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Real Crime in Virtual Worlds
by John Krajewski on 02/14/13 03:23:00 am   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Phoenix Car Chase

What are the stories of the every day world that most interest us? Turning on the TV we can see it on the news: car chases, pursuits, shootouts, crime and punishment, justice served or not. It strikes me how little events like these affect the lives of their onlookers, and how that contrasts to the huge amount of attention they receive. Why is this case?

It's spectacle. It's excitement, danger, horror, suspense, mystery, tragedy. It's all the elements we see in movies and stories, enacted live on television in front of us. For better or worse, it captures people, their sympathies and angers, their rapt attention. It's an event of note, because it's uncommon and affects lives profoundly, it's society going off the rails, a life skating along the abyss as it breaks all the rules, on its way to ruin with all the powers of society in hot pursuit, flared up to defeat the abomination. We cant look away.

The pull of events like this are so strong they retain their interest even when fictionalized. A huge portion of stories (and one might argue all stories, in a more abstract sense) are about this – transcending, breaking the rules, stepping outside the norm. The 'hero's journey', the monomyth that fits so many stories, always has the hero enter that special world, and things are never the same. And video games too play this theme, probably more blatantly than any other medium. The car chase, the shoot-up, the defeat of the giant beast that threatens the world. Breaking the rules of society, defending a land in peril, transcending, events worthy of a story.

Only, not. They're all false.


In video games, shoot-ups are the rule, there is no society to transcend. The events that happen in a game are exactly what's meant to happen, they've been tested thousands of times by a team shooting the same triggered baddies with the same virtual bullets. It's rote, it's illusion. At the end of a quest in the 'Star Wars: The Old Republic' I defeated a magnificent monster threatening the world, only to stroll out of the cave past a queue of adventures heading in to defeat that same boss, respawned. Of course we know its an illusion, and we accept that games must (like with movies or books) require our suspension of disbelief in order for them to perform their magic on us.

Or must they?

What if we didn't have to create these false worlds, primed for explosions? What if these events were actual, real things happening in a virtual world? What if a crime spree was more than a pre-programmed sequence of events designed to give the illusion of an exciting chase (cue gunships to enter at the third checkpoint), what if crimes in games were real, they affected real lives, they were perpetrated by real people breaking real rules, and the heroes that pursued these criminals were actual heroes, truly protecting a virtual world? It's possible, and it's where I think games are ready to go.

The entire concept of real crime in a virtual game hinges on a couple of factors. First, how can crime be real in a virtual world? The answer is that although such a world is virtual, the value created inside it is not; it has tangible worth outside the game world. This is evident when one considers the gold farmers of WoW and real-world markets for games like Diablo. If there is real value in a virtual good, there can be real crime when it is stolen.

The second factor is the concept of rules, aka laws. Creating a game is not like creating a society, it's more like creating a universe: You're inventing the very laws of physics. If you want to make it physically impossible to pickpocket, it's easily done. If a virtual world is programmed to not allow theft between players, that is not a societal construct, that's a physical law of nature. To create a society, you need to have two layers of rules, what is possible and what is acceptable. You can only create a society if you create rules that can be broken. This distinction of rules is extremely important in a game and so often the two are confused, no distinction is made: Stealing is not allowed in many games, because it is physically impossible. The societal rules equal the physical rules.

What is the result of that? Safer, more predictable results. Protection of value. Avoidance of the unexpected. All the very things that make a story dull. The complete erasure of what's interesting in a society. There will be no transcendence in a world whose physics prevent it, nothing you can protect because nothing can really be destroyed, no value can really be damaged, no risk, no real threat. The only thing you typically risk is your time, and there are scarcely real consequences for any action. The vast majority of games lock their rules down like so, and in the process they make the game safe, accessible, boring. Every path is laid out before the players on a thousand-tested track. In place of real risk we are given an illusory substitute, the impression of risk where none is present.

The states of the citizens of modern day virtual worlds are that of Clockwork Oranges, beings propelled to do good because bad has been made impossible. Can a choice be said to be moral or meaningful if it was the only one possible? By preventing players from breaking laws, you're making good actions meaningless. By preventing value from being at-risk, you're making it worthless. If something can be lost, it is that much more precious. To add meaning to a world, unlawful actions need to be possible.

And what do you get with the allowance of unlawful actions? You get criminals, players who aim to take advantage and break the rules of society, to harm their fellow man at their own gain. But that's not all, and that's not even the most interesting part. You get protectors, you get defenders, clashes between real good and evil, those that seek to harm and those that seek to protect and advance society. You get the car chases, the mysteries, the tragedies, the heroics and redemption and justice and punishment that make up all those stories most interesting to us, but this time they're real and they mean something.


The closest a game has come to this is, once again, Eve, in a player run crime that was so fantastic it captured attention well outside the tight-knit circle of the game. It raises the question, should crime in a virtual world be punished in the real world? In that virtual world yes, punish them by all means, but in the real world I say no, and that is an important distinction to make. By leaving the real world and entering the virtual world, players are granting that they are at risk for crime, and in exchange they get a rich society where actions have meaning. Value may cross between worlds but punishment should not.

I await the day that we follow a crime in a game and all its attendant pursuit and punishment with attention as rapt as we give the stories of the real world, because they will be in fact be real crimes by real criminals, apprehended by real heroes putting themselves at risk. We have platforms for these types of interactions already in existence, the technology is already here. It is again only a challenge of design and imagination, a bridging of the central paradox of this discussion that is needed: To make these worlds meaningful, we have to put them and their occupants at risk of destruction.

John Krajewski is Studio Head at Strange Loop Games and designer of the indie game 'Vessel'. Follow his blog at

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Jacob Pederson
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I think Eve proves that there is a small, but very dedicated group of gamers out there that want exactly what you describe. I'm not one of them, but I enjoy reading about the Heists and multi-thousand dollar space battles :) I'm surprised that Eve is the only modern title to provide opportunities for real risk against other players. The popularity of online poker and single player rougelikes might have taught game designers that plenty of folks want to play games with real stakes.

John Krajewski
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Do you think it's that small? Or maybe small only because it hasn't been done in a way with broad appeal. Eve does some amazing things but I think all would agree its not accessible. I'd like to see a game that has risk and reward like that, but is accessible. Like a Minecraft MMO with laws. With the right design, the world could have real consequences without being forbidding in the same way reality is (I could get mugged on my way to the store, but that doesn't stop me). I'd love to see a game where crime is possible but rare due to excellent player organized prevention and justice.

Raymond Ortgiesen
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Day Z seems to be popular for just the reasons you describe here. In a way, it's the thing that curmudgeony old hard core gamers speak of when they complain about how games are too easy these days. They're saying the game doesn't respond to or even allow failure, whether through your own actions or those of other players.

John Krajewski
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Yes exactly, I was just thinking about adding Day Z as an example, and their huge popularity certainly speaks to the appeal risk and reward can have.

As for difficulty, I don't mind if a game is easy, it's more offensive to me if its canned and faked. There seems to be a lot of crossover between those two categories, but I don't think it has to be that way.

Craig Berry
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The most pressing issue in implementing something like this is in the ease of action, and the severity of punishment. Most gamers are used to things that are easy to do - in videogames, killing an enemy, robbing something is a simple mouseclick away. The problem with implementing a real world 'crime & punishment' is the adverse effects need to match the severity of the crime.

Take for example, theft in an MMO. Suppose you implement a skill system that allows theft of a single item from a player's inventory. What happens if he gets caught? Do the guards immediately kill him, return the item, allow him to resurrect as normal? Is his character locked out for a certain amount of time? Singleplayer games do this a lot better because the crime is usually perpetrated against an NPC - someone a player doesn't have to worry about upsetting.

Don't get me wrong, I love the idea, and personally would love to see a believable 'social' system built upon the 'physicalities' of a game world, but it's not without its pitfalls. Personally, my closest comparison to a successful implementation would be the Invasion system in the Dark Souls / Demon Souls games.

John Krajewski
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Ultima Online had a good implementation of theft in an MMO: if you stole in a town you would be insta-killed only if a witness reports you. If you stole outside of town, you would be flagged criminal and could be attacked without repercussions. A decent way to do it, and it was an amazing game, but I think better can be done. Instead of simulating justice with insta-kills, a less brute instrument and more interesting dynamic would be a player run justice system of some kind, with punishments determined and implemented by them.

Andreas Ahlborn
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Interesting read, but if you think it through you will realize that in the end your title is misleading.

Consider this scenario of an mmo that would make its main quests in hacking other guilds "virtual server" and "stealing informations, bank accounts etc." from them, having the ultimate goal to eradicate their avatar or stealing their xp or virtual currency.

This is analog to the cases (especially the EVE case) you describe.

But its still only a "virtual" crime not a real one. The stakes are high (because you loose the time that you invested in the game to achieve your goods) but they are only virtually high.

Now change the scenario of the aforementioned "Hacker game" in so far that on this virtual servers you could hack ingame the information that is stored is not the virtual one (about the players avatar) but the real one (his identy in real life, his real bank account that the mmo-developer uses for "real" money transactions. This would be a "real" crime scenario and it would not be legit in a modern society to even get such a game through to launch, because of real legal reasons.

You won`t break this "fourth wall" of virtual worlds via gamedesign, you will always rely on the players Imagination to break it in his fantasy.

John Krajewski
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As I described, though, value in virtual games is very real and many large companies are built on this concept. Look at the Diablo virtual item market for example. And of the value is real, so is the crime that occurs when it is stolen. Note in defining a crime as 'depriving one of life liberty or property', not whether or not it can be punished in the real world.

Mark Rostien
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I fully endorse this idea. But most gamers are not really interested in risk. So I can't imagine this idea ever catching on in the mainstream. The other thing I'd add I'd that crime is not limited to theft ... It includes murder, assault, terrorism,, smuggling and extortion a well (to name a few).

Terence Lee
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Most gamers don't know what they want though. People want what they're familiar with, but they'll embrace something radical if it's of great quality. It's up to designers to shape what the audience wants, not the other way around.

John Krajewski
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I agree unmanaged risk is pretty inaccessible, but managed risk is not, and I believe most people will find it more interesting than falsified risk. By managed risk I mean for example a world where crime is possible, but there is a strong player-run protective institution (eg a police force) that makes it difficult to commit crimes without facing punishments.

John Krajewski
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And all those crimes would be interesting in a game. They're already simulated in various games (poorly), to hook them into the mechanics of a virtual world would be much more interesting. I'd love to see a game with mechanics deep enough to allow and make punishable crimes like tax fraud, graft, trade violations, etc. Enemies in a game need to come in more interesting forms then the brain-dead AI controlled gunman.

Gavin Clayton
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Lovely article. I just wanted to note this idea crosses over (somewhat) into single-player games. Just look at Dishonored. This game simultaneously provides systems to kill and to avoid killing. It's possible to play through the entire game without shedding one drop of blood. So when the player chooses to kill, their action has more meaning than a game where murder is the physical requirement for progression. There is a separation between what is possible and what is acceptable to the player, who decides their own morality within context of the game.

Another single-player example is child killing in Fallout 2 compared to Fallout 3. In Fallout 2 it's possible to kill children, so the choice *not* to kill the little buggers has real meaning. In Fallout 3, that choice is removed as it's physically impossible to kill a child. While I totally understand the reasons for this restriction, can morality even exist without the power of choice to do either bad or good? This is indeed the central theme in A Clockwork Orange, and I respect John immensely for aligning this theme with morality in virtual worlds.

I can only imagine how powerful the ideas in this article would be in full bloom. I'm not sure I could enjoy such a game (it would be very intimidating to me, as I'm more of a loner-explorer type) but it's something I would definitely experiment with and I would value the bravery of it.

John Krajewski
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Good point on single player games, I think it can work there too to some degree, but AI is really not to the point where it can lead to interactions of the same depth that you would get in a multiplayer game.

It's always disappointed me that games like WoW and other MMOs make these amazing worlds, and then restrict the primary interactions to take place between players and AI. Why build the online world if you're going to just funnel players into grinding on boring AI? That can be done in a single player game.

Brandon Van Every
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I'm wondering how many players are going to volunteer to be victims for all these players who want to be "criminal" predators within the confines of a game. When the Griefers are running the show, it tends to repel a lot of people.

Kevin Fishburne
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Well there's Switzerland and then there's Honduras. Why should a game simulating society be any different? Like-minded people tend to congregate, so in a properly realistic game intersections between the lawful and lawless would be the exception rather than the rule. If a game ends up as a free for all deathmatch where you're robbed and killed every 60 seconds then the designers have failed.

Something else to consider is how player lives and accounts are managed. If you can just keep respawning then a griefer's paradise awaits. If all you need is an email address to sign up and play, get ready for Hell. My solution is to require a credit card authorization (not charge, necessarily) to create a player, permanent death and a small fee to create a new player. If a griefer knows they can be permanently killed and will have to pay to create a new player they suddenly have something to lose. That "something to lose" is often the difference between your average citizen and someone who goes on a killing spree or loses their will to live.

Chris Pereira
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Its hard to respond to such a broad poke of the bear that is Video Games.

MMO's are in general becoming the golden boy of digital immersion with real world affects. WoW being prime example over its tenure, EverQuest before it. To introduce something that is in itself taboo in modern society, theft and the ability to steal from a cognitive source, might be just beyond the casual gamers realm of need.

I myself don't enjoy PvP, it sometimes causes more problems than not in the form of No Go Zones or proliferation of RWT for PvP gain. Otherwise it keeps the more aggressive of gamers off my selected servers so i may grind in peace.

As you have used EVE i'll do the same. EVE is built around the idea that if the game allows, you can do it, but you still can't steal from a persons hangers at stations nor their accounts without hacking them. The reward system for both sides is merely sec ratings and the new built in bounty system. Otherwise you can still go about your way in hi-sec as long as you know how to jump to zero meters and keep a list of stations you can use. Eventually starting another character to go places the other cannot, ultimately destroying a really balanced system. It doesn't make your account go negative sec, only that toon. Yes it doesn't allow for more than one toon training on one account, though in end game you are making enough isk off of ratting or stealing/killing PC's that you can afford to buy for a second account, (last checked 534 million isk for a PLEX).

I think if you want to look at how Real Crime in a Virtual World truly works, i'd watch the comments of/ or the reviews there of/ certain Free to Play games. Real World Trading, Item Duping, Ninja Looting, Griefing, PKing or otherwise breaking the rules in MMO's is the name of the game for millions of people world wide. They do not care about the repercussions, they only want to make money which eventually only leave them with a few blocked accounts, an IP block for a publisher, legal orders to stop and their names across the internet for their troubles.

Humans are not ready for Virtual Reality to become "real". Anonymous has proven that, To operate without a face is to operate on a higher level without repercussions. What would you do if you knew you wouldn't get caught?

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John Krajewski
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By crime in virtual worlds, I'm not talking about account hacking/item duping or other exploitations like that, those are due to flaws and security holes and were never intended to be part of the game.

Griefing is an interesting problem, and one that results in a design where players can harm each other but no system is setup to allow punishing this. It's the worst of both worlds - players can harm each other but there is no way to protect from this (with, for example, a bounty system, or something more sophisticated). It's critical to get that balance, the whole point of allowing crime and negative social behaviors is to make heroics and the real rule of law possible.

It doesn't matter if humans are ready or not for Virtual Reality to become 'real' (in the sense that the value they create crosses into the real world) because they already are. besides, the evidence is there in reality - if humans are able to collectively create a functioning society in reality, there's no reason they can't do it in a virtual reality as well, it's just a matter of a design that provides the tools to do so.

Kevin Fishburne
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Nice article, John. I've argued this myself many times and in general people have reacted negatively. I think there are two reasons for this. First, games which have tried this have done a crap job and either failed or were quickly baby-proofed to rein in the chaos (Ultima Online). Second, the WoW "walled garden" play style (also used by many single player games) is so pervasive and ingrained in people's minds that they simply cannot imagine such a radical alternative being successful or fun.

The good news is that this year we're going to find out if you and I are correct, as I've been working on such an MMO for nearly three years now:

John Krajewski
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Thanks Kevin, good luck on the game!