How much legal weight should actions in the virtual world carry back in the real one? For most people, the answer might be “none,” but as online communities conduct actual financial transactions and draw in more participants, some legal experts think that it may be time to extend brick-and-mortar jurisprudence into the virtual realm.

By some estimates, about 100 million users worldwide populate online communities. Second Life, the creation of Linden Lab in San Francisco, provides its active-user base of one million with a real-time experience on their personal computer, in which they use digital characters called avatars to wander around castles, deserted islands and other fantastic 3-D environments. Through their avatars, they can meet and talk to thousands of online participants, even cuddle on couches and have simulated sex with them.

Such immersive experiences have led to several reports of online activities triggering real-world conflicts. Last November one woman filed papers for divorce on the grounds that she caught her husband’s avatar being overly affectionate with someone else. (He countered that his wife drove him to virtual infidelity because of her addiction to World of Warcraft.) In fault-based divorce courts, such a claim would be perfectly legitimate, says Greg Lastowka, a professor of law at Rutgers University who is currently writing a book called Virtual Law. But he likens it to complaints such as “my husband plays golf all the time and has no time for me”—grievances that are shy of adultery.

But with the average player spending 20 hours a week in these environments, players often put more weight into virtual affairs than lawmakers do. When Chinese gamer Qiu Chengwei acquired a virtual sword in the online game Legend of ­Mir 3, ­only to have a friend borrow it and sell it online for $800, Qiu went to the police. Told that there were no laws to protect virtual property, Qiu actually killed the thief. “If somebody is going to die, and somebody else is going to spend the rest of his life in jail for a virtual crime, then we better take it seriously,” Lastowka remarks.

More nebulous, though, is behavior between avatars that would be criminal in the physical world. One case involved “virtual rape,” according to Ben­jamin Duranske, a San Francisco attorney and founder of the Second Life Bar Association, which meets once a month in Second Life. In a blog, he recounts a Brussels public prosecutor who had called for an investigation of a rape charge involving a Belgian user of Second Life. The case apparently later died, perhaps because, as Duranske proposes, “most laws prohibiting violence are applied only to real people, not computer characters.”

The case echoes an earlier incidence of virtual rape a decade ago, as described by Julian Dibble for the Village Voice in 1993. This incident took place in LamdaMOO, a text-based virtual community, and concerned a hacker known as Mr. Bungle, who took control of other avatars who were then made to describe violent, explicit acts on the screen. The article spawned a conference at New York University in 1994 where participants discussed the possibility of self-governing on the Internet, which could entail a virtual community limiting or canceling another player’s account. (Cancellation is what happened to Mr. Bungle’s creator.)

Indeed, members of today’s virtual communities must agree to a “terms of service” contract, which enables companies to adjudicate conflicts by, for instance, suspending the offending account. But establishing a new account to create another predatory character is simple enough. And as Lastowka says, “virtual worlds don’t want to police their users. They just want to collect their profits.” (Linden Lab takes a cut from users conducting business in Second Life.) Online communities, he points out, will always have “griefers” and “goon squads” who wait at game portals to kill new avatars or take sexual advantage of someone who has not figured out how to push the “no” button.

Courts could set precedents as cases arise from the virtual world. South Korean courts, for instance, have done so a number of times in dealing with virtual property; in contrast, U.S. courts have shied away from the issue. The scope of the online realm suggests that legislation may be desirable. Virtual commerce is worth about $1 billion annually and is set to get bigger as the six- to 12-year-olds on Club Penguin and other virtual games grow up. Lastowka and Duranske think society is headed toward a virtual Internet that, Duranske says, “is going to be a major revolution in the way we interact.” Whether the law can keep pace with that revolution remains to be seen.

Note: This article was originally printed with the title, "Avatar Acts."