Headed down to the GO3 expo today in sunny (finally!) Perth. GO3 is a pretty small sort of event, featuring gaming, electronics and general nerdery, we all know what I mean. Anyway, as I'm walking around I get caught in a conversation with this guy spruiking a FREE! (which obviously means it isnt) MMOG called Barbados or Bermuda or something similarly tropical sounding.
After he flipped me a couple of free discs and accidentally let on that you have to pay for everything in game with real money, I posed him a moral question, as follows:
"Suppose I'm playing your dubiously-named game, and something steals from me, is that considered theft in the real world?"
He answered immediately that of course it would be. So I followed up with another one:
"What about another MMOG, you know, one that DOESNT MAKE YOU PAY FOR THINGS WITH REAL MONEY, what if the same thing happened?"
This one made him hesitate a little, so I drove the shiv home:
"Well, whats the difference? You get your real money by devoting your time to doing a mundane task, like convincing people to play Trinidad: Revenge on Tobago, right?"
He reluctantly agreed, so on I went:
"And I earn my in-game gold coins, stars, bottlecaps or whatever by devoting my time to doing a mundane task, like selling bent tin cans, right?"
His eyes grew a little wild and he backed off a step. I wasnt going to be deterred though:
"So whats the difference? Just because I can't 'cash out' my bottlecaps or whatever, that doesnt mean its not real world theft, right?"
He mumbled something about his game being free, so I considered myself the victor, gathered my bags full of nerdwear and geektoys, awarded myself 11 XP (I was well-rested at the time) and fast travelled back to my shack.
The concept of a real cash economy in a persistent online community is an interesting one. Just where are the boundaries drawn? The central concept in my mind is whether the rules inherent in the online community supports or even allows theft. So if you are engaging in an online community which allows your avatar's chosen occupation to be 'thief' (there might even be a thieves guild or similar) then it probably can't really be prosecution-worthy.
But we are all living in a reality that allows theft too. Sure, the police and the community in general attempt to prevent it, but the laws of physics that define the 'game' that is reality permits the theft of objects too. There really isnt a definitive answer to this sort of question, but it certainly is an interesting one.
Especially when you consider the accountability of the developers of any persistent virtual community. If the above-mentioned real cash economy game (I'm pretty sure it was called Caribbean Colonists or something) DID physically allow theft, then the developers of the game might have a little bit of legal trouble. What about the Developer of Reality? Could we meaningfully incarcerate an omnipresent entity even if we were able to make the charges stick?