Virtual Property – Real Divorce.

I have a confession to make.  I am a gamer.

My husband is a gamer; my best friends are gamers.  I raised my son to be a gamer and he is raising his own little gamers. World of Warcraft

My game of choice is World of Warcraft, one of the most popular and successful online games.  Classified as an MMORPG (Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game) World of Warcraft launched in November 2004, and currently hosts 6 million active player subscriptions; a subscription base equivalent to the entire populations of Los Angeles, California and Chicago, Illinois combined.  Blizzard Entertainment, creators of World of Warcraft, have produced 4 of the top 10 best-selling video games of all time including World of Warcraft (WoW as it is commonly known) second only to Sid Meirs’ 4th Version of their flagship series, The Sims.   You may not understand the attraction of online games and the psychology behind it is a whole other blog; but it’s safe to say online gaming is going to be part of our culture for the foreseeable future.

As gamers play they accumulate virtual wealth.  The online economy of WoW, for example, works much like a real economy.  Players “farm” or perform quests or feats to earn online currency which is then traded to other players for online items via the player auction house.  World of Warcraft’s largest US server, Illidan (a server or realm is approximately 30,000 players) has a market boasting an average 52 million gold (WoW’s currency) traded per day. (wowauction.com)

World of Warcraft

Seriously, $1,600 for this.

Does this virtual wealth translate to real dollars?  It can.  An entire industry of online currency vendors has evolved wherein real life people earn virtual currency in exchange for real money from other players who don’t want to spend the time and effort to earn their own.  The dollar value for 100,000 gold on an average-sized US realm is around $42 according to IGE, one of the largest online currency vendors (buying gold online is generally considered cheating).  The average player at the maximum level can easily earn 1000 gold per hour of casual play or 40 real cents per hour.  IGE and its ilk rely on cheap exploitive labor to turn a profit – and they do turn a profit.

Even though buying gold is frowned upon by the general player community and can get you banned from some games, it’s a growing world-wide industry.  China is notorious online for gold trading and in 2011 a Forbes investigation revealed Chinese prisoners were being forced to play WoW to earn online gold to be sold to other players.  (Forbes, 6.2.2011, Paul Tassi “Chinese Prisoners Forced to Farm World of Warcraft Gold”)

In addition to online currency, players can buy items online including rare armor, items and virtual pets. Runescape players could buy a “Blue Party Hat”; literally nothing more than a blue hat your avatar can wear, but a very rare item that sold for $1,680 US dollars.  A World of Warcraft maximum level avatar named “Zeuzo” sold for $9,000 in 2007.  And the virtual resort known as  ”Club Neverdie” from the Entropia Universe was purchased by a single player for $100,000 real dollars then sold a year later for over $600,000. (The Richest.com, 11.15.14, 10 Of The Most Expensive Virtual Items in Video Games, Nathan Gibson).

Trading real money for an imaginary thing?  How does one calculate the value of an item that exists only as a line of code among the trillions of lines of code that make up a game?  Places like Club Neverdie can and do generate real income. Like a real life resort, the owner of Club Neverdie charges other players Linden dollars, the online currency used by Entropia to visit.  Like WoW gold, those Linden dollars can be exchanged for real ones. So just like a real real-estate investment, Club Neverdie is an asset earning real currency for its human owner.

Gamers may also become emotionally invested and extremely protective of their avatars.  They spend hundreds of hours creating and personalizing them and interacting with other players in a virtual world.  Virtual property can accumulate more sentimental value than a dollar value.  But they do have dollar value and so must be counted as a personal asset.  Like any other property, virtual items, accounts and currency are subject to division by the courts in a divorce.  This division might seem simple if only one party is a gamer.  If a couple share an online account, who gets the account?

clapper $Online game accounts are actually the property of the game owner.  Game companies use thousands of internet servers to host and operate their game.  Players subscribe to the game client online and personalize their own avatar and play.  Access to the account is controlled via password and paid subscription time.  Generally, he who holds the password owns the account.  If one spouse pays the subscription and the other spouse plays the game, might they both have a strong claim for ownership?

A Bank of servers

A bank of servers.

Blizzard Entertainment auctioned this single World of Warcraft server for charity in 2012

Blizzard Entertainment auctioned this single World of Warcraft server for charity in 2012

The average online gamer is nearing 40 years of age. Seventy-four percent of them are age 18 or older and nearly half are women. (Entertainment Software Association). The average Minecraft player is between 12 and 21 years of age (Minecraft Game Forums). In the next 20 years those players will age and two things are certain: a good portion of them will continue to play Minecraft or some other video game and half of them will get a divorce. Games and Gamers aren’t going anywhere. They accumulate virtual wealth just like they accumulate more tangible assets. Their accounts and avatars are property and they have value just like Aunt Minnie’s antique china or Uncle Harold’s collection of vintage Playboys. Encourage your clients to disclose and leverage their virtual property just like physical property. You never know, your client may be a virtual millionaire but if you don’t ask, you will never know and by not asking, you may be doing you both a disservice.

By Rachel McNamara – Litigation Paralegal and Level 100 Mage.

 

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