Virtual Worlds and the Real World


This article was published by ComputorEdge, issue #2523, 2007-06-08, as a feature article, in both their print edition (on pages 18-19) and their website.

Since the dawn of history, humans have often sought to escape from the travails and troubles of the everyday world, if only temporarily. People have used recreational drugs, delusional thinking, and — more innocuously and more recently — the suspension of disbelief when enjoying movies and captivating fiction. Computers and the Internet, as usual, have added their own possibilities, in the form of virtual worlds — whether running on the individual's PC or delivered via the Internet.

Some of the most popular virtual worlds are the "massively multiplayer online games" (MMOGs), which allow hundreds or even thousands of people to participate in the same virtual world, interacting with one another and with all of the resources to be found in that world. Examples of quite popular MMOGs include Second Life and World of Warcraft, which are also examples of the most popular variety, role-playing games (MMORPGs).

MMOGs share many characteristics with desktop role-playing games (RPGs), which date back as far as the 1974 classic Dungeons & Dragons. But there are some key differences, especially persistence of the virtual world: A MMOG world continues to exist, albeit in virtual form, whether a player is experiencing that world or not. In fact, there may be not a single player currently logged in to an MMOG world, and yet its resources are still there, as well as its virtual dimensions of space and time. This is in contrast to single-player games, whose worlds cease to operate when that player disengages.

The tagline of World of Warcraft is "It's Not a Game. It's a World." This may be wonderful for the countless players enjoying these increasingly lifelike environments — as well as the businesses profiting from them — but it is a source of growing concern among social analysts, psychologists, policymakers, and parents. Many of them are alarmed by the social dysfunctionality apparently associated with these games, and especially by the growing number of incidents of overly-devoted players becoming physically or emotionally ill, committing suicide, or dying from lack of rest and nutrition.

All of these dynamics raise critical questions: Just how "real" are the events that happen in imaginary worlds? This is a slippery topic that is quickly growing in importance and attention, as more people commit time and money to MMOGs, and the borders between real and game worlds become increasingly blurry.

Criminals Playing or Paying?

These virtual worlds contain a multitude of resources that are limited in quantity, and thus become valuable because they are valued by most if not all participants — even if they are only truly 1s and 0s in a computer (the resources, that is, not the players, unless The Matrix is nonfictional). As the participants compete for those resources, some will employ underhanded techniques, such as game "cheats" that exploit vulnerabilities in the system, or more traditional scams that exploit human psychology.

An example of the latter category occurred in August 2006, within the world of Eve Online, a science-fiction MMORPG set in space. One of the players, "Dentara Rast", ran a conventional Ponzi scheme, masquerading as a bank, which netted him 700 billion Isk (the currency used within Eve Online) — demonstrating that you can take the human out of the real world, but you can't take the real world out of the human.

From a legal standpoint, does it really matter that Dentara absconded with the virtual money? After all, 700 billion may be a large number, but it is only a much smaller number of bits in a computer, and not real wealth that was lost by the Ponzi rubes, right? Not exactly. Because Isk is such an important part of Eve Online, that 700 billion in virtual money has value in the outside world, namely, $81,667, according to Julian Murdoch, in his article published on Gamers With Jobs.

At the time of his write-up, the company running the game, CCP, sold 30-day time cards for 120 million Isk. Those same time cards were fetching $14 each, legally, in the open market. Thus, each unit of Isk was worth approximately $1.17E-07. Murdoch argues that Dentara therefore committed fraud, and possibly racketeering if he resides within the United States.

This example illustrates some fundamental issues: Does a crime committed in an online game world constitute a real crime in the outside world? Does that depend upon whether or not the ill-gotten gains can be transferred outside of the virtual world? What should game companies or law enforcement officials be doing to regulate this sort of behavior, if anything?

Is "Play for Pay" Criminal?

One of the MMORPGs mentioned earlier, Second Life, strives to simulate the real world as much as possible, resulting in some of the same activities that take place in the shadier parts of the real world — infidelity, prostitution, and some far more disturbing behaviors. Fortunately, Second Life does have controls in place to prevent teenagers and children from wandering into these seedier areas of the game.

In an article published by Trusted Reviews, Andrew Miller discusses the phenomenon, and even recounts his "first-hand research" conducted with the assistance of a virtual hooker. His account is more humor than smut, but he does mention that there are some activities going on within Second Life non-real universe that would be universally acknowledged as really sick.

In these cases, the virtual "crimes" do not involve fraud or force. Yet they still raise some important questions. Should online infidelity — provided that the two (or more) players never interact in the outside world — be considered a violation of any relationships in that outside world? If players engage in prostitution in cyberspace, does it increase the likelihood that they will do the same out in "meatspace" (an appropriate term), or does it instead diffuse their inclinations to do so?

The Second Oldest Profession

Speaking of crime, the marketing potential of virtual worlds is now being discovered by politicians. John Edwards, currently a candidate for the 2008 presidential race, is the first one to have a campaign headquarters within Second Life, created by a volunteer outside of Edwards' official team, but with their full approval and support. As US politicians further their efforts to connect with younger voters, we will likely see more of such campaigning within virtual worlds.

On the diplomatic front, Sweden will become the first country to have an official embassy in Second Life, according to the news service AFP, and reported by The Local. Even though the online embassy will not be issuing passports, it will provide information to visitors as to how they could do so in the real world.

One can only hope that Edwards' campaign headquarters and Sweden's embassy will not be in the same Second Life neighborhoods as the motels that charge by the hour.

Copyright © 2007 Michael J. Ross. All rights reserved.

Content topics: