Dichotomies: Real Crime in Virtual Worlds

A shadowy figure stalks an individual, suddenly rushes in and brutally murders the hapless victim. The perpetrator them proceeds to rifle through the victims belongings, picking out only the things that seem valuable and leaving the rest.

This would seem to be a ruthless murder-robbery, yet all that has happened in the physical world is the sending and receiving of invisible data. The internet and MMORPGs have created another forum for humans to interact, which also provides another forum for criminal activities. This post will explore some general issues attributed to applying criminal law to virtual crime in general.

Real World/Virtual World

The advent of the internet and MMORPGs have created certain dichotomies. It has added the virtual world as another mode of existence apart from the “real world” and the interplay between the two is paramount in determining whether “real life” criminal sanctions are warranted. Both Brenner and Kerr point out that generally, virtual crime that has primarily real life consequences should be dealt with in the real world. An example of this is virtual theft that essentially deprives victims of real life money. Although the actual “act” of stealing is done solely online, the harm is manifested purely in the real world, so effectively the crime can be seen as a real world crime that used the internet as a tool. These “cyber crimes” are already prosecuted using existing criminal law and are not the subject of contention. What is problematic however, are crimes committed in a virtual world where the effects are purely felt in the virtual world: what Brenner calls “fantasy crime.” While fantasy crime does cause some real life harm (usually emotional), the main effects are limited in the virtual world. Brenner offers an example of stealing a replaceable, free jacket from another avatar in Second Life – the victim is not harmed physically or fiscally, and is not deprived of the use of the jacket as he or she can easily get another new one.

Another dichotomy based on the “real” and “virtual” world comes from perspectives. Kerr mentions two distinct points of view of virtual acts. One is the “virtual” perspective; a subjective view where the user experiences the virtual world as if he/she is in the real world. The user can chat with other people, see a concert, obtain a gold chest, and other feasible (or fantastic) actions. The second “physical” perspective is principally from an objective point of view, where all of the actions mentioned above are what actually happens in the “real” world; signals are sent to and from a series of connected computers and servers. This subjective/objective split is particularly significant when it comes to criminal law as it tends to use an objective standard and is slow to categorize the “virtual” perspective as something tangible.

Virtual crimes also have a duality “real” crimes do not. Take for example, prostitution in Second Life. The subjective act (as perceived as a “real” world act) is an individual committing an illegal sexual act. However, objectively, the act of prostitution is merely images of two digitized figures having sex – what would constitute pornography. Murder in the virtual world would have a dual characteristic as well; in world, it would be the death of an individual at the hands of another but in the “real” world it would be little more than harassment, as Second Life and many other MMORPGs bring back “dead” avatars.

Self Governance/Outside Governance

Currently, the norm for MMORPG governance is through administrators who set rules in TOS/EULAs and maintain order by policing the virtual world themselves or responding to user reports of offenses. Offenders are punished by purely in world sanctions, such as warnings, suspensions of accounts, or banning. This in-world sanctions for in-world crimes would suggest non-intervention by the courts as courts have historically deferred to letting the rules of games trump “real” world rules (such as the gambling and sports cases). Courts would only step in once someone goes outside of the bounds of the rules of the game, but what constitutes the rules becomes increasingly unclear as MMORPG avatars are coded with infinite ways of moving and interacting and TOS/EULAs are limited in their ability to spell out all prohibited acts.

Brenner states that a determination of whether real world criminal sanctions should be used is in the degree a virtual crime “erode(s) social order.” (71) But how many purely virtual crimes can meet the breaking threshold? Kerr suggests that real world criminal law should only be a “last resort” to be used only when “other mechanisms cannot remedy [it]” (4). There is also the practical limitation of resources available for detecting and prosecuting virtual crime: if so many “real” crimes remain unsolved, adding virtual crimes to the mix would only exacerbate the problem. Not to mention virtual crimes are exceptionally problematic in jurisdiction because of the global nature of the internet. Finally, application of “real” world criminal law would restrict how MMORPG communities govern themselves and create worlds according to the tastes of the participants. A particularly problematic example of real world applications of criminal law is the CFAA, which gives laypersons writing (often arbitrary) TOS a potentially dangerous power to create law.

Brenner states that there are those that merely “use” the internet and there are those who “inhabit.” Veritably, there are those that die of starvation because of absolute immersion in an MMORPG just as there are those who are not even aware of the existence of the internet. As of now, society has one food in the virtual world and the other planted firmly the the “real world.” Until we begin the foreseen “colonization” into the virtual world, dichotomies will exist that will make the fair application of real world laws in the virtual context particularly challenging.

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~ by alyssaufl on September 21, 2009.

5 Responses to “Dichotomies: Real Crime in Virtual Worlds”

  1. What about crimes committed in the “real” world, but have effects in, or change the balance of online games.

    The best example I can think of is gold-farming. I’ve read stories how individuals in sweatshops in SE Asia have been found dead after prolonged online gaming sessions where they were strictly doing gold-farming.

    It would be a crime in the “real” world: slave-labor, unfit and unsanitary conditions etc., but it’s effects are felt in-world. Gold-farmers change the balance of in-world economies, typically send harassing e-mails and in-game spam messages, and flood the market causing honest players to have to either play longer, or buy gold from the farmers.

    Only until recently have ToS/EULA have prohibited in-game spamming of these messages, but this is truly a crime that is in the “real’ world, with effects in the virtual. What other types of virtual safeguards are there/can be put in place to prevent out of world crimes from influencing in-world events?

    • I don’t think that gold-farming is the problem here. If I wanted to kill rats all day long on WoW in order to amass gold, I doubt very highly that I will end up dead as a result. The problem is the slave-labor and unsanitary conditions. Slave-labor and unsanitary conditions do not exist exclusively in the gold-farming market; they exist in many sweatshops all over China, and most of them are not dedicated to amassing a bunch of online gold. If one wants people to stop dying because of gold-farming, the proper response would be to outlaw sweatshops, not gold-farming.

      The application of real-world laws into virtual worlds is a huge slippery slope, and one that I feel needs to be avoided for the most part. The fact is that these virtual worlds are, in essence, just games. The application of real-world laws into a game takes away the creative rights of the game developer. Killing in-game characters rarely have long-lasting consequences. Spamming an in-game character can be easily avoided by either blocking messages from that character, or alerting the game developers about the harassment. For almost all issues happening in the game, there is an adequate solution available to the game developers in remedying that issue.

  2. It’s hard to say whether real-world laws should interfere in virtual games. I guess the argument could be made that risk is part of any game and that spending real-world money on something you use in a game is just a gamble at your own peril. I guess I don’t know enough about WoW to know if the guy who got his sword stolen in “The Sword, the Thief, and EULA” knew that there was a risk his sword might be taken by another player. Is that something that happens? I mean, if your character can get killed in WoW, why wouldn’t you expect your stuff to get stolen too? Maybe that’s just part of what you sign up for when you agree to play the game. If so, the guy bought that sword at his own peril and the law shouldn’t rush in to protect him.

  3. I also think that we should be hesitant about applying real life criminal laws to acts that do not have criminal effects in the real world. (But would like to note that this should have nothing to do with adding new crimes to an overburdened system. If an act is criminal, it should be excused because law enforcement is stretched thin.) It would be as though one could face criminal punishment for cheating at a game of Monopoly or Battleship. Nonetheless, it is important to acknowledge that it is not entirely ludicrous to consider whether criminal sanctions are needed for online crimes without real life consequence.

    The theft of a free jacket could effect a user in the same way that the theft of a favorite jacket could in real life. Even if the stolen item was free, it may be difficult to find again. The user is inconvenienced by the loss of the jacket, and may lose part of his/her social identity within the game. The feelings of frustration, annoyance, and anger are still there, even though the crime had no real life impact.

  4. While I agree that a virtual crime the effects of which are primarily felt in the real world should be dealt with by applicable real world laws, the “fantasy crimes” Brenner describes in her article pose a problem to this paradigm. While many examples are easily classified as having predominately real world effects, such as the theft of a virtual item with $5,000 real world value, Brenner’s “fantasy crimes” fall into a more of a gray area. For example, while I would not care if someone stole the free business suit I got in Second Life to wear to class, consider someone who views online interactions through Kerr’s “virtual” perspective and feels that loss as strongly as if it occurred in the real world. For such a person, the effects of the virtual crime would primarily be felt in the real world, even if it would only take them a few hours of online “work” to obtain an identical copy. While I personally do not feel this way, and many people not heavily involved with virtual worlds would tell such a person to “get a life”, there is no denying that there are people out there who relate as strongly to their online personas as they do their real ones. As of now people like this are a small minority, so there is no need to tailor laws for “fantasy crimes”, since most people would not really feel the harm from such a crime (also they can be more easily and effectively dealt with by the game developers and online communities themselves). However, in the future, if virtual worlds continue to grow at their present pace who knows how many people will develop this “virtual” perspective, and, as shown by the legislation enacted by the Lori Drew case, it only takes one large public outcry to change the state of the law in a given jurisdiction.
    Also, on a side note, who else thought it was crazy that people in Second Life have even invented a “virtual psychotic” called Seclimine and that there are people in Second Life that have Seclimine abuse problems?

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