Dec. 12, 2013 at 9:00 AM ET
In a world constructed entirely from computer code, spies for international superpowers are keeping tabs on digital creatures who sometimes wield elaborate medieval weaponry, controlled by guys who were picked last for their high school dodgeball teams.
This scenario may sound like science fiction, but it could well be how things have gone down for some American agents assigned to infiltrate massively multi-player online role-playing games (MMORPGs), such as "World of Warcraft" and "Second Life," plus Xbox Live, the enormous online social net tied to Microsoft's popular game console. According to reports published Monday citing documents provided by NSA-leaker Edward Snowden, surveillance from both the United States and Britain's government very well may extend beyond the world of cellphones and email and into virtual realms.
"We know that terrorists use many feature-rich Internet communications media for operational purposes such as email, VoIP, chat, proxies, and Web forums and it is highly likely they will be making wide use of the many communications features offered by Games and Virtual Environments (GVE) by 2010," reads one 2008 NSA document titled "Exploiting Terrorist Use of Games & Virtual Environments."
As silly as this whole endeavor seems, video games, like many other aspects of modern life, are an increasingly ubiquitous and complex part of people's digital existence. The Internet-enabled community of gamers is just plain huge. Together, "World of Warcraft," Sony's PlayStation Network and Xbox Live and Valve's PC gaming service Steam boast tens of millions of subscribers.
With so many people gathered in one place, communicating in real-time, forming bonds and in games such as "Second Life," making monetary exchanges, there's bound to be some kind of shady activity taking place.
Money-laundering and back-channel communication is one way the NSA looks for terrorist activity. Greg Lastowka, whose book "Virtual Justice," addresses the legal chaos in online communities, says connecting the dots in an online land of make-believe is a convoluted process. Law enforcement and anti-terrorism agents have an entrenched infrastructure to support them in tracking things like phone-calls, bank records, and emails, but "communication in 'WoW' is much harder to trace, and real monetary value can pass from A to B without a regulated bank being involved," Lastowka told NBC News.
Peter Ludlow, a philosopher at Northwestern University and prolific author on the subject of "conceptual cyberspace," notes that everything in such games is still too obvious. "I can't imagine any terrorist using a platform like 'Second Life' or 'WoW' to plan ops because the platforms offer no real privacy," Ludlow told NBC News.
And alas, as the NSA documents confirm, within the heavily monitored corporate-run virtual playgrounds, agents failed to turn up the kind of suspect "chatter" that takes place on more obscure places on the Internet.
It takes a lot of game time to build an avatar, gain skills and master an MMPORG. That's an activity that seems high maintenance, low reward, if you think about it. The Feds "are not really concerned about the prospect of illegal activity taking place among the real players in the virtual environment," Lastowka said.
To his point, there have been other crimes afoot in the "World of Warcraft" and other digital homelands. According to the recently released documents, the British spies in "Second Life" flipped an avatar, who gave up the goods on a crime ring using virtual worlds to move corporeal stolen goods.
Jeff Hermes, director of the Digital Media Law Project and Online Media Legal Network for Harvard's Berkman Center for Internet and Society, pointed to gold farming, a practice by which MMO players — often in developing countries — spend hours harvesting in-game virtual currency to sell through a secondary online market to wealthier players who'd rather not spend the time, as an example of such a potentially elicit activity.
In one particularly famous example of this kind of activity from 2009, an Australian "EVE Online" player made several thousand dollars by selling virtual currency he had stolen from an in-game bank. It might make an interesting starting point for an episode of "The Mentalist," but it's not exactly the stuff of international intrigue.
Yannick LeJacq is a contributing writer for NBC News who has also covered technology and games for Kill Screen, The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic. You can follow him on Twitter at @YannickLeJacq and reach him by email at: Yannick.LeJacq@nbcuni.com.