Crime & punishment - breaking the virtual rules


Henry Northmore finds out what is being done to tackle crime within virtual worlds

These days, when we talk about crime in the cyber world we’re not referring to the joyriding depicted in Need for Speed or the multiple murders of Manhunt. These are crimes against computer controlled characters within games.

This may sound frivolous, but if you commit a crime in a Massively Multiplayer Online RPG (MMORPG), as in the games Word of Warcraft and Second Life, you are committing an act against another player. And if you take into account the fact that certain people are making their living from virtual worlds (Linden Lab’s Second Life has created real world paper millionaires) such crimes become more serious. Indeed, theft or any other crime can have very real implications in both cyberspace and day to day life. Famously, in China, a Legend of Mir 3 player was sentenced to life imprisonment after killing a fellow player who stole a powerful sword (a ‘dragon sabre’) then sold it on ebay.

Of course, crimes such as setting up computer controlled characters (or bots) that mine for resources or attack other players, break the rules of the game and are not tolerated. Then there is the complex issue of how to deal with activities that are illegal in various countries. This includes gambling, which has now been banned on Second Life as it is illegal in the USA and gambling regulations vary worldwide. But there are many other crimes that can occur in the gaming world.

Eve Online is a complex space-faring sci-fi MMORPG, from Icelandic developers CCP. ‘I would say there are crimes in Eve and they have consequences,’ says CCP’s chief executive officer Hilmar Pétursson. ‘People justify it by saying, “it’s only a virtual world, it doesn’t matter”. But I think secretly in their hearts they know they have betrayed people.’

Space piracy is an intrinsic part of Eve Online. But a recent coup and a series of high level assassinations by the Guiding Hand Social Club rocked the world of Eve, with literally billions of in game credits changing hands or being destroyed. Several users petitioned for CCP to effectively hit ‘reset’, but they stuck by their guns. ‘It was a simple decision but not necessarily an easy one as there were hundreds of people hurt by this action,’ says Pétursson. ‘By not doing anything, in this case, it opened people’s eyes to the fact they were really living in a virtual world where anything could happen and it’s left up to the citizens of that world to deal with the negatives and positives.’

Linden Lab spokesman Marcel Kay puts forward a similar point of view in regards to Second Life. ‘Our aim has never been to police all in-world activities but rather to foster a self-governing community, where residents are empowered to act on things they feel strongly about,’ he says. ‘Just like in the real world, there is a rich tapestry of beliefs, lifestyles and politics within Second Life, and we are committed to making it as open an experience as possible. However, the terms of service for Second Life include a code of conduct and a strict prohibition against illegal activity.’

He adds: ‘You cannot kill an avatar or steal from them in Second Life. That said, there will always be people or “griefers” who will try and disrupt the majority’s experience in-world. In lieu of a worldwide government, Linden Lab has created tools to help residents manage their own experience. You can ban others from entering your property or disallow certain activities like scripting or building content on your land. We encourage our residents to report any real life criminal acts they may witness, so that we can take the necessary action to put a stop to it.’

Certain crimes are more difficult to define. While some assaults have been reported, the question of what exactly constitutes ‘virtual rape’ and how it should be punished is a complex one. Then there is the further grey area of (consenting) adults using child avatars to have virtual sex and Linden Labs have expelled people from Second Life for committing such acts. This in turn raises the issue of fantasy role play (many of these games specify that players must be over 18 for example) which is at the core of the existence of most virtual worlds. ‘Residents of Second Life are morally, socially and legally responsible for their opinions and their behaviour in-world,’ says Kay.

With virtual worlds growing at an astounding rate (there are over seven million users on Second Life, nine million on World of Warcraft, and Eve is rapidly approaching 300,000, the population of its native Iceland), perhaps crime is inevitable. That crime exists in virtual worlds is an indication of how far these games have evolved. People will always want to make an easy buck, but at least when it comes to virtual worlds you can always switch off the computer.