October 23, 2008

Virtual hold-ups

Two teens of 14 and 15 were sentenced to 160 and 200 hours of community service by court in the north of Holland for assaulting a classmate, threatening him with a knife and robbing him from different items. Nothing new one would say; we hear often about youngsters stealing or robbing others for popular brands of sport shoes, cloth, mobile phones or iPods. The original thing here was that the items were nothing but virtual properties the victim had collected in the online game RuneScape ! The muggers forced their victim to login in his game account and overbooked all the virtual merchandise he had collected (with sweat and tears) to their own game account.
This is the second such case I come across here in Holland after the Habbo Hotel sophisticated online theft last year. Like the previous one it got enough publicity in blogs and forums; it is however the first time, at least in Holland that a court accepted that virtual “goods” are the same as physical goods punishing the offenders.
The case is interesting from the legal point of view but also from the sociological one. It shows that for an increasing number of individuals gaming becomes an obsessive activity that can lead them even to crime either virtual, like the older Habbo Hotel case, or involving physical violence like the recent case.
Video games have already been accused as inciting violence or anti-social behavior but this has not prevented them from becoming one of the more popular activities not only among kids but mainly among adults. With millions of people already spending their free and probably also working time gaming (at this moment 55.500 people are playing RuneScape!) and the continuous growth of online games and communities we should expect this kind of incidents to happen more frequently in the future.
Solution? I am not sure if the game producers can do something about it but I am afraid that in their majority they don’t really mind as long as the game sells. Regulatory legislation about the games does not exist and even if it existed enforcement for online games would be difficult. The danger is that in an online gaming Far West the game category will sooner or later attract professional criminals who will find there new sources of “income”. Low enforcement should maybe turn its attention also to this kind of online activity next to children pornography and financial crime. I am afraid the kind of incidents that came to publicity in Holland happen much more often than we think.