Depending on exactly how you define the term, virtual world games have an audience that's somewhere in the region of 20-30 million players around the world. The vast majority of them, whether they're into World of Warcraft, Runescape, or Club Penguin, enjoy healthy, safe, and relaxing entertainment -- but these pastimes aren't without their dangers. From addiction to theft to divorce, careless behavior in virtual worlds can lead to real consequences. Here's a few recent headlines, and a few tips on how to keep yourself (or your family) safe.
Virtual worlds are designed to be addictive. That's how the creators make money: if its players get bored, they give up and quit paying. Nothing wrong with addictive games in moderation, but when obsessed players put virtual rewards over real jobs, relationships, and chores, lives get ruined. World of Warcraft, merely by virtue of being the biggest and most successful virtual world to date, is the chief culprit -- so much so that one Swedish researcher called it "the crack cocaine of the computer gaming world" in a government-backed report. "Some people are literally unable to drag themselves away and will play it till they drop," he said.
Although it's often easy to laugh at people who become hooked on virtual world games, sometimes that obsession has tragic consequences. So it proved for Shaun Wooley, a Wisconsin Everquest player who committed suicide after, says his mother, suffering some unknown tragedy in the game. A spokesman for Sony, the game's makers, offered condolences but denied responsibility in a statement to CBS, saying: "It’s entertainment. Is a book dangerous? Is a TV show dangerous? I think the answer is no. People need to take responsibility and say, ‘Hey, you know, this is too much. Enough’s enough.’ It’s a game."
Most online worlds tend to favor cartoony violence and stylized combat over the explicit violence that's a common sight in other game genres. 2008's Age of Conan, however, did the Conan brand proud, releasing with copious lashings of swords-and-sorcery sex and violence. Although the game is licensed from the pulpy books that originated the Conan character, not the subsequent Arnie movie, the game's content put Governor Schwarzenegger in a curious position. Schwarzenegger, together with California senator Leland Yee, has pushed for harsher legislation controlling access to violent games like Conan, and although as his spokesman Aaron McLear was keen to stress to the San Jose Mercury News, Schwarzenegger has no association with the game, it's still hard not to smile at the irony.
Eve Online, a ground-breaking space sim that focuses on interstellar commerce and conflict, made headlines recently when a player embezzled over $5,000 in in-game currency from a player-run bank. Eve's laissez-faire, almost-anything-goes rules system means "Richard" wasn't banned until he tried to exchange the in-game money for real currency via a third-party web site.
Anyone who's spent any length of time involved in the social dimensions of online worlds will tell you that attachments formed in-game can be just as convincing and satisfying as real-life friends. Nothing wrong with that...as long as you can keep it in perspective. Unlike this British couple, who split after husband David Pollard was caught being unfaithful -- but not in the regular, messing-about-with-the-mailman way. No, Pollard was caught in flagrante with a virtual call girl in online world Second Life. Undaunted, Pollard's ex moved on -- to a relationship with a man she met playing World of Warcraft, according to CNN.
Even free online worlds aren't immune from these shenanigans. Two Dutch players of "Runescape" -- one of the most popular free online games around -- were sentenced to hundreds of hours of community service after a judge found they'd coerced another youngster into transferring in-game items to them.
You know this one, but it's worth revisiting. No reputable company will ever, ever, ever ask you for your password. If someone asks you for your password, no matter who they say they are, tell them no. That applies to requests you receive in-game, by email, on the phone, by telegraph, semaphore, or smoke signals: you name it. Not a tough rule to understand, but you'd be surprised how many people will happily hand over their password to any old smooth talker.
By far the easiest way for hackers to snag your virtual goods is for them to steal your password, and by far the easiest way for them to do this is to infect your PC with a virus that sends them a log of every key you press. Standard computer security precautions will keep you safe from most of these tools -- but be careful what you download from game-related message boards or web sites. Often, hackers will disguise their keyloggers as helpful game add-ons.
Youth-targeted online worlds like Free Realms, Club Penguin, and Habbo Hotel can offer great ways for your kids to develop social skills and enjoy a little downtime, but no matter how carefully the makers police their game, they're not without their risks. Make sure your kids abide by the same familiar rules in the games as they do with any online communities, and in particular make sure they know never to send personal information or pictures to their e-friends, and never to make plans to meet people from the game in real life. Many games -- including World of Warcraft -- offer parental controls to let you keep close tabs on your young 'un's gaming habits too.
Remember how "Richard" was able to embezzle millions from other players? The first step in that procedure is gaining their trust. Sharing gold, items, and other goodies with fellow players is common practice in regular groups, but it's also a great way for the unscrupulous (or those with a grudge) to make off with your hard-won goodies.