Dungeons and Dollars

Dungeons and Dollars
Legislating The Virtual World

Wendy Despain | 7 Oct 2008 12:27
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Everybody knows the old Philosophy 101 question: How do we know the "real world" isn't just a very convincing simulation? Now, thanks to the expanding role of online games in our daily lives, there's a corollary: Where do you draw the line between a "virtual world" and the "real world"?

Consider this: I sit down at my computer and spend half an hour browsing for clothing, finally deciding on a single shirt. I make sure I have enough funds in my account before clicking the "buy" button. Did I just describe shopping for myself or for my avatar?

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My shirt will be arriving next week. My avatar can put hers on immediately. That's the only difference I can see - and I'm not the only one.

Virtual worlds are moving into the mainstream, and technology is blurring the boundaries between our activities in online and real-world spaces. When you can spend real dollars to buy virtual goods, it's hard to say it's only a game. Especially when people quit their "real" jobs to become successful land barons in Second Life, or threaten to include virtual property in a divorce settlement.

With the operators of virtual worlds increasingly transitioning to a microtransaction-based business model, users with virtual-world problems are turning to more conventional legal solutions. Consider this headline from late 2007: "Dutch Police Arrest Seventeen-Year-Old for $5800 Virtual Furniture Theft at Habbo Hotel." More recently, big law firms are creating entire divisions to focus on virtual property disputes.

There are few laws on the books mentioning virtual worlds specifically, so attorneys must apply real-world laws to virtual spaces. Typically, these cases involve copyright and intellectual property law. But that's the shallow end of the pool.

As an example, consider how landlord laws might apply to virtual worlds. If it's assumed the "residents" are renting their virtual space from the people who make and maintain the game, does banning a player equate to evicting them from an apartment? Now consider the fact that landlord laws vary from city to city, not just internationally, and you have an idea of how complex a simple account ban can become with a little creative litigation.

On the other hand, if MMOG developers are building repositories of assets with monetary value, how is that different from banking? Could functioning MMOGs be regulated as financial institutions? It's possible the law could support that interpretation, but legal documents involving bank regulations make game design docs look anemic.

There are a host of nightmare scenarios when real-world laws and virtual worlds collide - and one man stands right on that collision point. Ren Reynolds saw the potential for disaster as lawmaking bodies in the real world started looking closely at virtual worlds and trying to figure out how they intersect with reality. (No one talks about "if" they intersect anymore.)

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