Social Media Employment Law

From Frogger To Avatar – The New World

Remember Pong?   Space Invaders, Missile Command, and Asteroids?  How about Donkey Kong?   Frogger?   Times have certainly changed, and I’m not saying it simply because I’m a bit melancholy from my high school reunion.  Some of us kick and scream when it comes to change.   For as singer Cee-Lo Green recently sang in perfect pitch:  “I guess he’s an xbox and I’m more Atari.”

But there’s no denying that Avatar is now the rage.   Not the 2009 James Cameron movie set in the 22nd Century, but online avatar games.   An “avatar” is an object or personality representing the user’s alter ego, usually in three-dimensional form.    And an article in last Friday’s edition of the St. Paul Pioneer Press makes the key observation that “[t]he distinction between real-world property and goods and online virtual items . . . are becoming increasingly fuzzy.”

The author uses the example of the online game “Farmville” to describe workers playing these online games “in sweatshop conditions, for hours on end”, all of whom in the end maintain the same mindset:  “You know it’s not real, but you treat it like it’s yours.”    Among the social media and employment law issues that are sure to explode in 2012 and beyond is this concept of spending increasing time in virtual worlds through online video games – assuming virtual personalities to engage in virtual relationships – as a means of escape or play.   Either way, a host of new issues to consider will be waiting.

Employer Take Away:   What should you as an employer take away from this development?   

As always, the key is for you to at least understand that this corner of the social media world exists.   There are no fewer than three potential impacts:

1.   Relationships.  Committing virtual harassment, bullying, or discrimination in an online/virtual relationship will not likely prove to be a mitigating factor in court when your company faces potential liability for a supervisor’s gaming conduct.

2.   Information Protection.  Treating real property as virtual property (and vice-versa) could blur the lines and result in employees believing they are not really disclosing trade secrets or other valuable information of your company, or not inappropriately using similarly confidential information “traded” by a virtual friend who happens to be an employee of your competitor.

3.   Decreasing Productivity.   Without impermissibly infringing on your employees’ legal activities, your company should consider how best to manage and monitor work time so as to avoid employees playing games with your bottom line.

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