When I think of “raiding” and the World of Warcraft, I’m generally thinking about the Blackwing Descent raid encounter that my guild is trying to power through or disposing of the Lich King in Icecrown Citadel with extreme prejudice. Never do any of those thoughts feature United States law enforcement kicking in a door or any sort of real life crime. Recent events may have two students at the University of Michigan seeing things a little bit differently than I do after this week though. A sophomore and a junior in Ann Arbor had their Towers apartment raided by the FBI for the purposes of "potentially fraudulent sales or purchases of virtual currency that people use to advance in the popular online role-playing game World of Warcraft." For those that don’t keep up with MMO vernacular, that’s “gold farming” – acquiring virtual currency then selling it for real world cash. The two students maintain that agents have the wrong people, as neither of them even play WoW.
But why should anyone really care? A common response when I was telling others about this story was some variation on “Come on man, it’s just WoW gold.” Well for starters, not all gold farming is legit (as far as “legit” can properly apply to this practice anyway). Some of the virtual gold that’s meant to fetch real dollars comes from account theft. I’ve seen firsthand what happens through guildmates getting their accounts hacked in WoW. They log in one day, only to find that anything and everything saleable on their person or in their inventory was cleaned out. To some gold farmers, that’s most definitely a quicker and easier resource than grinding out quest chains or working the auction house to make some digital dough. This is one of the 4 primary reasons I haven’t or won’t ever buy gold for real money: (1) I’d rather not give some shady person my credit card number. (2) It violates my end-user license agreement and that may open me up to the Blizzard ban hammer. (3) It promotes the practice, which promotes, to some extent, account hacking. (4) I already pay almost $200 a year to play. I don’t want to shell out more.
Reading up on this topic has given me a fifth reason. Computerworld has found some information linking this kind of activity to botnets through a Canadian study, which details to some extent the seedy underbelly of the digital world, or as the study calls it, the “dark universe.” It’s an adequate name, as what I read in the report involved some pretty scary information about all sorts of digital places i want no part of. Here’s a little snippet about MMO’s and persistent virtual worlds to illustrate my point: “These environments have not escaped the notice of terrorists, spies, and criminals. Virtual world terrorism facilitates real world terrorism: recruitment, training, communication, radicalization, propagation of toxic content, fund raising and money laundering, and influence operations.” It goes on to talk about how some gold farming and power-leveling operations could be arms of criminal organizations that use them a whole host of shady enterprises. There could be a possible link here, as the FBI agents involved with this raid believe that there was a “scheme to set up fraudulent bank accounts to buy and/or sell 'virtual currency' or 'gold' to be used in the game.” Bank fraud does indeed sound like something within the realm of the aforementioned dark universe.
The information above made me glad to see details on something called Project Reynard from the Intelligence Advanced Research Projects Activity (IARPA). Project Reynard works on the premise that real world characteristics are reflected in virtual world behavior, and looks to identify criminal behaviors and trends online that may translate into any real world threat involving the users behind them. With the increasing presence of virtual worlds and MMO environments, it would appear that intelligence gathering in the real world isn’t enough to catch everything.
Perhaps World of Warcraft is the new Matrix. Maybe it's time to learn some digital kung fu?