By Ben Lamb, Onrpg writer
Crime and gaming have gone hand in hand for many years. Everyone likes to play at being a gangster. But some people take their thieving a little more seriously.
In April 2005, a now very well known heist took place in the world of EVE online, with a coordinated and long-term operation resulting in the theft and destruction of a gigantic amount of in-game property. This was not the first time something like this had been perpetrated, nor would it be the last, but something about this act sent ripples flowing far beyond the murky pond that is EVE.
It started when the Guiding Hand Social Club, a name now notorious in EVE, were contracted to assassinate the head of a large corporation. Over the next few months they placed operatives throughout every level of their target’s organisation, with their main man attaining the rank of second-in-command. When the day came, they raided every storehouse the corporation owned, destroyed their target’s ship and blasted her escape pod to pieces before she could log-out. Their haul netted them several times the original fee for the job, and earned them a place in gaming history.
The thieves’ announcement on the in-character boards elicited a huge wave of reaction, both praising and attacking the act. There was a massive outcry to the developers to bring the thieves to justice for what they saw as a very real crime. The developers won a lot of respect from another section of the community however, by declaring that those involved had acted entirely within the rules (and maybe even the spirit) of the game.
The makers of games spend a lot of time trying to make players feel comfortable in their environments. There has to be a sense of danger, granted, but there also has to be a sense of security to accompany the huge investment that players make in their online avatar. When you are reckless, or simply unlucky enough to get yourself killed, the game may take a chunk of your time, gold or experience, but the developers will usually go to great lengths to stop any other player from forcing this upon you. Player vs player combat especially rarely holds any significant losses for the loser.
Role-playing games are all about getting to do those things that you can’t do in real-life. Everyone likes to feel like they are the hero, but what about those people who want to play the villain? EVE’s set-up, right from the start, was one that allowed players an unusually large degree of freedom that rewarded those players who put in the effort. If you wanted to be a hero then you actually had to be a hero, not just follow all the steps on the ‘be a hero’ quest. And if you wanted to be a villain….
The concept of playing the villain starts to become harder to justify as in-game assets start to have real value outside of the game. There has long been a brisk trade between online and real currency. Although breaking the rules of the games, this has proved hard to stop in most cases. When you start to think of these thefts in the terms of tens of thousands of dollars, they suddenly feel a lot more real.
Most online gamers will be familiar with the term ‘gold farmer’. These are gangs of players, often from countries such as China, for whom the wealth generated from performing monotonous in-game ‘farming’ tasks can earn a decent real-world wage. These operations are often thought to run in conjunction with currency exchange websites and be connected to organized crime.
While this is clearly not in the spirit of the game, it’s a lot harder to monitor, as there is no specific victim. The damage is instead caused to the game economy as a whole. The people who really lose out, of course, are the poor sods killing virtual squirrels in 12-hour shifts for a few dollars a day. But this is simply a new iteration of a system going back a very, very long time.
So far, in all the major cases of in-game theft and fraud, the developers have kept a close eye on the accounts involved and made sure that none of the loot has left the game. But what about worlds like Second Life, where the transfer of money in and out of the game is encouraged?
Here theft is taken a lot more seriously. Second Life is a world for people who want to create something. There are a large number of businesses thriving in Linden’s world. People sell fashion, architecture, technology. All of these, of course, represented simply by a piece of code, and copying this code in order to profit is clearly stealing somebody’s intellectual property. In 2007, an application was created for Second life called CopyBot. Originally intended as a back-up and debugging tool, it was quickly realised by players that it could be used to copy large amounts of other people’s creations without their permissions.
Linden Labs go to lengths to try and prevent this kind of behaviour but, so far, the authorities have declined to get too involved. And who can blame them? The whole copy-bot fiasco has led to nothing more than a few bans dished out by Linden, despite the amount of protest from users.
The much clearer case of Second Life fraud committed by Ginko Financial remained non punishable by even the developers. Ginko Financial was a player run banking enterprise which seems to have been a simple Ponzi scheme, where the interest players earned on their accounts was simply paid out of the accounts of new investors, until the owner of the bank declared himself insolvent and ran off with in-game money worth over half a million US dollars.
In Korea, where online gaming has always been one step ahead of the rest of the world, police keep a record of reported crimes that involve online games, and it’s a huge amount. Over half of all the virtual crimes reported deal with online games, but still rarely fall within their jurisdiction.
A lot of these old virtual crimes seem to find a natural home in online games. In one sense, these games can be seen simply as glorified chat rooms, and thus play host to all the usual dangers you are likely to find there.
With the large number of children playing these games, there is a very real danger here. Nobody would argue that using an online avatar to pick-up children, or scam people for their credit-card details, definitely constitutes a very real and serious crime. This, understandably, is an area where the police definitely do get involved. Due to the anonymity the internet can provide, it is still very difficult for the police to take action in a lot of these cases. While these crimes are something to be wary of, they are nothing new when it comes to the internet. However, as virtual worlds become more real, and more people start to live virtual lives, it must only be a matter of time before all these crimes start to get a much close look from the authorities.
But when these in-game crimes are breaking no real laws, should they be subject to real policing? Can they be subject to real policing? In a lot of ways, no they can’t, and maybe they shouldn’t. Would players find the world of EVE half so exciting if they felt they were having their hand held all the way through? One development which has emerged is the prospect of in-game police run not by the developers, but by the players themselves. If the players have no official protection from the thieves, then what protection can the thieves have against the vigilantes? While this may work in some cases, it’s generally impossible to scam a scammer.
Crime in online games is largely a grey-area, however you look at it, but still a very real area of concern all round. Developers must take very seriously the prospect of people breaking the rules of their games, just as players must always be on their guard.
The thought of policing online worlds raises a lot of difficult questions, which will divide the community many different ways. Should the developers try play God and catch all the petty crooks? Should the police get involved if someone steals your magic sword? Is it even possible to commit a real crime if everyone involved has signed up to the same game?
I’ll certainly be watching very closely over the coming years to see how these issues play out. Let’s just hope there will still be room at the end to play the villain.
Please also read the article: Online Game Ring Smuggled Out $38 Mln to China.