Last week, Japanese authorities arrested a woman for killing the digital avatar of her online husband—no, we didn’t make this up. Arrested in her home in southern Miyazaki, she was taken to Sapporo in Northern Japan. The woman became angry on learning her online husband divorced her. She used his ID and password to log onto the “Maple Story” interactive game to execute the virtual murder. Although not yet formally charged, she was arrested for suspicion of illegally accessing a computer and manipulating electronic data. Although the police thus far have no reason to believe she was contemplating any real world criminal act, she still could face five years in prison or a fine of as much as $5,000 if she is ultimately charged and convicted of the computer access and manipulation charges. Maple Story, like many interactive, online virtual world games, allow real world participants to create digital characters called “avatars.” While many virtual experiences are essentially sophisticated online interactive games themselves, even non-game based virtual worlds enable avatars to engage in social networking, relationships with other avatars, transactions involving the exchange of value, and the creation or deployment of intellectual property— content ranging from video programs to musical concerts to creating wardrobes for their avatars. Because avatars exist in a virtual, digitally created world, their owners often engage in activities they would never consider in the real world.
This is not the first time online behavior has led to real-world consequences, or online consequences have led to real-world behavior. Real people have been arrested for stealing virtual property and for stealing user ID and password information to steal virtual currency. This past summer, a woman was arrested and charged in Delaware with plotting to abduct her boyfriend in real life—a boyfriend she met in the virtual world website, Second Life.