Most of us play video games to escape reality. They allow us to do things we could never hope to do in real life, from speeding down the motorway at 200mph to taking charge of thousands of troops in battle. Some of the most exhilarating experiences are those in which we oppose law and justice. The gaming demographic contains a high proportion of young men, and fighting authority is something that appeals on the most base level. What is more interesting is the increasing amount of actual crime surrounding video games. Different test cases may indicate what can be done to regulate this.
’Crime’ is a broad term covering many things. Jack Thompson would have you believe that Grand Theft Auto is causing death and despair across the land. It is hard to prove this as evidence is largely anecdotal and indirectly attributable. However, reports of illegalities caused as a direct consequence of video games are filtering through to mainstream press more and more often.
A recent news story reported on a man who was arrested for stealing accounts in the online game Runescape. This young man had been tricking users into handing over login information via email, logging into their accounts and changing the password. Jagex, the developer of the game, worked with UK police and the FBI to track down the culprit in what is likely to be the first of many such arrests. The quote that caught my eye was from the company chief executive;
“…the theft of a Runescape account shouldn’t be treated differently to the theft of any other valuable possessions such as a games console, television or car."
The concept of virtual ownership as opposed to physical ownership is murky. Often in these cases, property rights aren’t sufficient to cover the issue and human rights come into play. This is worrying when we are talking about MMORPG game worlds with a higher GDP than many developing nations.
When you play games such as World of Warcraft, what you own within the game has no actual value. It is written into the Terms of Service of most MMORPGs that the servers can be turned off at 30 days notice. While no-one is suggesting that Blizzard will hit the off switch on Azeroth any time soon, that they reserve the right to do so surely brings into question the concept of who owns what? And if Blizzard does legally own the contents of Azeroth, surely there is no legal requirement for police to be involved should the Runescape incident happen there?
If we consider that your character in WoW is an extension of yourself in a legal context, property law is insufficient to handle any disputes. In this case, the EULA is also invalidated as a basis for a publisher’s property claims. Basic human rights cannot be altered by a contract such as a EULA; you cannot buy and sell someone. However, if we take this one step further then the likes of Blizzard would not be allowed to sell the game space or empty avatars in the first instance. The application of human rights in the virtual environment exposes huge holes in the law that will only become more prevalent in the future.
The question here is one of ownership and draws large parallels to cases a few years back of online music providers going bankrupt and denying you access to the DRM protected music you paid for. It’s very unclear legally and while that remains the case, the grounds for getting police involved in these types of scenarios seem rather shaky.
Death do us part
The time invested in MMORPGs can be vast and people hold great personal worth in their online avatars and the prizes they have earned. The concept of ownership is stretched to its very limit in the Far East where video games and MMOs are much more deeply entrenched in culture. In places such as China and Korea, gaming is a way of life enjoyed by all ages. You are far more likely to see a man and wife raiding a high level dungeon together or see a businessman use a DS in the train. As a result of this, some of the more intriguing game-related crime stories come from Asia.
One woman found herself arrested in Sapporo, Japan after she accessed her avatar’s ’husband’ in the game Maplestory and killed the character off. They had recently divorced in-game and hell has no fury like a woman scorned. The owner of the groom’s account involved the police, and she was taken over 600 miles to his home town on the charge of illegally accessing his computer. You have to wonder what it must be like to live in a country where the police have so much free time that arresting someone for killing a video game character could be considered acceptable.
However, when more serious video game related events occur, police intervention is justified. In China there are no specific laws covering the theft of virtual items. When Qui Chengwei loaned his exceptionally rare sword from the game Legend of Mir 3 to his friend Zhu Caoyuan, he hadn’t expected it to be quickly sold online for almost $700. Incensed with the knowledge that he had no legal foothold, Chengwei traveled to Caoyuan’s home and after an argument, killed him.
Chengwei was sentenced to death after a protruded legal battle but that was commuted to life in prison on good behavior. Interestingly however, the piece finishes by suggesting court cases over virtual items in China are becoming much more commonplace while in South Korea, they have dedicated police for investigating in-game crime. Even in two countries with vast online communities, what is considered legal is contradictory and vague to the detriment, in this case, of someone’s life.
But just how much is a life worth, even if it is virtual? Should conflict within video games fall under the same laws and rules as war in the real world? A recent study carried out found that video games constantly allow for the flouting of the Geneva Conventions through acts such as torture and the ruthless killing of civilians. It’s easy to just write this off as something ridiculous but do developers and publishers have a responsibility, morally or legally, to show war in as real a light as possible? I suspect this scenario may be argued in a court room soon.
It worries me that so many legal precedents seem to be taking place time and time again when it comes to video game related crime. The grey areas surrounding concepts such as DRM, ownership and moralistic constraints require clarification. Before much longer we will see a major crime directly attributable to video games. If that situation is to be handled fairly and rationally, those playing games, those looking after gamers and those governing their regulation need better education on the jurisdiction of the law for the good of all involved.