Volunteer revolt

Tired of working for almost nothing, community counselors at Ultima Online file suit against the game maker.



Janelle Brown
September 21, 2000 10:51PM (UTC)

Catherine Reab (aka "Terendil") says she was logging up to 40 hours a week in Ultima Online, one of the Web's most popular online role-playing games, where druids and dragons wander the lands of Britannia looking for adventure. But Reab, 46, wasn't actually playing the game -- instead, she was volunteering as a community leader, answering questions and offering guidance to the game's many newbies. It was, she claims, basically a full-time job.

She had spent nearly two years working her way through Ultima Online's counselor program until she made it to the top position of regional lead counselor, managing a team of 90. As one of the 14 top "volunteers" in the program, she received a monthly $500 "thank you" and a free Ultima account.

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But those days are over. Now Reab is suing Origin Systems, the creator of the Ultima Online game, and its publisher, Electronic Arts, claiming that Ultima exploited its volunteers, using free help to run what was essentially an extensive customer service program. Along with two other former counselors, she filed a class-action suit Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Colorado asking for compensation for her time. As her lawyer, James Schmehl, puts it, "This is not about people who are real volunteers, it's about people who are employees, but are called volunteers."

According to the legal filings, there are about 500 members of the Ultima Online volunteer program, and over the past three years thousands of players have participated. Volunteers are required to log a minimum of six hours a week in specified two-hour shifts, answering newbie questions and giving guidance to other players. In return for their time, the volunteers would receive free player accounts and special gizmos and gadgets for their game characters -- such as glowing wands or special robes that would make their characters stand out in the game. (These rewards were abruptly terminated last month, sending counselors into a furor.)

Donating a few hours of your time to an ego-affirming pastime is one thing, but 40 hours a week? "People did counseling because they loved doing what they were doing -- a love of the game, helping the players, the community and a feeling of family," explains Reab. "It changed from that to being a job -- with schedules and work hours, and people being fired and favoritism and all those things." She was angry when she felt unappreciated, burned out and had her feelings hurt. The reasons for her departure from the program earlier this year remain murky.

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With the lawsuit, she says, she wants to show the world that "any industry cannot take advantage of a group of people who have a passion" -- and that companies like Origin Systems that gross $25 million annually shouldn't take advantage of faithful fans who will work salary-free.

While there may be merits to Reab's argument that Ultima Online took advantage of its dedicated community to build an unpaid customer service staff, it's also fair to ask what volunteers do to themselves. Did Ultima coerce Reab into spending 40 hours a week working, or was that merely the result of her own obsession with the game and love of the community? After all, no one forces a volunteer to volunteer -- it's easy enough to walk away if you don't want to do the work. And in fact, according to the legal documents, most counselors spent less than four months in the program.

Electronic Arts spokesman Jeff Brown said the company had yet to be served the legal papers, and therefore he couldn't answer questions. But he offered a prepared statement: "Volunteers play an important, fun and prestigious role in any 'persistent state world.' While they're not essential to running the site, they enhance the overall enjoyment of the community for themselves and other members. Generally, [Ultima Online] volunteers seem satisfied with their position in the community. They are respected by community members for their role in answering questions and helping others navigate the site."

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This isn't the first time Ultima has been slapped with a lawsuit by its players -- the game was initially so egregiously buggy that several avid players filed a class-action lawsuit against Origin Systems. (The suit was eventually dropped.) It seems that avid fans are quick to become avid enemies when they feel taken advantage of.

But the case that this lawsuit more closely resembles is the volunteer assault of America Online. In a class-action lawsuit filed in May 1999, volunteers claim that AOL violated the Fair Labor Standards Act, which mandates that all employees be paid minimum wage. The volunteers claim that their work moderating chat rooms and patrolling bulletin boards was critical to AOL's bottom line.

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The motives of the AOL volunteers in the suit, as well as those of the Ultima volunteers, have yet to be puzzled out -- it's possible that these lawsuits are as much about personal vendettas or wounded egos as the real issues. Reab herself says she felt this lawsuit was "the only way to get [Origin's] attention" and express the hurt feelings of the counselors.

But like the AOL volunteers' case, this Ultima Online suit brings up a critical question: When does a volunteer stop being a volunteer and become an employee? Are volunteers essential to the success of a for-profit community, and do they, therefore, deserve to be compensated? And is volunteering to guide a for-profit community just a natural part of online participation or a form of exploitation?

Many commercial online communities make liberal use of volunteers -- including Ultima Online's biggest competitors, Asheron's Call and EverQuest. Surely they are watching this and the AOL lawsuit with a close eye.

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Janelle Brown

Janelle Brown is a contributing writer for Salon.

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