Crime And Criminals Blog - Crimes, criminals, scams and frauds.

Sunday, October 01, 2006

Virtual Crime Is Real

Virtual crime or in-game crime refers to a virtual criminal act that takes place in a massively multiplayer online game (MMOG), usually an MMORPG. The huge time and effort invested into such games can lead online "crime" to spill over into real world crime, and even blur the distinctions between the two. Some countries have introduced special police investigation units to cover such "virtual crimes". South Korea is one such country and looked into 22,000 cases in the first six months of 2003.

Some players spend a vast amount of time playing these games, typically building their character and a collection of items. Some such items may have been obtained through months of gameplay, involving various tasks and a substantial level of effort. According to standard conceptions of economic value, the goods and services of virtual economies do have a demonstrable value. Since players of these games are willing to substitute real economic resources of time and money (monthly fees) in exchange for these resources, by definition they have demonstrated utility to the user.

Stemming from their value in the virtual economy, these items, and the characters themselves, have gained monetary value in the real world. Online auction web site eBay, along with specialist trading sites, have allowed players to sell their wares to the highest bidder. This has attracted fraudulent sales as well as theft. Many game developers, such as Blizzard Entertainment (responsible for World of Warcraft) oppose and even prohibit the practice. Some argue that to allow in-game items to have monetary values makes these games, essentially, gambling venues.

In most games players do not "own", materially or intellectually, any part of the game world, and merely pay to use it (one exception being Second Life). Because this "virtual property" is actually owned by the game developer, a developer who opposed real commerce of in-game currencies would have the right to destroy virtual goods as soon as they were listed on eBay or otherwise offered for real trade. However, such a decision would be controversial with game participants.

In South Korea, where the number of computer game players is massive, some have reported the emergence of gangs and mafia, where powerful players steal and demand that beginners give them virtual money for their "protection".

In China, Qiu Chengwei was sentenced to life in prison after stabbing and killing fellow The Legend of Mir 3 gamer Zhu Caoyuan. In the game Qiu had lent Zhu a powerful sword (a "dragon sabre"), which Zhu then went on to sell on eBay for 7,200 Yuan (about £473 or $870). With no Chinese laws covering the online dispute, there was nothing the police could do.

Cybersex is common on instant messaging (IM) systems and has been seen as having questionable moral, if not legal, standings when children are involved. In the game The Sims Online a 17-year old boy going by the in-game name "Evangeline", was discovered to have built a cyber-brothel, where customers would pay sim-money for minutes of cybersex. This led to the cancellation of his accounts but no legal action, mainly because he was above the age of consent.

The term virtual mugging was coined when some players of Lineage II used bots to defeat other player's characters and take their items. The Japanese Kagawa Prefectural Police arrested a Chinese foreign exchange student on 16 August 2005 following the reports of virtual mugging and the online sale of the stolen items.

The virtual economies of many MMOs and the exchange of virtual items and currency for real money has triggered the birth of the virtual sweatshop, in which workers in the developing world, typically China (although there has been reports of this type of activity in Eastern European countries), are economically exploited by managers looking to make a profit of the new economies. Most instances typically involve farming of resources or currency, which has given rise to the epithet Chinese Adena Farmer, because of its first reported widespread use in Lineage II. Others involve using exploits such as in duping money or items, such as a large-scale incident in Star Wars: Galaxies. Both practices carry the effects of predatory capitalism in-game, too, as excessive farming and duping can ruin economies and upset game balance. There has also been reports of collusion between farmers and online currency exchanges. In 2002, a company called Blacksnow Interactive, a game currency exchange, admitted to using workers in a sweatshop in Tijuana, Mexico to farm money and items from Ultima Online and Dark Age of Camelot. When Mythic Entertainment cracked down on the practice, Blacksnow attempted to sue the game company.

Cybercrime: The Investigation, Prosecution and Defense of a Computer-Related Crime


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