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…