Are Your Virtual Assets Safe?

Technology certainly makes life easier, but as more and more of our assets become virtual, we can’t help but worry about whether our assets are safe. Gamers have understood the concept (and importance of) virtual goods for quite a long time, but the concept of an item that no longer has a physical presence is becoming more familiar with the general public. Our assets now lie in bits and we rely heavily on computer records to prove that ownership. But what happens if the system goes wrong?

Virtual Assets in Games

I say that gamers understand virtual goods more than the normal person because in many games, these cyber items have great value, not only within the game, but also outside of the game because the items are often traded for real cash. For instance, games such as Diablo, Lineage, and World of Warcraft have very active offline markets for the exchange of certain hard-to-obtain items or even the game characters themselves.

[To oppress offline transactions, Blizzard coded its cyber items so that the rare ones acquired through quests would be non-transferable. However, that did not solve the problem of offline sales of in-game gold; in China, there are gold “farms” where people are paid to sit at a computer and play games to obtain cyber cash, which is then sold to gamers around the world.]

The biggest problem, however, is that if something goes wrong and your virtual goods disappear, it is very difficult to bring them back. For instance, Maple Story recently had a server glitch, and as a result, many users found some of their items missing. Fortunately, user logs were still intact, but the company has to go through each individual account in order to figure out what items the player owns, and it is saying that this process will take time. This puts the game player in a very vulnerable position, because although the virtual items are their own, they have no control whatsoever and lack proof of ownership. Game companies have the power to take away at their will and are even exempt from taking responsibility for lost items in some cases. (continued)

For instance, I used to have a bank account in Second life– wih several thousand Linden dollars tucked into Nine Dragons, a private investment bank that paid good interest. However, Linden Labs changed laws and financial services were no longer allowed to operate in Second Life. After a few months of absence from Second Life, I logged in one day to find that the bank had disappeared. If I’d known about the bank closure, I would have withdrawn my money, but neither the bank nor Linden Labs had an obligation to protect my virtual assets. When I asked the bank operator about my lost money, he said, “Where have you been? Haven’t you been reading the news?” I suppose I hold some responsibility, but I was angry that the bank didn’t have any responsibility (or even the moral obligation) to notify me of the closure, let alone return my money.

Virtual Goods Going Mainstream

Such problems involving virtual assets that we’ve been seeing in the gaming community for the past several years are now beginning to surface in other areas as well, thanks to cloud computing and digital content distribution [Cyber scholar Jonathan Zittrain expresses concerns about the dark side of cloud computing]. I’m not suggesting that we distrust technology, but as a normal consumer, I find that more of my purchases (and transaction records) are virtual. On the one hand, I feel helpless when it comes to archiving things, while on the other hand, I feel very exposed because certain companies own my digital footprints/fingerprints.

From a corporate perspective, I’m sure companies have their own concerns about virtual assets. Take a look at music and the huge clash between the recording industry and people who shared files through peer-to-peer sites. Back in 2003, Microsoft researchers suggested that a “darknet” of rampant copying of content will occur in an age of digital distribution.

It would be great to say that we should look at games as a model of how to manage virtual assets, but despite the fact that the industry has had more time to worry, they really don’t have good solutions. In fact, to tighten security, the vendors and game operators (these days, the game maker oft becomes the vendor too because digital downloads cut out the middleman) are assuming more power.

Except for my clothes, a lot of the items in my life are digital– email, documents, music, games, photographs, money– and although there are some things that I can store physically in a hard disk drive, a lot of it is just “out there” in the hands of various companies, some of which may no longer exist in a decade or two. Does the fact that I worry about this make me old-fashioned?

I can easily see how people could become paranoid about finding alternative means for documenting their virtual assets. Maybe that paranoid person is me. I sometimes take screenshots of websites because websites change, hyperlinks go bad, and web archives can only do so much. I look at the bookshelves in the study and see rows of cardboard game boxes, books, CDs, movies, photoalbums… all more than 10 years old… but it gives me a sense of who I am and ownership of my memories. The past 10 years of my life are owned by Google, Yahoo, Apple, Amazon, Bankofamerica.com, etc. My grandchildren aren’t going to find old pictures of me in an attic chest. They’ll have to go to Flickr. If it still exists.

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