In the last few years, we've seen some incredible and incredibly strange stories come out of virtual worlds. The incredible includes the story of a woman who, in 2006, became the first virtual millionaire. Selling virtual goods to virtual characters in a virtual world, Ailin Graef took her initial investment of $9.95 and amassed well over a million "Linden Dollars," which converts to actual dollars. It is actually estimated that she's worth more. Proving the adage, "Where there's a will, there's a way," she hit the million-dollar mark in about two-and-a-half years.
Then there was the Japanese woman who was arrested in 2008 for breaking into her virtual husband's account on the interactive game "MapleStory" and killing his avatar. Currently, she faces a fine and prison sentence of up to five years.
Just this week, a man accused of hacking into accounts to steal actual virtual characters and their possessions is being touted as the first case of its kind. The man accessed the popular online game RuneScape and was able to move through various accounts, stealing as he browsed. RuneScape is home to more than 10 million members. The thefts took place in the United Kingdom, and gaming enthusiasts await to see what will happen. The problem is a precedent has not been set, and the law regarding such crime has been reported to be in a "legal grey area," according to Technology Times Online, UK.
"Complaints about people’s identities and possessions being stolen within a game have been made before," said Rob Fahey, games analyst and former editor of gamesindustry.biz. "But because it exists only in a virtual world it is hard to say whether they are of any real value in the real world. But a lucrative market has emerged by those who want to buy powerful characters and items within RuneScape and other popular games, such as World of Warcraft."
"The resale of characters and their possessions is often against the rules set down by the makers of the games, but there are no criminal laws banning it. A bag of gold, a hammer or a sword within a game can be worth thousands of pounds. It’s bizarre, but that’s the 21st century for you.”
These crimes, though seemingly innocuous and almost funny, are being taken very seriously by authorities. China has banned the sale of virtual goods for real money, and in 2007, there were several cases that led to arrest. The Chinese media reported the practice, called "gold farming," and the profits for the "ring" that was broken up by the police was rumored to be around $250,000.
The argument for punishment is that many of these games take years to master to the point where the online character begins to effectively navigate through the virtual world. The players invest their time, effort, and money into building their online personages, so many courts are looking at the thefts in much the same way they would look at the theft of any other valuable possession. In 2008, a group of boys in the Netherlands attacked and threatened a RuneScape player, so that he would turn over a chain and amulet. The Dutch court set a precedent in the case, stating that virtual goods are the same as real goods, and the boys were convicted of theft.
In general, courts globally seem to be treating virtual crime just as they would any real-world crime: If a person is found guilty of stealing, killing, ruining, or otherwise destroying an online-gaming experience for a person or group of persons, the penalties enacted will be similar to punishment of real-world crime, with noted exceptions. For example, killing an avatar will not be met with a life sentence in prison. However, the monetary loss sustained by the player will be comparable to real-world money loss, and criminals will end up with fines, probation, or even jail.
The lesson here: If you can't to the time, then don't commit cyber-crime.