Gamer Wins Lawsuit in Chinese Court Over Stolen Virtual Winnings

A lawsuit over riches and arms achieved while playing an online video game might sound bizarre, but the Chinese court that heard the case has ordered the video game company to return the virtual booty to the 24-year-old who filed the suit.

According to Chinese news service Xinhuanet, The Beijing Chaoyang District People’s Court ordered the maker of the game “Hongyue” — also known as “Red Moon” — to return game winnings, including virtual biochemical weapons, to Li Hongchen, who protested after the items were stolen by a hacker in February.

Blaming security holes in the servers of online gaming company Beijing Arctic Ice Technology Development Company, the court held the company liable for the theft of Hongchen’s hard-earned game items and status. In addition to rearming the gamer, who unsuccessfully lobbied the company and even police in the matter, it is not clear whether or not Arctic Ice also will have to pay damages claimed by Li.

Serious Investment

Online auction houses like eBay and Yahoo Auctions have seen users buying and selling items in virtual game space — such as stashes of virtual money or powerful game weapons — for real-world dollars. Even major companies like IBM — which recently released a commerce system specifically designed for virtual worlds — have acknowledged the potential for the world of online gaming to move quickly into the mainstream.

Xinhuanet called the case the “first virtual property rights dispute case” in China, but it appears to be a world first with a lack of precedent even in the litigious United States. However, the case is not the first time that virtual property and game server security breaches have left players feeling cheated.

“I’ve heard about similar things in Diablo,” security expert and gaming fan Ryan Russell told TechNewsWorld, referring to the fantasy role-playing game. “When you’re a kid and you have the time to play hours and hours per week — and obviously they’re paying a subscription fee — for the time and effort, they like to be able to keep what they earn.”

According to published reports, Li contacted Arctic Ice after he discovered his virtual weapons had been stolen last February. The Chinese gamer claimed to have spent two years and more than US$1,200 playing the game and purchasing the virtual arsenal.

However, the gaming company claimed the virtual properties were simply “piles of data” that had no real-world value.

Loophole Liability

The Chinese court did not buy that argument, however, and ordered Arctic Ice to restore the virtual weapons cache. The reasoning was that because of loopholes in the security of the game’s servers, Arctic Ice was responsible for the loss.

Russell said the exploitation of gaming servers and software, such as last October’s hack of the forthcoming “Half Life II” game, indicates a need for better security by game publishers and the service companies that run massively multiplayer online role-playing games (MMORPGs).

“The software industry has never had a culture of liability,” he added. “It’s going to take more than online game problems to change that.”

Real Sense of Ownership

Russell said the intersection of real and virtual worlds has created some interesting cases — including the most recent one involving Li — when virtual objects are sold for real money.

At the ultimate extreme, the crossover reportedly has resulted in gang killings in parts of Asia based on what happens in a game — in these cases, the “Lineage” MMORPGs.

In most cases, online players have too much invested simply to start over or forget about lost rewards, equipment or status in games.

“People very definitely feel they have a real investment in these possessions, and they definitely feel entitled to what they’ve earned,” Russell said.

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