November 19, 2015

BARELY LEGAL | Virtual Property Transaction: Not Just a Game

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By SHAOMIAN LIU

No one will ever have any doubt about the importance of real world property transactions. Without them, no modern form of society may stand. Thus the people call for the law’s aid to mediate those transactions, such as drawing a line between things that can be traded and those that cannot, protecting innocent parties from being hurt and punishing those who intend to cheat others. We are accustomed to it. But when the topic shifts to virtual property, it is strange that some people, without thinking, see it as merely an abstract academic concept. They are so sensitive to this word “virtual” that they label anything in it as immature, unreal and valueless. “Only a matter of game,” they say. They are terribly wrong. Blinded by the line between tangible and intangible, those people are actually circling in a logic that is long unsupported by the current situation of virtual property transactions.

After all, virtual property in gaming has attracted so many people’s time, energy and money. It is not valueless — but invaluable. The games that most virtual property studies are aiming at are massive multiplayer online role-playing games like World of Warcraft. Their study may be outdated, as various new games now dominate the virtual world like multiplayer online battle arena games (MOBA), such as Dota2 and League of Lengend, web games and mobile games. The change really affecting virtual transaction is that people now spend more money. You usually only have two options: play more and earn more credits in the game, or pay more and buy things with real money. Those games are free but their producers are making a huge profit. Why? If you want to have fun, to beat others, to show off, just give them your credit card and you get all the cool stuff in that game. If you don’t pay, you will really have to spend hours and hours laboring and collecting your own “money” in the game. If you want to do neither, you’d better find another hobby — unless you don’t mind being defeated nearly every time. I personally am playing a mobile game called “Clash of Clans,” and I have spent very little money on it. The consequence is that for a building to be finished, I will have to wait 10 days. But if you are willing to purchase some “gems” (currency in that game), you can finish it the moment you update it. “Just buy it” is the theme of nowadays’ gaming world. The price is fairly steep, especially for those who believe “Internet” equals “free.”

Even traditional console games have DLCs — Downloadable Contents. The game producers can “ransom” you after you make the initial purchase if you want the whole game experience. Most games nowadays have purchasable contents. Even World of Warcraft has a “battle-net shop.” Their profits come from selling attaching products, which is not all that different from selling popcorn in the cinema. Some say that cinemas make money from selling popcorn. I’m not sure about it but I’m sure the “popcorn” in the virtual world is profitable.

While the price to have fun in the virtual world is so high, the workshops and virtual merchants come to share some of the cake. Workshops are similar to miners. They “mine” the items that usually will take much longer time for an individual gamer and they sell them to the individuals at a much “reasonable” price comparing to the lengthy labor. To them, games are their rich mines and they work — not play — in those games. Transaction is what they expect to do and where their living come from. Another group of people make their living (or partly) on the transactions as well. Virtual merchants work in the same way as their colleagues do in the real world. They acquire lots of sellable items at a comparative lower price (whether legal or illegal) and resell them to individuals at a much acceptable price to common gamers (still they can make profit).

Game producers do not welcome them. These workshops and merchants gave other players a chance to save some money at the cost — the losing profit more exactly — of game producers. Producers usually ban workshop and merchants. They even punish those who paid for their item from workshops or merchants. The reason they can do so is because of EULA (end user license agreement), by which producers can deprive the rights of individual players to own anything in their game. It is not a strong point when arguing in the court — for the courts have already denied any agreement that this deprives people’s property right — but the producers are under low risk of being sued, for the number of players is too huge and it’s very difficult to acquire evidence. Even if the producers have done many work to stop them, workshops and virtual merchants still flourish in the virtual world. It is hard to say whether they are good or bad. On one hand they reduce the cost of individual players, on the other hand they lower the income of game producers and also their enthusiasm to create—who will spend lots of money to create a platform raising others instead of himself? Still this kind of virtual property transaction occurs every day and will not disappear in the near future. It created classes and professions in the real world. In no sense we can see it as void.

The transaction in the virtual world expand their influence to the real world’s economy. It can put bread on the table and also take cases to the courts. Lots of money has been invested and fights for trading right are taking place. Ignorance helps no one and will only leave virtual property transaction into the realm of anarchy. Be serious, this “game matter” is not a matter of game anymore.

Shaomian Liu is a student at Cornell Law School. Responses can be sent to associate-editor@cornellsun.com. Barely Legal appears alternate Fridays this semester.

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  1. Pingback: Online Money Games Making Change | Your P2P Currency

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