from the virtually-dastardly dept
With some of the recent news stories about how cheating, or other crimes, committed in virtual settings is resulting in real-world legal consequences, I'm sort of surprised the media hadn't picked up on this story before. Apparently back in the summer of 2012, two teenagers, Patrick Nepomuceno and Michael Stinger, ran a scheme in Blizzard's Diablo 3 in which Stinger would send out a link to another player that allowed Nepomuceno to take control of the player's computer, force the player's character to drop all of his/her valuable virtual game items, and then Stinger would scoop them up.
According to [Prosecutor] Wilkison, court documents, and an interview with Michael Stinger, Nepomuceno bought a RAT, a ‘remote access tool’ used to take over a computer remotely. Nepomuceno and Stinger got other Diablo III players to download the RAT by disguising it as a link to a photo, which they claimed was a screenshot of a rare item. After a player clicked on the link and downloaded the RAT, Nepomuceno gained access to their computer, and was able to take over their Diablo character. He would force the character to drop all of the valuable gear and gold the player had collected, and Stinger’s demon hunter character, who was hanging out nearby in the game, would swoop in to steal the goods. “Imagine you are a gamer and you have worked long and hard to get all these items,” said Wilkison. “The victim watches himself lose everything.”Court documents insist that the pair then sold these virtual items for thousands of dollars, something which Stinger at least disputes. Blizzard banned the pair once the reports of the virtual "theft" began rolling in, but the company apparently wasn't satisfied with that as an end to the story. Instead, Blizzard brought in the FBI, who raided Stinger's house and made off with his computer equipment. Nepomuceno declined to be interviewed, but his equipment was likely confiscated as well. Blizzard, for their part, restored the virtual items to the victims, which is where the legal part of this story gets very interesting.
But how do you prosecute a crime with no actual losses? “Blizzard gave the victims the goods back,” said Wilkison. “That made the loss calculation difficult because the victims were reimbursed. So instead we calculated the [perpetrators’] gain.”It's an interesting question, I think, because if the victims are the players, they suffered no loss. Blizzard could be said to be the victim, but their restored virtual items carry a real-life worth that is nebulous and subjective at best, so I would think assessing any kind of value to the items for the purposes of declaring a felony would be quite difficult. The two virtual muggers apparently didn't want to fight this out in court, however. Both accepted probation and were forced to pay Blizzard back for the costs of investigating their actions. Notably, it does not appear they were forced to pay the company back for the worth of the virtual items, which seems strange since their worth was the basis for the felony prosecution to begin with. The real crime, it would seem to me, was the unlawful access of another person's computer in all of this, but the discussion around a felony for theft of virtual items took the main stage.
Theft of virtual items in which no loss actually occurrs to the victims, something that we've actually discussed before, almost a decade ago. Given that the question apparently hasn't gone away, the legal world is going to have to figure out how to navigate these virtual waters, and I don't think tossing around felonies strictly for the crime of stealing virtual items in a video game is a good route to take.