Can You Be Charged With a Crime That Doesn’t Exist? The world of virtual reality may be moving too fast. Most people understand that when they play a virtual game, that the characters aren’t really hurt or killed. You can just end the game and start playing a new one. It’s like the old Road Runner cartoons where Wile E. Coyote always ends up being crushed by some product that failed, though everyone knows he’s not a real character and he’ll be fully healed by the next episode.

Well, the world of gaming is beginning to take a turn when it comes to criminal activity. The line between the virtual world and the real world is being crossed in a few unexpected ways. A few examples explain how crossing the lines of fair play in the gaming or online world may result in actual criminal charges.

Fantasy game possessions lead to a physical attack of a gamer

CBS News reported that a 13-year-old boy in the Netherlands was beaten and threatened with a knife – so that he would give up an amulet (a protection charm) and a mask that he’d won in an online fantasy game. The youth who stole the possessions (in the game RuneScape) was found guilty of theft and ordered to perform 144 hours of community service.

The lawyer for the convicted youth argued that the amulet and mask were not tangible items that one could hold in one’s hand. Unlike electricity, which can’t be seen, but does have a functional benefit, the game items, the lawyer argued, had no monetary value. Netherland’s highest court (yes, the case went all the way up to the highest court) ruled that the virtual objects did have “intrinsic value” to the 13-year-old because the 13-year-old invested “time and energy” to obtain them.

The convicted youth did more than just say, “hand over your amulet and mask.” The convicted youth admitted that he and another young person “beat and kicked the boy.” The two threatened the boy with a knife until he logged into the game and “dropped” the items, which allowed one of the youths involved in the assault to take possession of the amulet and mask. Both of the participants in the assault were convicted, but only one youth appealed.

Rape in the virtual universe

The Guardian reported on January 5, 2024, that British police are investigating the alleged virtual gang rape of a minor. While social media advertises virtual reality as a place where participants can have “shared experiences,” a recent young girl in the UK discovered that her “shared experiences” involved the alleged gang rape.

The avatar of a girl who is under 16 was reportedly attacked while she was wearing her headset and playing “an immersive game in the metaverse.” The metaverse generally refers to a virtual reality world where avatars (a graphical representation of a user) interact.

Some of the questions raised about virtual crimes

The main question that law enforcement and the public are reviewing in the virtual rape case is whether a virtual game incident such as rape can lead to real-life crimes. Are the avatars real people?

The question has many different points of view. Some opponents of equating virtual crimes with real crimes argue that the player (such as the girl who was playing in the metaverse) could have just turned off the game. Aren’t attacks expected? Isn’t focusing on real-life crime more important?

The arguments in support of making some virtual misconduct a real-life crime argue that, while being virtually killed is part of the expectation of many games (such as Call of Duty), being raped is actually not expected. The Guardian report states that while investigators don’t know what game the girl was playing, there aren’t any online games where raping children is acceptable.

The issue of whether “virtual” rape equates with “real” rape has been reviewed before. The Guardian reported that The Village Voice reviewed the “rape in cyberspace” issue before in an article by Julian Dibbell. The author “reported on how the people behind avatars that were sexually assaulted in a virtual community felt emotions similar to those of victims of physical rape.”

A senior police officer investigating the UK case stated, “There is an emotional and psychological impact on the victim that is longer-term than any physical injuries.” The article goes on to note that “The immersive quality of the metaverse experience makes it all the more difficult for a child, especially, to distinguish between what’s real and what is make-believe.”

A secondary question is who should be held accountable? Is it just the alleged offenders involved in the online game crimes – or should the gaming companies be held accountable too? This question is especially relevant today, due to studies such as one in The Wall Street Journal stating that using Instagram (owned by Meta) “adversely affects teen girls’ confidence and body image.”

Just last year, 33 lawyers filed a lawsuit against Meta alleging that “Facebook and Instagram are responsible for a ‘national youth mental health crisis’”.

According to one police investigator, “the metaverse is already ‘rife’ with sexual offenses.”

The issue of whether a defendant can be charged with an online crime is likely to be hard to uphold without additional legislation. That legislation is already in the works in some countries. The UK’s new Online Safety Bill  is a “year-old set of laws to protect children and adults online.” As more and more people, especially children, spend time online participating in virtual reality and as more unexpected or “immoral” assaults continue, there is likely to be further legislation – including in the United States and Maryland.

As computers continue to dominate our lives, defendants of all ages may be charged with virtual crimes based on existing laws or new laws. Defendants will need to review with our experienced criminal defense lawyer whether the computer-related crime they’ve been charged with is really a crime. To assert your defenses to any criminal charges, call us or contact us now to schedule a consultation. For more than 40 years, Carey Law Office has been representing defendants in Bowie, Crofton, and Dunkirk. We also serve Calvert County.