Thursday, 24 July 2014

Virtual theft!

Should theft in a virtual world count the same as real theft?

There is an interesting article in The Guardian on this:

"If you've spent £500 building up your armed forces and someone takes them away online, I guess you can feel hard done-by and you want your £500 back," he told Buzzfeed. He also pointed out: "The perception from some people is that if you steal online it's less of a crime than if you steal physically."

But this massively misses the point, sorry.

Yes, hacking someone's account is bad, and we already have laws covering that. But the idea of virtual theft is nonsense.

For a start, the game providers can (and do) restore lost items. To them the items really are just a data record, no matter what people paid in real money for them, and it is a relatively simple matter for them to restore them to their owner. They can also arrange for them to be removed from their new owner if they want. They can suspend accounts involved in hacking. They have ultimate control of the virtual world. So there is no actual theft, and the cost of the items is irrelevant - the only cost is the inconvenience for the victim and the game operator but that cost is the same whether it is a £5 item that is restored or a £5000 item that is restored.

Obviously if the game operator will not restore items, the damage by the hacking is more severe, but as I say, we have laws to cover that already, and the financial loss, and time, and distress caused will obviously be a factor in such cases.

Of course there is another massive issue with making any law on virtual theft - it is totally valid in a virtual world to play a baddie, one who's role is to do bad things, and steel things in the game. If a law was made it could mean such legitimate in-game actions being criminalised!

P.S. The episode of Big Bang Theory portrayed this very badly - making out that the theft was almost real, when in fact Blizzard would have restored the lost items, and suspended the thief's account pretty quickly and painlessly. I know people who have been through this.

P.P.S. In a way, the difference between theft in the real world and in the virtual world is that in the latter you can have a chat to God and have him sort it out and put it right. That kind of makes it way less of a big deal.


  1. Hmm, "people who steal online items in video games with a real-world monetary value" - I would argue that any item in WoW has NO monetary value as it is against Blizzards Terms and Conditions to resell them for real-world money.

    1. The argument is that the item had a value to buy (Blizzard sell things!) but such things are usually soulbound so cannot be transferred anyway, and anyway, as I say, all can be "undone" by Blizzard and fixed.

  2. I'm confused.

    In simple terms, theft is taking a person's property without their consent and with the intent to permanently deprive them of it. (the last bit is key, and is why joyriders are not generally charged with theft but "taking without consent"; they can argue that they planned to bring the car back afterwards).

    The fact that the stolen item can be recovered undamaged and returned to its owner, or that the stolen item was of low (or even zero) value, doesn't change the fact that the act of taking it constituted theft.

    And there is an overarching provision in criminal law in the UK that the police/CPS can decline to pursue charges if to do so is "not in the public interest", which provides an effective get out to situations where the "theft" is trivial enough that a prosecution would be a waste of money/resources, as would probably have been the case here.

    So I would suggest that we already have all the laws we need already.

    Arguing that virtual goods can't be stolen feels like a very slippery slope though. Money is pretty much a virtual good these days. If you leave your online banking logged in and I sit down and transfer £10,000 to my account I have committed the crime of theft. The fact that your bank could later undo the transfer and put things right doesn't change that fact, does it?

    1. The law and definition of theft was very much conceived around physical items, not those that can be duplicated at a whim by a game controller. The items have not actually gone and not actually existed in the first place. The comparison with currency is interesting, but in the gaming world there is no accountability as in banking (well, yeh, separate rant/discussion there). It is not like one person has this unique thing. So the laws on computer misuse pretty much cover it, IMHO. And if you did legislate on virtual theft you hit issues where games "allow" that in the logic of the game.

  3. I'm pretty tired of the whole "we must legislate to stop $bad_thing", where $bad_thing is already illegal but no one is bothering to actually enforce the existing law.

    I know passing new legislation fits parliament's desire to be seen to be doing something, but how about they do something effective rather than just passing more laws that won't ever be enforced (or at least, the only time they will ever be used is in ways other than originally intended).