The Dutch Supreme Court denied an appeal by a 19-year-old who was convicted of stealing a 13-year-old boy's virtual goods in the online game Runescape and ordered to serve 144 hours of community service. It probably didn't help that the suspect roughed up the 13-year-old and threatened him with a knife until he logged into Runescape and handed over an amulet and a mask, but this case was just as much about the value of virtual goods as it was the violence that took place offline.
You might scoff at the notion of whipping out your credit card to buy more Reward Points in Mafia Wars, but there are plenty of others who are, and there are now more apps than ever to spend your real-life dough on virtual goods. When all the numbers are tallied, sales of virtual goods in the U.S. is expected to jump over the $1 billion mark in 2009.
And that's just a drop in the bucket compared to other parts of the world. In South Korea, online gamers spent about $3.5 billion on virtual loot, while China managed to fork over $4 billion. By 2012, both markets are expected to spend $5.5 billion each, while the U.S. will part with $1.6 billion in exchange for armor upgrades and other in-game items next year alone, according to a new report by Inside Network.
Those are big numbers, but not yet at the point where mainstream media needs to hit the panic button. The movie Avatar, for example, pulled in $500 million in the U.S. in just a little over a month.
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The global market for virtual goods is already worth billions of dollars annually. In fact, several small countries around the world have smaller GDPs than the total worth of the virtual economy. But there are very few laws to regulate virtual commerce in its infancy. At this stage, it is only fair to expect the courts and lawmakers to only tackle issues related to virtual trade as and when they appear before them.
One such question came up for consideration before South Korea's apex court during a recent case where two gamers had been accused of illegally profiting by trading in-game currency for real cash, a practice popularly known as gold farming. The court not only acquitted them but also ruled that in-game or virtual currency is to be treated on par with real currency.