Theft, murder and virtual worlds

by Mathew on October 23, 2008 · 4 comments

Two recent news items got me thinking about “virtual theft” and other crimes that either take place inside virtual worlds or involve virtual goods. I don’t know why exactly, but this kind of thing fascinates me. Maybe it’s because it’s another example of online behaviour clashing with real-world laws and principles, much like music or movie downloading is. The two stories involve a woman who was jailed in Tokyo for “killing” her virtual husband, and two Dutch teens who were convicted of stealing a Runescape amulet and mask from a fellow teen. These aren’t the only such cases, of course: a Dutch teenager was arrested last year for stealing $6,000 worth of furniture from the online kids’ game/world called Habbo Hotel.

Does it make sense to charge people for “crimes” that are committed inside virtual worlds? Mike Masnick at Techdirt argues that it doesn’t really, and that the Dutch kids who “stole” the Runescape amulet and mask from another teen at knifepoint should properly have been charged with assault rather than theft. The Dutch court, however, argues that virtual goods are just as worthy of protection as real-world goods, and so theft is the proper charge. This is an issue that some have been thinking about for awhile now, and one Wagner James Au has argued should be a concern for plenty of Web 2.0 companies as well, since they effectively deal in “virtual goods” such as reputation, etc. and user-generated content.

The fascinating thing with virtual theft and other “crimes,” of course, is that there are so many different ways of stealing money and property and engaging in all sorts of other bad behaviour inside Second Life or some other virtual world. You can hack the game to generate money or credits, you can run scripts that copy artefacts and property (which you can then sell inside the game), and you can sell the money you got illegally to noobs and then virtually mug them to take it back inside the game. The possibilities are endless. Should they all be real-world crimes too?

  • http://ericrice.com Eric Rice

    A good book to read is “Halting State”… that said, what's the difference between finding a way to instantly steal my mana in Warcraft vs. stealing source code from Blizzard Entertainment? Hack some virtual stuff on the Xbox and I think Microsoft will be calling.

    The only issue I have with stories like these is that it's cuter to report the 'omg he stole my virtual bunny slippers!!1!' than the fact that virtual places (read: game worlds) are part of a multi-billion dollar industry that requires strong security.

    Hack it enough, people won't pay to play, and that usually affects this: http://finance.google.com/finance?client=ob&q=N

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Good point, Eric.

  • http://babiesfurniture.info Baby Furniture

    Good post. Have bookmarked your blog and will surely come back.

  • runescape

    Games like Runescape and many others are creating this image to people, well actually not even runescape, because it has somewhat learning value about business and etc, but games like Gta or etc make people crazy and thats sad, because those bastards will get such games banned sooner or later, so people who think cant even play those games anymore

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