Wednesday, July 30

Should thieves in World of Warcraft be sent to real prisons?

All right, own up: did you steal Mike Weatherley's sword on World of Warcraft? If so, you'd better watch out. He's really upset about it. So much so that, as David Cameron's chief adviser on intellectual property, he has asked ministers to consider passing a law that would mean people "who steal online items in video games with a real-world monetary value receive the same sentences as criminals who steal real-world items of the same monetary value".

Weatherley, the MP for Hove, East Sussex and a Warcraft player himself, says that since players can spend serious amounts of real-world cash on items, even though they exist only online, they should be offered the same protection as victims of theft in the world of solid objects.

"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."

It's hard to argue with his logic. Gamers spend a lot of money on virtual items, and invest time in building armed forces or gigantic warships. These things may be nothing more than a collection of pixels on a screen, but the money isn't virtual, and neither is the time, or the feeling of having been robbed.

There are international precedents for giving virtual items real-world value in the courts. In 2008, a woman in Tokyo realised her virtual husband had divorced her without warning, and as revenge she used the man's login information to delete his avatar. Essentially, it was virtual murder, though she was jailed for "illegally accessing a computer and manipulating electronic data".

In the same year, two Dutch teens were also found guilty of forcing a younger player to log into his RuneScape account and hand over an amulet and a mask, the digital-age version of stealing another kid's lunch money. The Dutch court ruled: "These virtual goods are goods (under Dutch law), so this is theft."

However, it's hard not to feel Weatherley's argument crumbled a little bit when he said that if it was "a minor thing, a £5 item", he wouldn't waste the authorities' time – "but if I found someone doing it a thousand times over, then it's obviously a problem." So, whoever stole 1,000 wizard robes from Weatherley, he's coming after you – with the full force of the real-life law.

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