On the complexity of digital theft

Summary:The possibility of "supernatural" retribution (and very real jail time) may make even the most chaotic-evil barbarian pause and reflect.

New Scientist reports that a Chinese exchange student in Japan has been arrested for using a software bot to "beat up" characters in Lineage II, a Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG). Once beaten, the characters were relieved of their (virtual) possessions. These were later put on an auction site and exchanged for (real) money.

So what?

MMORPG worlds are interesting because they do something that computers aren't normally good at: they create alienable property. Physical property is alienable: if I have it, and you steal it, I no longer have it. Bits are inalienable: if I give you mine, we both have them. In a computer game world, where possessions are alienable, "theft" means something similar to what it means in the physical world. (Contrast with digital music, whose thiev-ability people are still debating.) Now, it seems as if this problem could be handled at a "religious" level--the game masters could simply drag-'n'-drop the stolen items from the thief back to their original owner. I know why they're reluctant to do that--every time "God" gets involved, it reduces the game's verisimilitude (in a way hobbits and unicorns do not, apparently) and increases the number of future petitions for his or her intervention. So instead we get what you might literally call "otherworldly" intervention in the form of police officers. It'll be interesting to see what impact this threat has on gameplay. The possibility of "supernatural" retribution (and very real jail time) may make even the most chaotic-evil barbarian pause and reflect.

Topics: Browser

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