Virtual Crimes and Punishments

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With the emergence of virtual environments there has come the emergence of virtual crimes, which can vary from identity theft through computer interfaces to harassment through email. Likewise, the punishment options for these crimes can vary substantially. In addition, the authorities that punish the "criminals" is not the same across virtual communities.

McGruff the Crime Dog.


To simplify virtual crimes, a virtual crime can be said to be any "action or an instance of negligence that is deemed injurious to the public welfare or morals or to the interests of the state" in a Virtual Environment. However, because of the diversity of virtual environments there is much subjectivity around what qualifies as a virtual crime. Moreover, there has been a large discourse around universal or national virtual crimes. See Policy Vacuums for further readings on this discourse.

A virtual punishment is any penalty inflicted for a virtual crime. The punishment, however, is not limited to the virtual world. A crime in the virtual world can have penalties in the real world.

Dealing with Crime

McGruff the Crime Dog is a cartoon dog that was created for the National Crime Prevention Council to help people protect their digital assets and real-world identities by educating them about cyberspace. The website include games, videos, and advice on how to deal with virtual crime. It creates a interactive experience for all ages and educates the public about the harms of the Internet.

Debatable Virtual Crimes

Ethical Concerns


Cheating refers to forms of gaining an advantage within some sort of game system through the use of exploitation, data manipulation, and hacks. There are two types of gaming environments that outline ethical questions differently, single player and multiplayer gaming environments.

Single player games (a game played by one person from start to finish) ethical concerns relate strongly to misuse of product concerns and degradation of quality. Video game developers who create games designed for one person layout a series "hurdles" for the player to overcome. The hurdles are designed to teach a player necessary skills to advance the game on the road to completion. By cheating (via data manipulation, cheat codes, game guides), those necessary skills are not obtained. Thus the player is less likely to enjoy the product as it was intended. Cheating in a single player game takes away value instilled into the game by the developers by essentially gaining advantages for nothing. The devaluing of in-game content leads to the product less valuable in the eyes of the cheater.

Multiplayer games (games played by multiple players at once) see cheating as gaining an unfair advantage over other players. Ethical concerns like trust, security, and unfairness become apparent instantly when a cheater is discovered. Multiplayer cheating affects other players, leaving the cheater to be the unfair victor. Players who discover a cheater raise questions about whether that person is trustworthy and if his own account is in jeopardy.

Virtual Rape

Virtual Rape (putting video game slang aside) is considered to be the sexual violation of someones online avatar. The result of a virtual rape involves psychological damage to the victim such as what happened in LambdaMOO. The virtual rape can also cause the victim to be physically pain as well. One ethical concern is the punishment of virtual rape. Should virtual rape be considered just as serious as physical rape? Such questions were were raised following the LambdaMoo incident among victims and spectators which ended in the termination of the "rapist's" account.

Forms of Punishments for Virtual Crimes

Ostracism from virtual spaces

Punishment for virtual crimes have three possible realms, the virtual world in which the crime was committed, digital spaces outside the virtual world, and the physical world.

Punishment in the virtual world

The within-world punishment for committed virtual crimes can be carried out by the players or administrators of said world.

A common choice for player driven punishment is choosing to ostracize the virtual criminal. An example is from the MMORPG World of Warcraft. When a player is branded a ninja (a player who takes an game object without the rest of the groups consent), the affected group spread the branded player's name. The branded character is often not invited or denied access to other group activities. The rejection to group activity is a major hindrance to the branded player because a majority of World of Warcraft game content is group based.

Administrative action against virtual crimes, such as griefing, is often suspension of the user's character. Exploitation of the game's content is met with a reversal of the user's progress before exploitation began (a rollback) and even account closure.

Punishment in exterior digital spaces

Virtual crime punishment can reach other virtual spaces if the crime is severe enough. The punishment for sever crimes usually results in an account closure. Blizzard created a scale detailing in administrative action to repeated virtual world offenders[1]. Account closure is an extreme choice because the deletion of virtual data is the most ethically involved action to be taken by virtual world's administration. Such was the case with toading as the result of virtual rape in LambdaMOO[2]. The deletion of data (entropy of information) is considered the ultimate evil by Luciano Floridi[3].

Cases of Real World Punishment for Virtual Crimes

  • In 2008, two teenagers in the Netherlands were given 160 and 200 community service hours for virtually assaulting and stealing material goods in the popular virtual environment, Runescape[4].
  • A first in the country, a man in Great Britain was arrested for hacking into several Runescape accounts and stealing characters and virtual materials[5].
  • In February 2005, a Chinese man selling online game accounts was sentenced to a year in prison and a 5,000 yuan fine for embezzlement of an account he sold to a customer[6]. The use of real currency in exchange for virtual materials have since been banned in China.

Scholars in Virtual Crimes and Punishments

See also

External Links


  2. See Virtual Rape
  3. Floridi, Luciano, ed. The Cambridge Handbook of Information and Computer Ethics. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2010. Print. pg 17

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