Gaming the system

Published: July 31, 2014

“Should virtual criminals in video games receive the same penalties as real-world thieves?”

Last week Conservative MP Mike Weatherley, David Cameron’s chief adviser on intellectual property, asked ministers to consider new laws that would ensure virtual criminals in video games receive the same penalties as real-world thieves. The proposed laws aim to stop the practice of users stealing things with real monetary value from other users in video games where you play as characters online. It would mean that if someone hacked into your account or stole your top-level characters or gear, you’d be within your rights to report them to the authorities – provided, that is, you could track them down to the precise basement they’re holed up in.

It’s been roundly dismissed as a silly season story, cooked up to put Weatherley on the map. The more informed criticisms centre on the fact that, in any case, the terms of use agreements you enter into with most massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) make it clear that you have no ownership rights to your account, but are essentially ‘renting’ it from the provider. This is certainly the case for World of Warcraft, one of the more popular MMORPGs and Weatherley’s game of choice (full disclosure, WoW used to be an obsession of mine as well).

But Weatherley does have a point. Policy makers have not yet come to terms with the paradigm shift in economics. As more and more of our lives are played out online, virtual economies like those seen on MMORPGs, right through to virtual currencies and markets, are becoming more widespread. And they have real-world consequences, beyond the basement-barricaded anoraks of Britain. Virtual cryptocurrency Bitcoin is a decentralised medium of exchange that has the potential to undermine some of the core functions of central banks worldwide, especially by limiting the effectiveness of monetary policy solutions. Online markets like TOR, which uses a global network of volunteer relays to make it impossible to follow a user’s whereabouts or online activity, routinely ensure black market activity evades international law enforcement.

Of course I’m not saying the fact that d4rk_4v3ng3r stole my $15 Iron Skyreaver mount is a portent of a digital dystopia, but if policy makers and enforcement official fail to think seriously about virtual economies and digital intellectual property then they may become real-world reputational issues in the future. The danger is that unless a coherent and consistent approach is developed now, it will be a struggle to alter the law and bolster operational capacity down the line. As such, Weatherley may be right to think imaginatively about consequences for all levels of cyber-crime, even of the petty variety.

All of which is to say d4rk_4v3ng3r – I’ll get you soon.
Madeleine Crowther
Names have been changed to protect online identities.

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