Controlling Player Creativity in Halo 4: Microsoft's Game Content Usage Rules
by Steven Boyer — University of Glasgow
November 01, 2012 – 00:00
Shortly before the 2007 launch of Halo 3, Microsoft introduced their Game Content Usage Rules governing how players may use content derived from Microsoft products. While companies like Microsoft clearly want to encourage players to engage with their products, placing production capabilities into their hands instills a fear of confusion and exploitation regarding the most valuable aspect of any media product today: the brand. The anxiety of this delicate balance has accelerated the centralizing of control over user-generated content, resulting in negotiations between industry and players.
The imminent Halo 4 is rooted in this drive towards centralized control. The game is developed by 343 Industries, a Microsoft owned studio established specifically to manage the IP in response to Halo originators Bungie going independent. 343i got their start making Halo Waypoint, a cross-platform hub that consolidates Halo lore, transmedia content distribution and promotion, player statistics, and community activity, with user-generated content playing a key role.
Moreover, Halo 4 brought a revision of the Game Content Usage Rules that condenses the major institutional control mechanisms into one document, asserting Microsoft’s control over technological access (no reverse engineering), content distribution (no exclusive deals), censorship (nothing "objectionable"), intellectual property (no usage of Microsoft’s logos/titles or other companies’ IP), profits (players cannot make money from their creations, but Microsoft can), and ownership (simply making content grants Microsoft a license to it).
Perhaps the most significant institutional control, however, is the least explicit because it is ideologically based. After news of the rules update hit the gaming news sites, 343i employees took to community forums to ensure players that changes were not legally motivated or attempting direct intervention. Instead, it was a rhetorical adjustment to reword these constraints in casual, informal terms that naturalize Microsoft’s assertion of absolute economic control.
As a corporate giant trying to satisfy both audiences and stockholders, Microsoft is in a no-win scenario here regardless of intentions, and thus disavowal of domination and a light touch to enforcement have become the norm. In practice these rules have been openly ignored (even in featured content), an inevitability given the complexies of intellectual property in what Lawrence Lessig calls "Remix" culture and the impossibility of completely controlling the vast quantity and extreme variety of possible creative expressions.
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