Virtual crime, real time

A British man has been arrested and cautioned for stealing imagevirtual goods, in a case believed to be the first of its kind  within the UK. The man is believed to have used phishing techniques to steal passwords and access user accounts and steal characters from popular online game RuneScape, reports the Times today.

That virtual goods have real value has long been known, have a look at this excellent paper from the University of  Manchester on the phenomenon of gold farming, the practice of slavishly creating goods for sale, for more background. China recently banned the sale of virtual goods for real money and two men were arrested last year, having made around £150,000 gold farming for World of Warcraft. It looks like virtual crime is being taken seriously by the UK with the setting up of the Police Central e-Crime Unit (PCeU) in September 2008, a spokesman for which is quoted in today’s Time piece stating:

People who seek to destroy others online gaming experience could be committing criminal offences, leaving themselves liable to prosecution. The PCeU will continue to work with the industry and investigate these allegations where appropriate.

imageThough one could ask how effective PCeU has been if it’s taken a year for one person to be cautioned for the misuse of  computers, one assumes that if he hadn’t got account access via a phishing attempts that there would have been no grounds for any action to be taken at all. The crux lies in how can you value something which is virtual in nature, many of the items in online games are the product of time spent in-game, either completing missions to win loot or through the acquisition of skills to create objects. What would be the real life equivalent, a piece of art has material value in that it is tangible, though of course a great piece has its price set way above the cost of paint and canvas but that is set by the well established Art market. A great piece of literature is similar, plus if stolen the tools for recreation lie in the original artistes head. Which is true to some extent with virtual goods, though there are the odd limited edition pieces that can never be recreated or won again.

I think one could also assume that if it were possible to put a price on virtual goods, you’d be able to get insurance already to cover them. A quick scoot of the net found a defunct company called You Play or We Pay, that opened in Jan 09 and was shut in April by the company behind World of Warcraft due to intellectual property infringement. It offered compensation for downtime, rather than lose of characters or goods.

So until there can be a financial figure, can there actually be a crime and do online users have any recourse to the law, or is losing a character or goods just to be viewed as a rather large inconvenience?

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