Does virtual crime need real justice?

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.

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?

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. "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."

News source: BBC

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