Back to Main Page

Is it just a game?

Virtual crime


        Virtual role-playing games have become more and more complex, with in-game currency and goods having real-life value. Recently, these new virtual games have brought up many issues on the prosecution of virtual crime, like theft. Usually, virtual theft does not have any consequences, even though these items may have real-life value. However, in 2007 a Dutch court ruled that stealing virtual items is theft. In this case, two teenage boys threatened and assaulted a third classmate in order to acquire a Runescape amulet and mask. Because these items were valuable to the owner, and these items could also be sold in the real world, the court ruled that forcing him to hand over his virtual possessions was considered theft, and sentenced the two teenage boys to community service. So, if our societal standards in cyberspace and reality are supposed to be the same in our idealized cyborg future, then we should prosecute virtual crime in the same way we prosecute real-life crime. In this paper, I will discuss the idea that our progress to a cyborg future is halted unless we address the prosecution of virtual crime. To do this, I will first review Is There Such a Thing as “Virtual Crime”? by Susan W. Brenner to discuss the legal differences between virtual crime and real-life crime, and if there should be any difference at all. Next, I use an interview of a person who has been a victim of virtual crime to show how actions in cyberspace and reality are judged differently by society, thus halting our progress. Finally, I will end with the implications of this difference and how it will direct future research and discussion towards our goal of a cyborg future.

Related Research

        In The Singularity is Near, Ray Kurzweil proposes the concept that technological evolution and biological evolution go hand-in-hand, eventually accelerating to a point of singularity where machine and man are indistinguishable. We can compare his theory of singularity to our cyborg future, where our societal standards in cyberspace and in reality should be indistinguishable as well. In The extended mind, Andy Clark and David Chalmers discuss the extended mind due to coupled systems of humans and external technology. Clark and Chalmers reason that a significant consequence of this new idea of humans it that “in some cases interfering with someone’s environment will have the same moral significant as interfering with their person” (18). Thus, Clark and Chalmers provide the premise that indirect and nonphysical actions against a person can still be considered a crime. In Future Shock, Alvin Toffler defines future shock “as the distress, both physical and psychological, that arises from an overload of the human organism’s physical adaptive systems and its decision-making processes” (168), and that symptoms range all the way from anxiety, hostility to helpful authority, and seemingly senseless violence, to physical illness, depression, and apathy” (168). Toffler establishes the idea that unpleasant technological situations can result in real symptoms and reactions. So, a victim of virtual crime can experience real symptoms and reactions from their situation. In David Kimmerling’s 2007 thesis art project, “Project David”, where the robot and children stand together like companions, seemingly unaware of the physical differences between them. We can view the children as our society as it currently stands. The robot child is representative of our cyborg future, where cyberspace and reality are entwined in our society’s identity. Therefore, the defining difference between our society now and our cyborg future is the incorporation of cyberspace into reality.

“Project David” by David Kimmerling, 2007

        The ideas of these four authors help establish a general premise for analyzing virtual crime in cyberspace as it compares to real-life crime. In Is There Such a Thing as “Virtual Crime”?, Susan W. Brenner first defines real-life crime, where in the “Anglo-American common law tradition, crimes consist of four elements: conduct, mental state, attendant circumstances and a forbidden result or harm” (paragraph 7) and that if virtual crime and real-life crime are to be similar, then virtual crime must consist of these four elements as well.

        However since cyberspace is a shared conceptual reality, not a shared physical reality, some question whether the current principles of criminal law we employ are adequate to address crimes that exploit cyberspace. Just like cyberspace, the development of technology such as the telephone has made it possible for fraud to occur in new and different ways, but since fraud itself has been outlawed for centuries, this represents “nothing more than perpetrators using cyberspace to engage in conduct that has long been outlawed” (paragraph 12). Then, “if cyberspace is simply a medium being used to commit traditional crimes, then there may be no need to recognize a separate category of cybercrimes and develop specialized legislation to deal with them; existing laws should be adequate to do so” (paragraph 12). Thus, it is suggested that we can adapt existing laws to encompass cybercrime as well. With this conclusion, virtual crime should be prosecutable under the same laws as real-life crime, contradicting how our society currently views the two.

        An example of real-life legislation being adapted to encompass virtual crime is as follows. In the physical world, theft is “someone’s unlawfully taking or exercising unlawful control over property belonging to another with the purpose of depriving the lawful owner of that property” (paragraph 40), property being defined as “both tangible property (for example, money, jewels, clothing, and furniture) and intangible property (for example, written agreements and electricity)” (paragraph 40). To convict someone of theft, the state must prove each of these four elements beyond a reasonable doubt:

        actus reus: The perpetrator unlawfully took or exercised unlawful control over the property of another.

        mens rea: The perpetrator acted with the purpose of depriving the lawful owner of property.

        attendant circumstances: The perpetrator had no legal right to take or exercise control over the property.

        harm: The victim is deprived of property.

These four elements can be adapted to impose liability for theft cybercrimes, specifically theft of information or theft of computer software, as follows.

        actus reus: The perpetrator unlawfully took or exercised unlawful control over the property (for example, information or software) of another.

        mens rea: The perpetrator acted with the purpose of depriving the lawful owner of software or information.

        attendant circumstances: The perpetrator had no legal right to take or exercise control over the software or information.

        harm: The victim is deprived of his or her software or information.

Just like with the unmodified laws, if these four elements are satisfied, then the perpetrator can be prosecuted of computer information and software theft.

        Next, Brenner brings up the question of whether there can be truly virtual crimes (offenses that manifest themselves almost exclusively in cyberspace) and if there needs to be development of a law of cybercrimes in the cases of online misconduct. For the first example of real-life theft and theft cybercrime, it was easy to adapt the laws because of the closely analogous situation. But, “as we move more and more of our activities into cyberspace, we will certainly see new kinds of misconduct emerging, misconduct that may have little in common with the behavior or harms our current repertoire of traditional crimes were devised to address” (paragraph 112). However, since “unacceptable social harms” (paragraph 119) can be inflicted inside cyberspace, it is generally agreed upon that we must devise a way to act accordingly. So, whether it is by adapting old laws, or creating specific ones, our society must find a way to deal with virtual crime if we are to progress towards a cyborg future.

Object of Analysis

        In this paper, I use an online interview of a victim of virtual theft in a popular role-playing game called Runescape to point out the similarities of virtual theft and real theft, and how this crime was unresolved. Runescape is a fantasy massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG). Players are represented in the game with customisable avatars, and players set their own objectives and goals as they explore the world.

A scene from the fantasy MMORPG, Runescape

I decided to use a first-hand account of virtual crime to help understand the value the virtual goods had to the owner, just like real-life goods. In this interview, Rauhul, a current 12th grade student, recounts this crime 8 years ago when he played Runescape. Rauhul explains that he gave his password to his friend to allow him to play on his account, but soon both of them were unable to log in. He later found out that his friend’s cousin saw his friend type in the password, and changed it to take all of Rauhul’s items. Rauhul says his best armor and weapons (i.e. Dragon full helm, Dragon platebody, etc.) were worth around 50 million gold at the time, and were stolen along with about 5 million gold. At first he said he was shocked, and then angry, saying, “I worked so hard for all of that.” After asking how much time he put into that game, Rauhul laughs, “Oh God, I don’t even want to know how much time I put into that game. Probably 400+ hours, let’s be honest!”, which is a testament to how much he valued his account. When asked about the fate of his hacker, Rauhul says, “Oh, him? Nothing. Nothing ever happens when you report them.”


        In The extended mind, Andy Clark and David Chalmers bring up the idea that one result that comes from coupled systems, where tools act as an extension of a person is that “in some cases interfering with someone’s environment will have the same moral significance as interfering with their person” (18). If a virtual reality is seen to be an environment, and a virtual character is a projection of the person itself, then Clark and Chalmers would agree that any crime harming a virtual character violates the real-life person as well. As seen from Rauhul’s point of view, the theft of his character’s goods was also a crime of theft against Rauhul, since his Runescape character could be seen as an extension of himself. In Future Shock, Alvin Toffler explains that an undesired change in a technological environment causes distress to a person, with symptoms ranging from “anxiety, hostility to helpful authority, and seemingly senseless violence, to physical illness, depression, and apathy” (168). In Rauhul’s situation, he was shocked and angry from the theft of his items, and his time and effort gone to waste. As Susan W. Brenner described in Is There Such a Thing as “Virtual Crime”?, virtual theft is analogous to real-life theft, and Rauhul’s situation satisfies the four elements that constitute theft as a punishable crime. Since the virtual theft can be seen as an “unacceptable social harm” that was conflicted almost exclusively in cyberspace, laws should be adapted or created to include this as a crime. Also, because the hacker was never found guilty, and it never occurred to Rauhul that the hacker could be punished, it is clear that our society has not applied current crime laws to his case of virtual crime. Thus, our progress to a cyborg future -- where the societal standards in cyberspace and reality are equal -- is halted until we can deal with virtual crime cases like Rauhul’s.


        With the advancement of virtual role-playing games and their complexity with trading and real-world value, virtual crime will inevitably become more of an important issue to resolve if society wants to advance towards a cyborg future. Because many parallels can be seen in virtual crimes and real-life crime, there should be laws that dictate how to prosecute such crimes by deriving from existing crime laws. Otherwise, we can also create cyber-specific guidelines on how to deal with exclusively online scenarios.

        In the future, other incidents in virtual realities may be brought up for discussion and validation in the real world. For example, the game Second Life is famous for fostering an environment for serious avatar relationships and marriages, even though the real life persons may be already married to their spouse. If virtual crime could have real-life consequences, then virtual marriage may have conflicts with real-life marriage laws and polygamy.

Works Cited

Brenner, Susan W. “Is There Such a Thing as “Virtual Crime”?” California Criminal Law Review.

        2001. Print.

Clark, Andy and David Chalmers. “The Extended Mind.” Analysis 58.1

(1998): 7-19. Print.

Kimmerling, David. “Friends.” Project David. 2007.

Kurzweil, Ray. [Chapter 1.] The Singularity is Near: When Humans

Transcend Biology. New York: Penguin Books. 2005. Print.

Toffler, Alvin. [Excerpts.] Future Shock. New York: Random House. 1970.



Image 2: