Academic journal article Rutgers Computer & Technology Law Journal

Taming the Wild West: Solving Virtual World Disputes Using Non-Virtual Law

Academic journal article Rutgers Computer & Technology Law Journal

Taming the Wild West: Solving Virtual World Disputes Using Non-Virtual Law

Article excerpt


Just like in the days of the Wild West, the law has been slow to make its way into the realm of virtual worlds. While virtual worlds are different from the days of the gun-slinging Wyatt Earp, the lack of law in this new terrain and the real-life losses people can suffer have become the virtual embodiment of the Wild West. The wildness of virtual law depends on which virtual world you "reside" in, and on your country of citizenship. While China (1) and Germany (2) have created strict Internet laws, and have actively prosecuted criminal acts committed in virtual worlds, American courts and legislatures have been slow to regulate online virtual worlds. (3) With a few exceptions, such as the regulation of online gambling, (4) and the investigation of recent investments into virtual worlds, (5) U.S. legislatures and courts have managed to hold virtual worlds at an arms distance. (6) Unfortunately, with the growing popularity of, and large investments being poured into online virtual worlds, (7) American courts will not be able to sustain their distance from the legal issues bubbling out of virtual worlds any longer.

This note will discuss the reasons online gamers have turned to the physical world's legal system, how this approach will impact online game providers (platform owners) and players, how virtual worlds fit into our current legal system, and possible solutions that will prevent the seemingly unavoidable influx of lawsuits from online virtual communities.


Neal Stephenson first imagined a completely virtual world in his 1992 novel, Snow Crash, calling it a Metaverse. (8) Stephenson's Metaverse was "a three-dimensional simulation of reality in cyberspace--where people lived, worked, and socialized." (9) Ever since, programmers have been creating their own versions of the Metaverse, using "increasingly sophisticated graphical interfaces." (10) Initially, these worlds were used solely for playing games, but now they have evolved into resources for research, education, politics, and work. (11) It is believed that in the future, navigating the Internet will look more like playing a video game than reading a book. (12) Therefore, in order to understand the future of the Internet, it is necessary to understand virtual worlds. (13)

A virtual world is a computer-simulated environment created for users to interact with one another and "inhabit." (14) The world is typically "represented in the form of two or three-dimensional" (15) computer-generated environment controlled and modified by its users. (16) Imagine a computer game where, in addition to controlling the actions of the characters, you can change the rules and the look of the game, including the buildings and businesses that exist within it, and the backdrop you are roaming through. One week you could have a shootout in the Wild West, and the following week you could be lounging on the beach or pounding the city streets.

Virtual worlds are constantly evolving as technology provides creators and users of these environments with greater capabilities. The predecessors of today's graphical worlds were predominantly text-based environments called Multi-user domains (MUDs) and MUD Object Oriented (MOOs). (17) Collaborative Virtual Environments (CVE) and Multi-User Virtual Environments (MUVE) are virtual environments where multiple users can interact with one another, (18) Immersive Virtual Environments (IVE) create a sense of presence within the game. (19) These types of environments require special equipment, such as a head mounted display or a room that displays graphics on the surrounding walls. (20) IVEs work by tracking "a user's head and body position, facial expressions and gestures, and other information, thereby providing ... information about where ... the user is focusing his or her attention." (21) Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPGs), such as World of Warcraft, Ultima Online, and Everquest II, are often based on fantasy themes. …

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