Virtual Murder

Following up on yesterday’s item about virtual theft is a story about virtual murder in Japan. (Again, from Eugene Volokh.)

Like the theft, this virtual murder was accomplished through the use of real-world force.

A 43-year-old Japanese piano teacher’s sudden divorce from her online husband in a virtual game world made her so angry that she logged on and killed his digital persona, police said Thursday.

The woman used login information she got from the 33-year-old office worker when their characters were happily married, and killed the character. The man complained to police when he discovered that his beloved online avatar was dead.

Volokh argues that,

Had she engaged in the “virtual killing” from her own account, by using a feature of the game that made such action possible, or even exploiting a bug in the game that made such action possible, it seems to me that this would just be an interesting extra twist in the game’s narrative. Such action should be dealt with by whatever mechanisms the game’s operators provide (perhaps including expulsion of the misbehaving user, if the operators view such conduct as misbehavior), or at most by a breach of contract lawsuit for violating any user license agreement terms — not by the real-world criminal law.

One interesting aspect of this is the amount of harm caused. In the virtual world (Maple Story, in this case) it should be possible for the administrators of the game to restore the dead avatar to life. In which case, the harm inflicted by the virtual murder amounts to at most a few days lost playing time. (And as it happens, Maple Story is free to play.)

This is a great example of the kind of issues that in-game, virtual courts could help resolve conflicts. The game has officially sanctioned marriages, creating invitation and reception mechanisms and even going so far as to reward the marrying couple with wedding rings. But the game did not provide a mechanism for divorce. The AP story is thin, but it seems as though some in-game mechanism to resolve disputes may have mollified the virtual wife.

Again, these cases are currently oddities only because the amounts of money involved in the disputes is still small. But the value of virtual goods will continue to rise, and as they do, these cases will become more common and more serious. (Maple Story is free to play, but players can purchase in game currency and special items by buying Nexon cash with hard currency.)

One absurdity: Maple Story prohibits “same-sex” marriages. Presumably because they think it would be wrong for two 12 year-old boys to virtually marry. Unless one is pretending to be a girl of course. Then it’s OK.


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