The Parallel Issue of Oversight, Trust, and Privatized Ownership

Something that has been brought forward by a handful of people a few times is the idea of bringing in an Ombudsman, or group of Ombudsman, to oversee the interests of the players as a balance to the ability that Directors have in regard to taking corrective action (up to denying service or banning an individual) relating to the Dystopia Rising community.

This isn’t the first time the concept has been brought up and it’s definitely not the first time that I have thought about it either. Any time we can build more of a self-sustaining and self-checking aspect of the network of franchises, I am down.  The idea of an ombudsman has a couple of issues that we would need to find a workaround (or really, a complete restructure of the concept of the ombudsman) regarding how an ombudsman works.  An ombudsman isn’t the only idea for an oversight system, so I will go into a few of them to poke at some of the issues and consideration.

To make sure we are all on the same page about this subject, here is a quick definition of what an ombudsman is as follows:

Ombudsman

1 :a government official (as in Sweden or New Zealand) appointed to receive and investigate complaints made by individuals against abuses or capricious acts of public officials The town's ombudsman said he would look into charges of corruption.

2 :one that investigates, reports on, and helps settle complaints An ombudsman will deal with complaints from the hospital's patients and staff.

In concept it seems like a perfect answer to the idea that players do not have a response to Directors (Term for local franchise owner or hired employee overseeing a chapter in DR) using their business owner/franchise ability to deny service or take corrective action against a participant. When looked at as an abstract concept, it really does seem perfect. Once applied however, the position of ombudsman causes issues.

To explain why an ombudsman causes issues, I want to explain how a similar and parallel issue that has existed (and still exists in some circles) and how it was addressed by Dystopia Rising. Any business that is federally registered as anything other than a non-profit business (which is very different than a not for profit) cannot use volunteers for work related details without hiring those individuals or contracting these people out. Details that are not a part of standard participation might count as work if these items fall into certain fields or have certain labor requirements. While NPC (or NAC as I like) or being a NPC organizer for an NPC shift doesn't define as work, items such as required downtime engagement or production of documentation or data entry might be. I say might because this is a gray area with enough wiggle room for legal teams to fence in, so instead of having that potential, we decided to err on the side of caution with changes we made. While this potential issue wouldn't engage the largest percent of the community, it was an issue that we faced regarding storytellers who were not only functioning as an organizational marshal for their NPC shift but also were writing plot.

Working with labor laws (and I am not a lawyer, I just work with what our legal team advises us as to ensure we are operating within legal guidelines), we needed to change the “accepted LARP standard” of how plot production works a while back. To do this we started contracting writers to write plot, and pay them as contracted writers. Second, we removed the position of “Story Teller” and ensured that all marshals were doing the same length shift as their NPC shift. Because while NPC shift and marshaling during a NPC is acceptable, being required to do more than everyone else was not. We also made sure that certain things that should have always been done (such as character sheet / database management and taking of money for transactions) all were being handled by Directors and paid employees instead of marshals.

So, this new design allows us the ability to pay writers and to operate within acceptable business guidelines. Items that are in the grey area of being work or not no longer are a part of the day to day activities of team members and the government gets the taxes it wants (the real reason why there is a push for cash transactions instead of barter or trade).

You may be seeing the issue already with an Ombudsman position. An Ombudsman would be required to be a point of contact for players, to record and respond between events on a prudent timetable, would be required to sign contracts, and would have to work as a social contact while representing the interests of the players while working within legal guidelines and community guidelines.

This means that the Ombudsman would have to be hired as paid employees by the local branches.

This becomes an issue because over a long period of time no community will completely trust an individual whose financial involvement in their community is funded by the people that they are supposed to be a checks and balance for. As humans we have drives for rebellion, and given our current political climate, zero trust for "authorities".

For a long time, people would come to the creators of the game world and the franchise creators when they needed to “go over a Directors head” because they didn’t agree with a decision or action that a Director took. The issue with that is unless a Director is acting outside of the guidelines of operation and franchise contracts, there very little that the franchisees (the game creators) can do to adjust operation. In the past there were times we overstepped our capacity as network creators and became directly involved with issues players were having either at the players request or at the request of the Director. Directors would ask the creators to become involved if there was an issue they saw larger than themselves, and more times than not the involvement of a third party without all details and information would exacerbate a situation instead of actually assisting with it.  

As much as some people chatter about it, Directors can’t “just have their franchise taken away” from "National". That isn’t a leverage point that vaguely exists due to the way that franchise laws work. It would take another full three or four posts from our franchise lawyers to completely explain, but to sum up, franchise law is designed to protect the local branch from too much oversight from the franchise owners. If a branch screws up enough, and after being given notification to correct their issues relating to franchise operation and operations guidelines, franchises have 90 days to correct the issues (assuming it is in relation to franchise operation). There is a lot to it, but if you want the starter info, check out the American Bar Associations 101 introduction page for basic details. 

http://apps.americanbar.org/buslaw/blt/2010-03-04/grueneberg-solish.shtml

Before we get too far off the topic of Ombudsman as a position, let’s talk about why Ombudsman and franchise law intersect. Now again, I am not a lawyer or an accountant, but I am working off the knowledge and advice I have been given to formulate my own opinions which should not be seen as legal or financial advice. With that in mind, an Ombudsman traditionally operates in such a way where the Ombudsman is hired as an impartial third-party individual or company that is allotted and entrusted with the power to negotiate a middle ground. A player chosen by popularity vote, and then hired and paid for by a Director, will not be neutral in one form or the other. Either the player who is taking the role of Ombudsman will see themselves as a “white knight guardian of the players” and fight against the Directors for the interests of their friend circles, or that individual will see that the paycheck that they receive from the individual chapters is dependent on their performance in a job. In the first instance we have the issue that an Ombudsman has no way to take away the legally provided right of operating a business and the ability to deny service away from the franchise owner in the instance that the two disagree and in the second instance we have an individual who will soon be seen as more of a “customer service contact” than an Ombudsman who will not actually institute a form of change. I would guess it would be less than two months before a paid Ombudsman would be accused of being a crony.

That is part of the sticky wicket. The individual Dystopia Rising Chapters are clubs and event based service providers when you break things down to the most common-place terms. They function much in the same way that other social and community groups function when there are people where the club or group owners decide someone is no longer welcomed in that group. You can actually be banned from groups like the NRA, expelled from the Freemasons, and you can even be removed from the international book club associations if they find your activities are detrimental to what it is that they are attempting to organize.

One set of thought that I have had to address the issue is that what LARP needs is an independent non-profit group that functions completely outside of any individual LARP. This group would function as a focus for community needs for not a single LARP, but across multiple LARPs as a sort of community organization or club that ensures that its player-members abide by a unified code of conduct and that the event runners that associate themselves with the organization are “certified” (or as close as one could become) to running live events safely and fairly. This group could host a community guideline that isn’t enforced at a single LARP but instead is enforced as being a part of a community that would be more enforceable due to the cross-game potential. This group could work as a resource for education on fair play, techniques for meta-design aspects of LARP such as bleed and steering, and maybe even offer notes of achievement when a person has completed learning and review sections.

This is a project that I have considered and knocked around in my brain for a long time, but it has some major downfalls to it. First, there is nothing that would force any individual game or network of games to abide by a single community standard and decentralize the oversite of community membership within their own ranks. Allowing a third-party control over what is effectively your home community (that you see face to face regularly) as well as to entrust unrelated organizers to keep to highest standards is a giant leap of faith for most event runners. Every person I have talked to about this idea has named people that they would love to see oversee such a group (preferences) and individuals that they would never trust to oversee such a group (history or bias).

Which leads us back to the original issue. Trust. If players do not trust a Director to make the right decisions, they do not trust that Director and very little will force a person without trust in a Director to accept any decision that Director makes without seeing it as wrong unless they happen to benefit from or agree with the decision made. If players do not trust the Director but trust an Ombudsman, that trust will only exist for as long as the player agrees with the decisions the Ombudsman is making or if the players find the Ombudsman socially agreeable enough (popular) to hold the position regardless of their performance or decisions. Once an Ombudsman’s decisions vary from the popular opinion, the Ombudsman will equally be distrusted. If players do not trust a Director or an Ombudsman, an independent third party that functioned as a “best standards” and “community operations group” would only be embraced and have any form of use as long as the local event runners AND the players trusted in the independent third-party operations group. And in regard to the independent third-party group, without some form of membership contract and affiliation contract (where the individual event runners were legally obligated to observe the advice and actions of the third party) there is no enforceable way where the third-party group could FORCE change to happen save for tactics of de-association and negative publicity. This, in turn, would result in an environment where the third-party operations group would not have any actual power to institute change unless the parties involved were already willing to negotiate (and accept potential correction in the instance that they acted wrongly). In the instance that both parties involved were of steady enough mind to negotiate, discuss in a civilized form, and present information and counter points a third-party group becomes almost irrelevant save for the means of organizing and book keeping for the procession.

The idea of a third-party organization working as an Ombudsman would, holding a community to a defined standard and being a middle ground for issues of conflict, also brings up questions of privacy as well as legal concerns relating to potential issues that cross over into the realm of legality. When an issue relating to a crime (assault, endangerment, harassment, etc.) there becomes an issue of standard of process. In the instance that an accusation of a member committing a crime happens, which also overlaps with a breach of a community standard, issues regarding libel become very real. If a victim chooses not to engage the police, but goes an Ombudsman or third-party group, the action of saying “This person has been removed from our group for having committed activities that are defined as a crime” could be perceived as damaging or potentially libel relating to the independent individual or third-party reporting to the company that is deciding on the potential of denying services of the accused.