Do You Own Your Virtual Items in an MMO Game?

In much the same way that you have a computer, clothing, a backpack, and a bed, your characters in games also have equipment, money, and items – however, while you can call your computer your possession, can you say the same for the magic items in your character’s backpack? After all, your computer is a physical object that can be packed up and traded, but your sword is just a row of data in a database that’s rendered into pixels with a model and a texture.

We may accept that virtual items are not entirely like real items, but when we lose them the loss can be profound. As players we spend our own time and money to obtain them for our characters either through ceaseless grinding or we purchase them from the game in question with real money. Getting hacked feels a lot like being robbed: having all of your epic level gear melted down into gold at a vendor, leaving your character naked and penniless – has an impact because you put real hours of game play and effort into getting those items. Being banned is a lot like exile: your investment is still there, but now the fruit of that labor is inaccessible, all at the whim of the game’s administrators.

There are a lot of reasons to feel as if players should have some say in the disposition of our virtual items and there is dissonance between the sentiment that players place on their items and characters and the current state of the law. The dissonance arises from the fact that virtual items only exist in the context of the MMO in which they’re generated: you can’t take your Gran Faust sword out of Spiral Knights and equip it on your warrior in Runes of Magic. No matter how much time, energy, or money you spent on obtaining raw materials and crafting weapons in-game, all of those virtual items will forever be tied to that game, to that publisher, and potentially to the character who equipped them.

Under much current international law virtual items in video games are not property but part of a license. The MMO publisher grants you a temporary service that includes your possession of the virtual items on your character’s person. The Terms of Service you accept when you join the video game spell out that you’re accessing their service and that they can pull the rug out from under you at any time for any reason. And when an MMO goes offline permanently (like Faxion Online, Fantasy Earth Zero, Exteel, among others) many virtual items evanesce out of existence. Your possession of virtual items is contingent entirely on the MMO publisher maintaining the servers that the data is stored on. In this way, the MMO company provides the items on a property-as-a-service basis to the players who possess them. The closest analog to game items are other types of services that are essentially “virtual” but hold value, such as bank accounts or stocks.

However, in each of these instances we contract with an institution to store a virtual representation of real world value – that is, the bank and you agree that the number in your bank account represents real money. In the case of a character or a virtual item there’s no such agreement for the traditional MMO player. For us, the very existence of the items and their ownership is part of the Terms of Service. Under the current laws and standard TOS, we do not own virtual items in the same fashion that we own real property; but, like most virtual things, our possessions in MMO games exist as part of a social contract between us players and the game publisher. Unlike standalone video games, MMO games build communities and it’s from this effect we see that virtual items gain a great deal of their affecting worth.

Because of the mutual interdependence of this social contract, we can argue that MMO game publishers and admins have moral responsibility to players and our virtual possessions. Good MMO publishers and administrators will respect that social contract – and thus the effort and commitment of the players – and players and publishers shall “share” (even if it’s unofficial, ephemeral, and temporary sharing) in the “custodianship” of that virtual property.

By Kyt Dotson



19 Comments

  1. never buyed but i am thinking about it

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    1. Given the chance, what virtual items are you contemplating buying?

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  2. I have bought items like skins/premium tanks/ingame items and i have allways seen it as a donation to the developers for me liking the game enough to support them, and they accept my donation by giving me a virtual item in exchange.

    never thought it was my property

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    1. I don’t think buying special cash items are as much as a donation as you think. These items are easing on your work against others who do these things alone, and if they had added a donation program in order to “keep the game alive” (come on… if we’re talking about big companies they can maintain the game) no one will donate unless they reward the donor.

      So… Basically I agree with the opinion although I have never read the TOS and I don’t really intend to because, well, if I want to read one I will, but the others are still going to be the same as you described.
      I don’t see the virtual items as our self property, as we dont sell our PC as much as we sell weapons or equipment in an MMO game, though if we’re talking about getting hacked when we bought something with real money or having our credit card connected to the game account is a robbery and the administrators should deal with it, or else they will lose a client and could face a sue because they did not protect their player’s privacy.

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  3. They are in no way donations in games with cash items, you are paying for a good you want. I know GaiaOnline at one point set up a “donate function” in which you got a rare item. But that was a unmoral tactic to try and not pay taxes on revenue.When you buy some fancy pet in WOW you are supporting the game by spending money not out of the goodness of your heart to support development.

    I have never viewed it as having legal ownership of virtual items I buy, but in essence they are still mine. True the TOS’s are totaly bull and i’m not entirely sure they are fully legally legitimate siteing the “for any reason” clause. Most MMO players never face that and when people get banned its never cause staff had a bad day.

    Hacking is a seperate issue cause usually its peoples own fault but usually games will release some kind of compensation whice might not be what you want but its enough. Of course its different between f2p and p2p.

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    1. I own my own fair share of Gaia Online Donation Letters. Partially because I loved the community and wanted to help upkeep them; but also because I loved the cosmetic items that they delivered.

      It’s sad news to me that they promoted them as donations to the IRS–as you are absolutely correct, if they had done so it was unethical and incorrect. While the Donation Letters were called such, they were actually a product bought-and-paid-for from the forum to the users.

      On the issue of hacking, I think that as with anything involving fraud that there’s some liability to spread around. However, unlike other frauds, MMO hacking can be tracked back through the logs and reversed–after all, the entire event occurs on the servers under control of the MMO game company. Now there’s certainly a great deal of responsibility for a user to keep their login credentials safe; but there’s also mass-exploits where an MMO loses a password database.

      In the end, it’s going to be another customer service issue and potentially a question of manpower and capability. The MMO game company will want to keep cheats and frauds from fleecing heir customers (otherwise they won’t be customers much longer) but they’ll be aiming at restoring after-hack and protecting themselves from exploits; as for customers who themselves are insecure, it might be a losing proposition to try to protect them if they won’t protect themselves.

      What experience do you have in the difference between the reaction of Pay2P and Free2P? I haven’t studied it personally.

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  4. It can be a real gamble. There’s an interesting contradiction between the old model of gaming, where you buy a board game or a video game and it’s yours (until it breaks), and the MMO model, where you buy the game that you can only use with a pay schedule and for as long as the company remains solvent. You can’t tell who’s going to be bought out by a larger firm in five years or who’ll simply fold in ten.

    The benefit to the later, of course, is that the money you keep channeling into the game goes toward expansions, updates, customer service, and if you have a lot of discretionary funds, premium items. The obvious disadvantage, of course, is that when it goes down you just have to bite the bullet, say goodbye to your investment, and try to be grateful for the fun you had but which has decidedly ended.

    I used to play WoW but wasn’t a hardcore-enough gamer to access the high-level realms and elite instances that I was nevertheless paying for. Eventually I cut myself off and pursued the free MMOs that rely on ads or users who are freer with their wallets for 1337 in-game items. While this article satisfactorily addresses many interesting points in the discussion of intellectual/virtual property, I’d laugh in the face of someone who shelled out for a sword and got pissy about it not being transferrable between platforms or lost it when the game collapsed. It’s naive to throw your money at such a fragile, uncertain investment and get upset when it goes away.

    But yeah, hacking is another issue entirely. That is something to get mad about.

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    1. While for the most part the ownership of virtual items is in a legal limbo (treated largely as a service given by the game) it still bears truth that people who buy items have been given a culture of expectation that they own the items. In a way, I’d liken that to a social contract and, as I said in an article, that game publishers who violate that should be shunned.
      After all, if they’re going to incite us to play by allowing us to own items in the game and they take them away with a dispassionate frivolity, that’s just terrible customer service.
      On the hacking front, there’s been some interesting twists on that. In Korea, there’s been at least one case where one person hacked the account of another, liquidated his assets, and then waltzed off. A Korean court decided that this was tantamount to theft — treating the virtual items not exactly like real world items, but acknowledging a sentimental ownership — I don’t know if the game politely restored those items, but the perpetrator was faced with charges involving not just computer frauds, but taking something from the wounded party.

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  5. I like cake :D

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    1. The cake is a lie.

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  6. It would be cool if a person, who, for example, plays WoW on Blizzard. And he has all kinds of valuable items. Then he decides to stop playing and sell those items. Not only he cover his expenses for WoW, but he gets extra money, like $3k or something, that would be cool. But corporations don’t want you to make money, they want to get everything you have.

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  7. you see technically your renting the time you play on their games and their servers the items you buy from cash shops are considered “upgrades” for your rented time and not possessions. Virtual items are part of the game that belongs to the people that own the rights to it. If you want to own virtual items or characters to a game you have to own the rights to that character which in most games you sign a Terms of Service that basically says you agree that they own the game and all its contents and that you agree to abide by their rules and understand that they can discontinue service at any time with or without proper cause.

    this is why it’s always better to play free to play games because no matter how much work and time you spend in a game your not investing real money and don’t lose anything if the game is no longer able to be played.

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  8. Am using Mann co store from valve :)
    Now my Steam profile worth is 20$

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    1. I also plan on doing it, Team Fortress 2 btw?
      Anyway, if we pay for something on the game and the game goes offline, we should get something back, like another item in another game of the company or our money back, anyways, I love you all, go burn in hell for a while like on Faxion Online or go be burned by a dragon like on Fantasy Earth Zero, games whose time I spent didn’t come back on my pleasure, Faxion was just too crappy, FEZ was good but no way to find out about it’s existence, well, that’s it.

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  9. If you had to ask then, no, if you never asked then, yes. If you’re reading this page then it just ruined what you thought, and no.

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  10. This was a topic lightly touched by games such as The SIMs where 3rd party creators could develop and distribute content. I think they were given copyright ownership, but no ownership translated to the people who may have paid them to use the content. I think for the most part, virtual property is nebulous at best.

    I remember the days when you could sell your high level Everquest on eBay for hundreds or thousands of US dollars. Does that still happen?

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    1. This still happens! Although I don’t believe it’s as-common amidst free-to-play games as it is with games like World of Warcraft now. Sheer popularity might be a factor moreso than the pay-to-play aspect.

      Of course, with free-to-play games, acquiring equipment and levels can be allayed by virtual item shops, using XP boosters, skill booters, etc. And, of course, there’s the dreaded “pay-to-win” scenario that prevents most games from selling the biggest-and-baddest equipment for cash because most players want to feel like they earned it in game. Meaning that an account could still be sold outside of the game’s channels having earned accolades and elite equipment.

      I haven’t looked into it, but now I just might.

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  11. Maybe someone will suggest that in-game possesions will fall under the same laws as real possesions some day. Not sure if it should.

    But what exactly makes the difference between you losing virtual possesions or real possesions aside from being able to touch them? They are even translatable to real currencies.

    You always agree with the terms of service that you don’t mind being ripped off your account and possesions duo to any reason the company chooses to. And what exactly keeps a company from abusing that kind of power over your virtual life? They can basically do whatever they want as long as they keep it secret to not lose their playerbase, cause that’s what you agreed to when you signed up for the game.

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  12. A lawyer sued second life creators (what linden labs as i recall) because he found a hole in their contract that let him buy a virtual island for a low price (like $1) when they sell them for a great deal more. he won. Several universities have islands in the game they paid a lot for, and have virtual buildings (Bradley Universities old field house is online only now since they tore it down 3 years ago). People get paid thousands to be virtual architects and build these structures for businesses. Students have classes online in the virtual buildings. I heard when they outlawed gambling in second life users made a run on the banks, causing them to collapse, costing one architect thousands of real dollars that he had not converted from virtual “linden bucks” into real world cash yet. You bring up a great point that is more serious than what many casual users believe.

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