When does conduct by an online player in a virtual world game trigger liability for a real-world crime? In the future, will new criminal laws be needed to account for new social harms that occur in virtual worlds? This short essay considers both questions. Part I argues that existing laws regulate virtual worlds with little or no regard to the virtual reality they foster. Criminal law tends to follow the physical rather than the virtual: it looks to what a person does rather than what the victim virtually perceives. This dynamic greatly narrows the role of criminal law in virtual worlds. Existing law will not recognize virtual murder, virtual threats, or virtual theft. Virtual worlds will be regulated like any other game, but their virtualness normally will have no independent legal resonance from the standpoint of criminal law.
Part II turns to the normative question: Are new laws needed? It concludes that legislatures should not enact new criminal laws to account for the new social harms that may occur in virtual worlds. Virtual worlds at bottom are computer games, and games are artificial structures better regulated by game administrators than federal or state governments. The best punishment for a violation of a game comes from the game itself. Criminal law is a blunt instrument that should be used only as a last resort. The state’s power to deny individuals their freedom is an extraordinary power, and it should be reserved for harms that other mechanisms cannot remedy.
Online virtual worlds may seem real to some users, but unlike real life, they are mediated by game administrators who can take action with consequences internal to the game. Internal virtual harms should trigger internal virtual remedies. It is only when harms go outside the game that the criminal law should be potentially available to remedy wrongs not redressable elsewhere.
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