To most people who do not actually play it, World of Warcraft is just a game. Anyone who has devoted any time at all within an immersive online world such as this will gladly put you straight on that. World of Warcraft is not just a game, it is a way of life, a virtual life that for many becomes very real indeed. Which is why they get somewhat narked by those people who don’t play the game, figuratively speaking.

Take Peons4Hire, for example, an outfit that sells gold to other players so they can advance in the game by spending real money rather than real time gaining experience and reputation. In-game gold is a hugely valuable commodity, but there seems to be no great desire on behalf of Blizzard Entertainment, which runs World of Warcraft, to close down such organizations. Perhaps because the legal arguments, and the legal bills, would be extensive and the outcome uncertain. So far, to the best of my knowledge, the act of selling in-game assets is not actually a crime after all.

That said, a class action suit has been filed by players of the game against one gold farming company called IGE. The suit claims that it made a "calculated decision to reap substantial profits by knowingly interfering with and substantially impairing the intended use and enjoyment associated with consumer agreements between Blizzard Entertainment and subscribers to its virtual world called World of Warcraft."
Meanwhile, Blizzard has declared war on Peons4Hire following numerous complaints about the way the company advertised its wares. Join up, create a character, enter the game and within seconds the gold-selling advert bots would start the PM spam attack. Some measure of success was found by implementing tools to combat spam in the 2.1.0 game client release, but just to make sure Blizzard has now issued a lawsuit against Peons4Hire that requires its representatives, including all entities and websites under its control, to cease and desist from in-game spamming.

Whether this will work without a proper legal challenge to the practice is hard to say for sure, but I’m willing to predict it will not. Simply because the market is such a hugely profitable one. Estimates of the size of that market across all virtual worlds suggest it is already worth more than $1 billion every year. World of Warcraft alone has in excess of 8 million subscribers, generating a revenue of nearly half a billion dollars.

The problem of greed and criminality is far greater outside of a Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game (MMORPG) such as World of Warcraft though. At least here there is that all important gaming element to occupy the inhabitants of its virtual lands. Move into a world that exists purely as a place to be free to do whatever you want, and people will do whatever they want. That is happening in Second Life already. We have seen recent cases where prosecutors in Germany have investigated players who were actually prostituting and pimping ‘underage’ avatars. Although no charges have yet been brought, it does raise the interesting and difficult question of whether an action involving an avatar can be treated as a crime or not. In Belgium police have started an investigation into the alleged rape of a Second Life avatar.

Not that World of Warcraft escapes the virtual crimewave altogether. It is not unusual for gangs to target newbies and lone travelers who are then ‘murdered’ and stripped of all valuables. In the real world, there are sweat shops known as ‘gold farms’ in China where hundreds of men play the game for hours on end, and for a real pittance of a wage, in order to gain credits and gold that can then be sold on to newbies with more real money than real sense.

Unfortunately, until the global community can agree what is actually a crime in the real world then bringing any kind of law and order into the virtual one seems to be lost in the realms of fantasy…

As Editorial Director and Managing Analyst with IT Security Thing I am putting more than two decades of consulting experience into providing opinionated insight regarding the security threat landscape for IT security professionals. As an Editorial Fellow with Dennis Publishing, I bring more than two decades of writing experience across the technology industry into publications such as Alphr, IT Pro and (in good old fashioned print) PC Pro. I also write for SC Magazine UK and Infosecurity, as well as The Times and Sunday Times newspapers. Along the way I have been honoured with a Technology Journalist of the Year award, and three Information Security Journalist of the Year awards. Most humbling, though, was the Enigma Award for 'lifetime contribution to IT security journalism' bestowed on me in 2011.

Interesting article!

I can understand why some buy in-game currency... With the limited time resources we have, dedicating hours upon hours of generating wealth can be a hassle.

Instead of spending 50% of the 6 hours you have available during a week to gathering, you could have 100% of that time dedicated to enjoying the game which is why most play video games.

Being a FFXI veteran, I know first hand how much hate and discontent IGE and others can bring to a video game. These companies managed to collapse our economy, inflate prices, control supply, and reduce profits in crafting. Square Enix has a very agressive policy in eliminating them, but they continue to terrorize the servers and exploit resources/glitches/etc.

In my opinion these companies ruin games and if in violation of ToS or any laws they should be held accountable.

Agreed 101%, but stopping them is obviously a lot harder than we might imagine otherwise I suspect they would have been stopped by now.

The article starter has earned a lot of community kudos, and such articles offer a bounty for quality replies.