the misguided idea to criminalize mmorpg trolling

Some activists want to see virtual crime punished by real world consequences. They do not want to go down that road and what it would entail.

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Recently, a number of tech news sites announced that two people were convicted as felons for stealing about $8,000 in virtual loot from Blizzard’s Diablo III, trumpeting this case as a possible beginning of real world punishments from virtual crimes. However since the crime of which they were found guilty is infecting their victims with malware, then using said malware to take control of their characters and steal their stuff to resell for real world money, their case is nothing new as far as the law is concerned. Basically, the powers to be at Blizzard just didn’t want the duo to get off with a slap on the wrist for their behavior and were only able to secure damages thanks to the fact that a virus designed to give a backdoor into a victim’s system was used. But there’s definitely some pressure to turn virtual crimes in multiplayer games into real ones…

[A] Canadian newscaster reported that some advocates would like to see people charged with virtual rape when they modify games like Grand Theft Auto so … their characters can simulate sexually assaulting other players. Given the increasing realism of video games, research being done to improve virtual reality, and expected popularity of VR glasses like those soon to be commercially available from Oculus Rift, there would almost certainly be more cases of crimes committed in virtual spaces spilling out into IRL courts.

Al right, let’s think about that for a moment. GTA is a game in which you play a sociopath who’s crime-spreeing his way around whatever locale the latest edition features. Mods that enable all sorts of disturbing acts are kind of expected within the environment in question. But consider a really important point. Virtual sexual assaults can be stopped by quitting the game while a real one can’t just be stopped as soon as it starts. Likewise, the crime is against an object in severs’ memories, not a real person. How exactly would we prosecute harm to a virtual character that could be restored like nothing ever happened? Same thing would apply to a digital murder, like in the Diablo III case. What was the harm is the characters and their loot were reset? We can’t bring a real murder victim back to life so we punish people for taking a life, but what if we could and simply settle on the question of how much to compensate for mental anguish?

Of course it would be nice to see harsher treatment of online stalking and harassment since its potential to do a lot of serious harm is often underestimated by those who have few interactions in today’s virtual worlds, but it seems like prosecuting people for virtual rape, or murder, or theft and in games, no less, seems like a big overreach. It’s one thing when such crimes are carried out, or threatened against very real people through the use of MMORPGs or social media. But it’s something all together different when the crime can be undone with a few clicks of a mouse and the victim is nothing more than a large collection of ones and zeroes. If we criminalize what some people do to virtual characters in one category of games, what sort of precedent would it set for others? Who would investigate these crimes? How? Who would be obliged to track every report and record every incident? It’s one of those thoughts that comes from a good place, but poses more problems than it solves and raises a lot of delicate free speech questions…

# tech // games / gaming / law


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