Virtual-reality crimes present literal challenge for real-life police

'We're in an information economy'

Earlier this year, Lawrence resident Carissa Hill called the police.

She had been swindled out of money by an online scam artist who had assumed someone else’s identity. But the money that Hill lost wasn’t in U.S. dollars. They were Linden dollars, the currency used in an online, computerized world called “Second Life.”

Police were puzzled.

“I would say this is a unique report,” said Kim Murphree, a Lawrence Police Department spokeswoman. “This may happen all the time, but do people bring it to the attention of the police department? No.”

The report offered a glimpse into a world that is growing more elaborate and sophisticated by the day. It’s a world of virtual online communities, where people sitting at computer screens interact with other people from around the world in a realistic, 3-D setting.

Think Hill’s crime report sounds frivolous? Consider that the virtual money she lost could have been traded on an online currency exchange for $180 in cold cash. Hill’s computerized alter ego, “Leia Lulu,” is a real estate developer who earns real-life money for renting and selling land that exists only in pixels and in people’s imaginations.

Asked in an online chat what she does in real life, Hill typed the following response: “Well, hon, my ‘Second Life’ is my real life.”

Dwarves, not nightclubs

Role playing is nothing new as any theater fan can tell you. But in recent years, improvements in computer graphics and Internet technology have made it easier to become someone else – or at least, to appear to be someone else – and to interact with others in a disembodied world.

The games can be absorbing and even addictive.

Kansas University student Dante Lammoglia, 20, is one of an estimated 6.5 million users of “World of Warcraft,” an online fantasy game in which players form teams – or guilds – and work together to wage battles. He spends at least six hours per day online, where one of his alter egos is a dwarf named Sergeant Falaffel who has a pet lion.

For Lammoglia, pursuing a new weapon, a new piece of armor, or a successful battle with members of his “guild” is more important than hitting the bar scene.

“There’s a lot of people that are in my guild that I consider myself really good friends with, and I’ve never met them in real life,” he said. “If I enjoyed going out, getting drunk and clubbing and stuff more, I would probably play a lot less.”

‘Second Life’

Some people call them massively multiplayer online games, or MMOGs, although many of the 1.2 million users of “Second Life” bristle at the suggestion that what they’re doing is a game.

“Second Life,” launched in 2003, is the brainchild of Linden Lab, a San Francisco-based team of developers with expertise in physics, 3-D graphics and networking. It’s described on the company’s Web site as “a 3D online digital world imagined, created and owned by its residents.”

Much of the buzz surrounding the company comes from the fact that participants can own what they create inside the world, and can benefit from it by selling it or trading it with others. Linden dollars can be bought and exchanged for U.S. dollars using a credit card.

Through their online personae, known as “avatars,” residents design and buy clothing. They build shopping malls where they charge rent for a storefront. They build night clubs, where they put out tip jars and offer virtual-money prizes for dance contests.

It also can be a venue for promoting a real-world business or idea. Reuters news service, for example, last month opened a virtual “news bureau” there. A staff reporter regularly holds “office hours” via his online persona, and the company posts real-life news feeds on billboards. Wired magazine also has built a headquarters there.

Perhaps the best example of a successful “Second Life” crossover is New Zealand software developer Nathan Keir. His “Second Life” alter ego, Kermitt Quick, created a game there called “Tringo” that combines elements of Tetris and Bingo. The game is now being sold in the real world for use on Nintendo’s Game Boy.

The equivalent of more than $1 million in U.S. dollars changes hands there each day, and last month, a congressional committee said it was looking at whether those transactions should be taxed.

Is this absurd?

Nancy Baym, an associate professor of communication studies at Kansas University, said that despite the hype, “Second Life” isn’t that different from other forms of online communication that are far more prevalent, such as e-mail or instant messaging.

“Second Life” just hit a million users. In the big picture, it’s pretty low, compared to, say, MySpace, which has about a 100 million users,” Baym said.

But isn’t it absurd to think that something created in “virtual reality” – for example, a poster to hang on the wall of a virtual apartment – could have a value in real life? Baym says, “No.”

“We’re in an information economy, and it’s not that big of a step from telecommuting to work and never being physically present in the home office,” she said. “If you think that people are making a living trading stock via the Internet, it’s not that big of a leap to go into providing PR services via ‘Second Life’… Things like Web design and public relations and consulting and education, all of those things can go on in that kind of a forum.”

Baym doesn’t believe in a division between “real life,” on the one hand, and “virtual life,” on the other.

“It’s always been true that what happens offline and what happens online interconnect,” she said.

Cold case

Hill lost her Linden dollars in July, after another player approached her online and offered to buy them from her for what was then the current exchange rate: $180 in U.S. dollars. (Today, with fluctuating exchange rates, they would be worth about $195.) She transferred the virtual money to him through the game’s software, but it turned out that he had used someone else’s identity for the PayPal transaction to send her the $180, and she never collected the money.

Hill says she went to Lawrence police not because of the lost Linden, but because she thought she had enough information to pursue an identity-theft charge against the suspect. At one point, he had called her home, so she thought phone records might help yield a clue to the person’s identity.

Police, unsure of how to classify the report, listed it as an “informational” report that doesn’t fit within a specific criminal statute.

“I called ‘Second Life’ and the Linden Lab, and they immediately banned the character, and that’s all that they can do,” Hill said.

– Staff writer Eric Weslander can be reached at 832-7146.