While the world reels from the Ebola epidemic, the instability in Gaza and the intensifying tensions between Russia and Ukraine, one British politician seems to have put his finger on a crisis that no one noticed. Mike Weatherley, MP, proposed that criminal penalties be enforced for the theft of (wait for it) items stolen in the virtual world of Azeroth, home to the popular World of Warcraft role-playing game.

As Weatherly describes it, the law would mean that people “who steal online items in video games with a real-world monetary value receive the same sentences as criminals who steal real-world items of the same monetary value.”

It’s tempting to dismiss this idea as the ramblings of an easily wounded WoW player who just happens to have the capacity for legislation at his back. But Weatherley does point to a significant issue that has arisen in the game world, and which does seem to implicate virtual items as real world property, even if his proposed means of responding to this issue is wrongheaded. Given that this is a policy area that may become more and more relevant the more the popularity of online gaming (especially the sort powered in part by real money) grows, it behooves us to take a look at Weatherley’s proposal.

Let’s start with what Weatherley’s idea gets right, which is that items in video games like WoW do have real world monetary value. This is true even when they aren’t sold directly for real money, because often, the virtual currencies used in these games can actually have their exchange value relative to the dollar calculated and exploited. The practice of “gold farming” in WoW for the purposes of selling virtual gold in online marketplaces for real money has become infamous. So has the case of Anshe Chung, a Second Life character whose real-life player Ailin Graef became the first “virtual millionaire” by turning her virtual prostitute character into a real estate mogul within the game.

What’s more, the practice of buying and selling rare items with real money has a long history in video game culture. This author, for instance, recalls the thriving trade in “Rings of Jordan” from the Diablo II multi-player community, and which exploded with the introduction of World of Warcraft. At this stage, it is beyond doubt that high-value items within online games do have actual real world value. For instance, an “epic mount” in WoW can fetch as much as $500. Faced with sums like this, the question has to be raised: Why shouldn’t theft of such goods be treated as a criminal act?

Well, because despite the value of these virtual items, they still exist within a virtual ecosystem whose rules don’t quite line up with the real world, where private property rights enforcement mechanisms already exist and where the law is singularly ill-equipped to operate. A metaphor that treats the theft of one player’s epic mount as equivalent to stealing a real thoroughbred horse looks persuasive on its face, but when you actually think about how it would be prosecuted, the metaphor breaks down quickly.

In an online game, identity can be far more fluid than in real life. WoW ties players’ identities to their emails, meaning that a player who finds himself banned on one account can easily create a new one with a new email address. This isn’t a complete barrier to enforcement of criminal laws in games like WoW, which operate on a “pay to play” basis and thus gives law enforcement an additional means to track players though their credit cards, although there are privacy concerns and systemic identity theft problems associated with doing so. But in free massively multi-player games like the Guild Wars series, email addresses might be the only clue as to the criminal’s identity. It’s also quite plausible that a parent whose credit card was used in WoW might find themselves on the hook for “crimes” their children committed.

Players who do steal or otherwise violate in-game rules are usually held accountable by a much more efficient system than a legal regime — the moderators of the game itself. These moderators are usually successful at weeding out problematic players by banning their accounts or using other technical solutions that would run afoul of the constitution if employed by law enforcement. Companies like Blizzard, the maker of WoW, are allowed to be more draconian in ways that are more appropriately tailored to the setting and thus more effective than the law enforcement system.

Recognizing video game items as legally protected “property” raises a whole host of troubling legal questions about what is actually happening in games like WoW. For instance, along with selling items, players also sometimes sell epic-level characters to other players (this author even bought one once), which serve as a means for less-experienced players to gain access to perks within the game that would otherwise be off-limits. But if the items are real, then does that make transactions of this nature slavery? Do players who kill each other in-game, especially in games where no resurrection is allowed, face charges of murder or destruction of property? And are “griefers” and trolls to be treated as terrorists? Just how close do the rules of virtual life and real life have to be before the police force gets involved?

Having had my only set of unique armor in Diablo II stolen at age 13, I understand the impulse to seek an authority who can clap an online tormentor in very real irons. However, in this case, the remedy is worse than the disease. A discussion of civil penalties might be more appropriate, but when it comes to the application of criminal law to the world of Azeroth or EVE Online, the only winning move is not to play.

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