I just came across an interesting story from a Finnish news site about the unexpected consequences of buying a World of Warcraft account. The article, while almost a year old, is the first I’ve heard it, probably because it’s hard to find an English version (I had to use Google translator to make it understandable). Anyhow, the story is that a man from Finland named Hannu Ahola who purchased a World of Warcraft account from an acquaintance and proceeded to play on that account for several years, acquiring a vast amount of experience, armor and gold. After a while, the original owner of the account decided he wanted it back and contacted Blizzard to change the password. Because the license agreement with Activision-Blizzard mandates that accounts are not to be sold and requires that only the original purchaser has the right to access the account, Ahola had no official recourse with the game company. Although the article doesn’t say, at that point, Blizzard probably deleted the account since both players were in violation of the agreement, but that’s not the main point. What is news is that after Ahola tried to work with the original account holder and got nowhere, he took him to court and WON!
The court determined that the account was a piece of virtual property and based on the growing importance of virtual property to people’s real lives, that the loss resulted in actual damages. Further blowing my mind is the fact that the court sought the services of an economist who calculated the value of the account using prices from Chinese gold farming and power leveling services! Despite the fact that both the account transfer and the use of gold farming are against the Warcraft terms of service, the court determined that the loss to Ahola was still real and that the original owner manipulated the system to get a much stronger account for essentially free. The value of the account: 4,000 Euro!
I highly doubt that we will see such a ruling in a U.S. court any time soon, but combined with the trend in Korea and China, we are seeing a growing recognition that games, and the time spent developing a character, have concrete value. Despite what the game companies claim about their service in an effort to avoid legal liability, this trend toward reification could fundamentally change our perceptions and our legal system.