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When MMO Drama Causes Real Life Violence

by: Simon Hill ; edited by: Michael Hartman ; updated: 4/17/2012 • Leave a comment

It doesn't happen often but every now and then the virtual world infringes upon the real world and a disagreement in a massively multiplayer online game has horrible consequences. Whether sparked by theft, competition or the need for cash to pay subscription fees real life violence is the result.

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    Escape from Reality

    Games are a great form of escapism for people. We get to leave our everyday lives behind and become fantastical creatures and heroes in fantasy worlds. When it comes to massively multiplayer games we get to join a whole new world with its own rules and society. We step through the wardrobe, go down the rabbit hole or more accurately log in and emerge as something else. These are places, where, in contrast to the real world, we can make a difference, we can be truly important. We can form alliances and fight battles without real life consequences. Or at least that’s the theory. Sometimes the emotional investment people put it into their online lives is so great that their anger can spill over into reality. The problems that their in game avatars face become so important to them that they can provide a trigger for action in the offline world. In this article we take a look at when MMO drama causes real life violence.

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    Stabbing in Australia

    World of Warcraft   In October 2008, ABC News in Australia reported that a 21 year old student named Zhenghao Shen had been charged with causing grievous bodily harm and refused bail by the Australian Capital Territory Magistrates Court. He had been playing World of Warcraft with four friends when the victim asked him to turn down the volume on his computer. Shen ignored him and the victim asked again and again before becoming frustrated and challenging Shen to a fight. Shen apparently stabbed him in the head with a chef’s knife and severed one of his fingers.

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    Clan Warfare Beating in Russia

    Back in January of 2008, Russia Today reported that a 33 year old man named Albert was beaten to death in the streets of Ufa by members of a rival clan from an MMO game. Gamers in their thirties, the Platanium clan apparently sparked the argument when they killed a rival member of the mostly student Coo-clocks clan online a few days before New Year. The two clans engaged in a bitter war in the game which led to them agreeing to settle the dispute by meeting in the real world. One man was charged with murder after the attack, but Albert’s sister Albina reported that the rival clan continued to send death threats to her family.

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    Strangled in Vietnam for Subscription Cash

    In November of 2007, The Earth Times carried a story from Vietnam where apparently a 13 year old boy had murdered an 81 year old woman in order to steal money to pay for his online gaming subscription. The boy, Dan, strangled Mai Thi Mau with a piece of rope in Nam Dinh province and stole 100,000 dong - which is less than $10. The report went on to tell of another incident the previous year in which a 15 year old boy Trinh Dinh Thanh was arrested for threatening a local businessman and trying to extort $300. Trinh said he would splash sulphuric acid on the man’s daughter if he refused to pay up. When caught he explained that he needed the money to play online games.

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    Stolen Sword Murder in China

    Legend of Mir 3 sword   In October of 2004 a number of sources, including the BBC, reported that a 41 year old Chinese man named Qiu Chengwei had stabbed 26 year old Zhu Caoyuan to death because he sold his virtual sword. They were playing the game Legend of Mir 3 and Qiu loaned his sword to Zhu who promptly sold it for 7,200 Yuan (over $1,000). This case sparked controversy about online property because Qui actually reported the theft to the police but was told there was nothing they could do. He then decided to settle the matter himself and in June 2005 he was given a suspended death sentence for his crime. He will spend at least the next 15 years in prison.

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    Charged for Virtual Murder in Japan

    Maple Story Wedding   In October 2008 a 43 year old Japanese woman had an online marriage to a man in the MMO Maple Story. They never met in real life and the game encourages social interaction like this, but when the man divorced her without warning she became very angry and carried out a virtual murder. She hacked into his account and deleted his character. She was picked up by police and now faces up to five years in prison or more likely a fine of up to $4,000.

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    Dutch Teen Arrested for Virtual Theft

    Back in November of 2007, a Dutch teen was arrested for stealing furniture in Habbo Hotel. He did it by conning account details from other people and then accessing their rooms and moving their furniture into his own room. He was estimated to have stolen around $4,000 worth of virtual goods.

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    Personality not MMOs

    While all of these tragic acts are deplorable, it is clear that despite the millions of people now engaged in MMO games real life violence stemming from them is very rare. In April 2008 a study carried out at Middlesex University found that World of Warcraft had no link with increased aggressive tendencies. In fact, quite the opposite maye be true as many people were calmer after a session. The real factor governing the likelihood of violence is personality type - violent people can be triggered by anything, including games but they have that proclivity to begin with. They don’t become imbued with violent tendencies by gaming.

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    Violence Link to MMOs Tenuous

    Most of the cases of real life violence which have been linked to games are clearly motivated by classic human behaviours rather than the act of playing the game itself. The student stabbing his friend after an argument was clearly highly strung to say the least but the incident only has the most tenuous link to gaming. The clan warfare is classic tribalism - humans behave differently in groups and the psychology of mob behaviour is well documented. The kids trying to fund their addiction through murder happened to need the money for online gaming. If they had needed it for drugs we might never even have heard about the story.

    The sword theft murder is a much more potentially thorny issue. The rise of virtual crime, particularly in Asia, is well documented. If people are going to put real money values on virtual items and property then theft will have a real world impact. If crimes go unpunished this is an obvious potential cause of real life violence and so we are starting to see virtual crimes resulting in real world punishment. The amount of money being thrown around in MMO games is on the increase, check out our Most Expensive Items Ever Sold in an MMO for examples.

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    Virtual Policing the Way Forward?

    Any time people invest their time, their money and their emotions in something there is a risk that they will become upset if it goes wrong. For most of us becoming upset might result in an angry rant or a mouse thrown onto the floor. For people with a violent personality type it can have much more serious consequences. There is no justification for real life violence but there are always triggers for these events. Perhaps if these crimes are dealt with in the virtual environment they need never spill over into real life violence. In MMO mad South Korea there is already a branch of the police dedicated to in game crime. In contrast, in the US a Final Fantasy XI player recently tried to report the theft of items worth around $3,800 from his account which had been hacked into and the police refused to investigate. It is a topic which is still being hotly debated.