Kid nicked for virtual theft. So what’s new?

Posted on November 17, 2007

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habbo sofaThe news that a Dutch teenager had been arrested on suspicion of stealing £2,800 of virtual furniture in Habbo Hotel raised a load of eyebrows, both across the blogosphere and in the mainstream media last week. It’s typical of the tabloid press to revel in this kind of thing but even (!) the Guardian on Saturday took an irritatingly hysterical viewpoint. “As a teenager is arrested for stealing pixels…” the article began, before going into further details about the crime.

There’s nothing whatsoever different about this theft: it isn’t about theft of “pixels”, any more than stealing credit card details via phishing is stealing pixels. Currency on Habbo Hotel – as in Second Life, or There or Entropia or many of the other virtual universes – is currency directly exchanged from “real” money just as you exchange dollars for pounds or lira for euros. Stealing “virtually” is therefore absolutely stealing “really”. Given that in these worlds the currency exchange is also increasingly two-directional (i.e. your virtual currency transformed back into “real” currency), the line blurs even more. “Don’t stop that man: he only stole my lira, not my real money” isn’t a likely cry – so why are we so full of the “new horror of virtual theft” when the money is just money but in a different currency?

The second argument: that many people (mainly those who don’t spend any time in these worlds) can’t understand why these virtual currencies should have value in those worlds is understandable, but immaterial. If you had never spent any time in Greece you wouldn’t understand the immeasurable value of a bottle of Amstel on a hot day. In a virtual world, looking cool (and therefore spending money on how you look in that world) is very, very important to people who spend time in those worlds. People like looking cool in the real world: why would it make any difference in a virtual one?

Nobody bats an eyelid at paying a huge quantity of money for a diamond: the only reason we rate gems is because they are rare (now how weird is that…?) Inherently, when you start to think about it, nothing apart from food, water and shelter actually have any value at all…

Anyway. Obviously time for a beer. Theft is theft is theft, virtual shoes, real shoes, virtual property, real property, virtual money, real money.

Next story, please…

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