One of the enjoyable things about forging a meme (maybe it's a strange attractor?) like the Play Ethic is the stuff that comes to you, from expertises and disciplines you'd never even thought about. So it's been a knotty delight to read through Nic Groombridge's paper, Playing Around with Crime and Criminology in Videogames. The original document Nic sent me was actually titled 'iPlod', which is a much funnier title. (PC Plod is a British slang term for 'policeman').
As Groombridge tartly notes, the ambition of most criminologists would seem to be either "doing research for the Home Office or speaking out on behalf of the criminalized". He tries to steer round the obvious point of intersection between games and criminology - the debate about whether computer games are a factor in teen violence. (Beware of immersive, isolating personal media platforms that can often engage its user in a set of extreme and dastardly scenarios... Yes, ban the book! And whatever we do, don't put Raskolnikov into a computer game). But he doesn't quite manage, as we'll see later on.
There is indeed a lot of 'cybercrime' around - but defintions are crucial. To help us sort through it, he quotes David Wall's very useful distinction (in his book Cybercrime) between three generations of cybercriminality:
Gen 2: 'hybrid crimes' - old crimes for which computers and networks provide new opportunities. Like internet auction fraud, or cracking/hacking (in the malevolent sense), or paedophile porn networks, or mass identity theft, or information on how to crack digital decoders or make synthetic drugs. This crime would also happen anyway, but not on this global scale, and with not as much virulence.
Gen 3: 'distributed and automated crimes' - crimes which couldn't happen without the internet. For example, spambots which relentlessly attack your computer. Or the 'misappropriation of intellectual property' - which can cover everything, in Wall's definition, from teenage downloaders flouting copyright laws, to vandalism and rape in virtual worlds. (There is a 'fourth generation' to come, apparently, as 'ambient' technologies like wifi and bluetooth bring connectedness into the streets).
Clearly in this third generation of cybercrime, all the ambiguities of play - unleashed in the synthetic worlds of the net - come rushing up to meet the criminologist. But what kind of criminologist? One contracted to the Home Office, gathering statistics on anti-social behaviour - or one seeking to defend and understand the criminalised? It seems to depend what kind of political state you practice your criminology in.
Groombridge quotes Edward Castronova on South Korea's National Police Agency, who recorded 40,000 computer crimes in 2003 - with 22,000 of them being online related. If you've stolen 60 quadrillion pieces from a virtual game-world, the Korean police will eagerly get you for property crime - no hesitation.
Shift, however, to the US, and the phenomenon of "griefers" - where teams of spoilsports go around trashing virtual worlds with stunts and hacks. They thrive in that legal gap between real-life and virtual-life actions that most game-world hosts loudly proclaim. As Julian Dibbell says in his brilliant piece of reportage in Wired, the griefers aim is to point out that "nothing on the Internet is so serious it can't be laughed at, and that nothing is so laughable as people who think otherwise". Sheer anticness: the primordial rumble of play. Not much that the law can do about that.