Every time there's a violent tragedy, we hear over and over that video games are to blame, leading everyone who has actually touched a joystick (or knows what that is) to automatically roll their eyes. Nope, video games aren't turning us into criminals -- the truth is much weirder.
It turns out that while you're going around innocently shooting zombies or running people over in colorful virtual worlds, other people are abusing the same games to plan actual murders, carry out Ponzi schemes, or finance kinky virtual red-light districts. Don't believe us? Then let us tell you about ...
In the game Second Life, players are allowed to create their own content; they can design the body of the avatar they control, its clothing, its movement, its animation, and even the locations where it dwells. Enterprising players sell their work to others, and if you manage to create something thousands of users are willing to pay for, you can even make a living playing the game. It should be obvious at this point that we're talking about cartoon fucking.
You're welcome. -Ed.
Second Life sex is a thriving industry. This is perhaps the only game that lists a steampunk-themed homoerotic sex club and an island devoted to having sex with anthropomorphic cows on its official website as "places of interest." This is possible thanks to the users who spend hours programming the animation for avatars having every conceivable type of sex, since that shit certainly doesn't come with the game. One such user is former plumber Kevin Alderman, who saw a need for a service and filled it with pixelated penises.
Plus one very sad digital wig.
Alderman, using the pseudonym Stroker Serpentine (which sounds like Harry Potter's former teacher who can't go near a school anymore), created hundreds of animations of Second Life avatars performing lewd acts. Thousands of users each paid Alderman the equivalent of $46 in real-world money so they could pretend to have sex within the game, because sometimes chatting one-handed just doesn't cut it anymore.
So successful were these animations that when a teenager in Texas copied them and tried to sell them on his own, Alderman found the kid, brought him to court, and eventually obtained a settlement against him. But Alderman's biggest accomplishment was much more ambitious: He was also the creator of the sex capital of the virtual world, Second Life's Amsterdam. Using high-resolution photos of the real place, Alderman painstakingly recreated the city of Amsterdam, right down to the canals, the train stations, and the hookers.
Remember to use a proxy or you'll catch some malware.
The virtual city is populated by hundreds of shops (most of which specialize in sex toys for Second Life avatars), erotic nightclubs, and, yes, prostitutes soliciting visitors for cybersex. Was it worth all that effort? Well, in 2007, Alderman sold "Amsterdam" to a Dutch investment company for $50,000, because no matter if it's the real or the fake world, boners are always a good investment. So we're gonna go with "Unfortunately, yes."
Being insane can be terribly expensive, as Nicolas Cage's tax attorney and the nation of North Korea can tell you. That's why, in addition to their usual money-making schemes of currency counterfeiting and drug running, North Korea has turned to a new source of funding: video games. Let's put it this way: Have you ever bought in-game money from someone else while playing an MMO game because you couldn't be assed to go around collecting gold coins yourself? Then you may have helped further North Korea's nuclear program.
In 2011, South Korea accused its wacky northern neighbor of essentially using cheat codes to get rich. According to authorities, around 30 computer experts trained at elite North Korean science academies were released from government service and jobs at state-owned companies and put in contact with several Chinese and South Korean hackers. Working together, the uber-nerds were able to manipulate the servers of the most popular online games in South Korea, Lineage II and Dungeon Fighter, to get free, unlimited access.
We're 100 percent positive that this is the way Kim Jong Il pictured himself.
So what was the plan? Getting lots of fake video game money. Once they were in, the government-sanctioned hackers programmed dozens of computers to autoplay the games around the clock, doing nothing but collecting gold. If you haven't played a game since the '80s, that's like if the USSR had gotten KGB agents to play Pac-Man all day to steal the top sco- actually, never mind, that probably happened for real.
The hackers then converted the fake currency into real-world money by selling it to lazy chumps through auction websites -- they managed to accumulate around $6 million this way, a significant part of which went back to the North Korean government's "slush fund." According to The New York Times, that fund was used to "help finance [Kim Jong Il's] nuclear weapons programs and to smuggle Rolex watches and other luxury goods, which he doles out to buy the allegiance of the party and the military elite."
So that's what all that sign burning was about -- pissed-off MMO players protesting cheating.
Of course, such a complex operation couldn't be carried out from someone's basement: The hackers had to travel to China for five months to set everything up and risked getting caught if anyone found out what they were doing. In fact, five South Koreans were arrested in 2011 for helping them. The North Korean government has denied any responsibility for these scams, telling South Korean authorities to "Shove the cheap gimmicks."
"No, we haven't been spending time in online games. Do I look like an online gamer to you? Why are you laughing?"
Advancements like voice and text chatting within video games have allowed players to exchange maternal insults with people from all over the world. It's not all positive, though: If you're not careful about who you talk to, you may run into a criminal ordering a real-life murder. Seriously.
And if you don't stop slurping Mountain Dew so close to the mic, that murder may be yours.
According to journalist Misha Glenny, who has written for the BBC and The Guardian, Russian mobsters and South American drug cartels are using online games to carry out illegal activities such as money laundering right under our noses. As we alluded to above, every MMO has some form of internal currency: In World of Warcraft, it's gold; in Second Life, it's the Linden; and in Knights of the Old Republic, it's buyer's remorse. Countless transactions are carried out within these games every day and it would be impossible to monitor them all, a fact that gangs use to their advantage.
How? By using online games to launder and transfer funds around the world. Glenny's investigation uncovered the fact that Russian mobsters and Colombian drug lords are using dirty money to buy, for example, World of Warcraft gold and then transferring that gold to a player in another country. Then all the recipient has to do is convert the gold back into U.S. dollars and the transaction is complete. Some crooks hire entire tech teams and use hundreds of accounts, all dedicated to successfully moving cash through online games.
"Sir, you'll have the cash as soon as the PS3 finishes updating."
But it gets worse: According to leaked documents from U.S. agencies, international gangs are also using the voice chatting features in consoles like the PlayStation 3 and Xbox 360 to talk with each other and even order murders overseas. The documents specifically mention that "MS-13 members may have used this communications tactic to order at least one murder ... as well as the murder of a possible witness." It's unclear whether the hits were carried out with katanas and jet packs.
Or by an X-Files team of supervillains.
This whole thing may sound alarmist as shit, but when you think about it, it makes sense: These days, phone calls, emails, and text messages can be easily monitored, but no one's paying attention to the verbal exchanges that are going on within video games (mostly because they can barely be considered verbal). Honestly, why wouldn't gangsters use online games to communicate? Other than the fact that they might run into people who are even more devious than themselves, which brings us to ...