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I am preparing myself to get into a masters program, and I will have a video game as the topic of my dissertation. The game will be analyzed in its entirety, i.e., combat mechanics, balance between heroes, player-rating system, and etc..

My question is, do I need the permission of the company that developed the game to perform that research? Or could I perform the research without the permission, granted that all the data, the dissertation, programming code, and etc., are made available?

I will not be using the source code from the game, nor anything related to the product itself. The whole thing will be based on models representing aspects of the game.

Edit to answer comment: the code mentioned above will be a part of the models, it will not be taken from the video game, but written by myself for the dissertation.

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  • You mention "programming code" as something that is made available, but then say that you are not using "source code". Will you be using binary/executable code?
    – sharur
    Apr 5, 2018 at 23:23

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This answer assumes that this is taking place in the US: In general, you should be fine.

Research is one of the key points of fair use, and most of what you are describing is not covered by copyright anyway; Some other things, such as a player matching or player rating system would be covered by patents rather than copyright, but you can just quote the US Patent office filings, which are publicly available and public domain if that is the case. (General rule of thumb: patent is for "technical ideas" whereas copyright is for "creative expression of the idea").

How will this research be done? If by "observation of/by players", you are fine. Using names, images, character designs, game mechanics, etc. are probably technically infringement, but would be covered by the fair use doctrine. Analysis of game output is also probably in the clear.

The tricky bit is analysis of code, if any (even if it is not in human readable format). If it's not open source, then you are in a grey area at best

In any case, the one thing I would advise you to NOT do is to not include any game code, in either source or executable format. Any code that you include is copyright infringement, and very likely not transformative enough to qualify for fair use infringement.

Finally, while you may not need to reach out to the developer, doing so may not be a bad idea, unless your dissertation is on something controversial, such as, e.g. loot boxes.

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The intended dissertation seems to be a factual description of a game. Copyright only protects "expression", which in the context of a game might include artwork or displayed text. If you go beyond fair use, you would need permission to copy those elements. Note though that dissertation research is the epitome of what "fair use" was created for. It is unlikely that you could copy so much text from a video game that you would go beyond fair use (given the usual low level of text in most games). Copying of artwork is trickier, because the threshold seems to be lower).

Otherwise, and assuming that source code is not part of the dissertation, you're describing facts about the game, and facts are not protected by copyright.

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