Theft, Divorce, and Murder

A less-than cheery topic to accompany some interesting virtual activity, starting with the NY Times report of the theft of some virtual inventory in RuneScape (also reported with slightly different details by the Telegraph), in which a 13 year old player was violently coerced to log-in to his account to let the thief (~16 years old) transfer the goods to another account. The incident occurred over a year ago, but a Dutch court ruled earlier this week that it amounted to theft under real-world law, and sentenced the thief accordingly. It’s a tough area to deal with from a legal standpoint, but I think it has been handled well.

A somewhat more bizarre case sees the recent arrest of a scorned divorcee who allegedly murdered her ex-husband. Sounds grim… until you realise she has been arrested on suspicion of (effectively) computer hacking, and nothing more. Seemingly, the pair were only virtual spouses in the Maple Story MMORPG (admittedly, I had never heard of it before). After the ‘husband’ unexpectedly terminated the virtual marriage, the ‘(ex-)wife’ gained unauthorised access to his account, and killed off his avatar in May earlier this year. The arrest itself is very real though, and if charged, she faces a fine of $5000, or a whopping 5 years in jail (though she claims no intent to seek revenge of a more real-world sort).


A comparison of these two cases brings up a fascinating judicial conundrum — isn’t murder worse than theft? On the one hand, you’ve got virtual goods being attributed a real value, so that the legal system perceives virtual theft in the same light as real theft. On the other hand, you’ve got virtual murder, which is completely ignored as the legal system tackles a mere case of unauthorised access to (and modification of) personal data. Why do real-world legal values apply to the one and not the other?

Virtual goods may represent an investment of time, and thus a certain personal value, since it will take time and effort to re-acquire them following a theft. However, does a person’s avatar in an RPG not count for a greater investment of time and personal sentiment? From a purely logical standpoint, it seems like the virtual murder should be treated more seriously than virtual theft… and yet, try as I might, I cannot bring myself to consider punishment for virtual murder as anything but ludicrous! Maybe I just don’t take virtual worlds as seriously as some people.

I’m confused. And I’m glad I never wanted to be a lawyer. 😀

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