New Crimes, New Punishments

by Alphaville Herald on 19/05/06 at 6:47 pm

The New Scientist is running an article in its May 20th edition all about crime and punishment in the virtual world — one of the Herald’s favorite subjects. In fact, most of the piece could have been ripped from the Herald headlines — and probably was. Of course, it features yet another interview with mafia don and media hound Marsellus Wallace, but don’t let that stop you. Mars even outs his gf in this one!

Relevant portions excerpted below for your discussion:

Between October and December last year, a group of residents in a game called Second Life – who cannot be named for legal reasons – experimented with attacks on the fabric of the Second Life universe itself. They constructed self-replicating objects which copied themselves over and over until the whole universe became overcrowded and the game’s servers crashed. One group even created an object resembling a block of virtual Semtex. Just like a real bomb, when it exploded, the servers running that section of the universe went down, destroying the realm and everything in it.

Linden Lab, which runs Second Life, says the attacks cost the company time and money and were a clear violation of US Code Title 18, section 1030 – which outlaws “denial-of-service” attacks. The law says, in effect, that if you knowingly transmit information to a computer involved in communication beyond the boundaries of the state that results in $5000 or more of damage, you face a hefty fine and up to 10 years’ imprisonment. Linden Lab called in the FBI, in what is probably the first criminal investigation of activities that originated inside a virtual world. “These attacks affect the ability of our servers to provide a service for which people are paying us money,” says Ginsu Yoon, Linden Lab’s counsel. In Linden Lab’s eyes, at least, planting a virtual bomb should be considered a real crime.
“The FBI was called in, in what is probably the first criminal investigation of activities that originated in the virtual world”

It’s not only the games companies that say in-game crimes have real consequences. The player who owned Mirial spent a large amount of time and effort amassing her virtual wealth. Its theft and her character’s murder was a tangible loss. Cases like these only serve to emphasise that the issue of in-game justice is becoming a serious concern.

To date, the absence of law enforcement inside these games has led to players setting up their own alternatives. Jeremy Chase, a customer service manager and IT specialist based in Sacramento, California, formed the Sim Mafia within the game Sims Online. Players could hire Chase and his virtual employees to perform all the services you might expect from a bona fide crime family.

As the popularity of Sims Online waned, Chase moved his crime family to another game run by Linden Lab, a free-form universe called Second Life, where he renamed himself Marsellus Wallace. Now, for the right amount of virtual currency, Chase’s family will “sort out” any problems you have with another Second Life resident. They will blackmail, bribe or collect debts from your virtual enemies. And if they don’t cooperate, Wallace can arrange a hit, which consists of a barrage of pestering instant messages and bad ratings that can affect a character’s reputation and credit – or can even murder them (

I logged on to Second Life to meet Wallace in his marble-floored mansion. “At the moment I have a consigliore, an under-boss, three capos and several soldiers,” he says. Wallace’s reputation in the game is such that an interior designer, eager to curry favour, furnished his mansion for free. Sitting in one of his favourite leather chairs, he told me about his latest strong-arm operation. An associate called Drax Lumiex, who owned a Second Life establishment called the Red Dragon Casino, had asked Wallace if he wanted to go into business with him. The two made a deal and Lumiex even acted as best man at Wallace’s virtual wedding – to Mackenzie Draper, another Second Life character, played by Chase’s real-world girlfriend. The casino seemed to be doing well and the men planned to split the profits, but whenever Wallace asked, Lumiex insisted the casino was running at a loss. Wallace was suspicious.

Lumiex’s casino was famous in Second Life for its unique facade: a huge sculpted red dragon, with the entrance through the mouth. For months, Wallace worked to earn Lumiex’s trust, and finally Lumiex made him a casino partner and gave him permission to modify objects inside. In revenge for being cut out of the profits, Wallace did the virtual equivalent of torching the place. He deleted the red dragon.

Chase likes to think of Wallace as a virtual John Gotti – the reviled and admired New York mafia boss imprisoned in 1992. “He fought the law, like I do. Sure, he was violent and ruthless. But with the bad, there is always some good.”

In the real world, Chase’s mafia activities would pit him against the law. Online, Wallace is well known to Linden Lab and has become a minor celebrity within the game. For now he continues to act with impunity.
Laying down the virtual law

But slowly, things are changing. For many people, online gaming is now a major part of life – a third of Second Life players spend more time in the game than in the real world. So companies are starting to accept that some sort of policing is necessary. As a rule, the medieval approach prevails – those who break the rules are suspended, or exiled from the virtual world. Linden Lab now runs a points system: the more frequently you misbehave and the worse the transgression, the more negative points you get. The higher the rate at which you accrue points, the more severe the punishment. “Violations that target other characters or make Second Life feel unsafe or unwelcoming are dealt with more aggressively,” says Linden Lab’s Daniel Huebner.

Banishment is a blunt tool, however, as players can simply creep back into the game under another name and identity. And in any case, the issue of punishment per se throws up a tough question for games companies: isn’t the point of the virtual worlds to escape the restrictions of the real one?
“For many people, online gaming is now a major part of life. A third of Second Life players spend more time in the game than in the real world”

So Linden Lab is testing an alternative approach of rehabilitating offenders. In January, Second Life resident Nimrod Yaffle reverse engineered some computer code to help him steal another player’s virtual property. He was reported and became the first resident to be sent to a new area of the game, The Cornfield – a kind of virtual prison. Every time he logged on all he could do was ride a virtual tractor and watch an educational film about a boy who drifts into a life of crime.

Other games are also trying to keep punishments in tune with their setting. For example, Cynewulf, played by an electrical engineer from Flint, Michigan, is perhaps the only American alive who has some experience of crucifixion. He is a resident of a new game called Roma Victor, which is based in Roman Britain, and a barbarian. In April he spent seven days nailed to a cross for ruthlessly killing new players as soon as they entered the game.

The punishment had an effect. “It was surprisingly agonising for just being a game,” Cynewulf says. “Being jeered at by the Romans while immobilised is not much fun. Particularly since they are all weaklings who deserve to die by my sword.”

Acts like Cynewulf’s virtual murders can usually be clearly labelled as crimes. But what about more subtle forms of disagreement? What if your neighbour builds a huge tower block that blocks the light to your virtual garden? Who can you turn to? Last year, two law students, known in Second Life as Judge Mason and Judge Churchill, decided to solve this problem by opening the Second Life Superior Court. Residents could take their arguments, large or small, to the in-world courtroom. With reference to the Second Life rules, and their own knowledge of real-world law, the judges would resolve disputes.

Predictably, not all Second Life residents liked the idea. “What a mind-numbingly futile exercise,” Tony Walsh wrote on a Second Life bulletin board. “So now we have yet another level of tedious bureaucracy to Second Life.” Others wondered whether the court would have any teeth to back up a judgement, or even what would happen if a Linden (a character played by an employee of Linden Lab) was the target of a case. To clarify their non-involvement, Linden Lab requested that the court change its name. It is now the Metaverse Superior Court. With its teeth removed, the court fell into disuse. The idea isn’t totally dead: there is one small community in Second Life, called New Altonburg, that successfully polices itself. Linden Lab would like more communities to handle their own disputes, and its wish may not be that far-fetched.

If crime in the online community continues to flourish, expect the laws and regulations of the real world to eventually catch up with residents of Second Life and other virtual worlds. When that happens, you can bet it won’t be long before they start wishing for a third life to escape to.

7 Responses to “New Crimes, New Punishments”

  1. Marsellus Wallace

    May 19th, 2006

    This interview was done about a month and a half to 2 months ago so some of the info is a bit outdated and the actual article is much larger than this, but I thought it was an interesting story to say the least. Especially, LL’s reply to this topic.

    Also, how did I out my gf in the story Walker? lol Me and Mackenzie are no longer married in the game anyway (still together in rl though). She is not a fan of the press coverage or Mafia stuff that I participate in.

    Marsellus Wallace
    Boss, The Sim Mafia

  2. Tony Walsh

    May 19th, 2006

    Seems strange The New Scientist would do a story on this right after Discover magazine, although the former seems to have done a more detailed piece than the latter.

    From the NS article: “‘What a mind-numbingly futile exercise,’ Tony Walsh wrote on a Second Life bulletin board. ‘So now we have yet another level of tedious bureaucracy to Second Life.’” Couple of things here–
    1) The “Second Life bulletin board” is, in fact, the Herald. My comment was in response to a Herald article on the Second Life Superior Court.
    2) The author of the NS article truncated my quote without putting an ellipsis at the end. The complete sentence was more interesting than the truncated one, and showed that I felt the court wouldn’t have any teeth to back up a judgement. The author says that “Others wondered” about this same issue (which may be true, but I wrote about it in the very line they truncated).

    I’m nitpicking here, but I don’t like the way author changed or neglected the facts, however trivial the facts, the changes, or omissions. Nobody contacted me to fact-check what I wrote (I’m not even hard to reach), and the Herald should have been cited by name. Boo, New Scientist.

  3. Marsellus Wallace

    May 20th, 2006


    I found that the reporter in question (who has also written a story in Dazed and Confused magazine on Second Life) tends to embelish things a bit (not too much, just enough to make the story sound better, but still. Besides, she me one reporter that does not lol). My quotes I don’t remember saying them exactly like that (for example I know how to spell Consigliere). He is a freelance writer and not a writer for New Scientist themselves. It only took him long time to come out with the completed story and Discover came out well after he had interviewed me about this so it was already in the works at that time with NS.

    Marsellus Wallace
    Boss, The Sim Mafia

  4. Prokofy Neva

    May 20th, 2006

    Interesting story, how they put it together. Annoying how they mangled Tony’s quote, and I know he more to say in general on this subject on his blog that they could have cut and pasted (or called, of course).

    I also find it tremendously annoying that two kids in law school can get on what is a game for themselves and announce with great fanfare that they are making a “Superior Court” and get all kinds of media coverage, and even get the Lindens to do a smackdown and make them rename themselves even less pretentiously *cough* Metaverse Superior Court” and then…never take a case, or hear a single session. I bet like a lot of enterprises in SL of great pitch and motion, they simply got tired of playing, didn’t like paying tier, and building was too hard, plus they had papers due. And so thousands of people are deprived of a mechanism for justice.

    Ever after, they get media coverage for doing that, they get the glory for their resumes, they get to use it to get themselves hired, while they accomplished exactly 0 for the virtual world. Shame on them.

  5. Torley Linden

    May 22nd, 2006

    I think “New Altonburg” is meant to be “Neualtenburg”?

  6. Cocoanut

    May 26th, 2006

    Understand that the Cornfield is available only, according to Torley, to “white collar criminals.”

    Real criminals are the ones who engage in non-approved speech. Such as me, for daring to talk back to Linden favorites regarding their clear and documented hostility and sexual harrasment. Those who break (unwritten) speech rules don’t even even get to see the Cornfield.

    Apparently someone who points out the obvious regarding a Linden favorite is a much more dangerous sort than your average griefer, grid-crasher, hacker, or cheater.

    Tell ya what – any game that makes a criminal out of someone as straight-arrow as I am – well, it just tells me that being a criminal in SL is a GOOD thing to be.

    Being a criminal myself also makes me care very little anymore about the ones who decide to crash the grid or do other crimes, interestingly enough. I used to care about things like that a lot.

    I consider that a very interesting phenomenon. I’ve never before identified with the criminal element at all.

    The Herald ought to pay more attention to free speech issues in SL, and to the horrendous things that happen to people in a climate of favoritism, pecking order, and different rules for different people.

    But then – Uri isn’t here any more, and I haven’t noticed the Herald caring much about free speech issues, or even fair justice issues, since. Guess y’all got bigger, cooler – or more likely, just easier – fish to fry. ones that don’t require looking too deeply into anything or rocking any important boats.


  7. not in SL yet from TSO Gangster

    Jun 17th, 2006

    does this mean we cannot shoot people and what not. i beleive without the action bordom can come along in some cases

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