Virtual Worlds–Not Really Virtual, Not Virtually Real

I was having an interesting discussion with a lawyer friend whose views about promotions and marketing I respect greatly. We started out talking about virtual worlds and avatars and the new proliferation of non-reality based entertainment—virtual Laguna Beach, for example. Now, I seem to have enough trouble juggling the demands of life in the real word. I have had my fill of reality shows—which never seem to be quite real—and I was just beginning to get the hang of fantasy sports leagues and interactive game playing. Now along come virtual worlds, where fantasy, role-playing, game-playing and interactive social networking collide. I remember playing Kings Quest and Police Quest and Space Quest and chuckling, with my kids, about the funny lines and the clever clues as we searched kingdoms, busy streets and outer galaxies to solve the puzzle. My daughter just recently reminded me of Ecoquest—a game I can’t find anymore that taught us all a little bit about saving the environment. Then came MMOGs and MMPORGs (that’s “Massively Multiple Player Online Role-Playing Games”—for the uninitiated). In virtual worlds, I get to act out a combination of real and fantasy activities with virtual characters called “avatars” which are created within parameters defined by the computer code, but which are otherwise open to my unique interpretation of the characters and roles I choose to play. I read a report about a man in South Korea who died of heart failure last year. Apparently stopping only for bathroom breaks and short catnaps, he played an online simulated war game for 50 hours and, ostensibly because of exhaustion, his heart gave out. I recently read several reports that made me realize this was no longer just child’s play. The first was about a woman who was able to quit her job because, through buying, selling and creating properties and providing services in a virtual world, she was able to “earn” more than $150,000 per year. Although I don’t know exactly what she did, I know you can convert your digital earnings into real money at websites such as gamingopenmarket.com. These sites not only enable you to convert digital-virtual money into U.S. cash at exchange rates that are established much the same way monetary exchanges do around the world, but they also enable folks like you and me to dabble in arbitrage trading in virtual currency. Will I someday be able to take my virtual company public in an IPO or solicit venture capital investments from qualified avatars? Is the SEC far behind?

This made me think about some of the legal implications that are arising, not simply as a consequence of our interaction with these virtual worlds—i.e., what we do or say in the real world because of our play in the virtual worlds—but also with regard to those things that happen in the virtual worlds themselves. In these worlds, I can earn money, buy real estate, get a job, spend money to buy things and even interact socially with others. I can fly, go skydiving, marry, have children, own an island and amass untold wealth—all in a make-believe world. Hmmmm…have you seen your own real money lately? In the bank? Pieces of paper? Statements from the custodian of your 401(k)? In March 2002, the BBC published a report entitled “Virtual Kingdom Richer Than Bulgaria” which cited “Norrath,” virtual world in the online game Everquest, as the 77th richest country in the world, just between Russia and Bulgaria. The article pointed out that U.S. research indicates that virtual internal markets, combined with illegal online trading on auction websites, give the fictitious kingdom of Norrath a gross national product per capita of $2,266—larger than China and India.

I suspect it is inevitable that virtual worlds create virtual real estate and virtual intellectual property and virtual problems that spill over into real problems. So what laws and regulations apply between and amongst avatars? If I am 16 years old, but I create an adult avatar, can the avatar enter into a binding contract in the virtual world? What if your avatar commits a crime? The actions of an avatar in a virtual world are purely expressions translated into visual and contextual actions—no physical crime has really occurred. Or has it? If my avatar buys a sweater and your avatar steals it—can I sue you? Can I have your avatar prosecuted and sent to jail? Clearly if I, in the real world, track you down, in the real world, and act based upon the fantasy play in the virtual world, my real conduct is actionable. But will there be a virtual insanity defense available someday? A man in China stabbed an acquaintance who stole a “saber” in a virtual world and sold it for about $1,000 to someone else. What happens to the player who buys virtual currency with real currency, invests his or her life savings, and either gets involved in a virtual scam, or else the company that developed the virtual world goes bankrupt or, as their terms of use typically provide, simply changes the rules of the game or even terminates the world.

I recall seeing Edward Albee’s Tiny Alice in the theater a long time ago. I remember being fascinated by the discussion of the doll house that occupied center stage, which was a replica of the real house in which it sat. When the characters looked into the main room of the doll house, lo and behold, there was a replica of the doll house—just as in the real house. Within the main room of that doll house, was yet another doll house, and so on in infinite fashion. It reminded me how virtual our worlds have become and how legal reality is often just a virtual world away. Wow? I don’t know, but I’m keeping my Laguna Beach money under the mattress—just in case.