Dealing with crime in a virtual world

9 March 2010

With the regulation of social networking sites in the headlines, Deakin University criminologists are examining the emerging problem of criminal and harmful activities in three-dimensional virtual worlds.

The issue is explored by Dr Ian Warren and his colleague Associate Professor Darren Palmer in their paper, Crime risks of three-dimensional virtual environments, which was recently released by the Australian Institute of Criminology.

“I think to some extent new technologies such as Second Life and other three-dimensional virtual environments emerged without a lot of thought to the criminal activities or harm that could happen in them,” Dr Warren said.

“As a consequence, calls for regulation tend to be made when a problem occurs and becomes a public issue. Our concern is that this can lead to reactive regulations that misconstrue the nature of the issue and run the risk of not solving the actual problem.”

Dr Warren said virtual technology was changing how users interacted.

“People can immerse themselves in these environments to an amazing level. By creating a character or avatar that represents them in the virtual world, they can interact with other users through speech, gestures and simulated behaviours.

“This level of interaction is changing our notions of the type of cyber-harm that can occur.”

To effectively manage issues, Associate Professor Palmer said a more in-depth understanding of what is happening in virtual worlds is needed – including engaging directly with the environment.

“We have developed a criminology island in Second Life where we are starting to explore how the environment shapes user conduct and how the manipulation of the online environment might also change avatar behaviour.”

Associate Professor Palmer said he and Dr Warren are also exploring how messages or signs related to descriptive norms (beliefs about what is typically done in an environment) and injunctive norms (what people think should be done) can be communicated to users in ways that enhance or motivate positive in-world behaviours.

“From this we can enhance our understanding of both virtual and real world perceptions and behaviours,” Associate Professor Palmer explained.

“What we do know more generally is that ‘scare tactics’ are not particularly helpful; they heighten fear and concerns and can lead to decreased social cohesion both in-world or in real life.”

Dr Warren believes more knowledge is the key.

“Most virtual environments have their own in-world rules and there are also external laws that apply to site administrators and users.

“We need to look at the regulations that currently exist and assess how they are working and we also need to look at potential problems and determine the best way to handle them - whether they are best handled by external regulation or whether an in-world solution would be better.

“Three-dimensional virtual environments are the new generation of social networking platforms. If we are to effectively identify, manage and prevent crime and harm in these environments we need to find out more about how they work and not simply react when a problem occurs,” he said.

News facts
  • Paper explores issues of crime and harm in virtual environments
  • Increased interaction changing our notions of cyber-harm
  • Knowledge the key to effective responses

Media contact

Vanessa Barber
Deakin Media Relations
03 5227 1301; 0488 292 644

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9th March 2010