Virtual worlds enter the real world

As the industry takes off at an unimaginable rate, the real-world impact of online games deserves study and regulation.

Right now, as you read this, there are thousands of people around the globe “living” their lives on virtual worlds. These worlds exist in massive multiplayer online games, or MMPOGs, that continuously exist online regardless of any one person’s participation. Basically, you log in and you exist in that world; you log off and it keeps going without you. Some of these worlds boast more than a million player-citizens.

MMPOGs, themselves, aren’t anything new. Most college students have probably heard of “EverQuest,” “The Sims” and similar games – but as technology for these games has grown, so has the intensity. We’re reaching the point at which virtual worlds are having spectacular and potentially dangerous real-world ramifications.

Just from the financial level, some of the “real world” economies of these virtual worlds are astonishing. Studies of Sony’s “EverQuest” revealed that the amount of real-world cash used in the game and in trade of virtual items, on sites such as eBay, gave its land of Norrath a higher gross domestic product than Romania and a greater per-capita income than India or China.

Let that season in your mind a bit. Somewhere off on the Internet there’s a virtual economy bigger than many African nations. And now “EverQuest” is obsolete, replaced by other virtual worlds that are even bigger. As I’ve followed these developments, I’ve been waiting for an inevitable milestone in which a single event in a virtual world deserves serious attention in the real world.

That event occurred this winter. In December, the British Broadcasting Corp. reported that a man spent $26,500 to purchase a virtual island. That’s real-world U.S. dollars. Why did he pay that much? He planned to make even more money by selling the virtual mining rights. This is an example of how, if you get enough people to believe in the value of something, people will treat it as if it has far more value than it did before. The idea seems reasonable when you think about how people value stocks, paper money and a $765 Gucci handbag.

Still, this isn’t just about money. Like many games, people get addicted. However, because MMPOGs are often far more intense than other games, the addictions have more dramatic effects.

South Korea, the world’s most-wired nation, is at the forefront of virtual-world addiction issues. During the last several years, people have actually died playing MMPOGs. The fatal scenarios are eerily similar: A person is depressed and then escapes into an engrossing virtual world. Playing at home or at a 24-hour Internet cafe, they get so entwined by the game they start skipping meals and stop sleeping. After approximately 48-72 hours, their bodies just stop working and they die of exhaustion. While these are exceptional events, the games are only getting more addictive – and how many people died from ephedra before it got the boot?

The potential impact on law and international relations is daunting. Without boring you with technical gobbledygook, let me toss out the following plausible scenario: A person playing a virtual game in Colorado finds a way to break the rules of the game and steal a virtual item from another player in South Korea. The price of the stolen item was more than $10,000. Imagine the litany of problems: Can you sue? Where do you sue? What country’s law would apply? What, exactly, was stolen? Where did the theft happen? I’m going to tell you: No one has an answer to any of this. It’s a ticking time bomb ready to leap out of the virtual world and cause chaos in the real world. Remember, someone just purchased a $26,500 virtual island.

This growing trend has no sign of stopping; I’ve recently had a work associate vanish for two months and completely neglect his business because he was becoming a “level 60 mage” in “Worlds of Warcraft.” Policymakers need to stop thinking of MMPOGs as mere games and realize that there are entire worlds out there that will need regulation on many levels, and soon.

Bobak Ha’Eri welcomes comments at [email protected]