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Last Updated: Monday, 29 September, 2003, 10:09 GMT 11:09 UK
Does virtual crime need real justice?
By Mark Ward
BBC News Online technology correspondent

Screenshot from Star Wars: Galaxies, Lucas Arts
Does might make right in online games?
Wizards, warriors and witches are nothing new in the online gaming world, but have they been joined by real life criminals stealing virtual goods worth hard cash? South Korea's police are already on the case.

It might seem strange to talk about real crimes being committed in computer games that revolve around slaughter.

But for people who invest hours of every day in the character they control in multi-player games such as EverQuest, Ultima Online, Star Wars: Galaxies and others these virtual crimes are just as painful to deal with as the real world version.

Players in some online games have had their virtual homes invaded by gangs who kick them out of the house and steal all their virtual goods.

Others have been conned out of powerful magic items that, in some cases, took months of work to obtain.

New crimes

The police in South Korea - a country as mad about gaming as the UK is about football - report that of the 40,000 or so cybercrimes reported in the first six months of 2003, more than half (22,000) had something to do with online gaming.

The problems of online crime are made more serious by the growing numbers of people making a living from trading items from the games.

A game account that gives someone control of a powerful character can change hands for thousands of pounds. Even single powerful magic items can command a hefty price.

So given that virtual items, mere bits in a datastream, can be shown to have real world value is it about time that the police started to be called in to investigate some of these crimes?

Screenshot from Star Wars Galaxies, Lucas Arts
Stolen droids to sell? No problem.
Dr Roger Leng, a lecturer on criminal law from the University of Warwick, said the law has no problems treating the intangible as valuable.

"It's certainly possible to steal intangible property. It's possible to steal any form of property right which is not represented by tangible objects," he says.

The most common form of intangible property that many of us lose is the credit balance in our bank accounts.

"In law a bank account is a credit balance. It's not a pile of money that can be stolen even though it is not representing anything physical."

Crime and punishment

Jennifer Granick, an expert on technology law from the Center for Internet and Society at the Stanford Law School, says courts had no problem treating intangibles, such as intellectual property, as things that can be stolen.

"I'm not sure that governments would care to prosecute thefts of online goods at this point in time, but I have no doubt that the argument that such items are valuable is strong."

Screenshot from Ultima X, Origin
It might be tricky getting a witness statement from a yeti
One problem she sees is that the auction sites and online stores that sell characters, money and artefacts from games are not good guides to the actual value of the goods in questions.

A player keen to advance a character they have invested hours of time to develop may be happy to splash out hundreds of pounds on a particular item, but the man in the street is unlikely to share this view.

The other problem could be convincing a judge that a crime has taken place because online games are, still, so far out of most people's everyday experience.

Building up a body of evidence to prove a crime had taken place could also be difficult given the ease with which computer data can be manipulated.

Mike Large, a community manager for game services firm Alien Pants, says the fact that these crimes were taking place online could mean a different type of justice is meted out.

"In a virtual world the rules of right and wrong that control our society do not necessarily apply. The thief, if discovered, could find themselves at the hands of a form of vigilante in-game justice."

He warns virtual thieves: "You can't run, you can't hide and they will find you."

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