The breakup of a marriage can be as traumatic in a virtual world as it can be in the real world. We have already seen how it affects gamers in Korea, where the popular game Maple Story even features in-world marriage and divorce. This time, a court in China dismissed a woman’s claim to virtual assets collected with her husband during their 2 years of marriage. The story, from the China Daily, describes how the couple met in an online world, got married and then merged their separate accounts into one–under the husband’s name. When things didn’t work out, the court’s division of marital property excluded the accumulated virtual assets of the couple. The reason for this is particularly interesting: the court stated that it could only divide assets linked in some way to real-world value. I was struck by this because it means there is an established system for dividing virtual items and assets!
Most, if not all, virtual worlds feature virtual items in some form or another and also have some form of virtual currency. Many, like World of Warcraft, choose to keep these items and currencies isolated from real world money because of the corrupting influence it has on game play. Others specifically embrace it. If you’re reading this blog, you’re probably well aware of this dichotomy, but it is intriguing to see how a court system has chosen to recognize it. One question might be, why should it matter if there is real-world value? I suppose one answer could be that the courts are simply too busy to delve into arguably subjective valuations of virtual items. But then again, there are plenty of real-world assets with subjective value, such as photographs, that have to get divvied up by somehow assigning value to them.
The Chinese legal system is not new to disputes over virtual items. The now-legendary story of Qiu Chengwei, the man who fatally stabbed a friend in real life after being robbed of his rare virtual sword, began because the police refused to recognize the sword as having any real value and therefore not something that could be the subject of a crime. Reports at the time indicated that the victim sold the sword in an online auction for the equivalent of $870, which means that it actually had a real-world value at the time, yet the police were unmoved. Five years later, however, things appear to be quite different in the Middle Kingdom. The existence of some real value behind virtual items is now something Chinese family courts take into consideration. We’ll have to keep an eye out for future prosecutions based on virtual item-related crimes to see if the criminal laws have been updated. Either way, the line between virtual and real gets thinner every day.