Virtual theft back in the news

June 3, 2010 Off By Chris Hinton

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.
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