Last week, a teenaged gamer was convicted of stealing two virtual items while playing RuneScape, a free massive multiplayer online video game. This involved two youths beating up and threatening a thirteen-year-old boy at knife point to drop two virtual goods, an amulet, and a mask in 2007. One of the boys who was also playing the game was then able to pick up the virtual objects, in turn making it his own virtual property. Judges have ordered the offender to perform 144 hours of community service.
The suspect’s lawyer argued that the amulet and mask “were neither tangible nor material and, unlike for example electricity, had no economic value.” However, the Netherlands’ highest court decided that the virtual objects had an intrinsic value to the young boy because of “the time and energy he invested” in being rewarded the two items whilst playing. Many have reached various conclusions as to whether stealing virtual goods contributes to real life-theft in the handful of similar cases in the world.
Interestingly, World of Warcraft has a very strict policy against thievery and scamming, with victims’ goods being refunded and violators possibly being banned. The developers of RuneScape, however, haven’t refunded the stolen item and haven’t explicitly stated that the thief couldn’t do what he did.
Analysis: This does seem like a curious ruling, and I believe that most of the punishment is due to the real-world violence that took place rather than the actual crime of stealing the virtual goods. To me, at least, I would think it would be fairly difficult to place a monetary value on the amount of time one spends playing a video game, any item obtainable within it, and even seems somewhat dangerous. Where to draw the line may become difficult to distinguish, especially when some games include the ability to grief or even promotes some type of thievery, such as EVE Online and Dark Souls.
With only a very small amount of crimes similar to this one being committed, it’s hard to judge whether this ruling is one of a kind or the beginning of a new trend for how virtual goods will be considered. With an all-digital future becoming more likely, and with the entertainment industry spearheading that movement, I would expect stories like these to become somewhat less rare. Is there a difference between forcing someone to give you access to an album or movie someone has purchased online and forcing someone to give you a virtual good?
It’s an issue that will have many differing opinions, and it’ll be interesting to see which direction the justice system decides to take.