"So, what are you in for?"
"Triple homicide. You?"
"Defrauding MMO players of their virtual loot."
Could this be the future of prison inmate chit-chat? A recent CNET News story examines the potential of real world punishments for virtual crimes.
Perhaps you've heard about the EIB scandal that recently plagued the sci-fi MMORPG Eve Online? A player using the screen name "Cally" established the Eve Intergalactic Bank (EIB) - a private, in-game institution promoted as a place where other Eve Online players could invest their virtual money and accrue interest. Long story short, Cally absconded with approximately 790 billion ISK - the game's currency. At current exchange rates, that amount of ISK has a real-world value of approximately $170,000.
Where can scammed players turn in instances like this? Unfortunately, the EIB scandal was executed within the boundaries of the game's EULA. "CCP (Eve Online's publisher) does not intervene in such cases and will only get involved if a game exploit was used, which we have not found any indication of in this case," said CEO Magnus Bergsson.
If the game's creators aren't going to help, can players look to the legal system for justice? Some think fraud in an MMO should be legally actionable. "This stuff is real money," says Julian Dibbell, author of Play Money: Or, How I Quit My Day Job and Made Millions Trading Virtual Loot.
"Once the money trade is there," said Dibbell, "this stuff can be sold as quickly and sometimes more quickly than real currency."
Indeed, an Ebay search yields over 500 active auctions for Eve Online ISK.
Others are of the opinion that, at the end of the day, it's just a game. "If murder, one of real-world society's worst crimes, is commonplace in MMORPGs, why would any lesser crime be a surprise to game players?" said Lian Sifuentes, a Colorado College professor.
"If real-world ethics defined in-game strategy, almost every MMORPG would be rendered inert and, frankly, un-fun. And while being swindled may not be as fun as acquisition, as long as game play continues, everyone gets what they paid for."
AE: Here's a thought. If virtual goods are seen as real commodities, to the point that theft of said goods is illegal, how long until the federal government requires you to declare your virtual earnings on your taxes?
-Reporting from San Diego, GP Correspondent Andrew Eisen worries that his simoleon surplus will eventually bump him into a higher tax bracket