Theft, murder and virtual worlds

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?

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About mathewi

I'm the chief digital writer at the Columbia Journalism Review in New York, and a former writer for Fortune magazine and the Globe and Mail newspaper.

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