Money for Nothing

One author's voyage into the underbelly of online games

Reviewed by Stephen Cass

A new type of economy has arrived. This one is based not on gold or the might of sovereign nations, though, but on dragon’s teeth and holograms. These economies exist in gray zones between the real world of cold, hard cash and various virtual worlds hosted on Internet-connected servers around the globe. And despite their basis in fantasy, some of these economies are bigger than those of many countries.

These economies have sprung unexpectedly from a type of computer game known as a massively multiplayer online role-playing game, or MMORPG. In an MMORPG, for a few bucks a month, a player can adopt the role of a character in a make-believe online world populated by other human-controlled characters. As players explore this world and overcome various challenges, their characters gain skills, wealth, real estate, and some measure of reputation.

The precise nature of the world, characters, skills, and so on depends on the game in question, but the basic idea remains the same. In one game, for instance, a player might start off as a lowly peasant fighting off rats with a rusty dagger and eventually graduate to blasting trolls with magic fireballs, while in another, a player could start as a lowly space trader fighting off malfunctioning drones with a welding torch and later graduate to blasting hostile aliens with a plasma cannon. What’s surprising is that these characters and their possessions can have value—sometimes significant value—in the real world.

Julian Dibbell explores these fanciful games and their real-world economies in his new book, Play Money: Or, How I Quit My Day Job and Made Millions Trading Virtual Loot . While a number of cultural and economic analyses of MMORPGs have already appeared, Dibbell’s account stands out, because he doesn’t just opine from the sidelines, he jumps right in. The core of the book tells of Dibbell’s attempt to make more money, on a monthly basis, buying and selling virtual game items than he has ever earned working as a freelance writer.

Play Money: Or, How I Quit My Day Job and Made Millions Trading Virtual Loot

By Julian Dibbell; Basic Books, New York City; 2006, 321 pp., US $24; ISBN 0-4650-1535-2

In this endeavor, Dibbell is not alone—some people reportedly make six figures per month thanks to this kind of trading. The reason it works is because lots of players don’t feel like mining asteroids for hours and hours to get enough metal ore to make new spaceship armor. Instead, they search for someone else with a preexisting stockpile of armor and then either trade game items or game money for the armor within the MMORPG (as the game developers originally intended) or, increasingly often, pay cash for the science-fiction armor in the real world. Players also routinely buy large amounts of the various game currencies for real cash, creating a de facto exchange rate between the U.S. dollar and a game’s gold piece or credit chip. These trades may be set up through purpose-built Web sites or online auction sites like eBay.

Dibbell, like the characters that populate the MMORPGs, starts off in his book as a neophyte. He plays an MMORPG almost nonstop, trying to build up an inventory of game items valuable enough to tempt cash buyers. He spends weeks killing lizard men over and over for their hides, which he then cuts into sheets of leather and trades to other players for the princely sum of 30 000 gold pieces per thousand sheets. It’s a start, but the exchange rate between the dollar and the gold piece is something like US $13 per million gold pieces, and so Dibbell begins a search for higher-revenue enterprises.

It’s not long before he runs into the professionals—people who make a significant amount, if not all, of their income from MMORPG trading. Some of these pros are legitimate traders, running honest operations with sophisticated supply and distribution networks. Others are outright crooks, people who simply refuse to deliver paid-for goods. There are also a lot of people in the middle, those who probably won’t stiff a customer but who acquire their goods by dubious means, such as exploiting bugs and glitches in the games that allow huge amounts of raw materials or money to be generated in a very short period of time.

In this, they run headlong into the game developers and operators, who are trying to maintain the quality of the game for the vast majority of players who are paying just to enjoy themselves. A well-exploited glitch can cause instant hyperinflation as huge amounts of virtual treasure pour into the game economy, wiping out the wealth of players who accumulated loot through normal game playing and trading.

The game developers respond to exploitative traders by patching bugs, offering players novelty items for sale in hopes of siphoning off excess cash, and suspending or banning offenders. But it’s a never-ending battle—it doesn’t take long for ousted players to reappear in the guise of new characters. In addition, it’s impossible for the developers to eliminate all glitches, because new content, with new bugs, must be introduced on a regular basis to keep players interested [see ”Engineering EverQuest,” IEEE Spectrum, July 2005].

Indeed, as Play Money explains, the antagonism of game operators can extend even to those trading game items for cash without exploiting bugs. This is because it’s in the best interests of the operators that game goods and real estate have no tangible value; that way, no one can claim damages if their virtual castles are wiped out by a server crash or if their hyperdrives are rendered worthless by a rule change.

As Dibbell struggles to turn a consistent profit, and looks beyond his initial stomping grounds to other MMORPGs, his relationship with these online worlds becomes more and more abstract. No longer does he have to wander through dungeons in search of hapless lizard men—in effect, he becomes a commodities trader, almost as distant from the games as the Wall Street broker selling pork bellies is from the abattoir floor. The playful spirit that characterizes the earlier chapters of the book drains away, and Dibbell’s original fascination with the individuals who play in these worlds for their sheer entertainment value is replaced by a sense that such regular players are merely members of a vast herd of suckers who exist for the benefit of serious traders.

Dibbell eventually finds himself embroiled in a scheme to establish a facility in China where low-paid workers would toil all day ”playing” various MMORPGs to generate tradable items and game currency. Fortunately for Dibbell, and the book, things come to a head and Dibbell begins to surface from the madness.

Play Money ’s ultimate conclusion is that the boundary between the real and virtual worlds, or between work and play, is becoming increasingly blurred and mobile. As more and more of our relationships and experiences are mediated through virtual spaces such as the Internet, we may one day recognize MMORPGs as theaters in which issues that come to affect us all were first played out, and Play Money will stand as a compelling firsthand account.

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