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[Rutgers University law professor Greg Lastowka looks at whether players can and should be granted legal ownership of virtual items, whether or not there's any existing legal precedent and how the virtual item landscape may change in the near future.]
In the spring of 2011, an English newspaper reported that over 300 prisoners at the Jixi labor camp in northeastern China were being forced to work 12-hbaour shifts at night playing video games. These night shifts followed long days of forced manual labor. The prisoners were playing games in order to gather virtual gold. They were beaten if they failed to meet their production quotas. Incidents of prison brutality in China may not be surprising, but prisoners being forced to play online games was certainly something new.
Why would prison guards force inmates to play online games? The answer, as anyone familiar with MMORPGs should know, is that the objects and currency they obtained could be sold for real money. The prison guards sold the fruits of the inmate labor to line their own pockets.
In the United States, I have met many people who have sold some form of virtual property from an online game. Most have made a few thousand (real) dollars -- some substantially more -- selling off the assets they acquired in MMORPGs.
Most game companies are not happy about this, and for good reason. Game companies would rather avoid the task of mediating player disputes.
To illustrate: say that Player A claims he paid Player B real money for a virtual sword, but Player B didn't deliver that sword. Or say Player B claims he delivered a virtual sword to Player A, but claims Player A didn't pay for it. Chances are that this dispute will be brought first to the game company. From the standpoint of the game company, meting out virtual justice between A and B is simply a needless customer service cost.
But this isn't the only problem. As Richard Bartle has explained, games that allow real money markets for virtual property risk a host of pitfalls. Trading real money for virtual loot destroys immersion, ruins game balance, raises legal issues with regard to taxation and intellectual property rights, and to some MMORPG players, seems a lot like cheating. Perhaps a company can build a game that profitably incorporates real money trading in player-owned virtual property, but it is a very tricky business to get right.
So most game companies, wisely, advise their players that they have no rights in the virtual items they acquire. Despite this, as the example of Jixi labor camp shows, sales of virtual property persist. In fact, some have estimated that these trades form a multi-billion dollar market. And so the property puzzles persist as well.
The most tragic story of virtual property is another tale from China.
In 2004, a Chinese gamer from Shanghai, Qiu Chengwei, found a Dragon Saber in the Korean MMORPG Legend of Mir. The Dragon Saber was so powerful that it was worth almost a thousand dollars. A friend of Qiu, Zhu Caoyuan, asked him if he could borrow the sword. When Qiu transferred the sword, Zhu sold it to another player and pocketed the money. Qiu had not just lost his virtual sword; he had lost a substantial sum of money.
I do not know if Qiu went to the game company, but he did complain to the Chinese police. The police, however, turned him away, explaining that according to the law, the Dragon Saber wasn't his legal property.
So, after brooding over the loss for several days, Qiu confronted Zhu in person. There was a fight, Qiu pulled out a (real) knife, and stabbed Zhu, killing him. He then turned himself in to the police. The last news report I read about Qiu Chengwei stated that he was serving a life sentence in a Chinese prison. Presumably, given the location of Shanghai, he is not among the gold farmers at the Jixi labor camp.