Belfast Telegraph

Can we call in the law about virtual 'crimes' in online worlds?

By Rhodri Marsden

Those of us who have trouble coping with one disappointing reality, and steer clear of virtual worlds such as Second Life, have difficulty appreciating how important events and belongings within those worlds can be for the people who use them.

Two years ago, a virtual bank in the game Eve Online was revealed to be a scam set up by one of its players when he suddenly absconded with 700bn ISK (Eve's currency). This led to uproar in that community, but the rest of us – quite understandably – took no more notice than if some Monopoly money had been been eaten by the dog.

With compensation culture being the way it is, it's perhaps surprising that the defrauded Eve Onliners didn't resort to the real-world legal system to sort out the problem. They appear to have grudgingly admitted that "it's only a game", but there have been a couple of incidents where virtual crimes have had real-life consequences.

The online world called Maple Story might sound benign compared to, say, Urban Dead, or Requiem: Bloodymare, but earlier this year a Japanese woman, furious at her virtual character having been divorced by her virtual husband, wrought revenge by hacking into the account of said "husband" and "murdering" him by deleting all traces of his presence within the game. No blood was spilt – either virtual or real – but by doing the deed the woman had illegally accessed data; she was arrested, and faces a possible jail term.

In that situation, a real-world crime had been committed (just). But last week, a Dutch court sentenced two youths to community service for stealing an imaginary mask and amulet within an online game called Runescape. During the theft of these non-existent (but presumably immensely powerful) talismans, the real-life owner had been physically assaulted in his bedroom and threatened at knifepoint – but the court case found the theft more of an issue than any potential stabbing. "Goods don't have to be material for the law to consider them stolen," pronounced the judge.

One can only hope that the fairly short, slightly sharp shock of community service will have the offenders pondering whether crime pays. Particularly when the resale value of their swag was only about five Tokkul. Or 10 Trading Sticks and an Ecto-Token.

Belfast Telegraph