Virtual worlds wind up in real world's courts

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Virtual worlds wind up in real world's courts

Virtual worlds wind up in real world's courts

Online games intended as escape face legal headaches

MSN Tech & Gadgets

By Tom Loftus

Updated: 4:34 p.m. ET Feb. 7, 2005

A multiplayer online game is sued for allowing its players to dress up like comic book heroes. An upstart company winds up in court for creating a Tijuana sweatshop to manufacture digital weaponry.

A funny thing is happening in these sprawling online multiplayer arenas. The ultimate in digital escapism, virtual worlds keep ending up in the ultimate in depressing reality: the courts.

Massive multiplayer games have exploded in popularity, with games that range far beyond the quests and giant rat killings of a traditional title such as "Everquest II." Some skip Dungeons & Dragon-style role-playing altogether in favor of a free-form world not unlike a virtual "Burning Man." What they have in common is virtual worlds built to accommodate player interaction. The designers create the world and code the boundaries of behavior; the players add the drama with their social interactions.

What happens in Norrath doesn't always stay in Norrath, however. Virtual goods now appear for sale in the real world, on eBay. Exchange rates for game currency and U.S. dollars are posted on sites like IGE. An island in one virtual world recently sold for $30,000!

That kind of money attracts attention. Digital sweatshops, businesses where Third World laborers play online games 24/7 in order to create virtual goods that can be sold for cash, are also on the rise. One such business, Blacksnow Interactive, actually sued a virtual world's creator in 2002 for attempting to crack down on the practice. The first of its kind to center on virtual goods, the case was eventually dropped.

Beth Simone Noveck, an associate professor of law at the New York Law School and director of the Institute for Information Law and Policy, isn't surprised that virtual conflicts are winding up in court.

"Now that there's commerce, trading and the exchange of virtual goods in virtual worlds, the law is going to come in," she said.

To get a handle on the boundaries between virtual worlds and real-world law, asked Noveck to highlight several legal hot buttons as they apply to virtual worlds.

Is digital property, property?
Take virtual property. "One of the questions is, how do we treat property in virtual worlds," said Noveck. "Should we accord them the same protection as property in the real world?"

Imagine your virtual world avatar wore a little amulet that was then stolen by another avatar, she suggested. Would that be classified as theft?

Probably not. In many virtual worlds, particularly MMORPG's (massively multiplayer online role playing games) theft is allowed; it's considered part of the role playing experience.

But money has a way of changing everything. If virtual world goods and money can hold value in a real-world economy, why can't they hold value in the courts? Actually it's already happened -- although the court ruling was in China. In 2003, a court that a virtual world developer had to compensate a player in cash after a hacker stole his virtual goods.

Noveck takes the idea of digital property one step further.

Imagine someone investing time and money (via a monthly subscription) into a virtual world. She's made friends, built a reputation and spent a fair amount of time collecting and creating virtual goods. All of a sudden, "poof!" her work disappears when the game creator, faced with a losing business, pulls the plug.

"Time to get a life," may be the easy response. But for many, the virtual world is their life. The average player spends 22 hours a week online, according to Nick Yee, a virtual world anthropologist who has been documenting MMORPG's since 1999.

"As we spend more time in these worlds, it's not enough for companies to say that 'we own everything and we can turn it off at any time,'" said Noveck. "The question may soon be should we have recourse against a game for obliterating assets?"

Edited by: lizwool at: 9/7/05 15:13

Liz Woolley