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Hands off my non-existent furniture!

The BBC recently reported that a Dutch teenager has been arrested for allegedly stealing €4,000 worth of virtual furniture from virtual hotel rooms in Habbo Hotel, a social networking website. 

The activity was judged worthy of real-world police attention because
users who wish to furnish their virtual hotel rooms with virtual
furniture must pay for it with real money, and – according to Sulake,
the Finnish company that operates Habbo – the alleged thief created a fake
website in order to trick other users into providing their Habbo log-in
details, before logging into their accounts and moving the furniture out of
their rooms.

The case gives rise to a number of interesting ethical questions, such
as: What is the relation between the real world and the virtual world?
Can real people own virtual possessions?  If so, is it appropriate to
consider ‘theft’ of virtual possessions, which can be replicated and
obliterated  by the website owner with
negligible effort and expense, on a par with theft of real-world possessions,
which take effort and expense to recover or replace?  Is it appropriate
for real-world police to punish thefts of virtual possessions?  Does
this instance of ‘phishing’ (luring people into divulging information
by creating
websites that masquerade as trusted sites) appear more sinister than it
really is because phishing usually aims at stealing real-world money or
gaining access
to personal information for real-world fraudulent purposes?  How is
requesting police involvement in such a case significantly different
from requesting that the police intervene in an instance of cheating in
– say – a game of Scrabble?  (To make the two cases as alike as
possible, let us assume that, just as the Habbo users invested
real-world money in their virtual furniture, the Scrabble players
invested resources in the game; perhaps by travelling some distance in order to play,
cancelling some other enjoyable social engagement, or paying to join a
Scrabble club.)

my view, one particularly interesting set of questions relates to the
extent to which, in what respects, and why, users of a virtual world
wish it to mimic the real world.  In some respects, it seems that the
more ‘real’ the virtual world can be made to seem, the better: through
the virtual world, real people want to enjoy real relationships with
each other in an environment that looks as realistic as possible.
Moreover, it seems likely that were equipment widely and affordably
available to enable users more convincingly to inhabit the virtual
world – by being able to feel, taste, and smell it – it would be
very popular.  However, various aspects of the real world are unwelcome
in the virtual world: that users do not generally seem concerned to
ensure that their ‘avatars’ (the virtual characters that users create
to represent themselves) are as like themselves as possible suggests
that users do not wish their own real-world characteristics to be
mimicked as closely as possible in the virtual world.  And, that the
real-world police have been called upon to deal with the theft of
virtual possessions suggests that – as far as at least some enthusiasts
for virtual worlds are concerned – punishment for wrongdoing is better
dealt with in the real world.  But, why is this?  Is it impossible, or
unworkable, to impose punishments in the virtual world – by sending
avatars to virtual prison, for example, or by confiscating virtual
possessions?  Or, is it the case that all wrongdoing takes place
only in the real world, and must be dealt with there – in which case,
how can we best account for what (if anything) is wrong with the ‘theft’ of virtual possessions?  And, does calling on real-world
institutions to deal with theft of virtual possessions reinforce the
idea that the virtual world is more than mere frivolous diversion, by
taking seriously theft of virtual possessions; or undermine it, by
recognising the limitations of the virtual world in punishing

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1 Comment on this post

  1. I think it would help to sort out some metaphysics. The virtual world is not unreal and is not another world. It is a part of the real world. But there are two kinds of virtual worlds.

    In one kind the phenomenal world of the virtual world is a fiction, in which case the nature of the virtual world is similar to the nature of a book or film. The representation exists but the things represented in the world do not exist. In that case there is nothing to own but the representation itself. In the other kind of virtual world, the phenomenal world of the virtual world, the contents of the world exist, but they are not generally as they appear. One important exception is money. Whilst a virtual bed is not a bed, it is perfectly possible for virtual money to be money.

    In the second type of world, since there can be real ownership there can be real property crime. However, virtual violence is not violence, but virtual verbal abuse is verbal abuse. More broadly, I’m inclined to think that for any part of reality that is wholly constituted by relations between persons, there is no distinction between the reality of the virtual world and the non-virtual world: e.g. virtual beds are not beds but virtual communication is communication. So any crime that is constituted wholly by transgressing relations between people would be a crime in such a world. However, crimes whose constitution involves our bodily persons, such as grievous bodily harm, cannot occur between avatars. This is not to deny they might be another kind of crime, but I suspect that the proper legal protection of free speech (sorely lacking in Britain and the EU) will and should shield a great deal of virtual abusive behaviour from being a crime.

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