Cons in the virtual gaming world

When virtual crime finds its way into online role-playing games, should real-world authorities step in?

Earlier this month, a virtual bank CEO in the science-fiction role-playing game "Eve Online" made off with billions in cybercurrency that fellow gamers had entrusted to him with the hope of earning some interest.

The banker, a player who goes by the alias "Cally," has admitted to the scam, and even bragged about it. It's unlikely, however, that any action will be taken against him--online or offline. In the freewheeling world of "Eve," what the virtual banker did was distasteful, but it probably didn't break any rules.

The , known as the "EIB scandal"--after Eve Intergalactic Bank, the name of Cally's operation--was a pretty simple con job. "Somebody makes it big by stealing from other people," explained Mark Smith, an "Eve Online" player who watched the EIB scandal unfold earlier this month. "Eventually the house of cards crumbles and the scheme is exposed. In fact, that's pretty much exactly how this thing came about."

The aftermath, however, is much more complicated, and industry experts say it should raise warning flags for gamers who spend money on auction sites and exchanges to buy items used in virtual worlds. Some even think such virtual scandals could end up being settled in real-world courts.

"This stuff is real money," said journalist Julian Dibbell, author of "Play Money: Or, How I Quit My Day Job And Struck It Rich In Virtual Loot Farming." According to Dibbell, "once the money trade is there, this stuff can be sold as quickly and sometimes more quickly than real currency."

So-called massive multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs) have seen their fair share of skullduggery. Last year, fantasy MMORPG "EverQuest" was plagued by a massive counterfeit scheme, and this spring "Second Life" faced a barrage of denial-of-service attacks. And with crime came punishment: In the "EverQuest" situation, the hackers responsible lost their accounts in the game; and the denial-of-service attacks on "Second Life" attracted a federal investigation.

"Once the money trade is there, this stuff can be sold as quickly and sometimes more quickly than real currency."
--Julian Dibbell, journalist

But what happens when the rules of a game allow players to be subject to trickery, robbery, embezzlement, fraud and other deeds that make recent look mild by comparison? That's the situation with the EIB scandal. In many popular MMORPGs, such as "World of Warcraft" and "Dark Age of Camelot," Cally wouldn't have come anywhere close to walking free after something like the EIB scandal, Smith said. Rules of etiquette are tough, strictly enforced, and malicious players "just don't have any real impact over other players" because they tend to be quickly discovered and exiled, he said.

"Eve Online" is far less regulated, and its end user license agreement (EULA) make that clear. "The behavior of Cally and his EIB is despicable, but allowed. As long as he kept all of his work within the boundaries of the EULA, there's nothing ('Eve Online' creator) CCP Games will do to touch him," Smith said.

Indeed, the game's creator, based in Iceland, hopes to remain neutral in this situation. "CCP does not intervene in such cases and will only get involved if a game exploit was used, which we have not found any indication of in this case," CCP CEO Magnús Bergsson wrote in an e-mail to CNET

Reactions to the EIB scandal peppered MMORPG forums and blogs for days after the incident. Opinions were mixed. Some players were outraged, while others shrugged the incident off with an attitude of "whatever, it's not real money." One poster in the MMORPG section of the QJ.Net blog site suggested that "Eve Online" players, after agreeing to the anything-goes EULA, ought to know that their virtual possessions run the risk of theft: "It's part of the game," the commenter said. Going after Cally "would be like suing someone you lost to at poker."

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