Virtually Safe: Five Real-Life Pitfalls of Online Worlds -- And Some Safer Alternatives

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Depending on exactly how you define the term, virtual world games have an audience that's somewhere in the region of 20-30 million players around the world. The vast majority of them, whether they're into World of Warcraft, Runescape, or Club Penguin, enjoy healthy, safe, and relaxing entertainment -- but these pastimes aren't without their dangers. From addiction to theft to divorce, careless behavior in virtual worlds can lead to real consequences. Here's a few recent headlines, and a few tips on how to keep yourself (or your family) safe.

Is World of Warcraft "the most dangerous game"?

World of Warcraft
Virtual worlds are designed to be addictive. That's how the creators make money: if its players get bored, they give up and quit paying. Nothing wrong with addictive games in moderation, but when obsessed players put virtual rewards over real jobs, relationships, and chores, lives get ruined. World of Warcraft, merely by virtue of being the biggest and most successful virtual world to date, is the chief culprit -- so much so that one Swedish researcher called it "the crack cocaine of the computer gaming world" in a government-backed report. "Some people are literally unable to drag themselves away and will play it till they drop," he said.

"Age of Conan" too violent -- even for Arnie

Age of Conan
Most online worlds tend to favor cartoony violence and stylized combat over the explicit violence that's a common sight in other game genres. 2008's Age of Conan, however, did the Conan brand proud, releasing with copious lashings of swords-and-sorcery sex and violence. Although the game is licensed from the pulpy books that originated the Conan character, not the subsequent Arnie movie, the game's content put Governor Schwarzenegger in a curious position. Schwarzenegger, together with California senator Leland Yee, has pushed for harsher legislation controlling access to violent games like Conan, and although as his spokesman Aaron McLear was keen to stress to the San Jose Mercury News, Schwarzenegger has no association with the game, it's still hard not to smile at the irony.

Gamer steals from virtual friends to pay real debts

EVE Online
Eve Online, a ground-breaking space sim that focuses on interstellar commerce and conflict, made headlines recently when a player embezzled over $5,000 in in-game currency from a player-run bank. Eve's laissez-faire, almost-anything-goes rules system means "Richard" wasn't banned until he tried to exchange the in-game money for real currency via a third-party web site.

Second Life affair ends in divorce

Second Life
Anyone who's spent any length of time involved in the social dimensions of online worlds will tell you that attachments formed in-game can be just as convincing and satisfying as real-life friends. Nothing wrong with long as you can keep it in perspective. Unlike this British couple, who split after husband David Pollard was caught being unfaithful -- but not in the regular, messing-about-with-the-mailman way. No, Pollard was caught in flagrante with a virtual call girl in online world Second Life. Undaunted, Pollard's ex moved on -- to a relationship with a man she met playing World of Warcraft, according to CNN.

Dutch teens do time over Runescape theft

Even free online worlds aren't immune from these shenanigans. Two Dutch players of "Runescape" -- one of the most popular free online games around -- were sentenced to hundreds of hours of community service after a judge found they'd coerced another youngster into transferring in-game items to them.
Thanks To Mike Smith.