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Virtual justice: Online game world meets real-world cops and courts

When Tim Quirino needed cash to help him get through his senior year at Drexel University, he knew what to sell.

Philadelphian Joe Osborne, reflected in his monitor, has played World of Warcraft for five years, and knows gamers who lost all their "possessions" when hackers breached their account. (Laurence Kesterson / Staff Photographer)
Philadelphian Joe Osborne, reflected in his monitor, has played World of Warcraft for five years, and knows gamers who lost all their "possessions" when hackers breached their account. (Laurence Kesterson / Staff Photographer)Read more

When Tim Quirino needed cash to help him get through his senior year at Drexel University, he knew what to sell.

His ad on eBay read something like this - Available: World of Warcraft avatar ranked second in his realm, plus his castle, virtual gold, weapons, and other accessories.

Within a week, he pocketed a very real $1,000 for a very unreal set of assets.

Fortunately for Quirino, now 26, the transaction was a smooth one. He got his money, graduated with a degree in graphic design, and went on to cofound the popular-culture blog Geekadelphia.

But the murkier side of virtual worlds - where incidents of theft and fraud, along with assault and bullying, are on the rise - increasingly has real-world cops and courts intervening. Their involvement hasn't ended the confusion.

If someone steals your virtual Roger Paulino pants, is it considered a real theft? Is it possible for an avatar to rape another avatar? Can you be hauled to court on harassment charges for annoying a game character? When the virtual blends into the real, trying to distinguish one world from another can be mind-bending.

"Can you go and live your life . . . in a fantasy environment and then come back and live normally in the off-line world without interplay between those two existences?" asks Greg Lastowka, a professor at Rutgers School of Law in Camden, and author of the recently released book Virtual Justice, The New Laws of Online Worlds and an in-demand speaker on that topic.

In other words, can what happens in World of Warcraft stay in World of Warcraft?

It depends.

While online justice is still an evolving concept, some judges are finding that virtual assets fall under property law. Accusations of physical assaults on avatars still are mainly handled within the virtual world - meaning the players patrol criminal behavior - though these cases, too, are getting attention from real-world police.

Virtual worlds, for the uninitiated, are online, interactive, simulated social spheres where animated avatars substitute for real people and the players determine the course of play. Unlike a traditional online game, virtual worlds also are "persistent," Lastowka says, meaning that life goes on, even if you are not logged on. You may be sleeping, but people still go out for drinks, work, buy and sell goods - and commit crimes. Logged on or not, you don't have control over everything that could affect your avatar.

The audience for virtual worlds is relatively small, albeit enthusiastic. About 8 percent of online teens and 4 percent of online adults visit virtual worlds, says the Pew Research Center's Internet & American Life Project.

The best-known example is medieval-themed World of Warcraft, with about 12 million players in Asia, North America, and Europe. Others include Final Fantasy XI, EVE Online, and Everquest II. Second Life simulates a working society. There are virtual worlds just for kids, and ones that run on Facebook or your mobile phone. Some are free; some require a paid subscription.

Many have story lines featuring grueling battles between factions. By fulfilling quests, a player gains prestige, power, and the world's currency (often convertible into dollars), which can be used to buy coveted objects - armor or weapons, for example - that are no more than images created through computer code.

Still, the stakes can be high.

The items' in-game value, and the amount of time and money needed to acquire them through playing, have led to a booming real-world marketplace on eBay and other websites. If you want to advance faster in a game, you also can do business with "gold farmers," entrepreneurs whose employees play the games and "harvest" their currency for sale online.

In some cases, these objects generate more than just a healthy obsession, as illustrated by the story of Qiu Chengwei of Shanghai.

In 2005, he was deeply involved in the Legend of Mir, a world where he had acquired the magical Dragon Saber, valued in real money at nearly $1,000. When a friend asked if his avatar could borrow the saber, Qiu obliged - and then was betrayed when the friend sold it to a third player.

Qiu took his case to the police, who claimed a theft couldn't have occurred if the item didn't physically exist. So Qiu went to his friend's house with a knife and killed him.

Committing murder over a virtual object is extreme, but placing value on an intangible item is not. Lastowka says lots of things we pay for in life can't be touched. He likens it to seeing a film: "You're not getting anything more tangible than from virtual goods."

Not everyone believes virtual crimes merit real-life angst.

Although Philadelphian Joe Osborne, 22, hasn't been a victim of virtual wrongdoing in the five years he has played World of Warcraft, he knows gamers who lost all their "possessions" when hackers breached their account and took everything.

If he were victimized, Osborne, a freelance writer for and, wouldn't take his concerns to the police.

"I understand you're paying a monthly fee and putting the time into it," he says, "but is that really worth the legal fees or the legal vindication? To me, it's just a video game."

For others, the goal is to win at all costs. (That's probably the case with the gamer who spent $330,000 to buy a space station in the online Entropia Universe.) And where there is competition and ambition, avarice and immorality are not far behind. The results are Bernie Madoff-ish scams, theft, rapes (of one avatar by another), and harassment known as griefing, in which gamers delight in disrupting others' play.

So it was inevitable that some of these incidents would wind up in front of flesh-and-blood judges.

In the case of Marc Bragg, who in 2006 was a West Chester lawyer and a virtual landowner in Second Life, a court was sympathetic.

"The whole virtual real estate concept was real interesting to me," said Bragg, 51, from his home in San Diego. "I saw it as a real-world moneymaker."

He says he did nothing wrong when he bought thousands of dollars of virtual land in Second Life auctions. Linden Lab, operator of Second Life, said Bragg did it improperly.

"They froze my account, deleted all that stuff, and didn't even give me back my U.S. money," says Bragg.

So he went to court for reimbursement of his losses. In 2007, U.S. District Judge Eduardo Robreno in Philadelphia ruled that the dispute was legally real, and that the arbitration clause in the game's terms of service gave no real recourse for a dispute. Linden settled with Bragg for an undisclosed amount.

In cases of online assaults, finding justice can be trickier.

Recently, German and Belgian police investigated allegations of rape and abuse between Second Life avatars, and authorities arrested a man in Japan for a series of avatar muggings in another virtual world. But other crimes never get prosecuted.

In 1993, writer Julian Dibbell documented the first report of sexual violations in an online world in a Village Voice article called "A Rape in Cyberspace."

Back then, the world Dibbell wrote about - and therefore the assault - was text-based, without images and avatars. After one player graphically described a sexual assault he committed against female characters, an outraged virtual community demanded action, and the perpetrator's account was deleted. (The player simply created a new one.)

Dibbell, a contributing editor for Wired magazine, doesn't believe it makes sense to apply criminal law to these kinds of crimes. He believes it's up to the virtual community to punish wrongdoers, just as it tried to do in the cyber rape he chronicled.

"When you try to map it onto law," he says, "it shuts down what's interesting about what's going on in those places - the ambiguity."

But more mixing of the two worlds is inevitable.

"I don't see any turning back," Lastowka says.