Real and virtual weapons

by John Q on March 31, 2005

I’ve been interested for a while in the extra-game markets for items like weapons, spells and so on created in online games. This story involves two Chinese gameplayers who acquired a highly valuable virtual sword. One of them borrowed it and sold it for about $1000. The other player went to the police without result, and eventually confronted his partner, and in the ensuing argument, pulled a knife and stabbed him to death. It’s sad that this happened, but the most interesting aspect for those not directly involved is the question of whether the seller had committed a crime, and if so what. The following discussion is based on very limited knowledge and legal expertise, so feel free to correct me.

Even if this was a real sword, I doubt that the police would have become involved in the dispute because it was jointly owned, so only a civil action would have been available.

More generally, if the law does become involved in this kind of dispute, it’s unlikely that ordinary property law is the right place to look. Even if your virtual castle may look like genuine, it isn’t real estate. It’s the product of a contract between you and the game’s operators. In many cases, that contract forbids outside resale of items, so your rights are pretty limited. But even in a game like Entropia which encourages such things, your rights over virtual items are defined within a set of rules created by the game operators. If, for example, they arbitrarily confiscated virtual land for which you had paid, your remedy, if any, would be under contract law or (in particularly outrageous cases) the game operators might be prosecuted for fraud.

Of course, all this could change. There’s nothing to stop governments creating new categories of virtual/intellectual property. But, as with intellectual property in general, intuitions based on standard (rival, excludable) private goods aren’t likely to provide a good basis for thinking about such things[1].

There’s more discussion at TerraNova where this kind of issue has been debated before.

fn1. Despite what the RIAA says, copying a CD is not the same as stealing a car, for the obvious reason that no-one has been deprived of the data on the CD.



Andrew 03.31.05 at 8:44 pm

People do get frighteningly involved in these online games. I played world of warcraft and had people threaten me in real life over items in the game. Luckily I didn’t play with people who know where I live.
Isn’t 7200 yuan about 80% of GDP per person in China? I can’t imagine paying more than a few dollars for anything in an online game much less $1000 or especially 80% of per person GDP where I live. Are there any $30,000 WOW items out there?


Keith M Ellis 03.31.05 at 9:08 pm

I’ve been playing a good amount of World of Warcraft, for me, given I’m forty and never been one to play any game obsessively. Anyway, I think about you (I guess because of your recent discovery of this very fascinating topic—or have I confused you with someone else?) every now and then as the extra-game economic stuff comes up and debated. It deeply, deeply fascinates me and if I were an economist looking at this sort of thing is what I’d be doing.

Blizzard is very opposed to real world buying/selling of game items (and accounts). They’ve been more active than most at contacting eBay and stuff. But it’s not very effective.

There’s a lot of talk about this kind of thing ruins the in-game economy, and I see why that is. But, given my economist-minded inclinations, I can’t help but think that Blizzard’s, or anyone’s, attempts to isolate the two (ingame economy, real world economy) is not only impossible, but in a sense unthinkable. Maybe I’m wrong. But it strikes me that the game designers have some oddly familiar problems on their hands: they want a particular outcome, but people self-organize in ways that make it very hard to simply engineer that particular outcome.

About your particular point in this post…that quality of these virtual “possessions” that is similar to intellectual property is a qualitative distinction, I agree with people that claim that. But it’s not the sort of qualitative distinction that removes it from the realm of traditional economic analysis. That really cool blah-blah-blah sword may not be tangible, but it’s valuable to me nevertheless in a way that’s not unlike other possessions that are valuable to me.


Anthony 03.31.05 at 9:39 pm

There’s a story on the ethics and legalities of extra-game economics in my local alt.weekly: Games Without Frontiers.

No $30,000 items, but there’s someone making three times that per year selling stuff in one game.


joel turnipseed 03.31.05 at 10:08 pm

Forgive me, since I have absolutely no knowledge of these games, but a question: How do these weapons get exchanged? Wouldn’t you have to meet in virtual world to hand off weapon or something? If so, why wouldn’t gangs of bad guys buy one cheap item from powerful weapons dealers, each–so they could establish “drop” site patterns, then rape him silly? That is, shouldn’t there be a game-context method of dealing with someone selling this stuff on eBay?


jet 03.31.05 at 10:33 pm

joel, I was under the impression that most games either did not allow PvP (player vs player) action, or limited it to specified areas. I think only the people with short careers as weapons dealers or the god-like, make their trades in those areas.

But lots of people do agree real world buying of in game items is a problem


Keith M Ellis 03.31.05 at 10:39 pm

“…then rape him silly”

That’s the one part where I’m not following you.

But if your question is that there has to be an ingame transaction, and that’s where the Powers That Be could intercede…well, they do. The try to identify this activity, and when they do, they summarily close the account. A few weeks ago, they closed 2,000 accounts for this reason. That’s $15 a month, each, that especially because these “players” were professionals, the income was practically guaranteed. As mentioned elsewhere, maybe you’ve missed it, but employing some developing-world people to “play” the game to get gold and items to sell on eBay is actually a profitable business model since you get that labor for, say, $1 an hour but make a good deal more from that labor.

But upon re-reading your comment, I think you’re asking if the player community can’t deal with the problem vigilante style? Well, they really can’t because most of these games are designed to prohibit that kind of game play because a surprisingly large number of people will play that game that way, doing nothing more than making other players as unhappy as possible, if they’re allowed.


Keith M Ellis 03.31.05 at 10:40 pm

(“They” being Blizzard regarding World of Warcraft in my last comment.)


Greg Lastowka 03.31.05 at 11:10 pm

John —

Dan Hunter and I have written a brief law review article on the exact question of whether the sale could be a crime.


In short, it may be criminal as a species of computer trespass, if the access to the account was unauthorized. However, the salient question would be the calculation of damages, and the question of whether game values should be recognized as property rights held by players.

There’s an interesting jurisdictional issue in this also — our original article in the California Law Review on laws & virtual worlds alludes to it, but we’ll be fleshing it out more in a future article.


joel turnipseed 03.31.05 at 11:27 pm

Thanks for the answers… I guess I was fishing for the follow-up, which is: Is it possible, over time, for society to develop within these ‘worlds’ to regulate the various risks of violence/avarice, or would it be always be some Hobbesian nightmare of gore/vigilantism? Sounds like the game designers don’t think it profitable to find out.

Also… does anyone wonder whether any of these embed Milgram-like experiments?


asg 03.31.05 at 11:34 pm

How would such regulation work? In most of these games, unless you are on a PvP server, you can’t attack other people unless they want to be attacked. In any case, Hobbesian nightmares are surely to be expected in cases where there’s no consequences for anything you do (except use hacks that can be tracked and get you banned) and you’re totally anonymous.


asg 03.31.05 at 11:39 pm

As an addendum to what I just said, I guess the most dangerous trap to fall into when thinking about these virtual worlds is to think that they’re in any way similar to the real world, just because they have certain economic dynamics. They’re not. They are highly, highly artificial. They have rules that are unlike anything in the real world. Even their economies are highly artificial; what’s interesting about them, and John can certainly elaborate on this, is how people work within a highly stylized system, which can be tailored to fit certain economic models, to further their goals, and how they do things unanticipated by the designers.

In World of Warcraft, there are two factions (the Horde and the Alliance). Players from the two factions aren’t allowed to communicate across faction lines — they can’t talk to each other, mail each other, group with each other, etc. Some enterprising players discovered that, while the game garbled their speech for players on the opposite side, it didn’t garble digits or punctuation, so someone developed a code to allow cross-faction communication. The latest patch put an end to that.


Keith M Ellis 04.01.05 at 12:19 am

“They’re not. They are highly, highly artificial. They have rules that are unlike anything in the real world.”

I don’t know what that means.


ArC 04.01.05 at 12:39 am

“There’s nothing to stop governments creating new categories of virtual/intellectual property.”

And in Korea, famously mad for online games like Lineage and Starcraft (yes, the latter’s not massively multiplayer and persistent)…

The row is thought to have blown up partly because China has no laws that cover the theft of virtual in-game items.

This is in contrast to places like South Korea which has a section of its police force that investigates in-game crime.


Tom T. 04.01.05 at 8:18 am

I know nothing about Chinese property law, but if this case arose in the US, I’m not sure why ordinary property law wouldn’t apply here. The sword is, after all, rival and excludible; the gameplayer cannot make copies of it, nor can more than one player use it at the same time. The fact that the player’s rights in the sword are limited is not unusual, because he doesn’t really own it; he’s essentially leasing the sword for some period of time as long as he pays his game fees.

Consider this analogy: My housemate and I lease a delightful Saab convertible from a dealer. Either we lease it jointly, or I lease it in my name and make a private agreement with him to share its use. Without my consent, he then goes out and sublets 100% use of the car to a third person (i.e., thereby preventing me from using the car at all either). Other than whatever differences may exist in the specific contract language in the car lease as opposed to the game agreement, it strikes me that the legal analysis should be essentially the same.


Natalie Solent 04.01.05 at 12:46 pm

I have posted about this post on Samizdata here.


Natalie Solent 04.01.05 at 2:10 pm


What sort of things did the people communicating cross-faction by code in Warcraft want to say?

It’s actually kind of inspiring. The rules of the game specified war yet they chose dialogue.

Unless they were conspiring to stab their own various sides in the back, of course.


Timothy Burke 04.01.05 at 2:22 pm

World of Warcraft players of opposing factions had been able to use punctuation, etc. to communicate in a rather ASCII like fashion. The most awe-inspiring case I saw was someone who used a macro to spew out ten lines of punctuation that spelled “YOU LOSE!” as an outlined shape. As asg said, the developers put a stop to it with the current patch. As for what was said, sorry to disappoint, but it wasn’t choosing dialogue over conflict–it was almost entirely for the purpose of trash-talking, occasionally to arrange a one-on-one duel (e.g., getting other players not to interfere).

It’s not unknown, however, for players to conspire by holding two accounts, one of them on each side. You’re not supposed to do that, but some people do. There aren’t really in-game economic benefits to such collusion, at least not yet. Once Blizzard puts in its new “honor system”, where player-vs-player conflict will actually have more in-game economic consequences, then such collusion may become more than just a mild bit of mischief.


Natalie Solent 04.01.05 at 4:31 pm

Alas for my hopes of humanity! Oh well, the “You Lose” is undeniably cool.

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