Can Crimes in a Virtual World Have Real Consequences?

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Written by Vallika Varshri, a first-year student at Jindal Global Law School (O.P. Jindal Global University)

Ethics and morals have a significant relation with law. After all, the construction of law is around the question of what is ethical. Criminal law exemplifies this particular feature of law. What better to judge what is ethical and what is not but the branch which serves justice to the aggrieved by punitive action? Law and ethics are interconnected through their relation to society and Durkheim’s theory of law exemplifies this. He calls law an indicator of solidarity and postulates that societies, with their contrasting solidarity and ideas of morality, have distinct legal systems [1]. Two different value systems having distinct legal systems implies that morals and society have a direct relation to one another. Ethical questions about content in media are not uncommon, yet when it comes to virtual reality, “if earlier media creators and storytellers had a knife, virtual reality offers them a meat cleaver,”  says Menon [2].

Since virtual worlds integrate almost every aspect of modern popular culture, they’re difficult to classify. At the same time, all of them are populated by avatars. They are  ‘representational proxies’ for real-world users who pay a monthly fee for this ‘dual citizenship’. Inside this world, players abide by the framework in place [3]. If these virtual societies already have rules governing them, why is there a need for criminal law? Is it ethically right for the ramifications of virtual actions to extend to the realm of reality? If yes, won’t we be saying that it is justified to penalise someone on the basis of intention?

Gabo Arora says that a good virtual game ‘hacks the senses’- one feels like they are actually experiencing what is happening in the film or game. Metzinger says one may end up feeling disconnected from their body due to spending hours in VRs. This illusion of disembodiment may make one feel ownership over another body. This makes one more connected to their avatars than their own bodies. In this case, dilemmas may be endless as people are tricked into believing one’s avatars are their own bodies [4]. The question of experience is confusing in VRs. It exists in the realm of the internet, yet its impact is on people. The conflict then lies in defining what is real and what is not. Is the virtual world a real world? Avatars are the representations of people and thereby, in some senses, they are their extensions. If true, this will make them a part of society. Thereby, one has to question whether the law should be responsible for their governance.

Roger comments that effective regulation is vital. He reasons the growth of virtual-world population will result in a corresponding growth in allocated resources as well as disputes [5]. Roger indicates that since the consequences of virtual worlds are real, virtual worlds should be regulated by criminal law. However, he fails to address the fact that punishment for real-world crimes already exists. Cybercrime is a branch of law which deals with real consequences of crimes committed on the internet. Therefore, the real question which exists is whether a criminal procedure should be initiated for crimes which exist within the criminal world?

Experts say that since avatars aren’t actually people and the wrong is committed within the virtual world, they remain within its context (thereby implying that no real consequences exist). Moreover, some argue that users are aware of the possibility of these kinds of actions as being a part of the experience. Since they accept this risk, they shouldn’t be avail to avail the benefits of legal recourse in real-world courts [6]. While the case for volenti non fit injuria may exist prima facie, the fact that users cannot predict the exact risk of this acceptance, this acceptance should not valid. If the agreement is held to be valid, the ambiguity of its terms would make it unfair and unjust. While users do agree to the risk of possible injury, they aren’t agreeing to the risk of injury to their avatar. What this tells us is that virtual reality does need to be regulated, but criminal law is not a suitable option to govern the virtual world. If criminal law is not the answer, what is?

Virtual worlds are mediated by game administrators; while users may perceive them as real, unlike reality, these administrators may take actions with consequences internal to the games, especially upon violation of its rules. Like all other games, virtual games have rules which users agree to abide by when they play. In fact, Hunter and Lastowka think that norms of the games supersede the standard rules of society. Thereby, internal virtual harms should be dealt with internal remedies [7]. The underlying perspective of this solution is that people are more likely to be compliant when they agree to abide by a certain set of rules. When it comes to real society, one doesn’t have a choice in the matter. Users’ existence in society is taken to be their agreement to the law of the land, working similar to unilateral contracts. So when these users, some agitated at the perceived loss of their autonomy to choice enter the virtual world, they do not want to coerced into compliance. Virtual worlds do offer them a choice, users aren’t coerced into joining a society of which they don’t like the rules. By giving them the freedom to enter a world free from the restrictions of society, they are likely to be compliant. The question of what is autonomy and freedom is thereby implicit; when entering another world outside the scope of reality, can criminal law impose its limitations on the society?

REFERENCES

[1] Mathieu Deflem, Sociology of Law: Visions of a Scholarly Tradition,  56 [2008]

[2] Dustin Stilgardo, ‘Crime in the Virtual World’, LiveMint (04:58 PM IST 11 Nov) [2016] https://www.livemint.com/Leisure/SXKKU4UDhdSCqRaKsz46iM/Crime-in-the-virtual-world.html

[3] Jacob Rogers, ‘A Passive Approach to Regulation of Virtual Worlds’, 76 Geo. Wash. L. Rev, 405 (2008) https://www.gwlr.org/rogers-2/

[4] Id 2

[5] Id 3

[6] Id

[7] Orin S Kerr, ‘Criminal Laws in Virtual Worlds’, 1 UCLF 415 [2008] http://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/uclf/vol2008/iss1/11

[8] Photo Credits: Moby.com https://www.mobygames.com/game/xbox360/csi-crime-scene-investigation-hard-evidence/screenshots/gameShotId,562069/

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