. (1998). The playboy interview. In E. McLuhan, & F. Zingrone (Eds.), The essential McLuhan (pp. 233-269). New York: Harper Collins.  Ronning, H., Thomas, P., Tomaselli, K. G., & Teer-Tomasselli, R. (2006). Intellectual property rights and the political economy of culture. Critical Arts: A South-North Journal of Cultural & Media Studies, 20(1), 1-19. Shi, L (2006). Cultural backgrounds and textual appropriation. Language Awareness, 15(4), 264-282. Turkle, S. (1995). Life on the screen: Identity in the age of the Internet. New York: Simon & Schuster.  


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