Nothing “virtual” about virtual crimes…

The CopyBot incident in Second Life has renewed interest on the impact of virtual crimes in real life. This becomes especially dramatic when you consider how more virtual economies are now tied to real world economies (e.g. LindeX, Virtual Currency Chart). In essence, as Wired magazine noted back in Jan 2004, virtual cash breeds real greed.

So far we’ve seen Linden Labs handle this from both a legal (ToS violation) as well as architecture (programming code) perspective. According to Lawrence Lessig’s Code and other Laws of Cyberspace, these two actions account for both Law and Architecture. The two other bounding factors in cyberspace include Norms and Market. Norms can be seen in how Second Life residents feel about the issue and take action against it (e.g. protests, using defensive scripts). However, the Market isn’t in favor of the general populace since it’s what motivates unscrupulous residents to use CopyBot for personal gains.

On the Second Life Educators Mailing List, some residents wanted Linden Labs to take a more proactive approach about this. They said that we should learn from previous experiences, even from other MMORPGs, to figure out how such issues were dealt with instead of wasting time deliberating about it. There were similar cases of course… On July 2005, CmdrTaco of Slashdot reported a duping bug found in the World of Warcraft game where items (e.g. gold, rare items) could be endlessly duplicated (see screenshot). Instructions on how to dupe items were released but this bug was eventually fixed by the developers at Blizzard. Note that Blizzard owns the intellectual property (IP) of the entire game, and thus can take drastic measures to control the game. In Second Life though, the case involves an open-source software, but more importantly, since IP is granted to resident builders in the metaverse, a more democratic (read: careful) approach was needed.

Aside from Second Life, I believe that part of the reason why virtual crimes are getting more prevalent might be due to how society in general strongly perceives the connotation of “virtual” as “not real”. In the Intro to Internet class I guest lectured at today, many undergrads still perceived gamers / residents as having no life. They felt that since there’s no real physical money involved (e.g. American dollar, gold), no one was going to take such crimes seriously and that we should simply blame online residents for being so naive. As you can see, the “not real” aspect causes a lot of social problems… in most cases, even to the stigmatization of online victims.

On the point of online residents / gamers as having “no life”, we should first remember that everyone has the right to their own individual interests. Recall that the reason why most of us have personal hobbies would be purely under uses and gratification. In other words, we are what we do. While someone spending $1,000 to build beautiful model trains might be respectable in real life, someone spending a similar amount to buy and develop a beautiful island in Second Life should be given the same respect too.

In light of metaverses having no physical equivalent of money, Kumagoro made a priceless quote on Slashdot when he/she said, “[k]eep in mind that our economy is completely virtual too. Money is just a promise from the government that this particular peice of paper or hunk of metal is worth something useful. Our “real world” isn’t as “real” as many people choose to believe.”

In a world where we often oversimplify things (e.g. war = good vs. evil?), we have yet to learn how to see the grey areas in between. Virtual isn’t as fake or unreal as we think anymore… we’re starting to see an imminent convergence between our real and online world. We simply have to be prepared to face the challenges that come along with this next wave.

CopyBot Related Links:
Video: LibSecondLife Clone Demo (as shown above)
Video: CopyBot Protest in Second Life
New World Notes: Copying A Controversy
SLexchange: Anti-CopyBot items

Metaverse Crime Related Links:
The SL Herald: New Crimes, New Punishment
Virtual crime present literal challenge for real life police
New Scientist: Computer characters mugged in virtual crime spree
Second Life Police Blotter