Don’t do it – not even in a virtual world

Hannu Ahola has an interesting story to tell.

His story takes place in a virtual world that many of us who are too busy in the real world never visit. Hannu is an active player of an online role-playing game called World of Warcraft. What is he doing then when he is “playing”? In the World of Warcraft, players from all over the world buy accounts and create characters. By accomplishing different missions, these characters gain skills and virtual wealth that other players envy.

So, when does the game end? Never – much to the relief of its 11 million active players.

Hannu’s story started about 4 years ago. His friends were urging him to play World of Warcraft. At first, he was not interested. But after a little convincing, he bought an account from an acquaintance, which turned out to be mistake.  But Hannu didn’t know that yet.

He found himself spending more and more time playing. He estimates that during those first two years he played 8-10 hours per day. Every day. The result was an impressive character that accumulated a substantial amount of wealth and talents. The character was so good that people might have been willing to pay real world money for it.

And this fact did not escape the acquaintance who originally owned the account. Using the original account information, this 18-year old boy was able to take control of Hannu’s character and the virtual wealth Hannu had been building for years. And it seemed that there was nothing Hannu could do about it.

Most of us have trouble understanding this kind of loss. Hannu explained it to me: “What if you had collected stamps passionately for 2 years. You had put all your spare time into it and then someone took it away. How would that make you feel?”

After he figured out that it was his acquaintance who stole his character, Hannu contacted the boy – who promptly ignored him. He then contacted the boy’s mother but got no help.

Stealing is punishable in the real world, but did not seem to matter in the virtual world. Except to Hannu. He hired a lawyer and took the issue to court.

After a 1,5 year battle, the young boy was sentenced to pay Hannu 4000 euros for the character Hannu finally never got back. But Hannu had won the moral battle: there are limits to what you can do in the virtual world. Hannu’s case represents the first time that a real world court in Finland dealt with a matter related to virtual worlds, and I have the feeling there’s more to come.

(For more about Hannu and the value of virtual world commodities, check out Sean from the F-Secure Labs on “What is a World of Warcraft Account Worth?“)

The boundaries between virtual worlds and the real world are blurring. World of Warcraft accounts get phished all the time. Children are bullied in virtual worlds. In China, even murders have been committed because of  virtual world events. But they also provide a lot of opportunities for enjoyment and self-expression – as long as we obey the law. And for that to happen, we’re going to need a lot more people like Hannu.

So good job, my friend!

Cheers,
Marja

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