A Game that Threatens Student Intellectual Property

Ada Palmer’s ExoTerra game has colonial themes and undermines students’ creative freedom.

By Ashlyn Sparrow

During the 2020 fall quarter, Ada Palmer (Associate Professor of History at the University of Chicago) launched ExoTerra. The WordPress website for this project describes ExoTerra as “an online collaborative research role-playing game (RPG) community, in which students from all disciplines, from physics to literature, pool their expertise to design a new world.” The game incorporates students via several university courses, including “Self, Culture, and Society 1,” “America in World Civilization I,” and “Europe’s Intellectual Transformations.” What appears like a well-intentioned pedagogical experiment, however, turns out to make lazy narrative choices and, more importantly, undermines the creative labor and intellectual property of University of Chicago undergraduate students.

When I first read about this game, as a game designer and the Assistant Director of the Weston Game Lab, I was intrigued. For the last few years, I’ve been collaborating with a collective of designers, faculty, and students—the Fourcast Lab—on a series of socially-oriented games, including an alternate reality game for underrepresented college students (the parasite), another about the interdisciplinary problem of climate change (Terrarium), and a third in response to the COVID-19 pandemic (A Labyrinth). I’ve designed closely with faculty members from several departments, including Patrick Jagoda, Heidi Coleman, Kristen Schilt, and Marc Downie. The ExoTerra game takes many of the same elements of games on which I’ve collaborated with the Fourcast Lab since 2017 (and the Game Changer Chicago Design Lab from 2013-2018) and applies them to courses in the social sciences. Like our games, this one includes collective storytelling, Discord-based play, and roleplaying coordinated across various courses and student groups.

But as I looked closer at ExoTerra and began to discuss it with colleagues, I grew increasingly concerned. Some of my initial concerns had to do with a narrative frame that focuses on a colonization narrative at a historical moment when Black and Brown people continue to be exploited in the aftermath of global empire in so many ways. In focusing on the creation of a “new civilization,” this game rests on a colonization and Earth escape fantasy that is being celebrated by tech billionaires such as Elon Musk. Rather than improving the Earth, such a narrative takes us further from facing the ills of climate change, unprecedented income inequality, systemic racism, and global pandemic. This is problematic even at an allegorical level or via the cognitive estrangement characteristic of the science fiction genre. There are so many better narrative arcs and fresher sub-genres from which to choose, especially in our current world.

As I kept looking into ExoTerra, however, what concerned me even more was the language used in the Information Lab Player Release that all participating students have to sign in order to generate a character and start gameplay. In order to convey how problematic this document is, it’s necessary to offer an extended quotation:

“By signing below, you acknowledge that Ada Palmer is the creator and owner of all rights in and to ExoTerra. All rights to any material you may create while engaged in playing ExoTerra are hereby exclusively granted Ada Palmer for her sole use during the full term of copyright. Such material shall include but not be limited to all words, proposals, research documents, writings, ideas, dialogue, and characters submitted or expressed by you during all ExoTerra activities, including but not limited to the text and voice channels on Discord, game-related direct messages, associated Zoom and classroom activities, and assignments.

Ada Palmer may incorporate and modify any material you create to use for her own purposes, including but not limited to future iterations of ExoTerra, future games in the ExoTerra game world, and any fiction based on or inspired by ExoTerra.”

In other words, Palmer (who is also a published science fiction novelist) reserves the right to take any intellectual property that students might contribute to this allegedly collective storytelling game and use it for her own purposes, including fiction she publishes in the future. To be clear, this is not a video game that students play. It is instead a roleplaying and world building game that they are creating together. Yet the material benefits of this shared effort return to a single person: Ada Palmer.

To be fair, a clause that follows notes that “if there are any proceeds from the sale of fiction or other adaptations of the project, a portion of the funds, after paying those who work directly on the published versions, will be donated to the university to fund more initiatives like this, and benefit future University of Chicago students.” Though it might appear generous at first glance, this clause suggests that after Palmer pays herself (or a team that realizes her project) for work based on the efforts of undergraduate students, she intends to donate remaining funds back to initiatives like her own, possibly including those of her own lab. More than this, students are not able to benefit directly from their own character and world building, as well as gameplay innovations. In other words, all or most of the cultural capital from these projects will go back to Palmer.

As a game designer and a member of the Fourcast Lab collective, I strive for shared world-building and distributed profit at every turn. The idea of crowdsourcing or mining student ingenuity for my own future creative projects and asking undergraduates to sign a waiver that makes me “the creator and owner of all rights” strikes me as deeply problematic. Students have the right to profit from their ideas. It gives me joy to see students come up with ideas under my guidance, including in shared alternate reality games, and to see those ideas thrive at game festivals and further the creators’ careers. For example, while world-building in our Terrarium game project, ISHUM major India Weston created a tabletop roleplaying game Heartwood, which was selected for the top game design festival, Metatopia. Another interdisciplinary group of undergraduates, including Jersey Fonseca, Daniel Lee, Hurston Wallace, and Hamlet Fernandez, emerged from this collaborative game having created their own climate change video game, Fungy, which was featured on the indie games site itch.io. Moreover, first-year student winners of the Futures Design Challenge, which served as the culmination of one of our collaborative games, were connected to the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation to further develop their ideas. These students were able to learn game design skills from Fourcast Lab faculty, but also came out of the experience with games that they had created and over which they held intellectual property. If these students had created these games while playing ExoTerra, both the games and their narratives would be owned by Ada Palmer.

Not all students will find the ExoTerra release form worrisome, but what about people who want to go into creative careers? And what about people who do not take the time to read the fine print of the release form, as so many of us don’t with Terms of Service agreements? What does it mean to co-opt people’s creative projects at a time of economic recession when our students have even fewer opportunities than usual? What does it mean for that kind of gesture to come from a tenured professor who is already a published author with significant career success?

ExoTerra purports to be about building a new and better world. But even if it carries some pedagogical benefits along the way, its narrative frame reproduces many of the problems with our own struggling world. Moreover, in the fine print of its release form, which students are obliged to sign (especially when the game is incorporated by instructors as “a curricular activity” or incentivized as “an extra credit option” rather than “an out-of-class activity” for interested students)  the collective nature of the game is undermined by blatant emphasis on Palmer’s ownership. If this game is truly about collaborative world-building, it must be about the collective that it brings into existence, not about the cultural capital gained by one person who seeks to further their own career. As an educator, a mentor, and a game designer, I believe in the power of games to change the world. I bring this belief to every game I contribute to (including a game about building community amidst COVID-19, entitled ECHO, which I’ve been working on in recent months). In 2017, Professor Palmer advised the Fourcast Lab about greater inclusivity in our games, especially regarding issues of ability, and we gratefully incorporated this feedback. In subsequent games, we moved from in-person to a broader range of inclusive online activities. ExoTerra, however, undermines its own ability to change the world through implicit treatment of students as idea generators for the benefit of a faculty member. This type of individual benefit might be the raison d'être of certain corporations (though arguably most game companies do not lay as much legal claim to the labor of streamers or players as the ExoTerra release form). Our job at this university is not to advance our careers on the backs of our students but rather to help them build the scaffolding for their futures.

Ashlyn Sparrow is the Assistant Director of Weston Game Lab.