Video Game Theft Shouldn't Have Real Life Consequences

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A Diablo II player wearing Aldur's Watchtower. Isn't it beautiful?

Years ago I played a lot of the game Diablo II. I wasn’t very good at it, but it was fun. One of my fixations in the game was completing a set of gear (armor and a weapon) called “Aldur’s Watchtower.” The set wasn’t a particularly good one, but I wanted it. It would make my character glow with a golden aura. Who doesn’t want to glow with a golden aura?

After some time I managed to get ahold of all four pieces of the set. I had a fearsome golden glow (as did many, many, many others). It was a sight to behold.

Then my account was compromised by a scammer and I lost the set, along with all my other items and that golden aura.

I was enraged. I logged out and logged back hoping what had happened was a fluke, but it wasn’t. Then I shut down the game for a while and fumed over the loss of what I had probably spent weeks accumulating. Eventually, I opened the game back up and started again. What had happened sucked, but it would be fine. 

Last Monday Mike Weatherley, a British MP, asked the House of Commons to consider the following proposal:

To ask the Secretary of State for Justice if he will bring forward legislative proposals to ensure that cyber criminals who steal online items in video games with a real-world monetary value received the same sentences as criminals who steal real-world items of the same monetary value.

The theory behind the request is that as people increasingly pay real money for digital goods  — weapons, armor, skills, hats — in games, there ought to be a penalty for stealing those items. Weatherley told BuzzFeed that the idea behind the proposed laws would be to create “parity between online and offline penalties.”

When I first read about the proposed law(s) something about it didn’t sit right with me, but I had trouble pinpointing exactly what that was. Today I read a series of tweets by Daniel Joseph, a graduate student who studies games and work, that I think gets to the bottom of my queasy feeling: 

It was the “unproductive” nature of playing Diablo that actually meant that I could brush off losing the fruits of my time, because as a player, I assumed that the time I was spending was happily wasted time. It was fun because it didn’t involve the sort of productive work I was involved with at school or elsewhere. I think I might’ve gone nuts at some point if not for that wasted time, and the increased encroachment of financial and legal worries on my unproductive hobbies is why what Weatherley is proposing gives me the creeps. This is by no means the first step in the process. The increased emphasis by game companies on selling in game items and rewards has been going on for years, but bringing legal recourse into the mix is an all too real step farther.