Virtual theft back in the news

A virtual theft from Habbo Hotel makes the news – virtual items with real-world value. Is there a better way?

I was interested to read an article on BBC News yesterday about police in Finland investigating another case of theft from Habbo Hotel. Apparently users’ details have been stolen, and then their furniture taken. It’s been a long time since I’ve been in Habbo, but I’m guessing that furniture is then sold for real-world money and transferred to the new owner in-game. Since players use real-world money to buy their furniture in the first place, they are suffering material loss despite the furniture only being a virtual commodity.
As virtual economies become more and more closely tied with real-world money, this kind of virtual theft is becoming a serious problem. Take Entropia, for instance – the idea there is that you can earn in-game credits and then cash them out as real money. When I played Entropia, though, it was far more likely that I would be putting real-world money in so that I could buy better items in the game, not taking money out! That then gives your virtual inventory a real-world value: that mining tool didn’t cost a hundred credits, it cost five pounds (no, I don’t think that’s the right exchange rate). Losing it suddenly become much more serious than if it had just been bought with in-game money.
There’s long been a market for buying in-game items with real-world money, but more often than not it’s been an underground thing. You might buy an item on eBay, pay through Paypal, and then get into the game to receive your item. Where there’s no proper mechanism in place this is usually frowned upon (or explicitly outlawed in the game’s terms and conditions) and anything that’s sold has normally been acquired at the loss of nothing more than playing time.
The issue, as I see it, is that games makes now hope to make their money by in-game purchases. The game itself may even be free, but if you want to upgrade and customise it’ll cost you real cash. I do like that model, because it means you can get into the game and decide whether you like it before paying anything, but it does make the theft or loss of in-game items a very serious matter. It becomes real, genuine theft.
Let me tell you about a different gameplay model, though: how about actually encouraging theft? Well, maybe not encouraging, but certainly making it part of the game. EVE Online, a brilliant space-based MMO, allows players to form corporations who mine planets, set up businesses, and battle for control of star systems. And it’s fully expected that there will be spies trying to infiltrate and even steal from the corporation. Sure a theft still represents a loss, but at least you knew it was possible if not likely!
That seems a much more healthy attitude to me – people are much less likely to invest large amounts of real-world money in the game since they know they could lose it as a result of industrial espionage.
What do you think? Would you buy in-game items with real money? Is the linking of in-game economies to real-world cash dangerous? And what do you think of EVE’s policy of allowing theft? Let us know in the comments.
Post image by richt-what

2 thoughts on “Virtual theft back in the news

  1. I've never been a fan of paying real world money for virtual things in games… well, if you exclude buying a special edition so I get something cool in that game (or a related game).

    I think its especially wrong when the game explicitly says you cant do it. Such as the infamous gold sellers in WoW who frankly irritate me as much with their constant chat adverts as the fact their service undermines (ahem) the game mechanic of striving to save up the gold for something. It also probably explains why a lot of WoWs now more epic gear is through tokens which are bound to a character and cant be transferred.

    However I also tend to have an issue with games where you have to use real world money to buy virtual items as it does feel like you are constantly ploughing in money to try and get anywhere or to keep up with others. It creates a possibly dangerous system where although the payments are small they add up without realising they are.

    Of course games like the new DnD online which are free to play but have micro-payments to unlock classes/races and to buy extra items (however the same items can still be found in the game world for free) feel slightly different because you can get away with not paying anything and still feel a part of it and that you are getting somewhere.

    The main thrust here is of course what happens when something gets stolen, I think no matter how it happens wither through hacking, digital theft, or even as part of an in game mechanic, it hurts. There are plenty of stories about some brilliantly played subterfuge in eve but I can bet you the ones who lost were not, at least not at first, applauding the well executed and “legal” stealing of their space station they spent months buildings, but were angry just as if it was a real thing.

    In games where the a major point is to steal something (such as the recent, or upcoming, spy themed MMOs) there is no investment of time or money (either real or virtual) by a player in the item being stolen. However in most other games any theft, even if of a purely virtual item, still has a real world implication of the time taken to gain/craft that virtual item and is as much a theft (at least in the immediate emotional impact) as if your car got nicked.

    There you go some random and probably incoherent thoughts 😉

  2. Thanks Adam – I have to admit I've been one of those people who's bought in-game stuff with real money (mug) and I even sold my high-level implants when I left Neocron a long time back. I don't think I'd do the same thing again… more likely to give equipment to a gaming friend than sell them.

    I think you're right that the guys in, for instance, EVE would be angry and hurt about losing their corporation, but I do think it's kind of good that people now know that sort of thing is possible. They'll think more carefully now about how they vet corp members. I don't know this for sure, but I'd reckon that if a corp was stolen because of an exploit, rather than game mechanics, the actions would be reversed… at least, I hope so.

    Great thoughts there – anyone else want to chip in?

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