Vince Houmes (unclevinny) Mon 25 Sep 06 08:43
Ok I've finished the book, finally, and have some thoughts to puzzle out. I really enjoyed reading about the conversations you had with PayPal and the IRS about whether "real-world" regulations were to be applied to the "fake-world" commerce of the MMORPG. The fundamental thing that still confuses me is that so many people are paying real money for fake items. I say this as someone who has a lot of free time, and spends a lot of that time playing WoW. I suppose if I had less time to play, I might want to make the most of it by juicing my characters with fancy items, but it's really hard for me to imagine doing that. One of the great things about the game is how cheap it is: $40 for the game, and $16 a month for unlimited playtime. But once a person starts larding it up on eBay... I have friends who are hardcore raiders. They raid 5-6 days a week, leaving 1-2 days a week for farming the potions and materials they need for raiding. These folks must be tempted to save themselves the farming time by buying gold online, but all of them say that they do the farming themselves. In any event, there are clearly a lot of people out there buying gold, and it's a very alien concept to me. Remembering the stories involved in the neat pieces of armor and equipment I'm carrying around is part of the fun... The "Rod of the Ogre Magi" is a nice staff, and I'm happy to have it, but the great thing about it is that I found it with some friends after I'd just hit level 60, the highest level in the game. As I was level 59 approaching 60, a bunch of us got together for a "leveling" party, and went around killing dragons until I "dinged 60". We shot off fireworks, drank in-game booze and stomped any unfortunate hordies that happened into our path. Afterwards a few of us went off to a dungeon I'd never been strong enough to visit, yet, and I found the staff. Anyway, I should do more mulling.
Jamais Cascio, WorldChanger (cascio) Mon 25 Sep 06 10:44
It seems to me that one reason many folks find it hard to wrap their minds around buying & selling virtual objects for real money is that the objects emulate real physical goods. There may not *really* be a Staff of the Ogre Magi, but we have in our heads what the physical characteristics of such a staff would be -- its heft, its feel in the hand, etc. The virtual version isn't real because it offers none of those features. Yet we are accustomed to interacting with virtual goods every day, including those which can only be accessed using specific kinds of software or hardware. We are happy to pay real money for music, for example, even though when it's not in use it exists only as bits in storage; the Rod of the Ogre Magi is just as "real" as the music, in that -- through the use of a particular access tool, WoW on a PC -- you can do things with it that elicit a measurable physical effect on our bodies. Heart rate jumps during a fight; there's definite pleasure when one is able to defeat an opponent or achieve a difficult goal. To the degree that the Rod (or whatever) helps to make those victories possible, the virtual item has a real-world effect, just like music.
Credo, Ergo Dubito (robertflink) Mon 25 Sep 06 15:46
>To the degree that the Rod (or whatever) helps to make those victories possible, the virtual item has a real-world effect, just like music.< This reminds me of one concept of pragmatism, typified by W. James. The idea is that what has a real world effect is real. James asserts this in the context of belief in God and perhaps elsewhere. Music is a good example. Others may include audio books. Even print books may qualify. For some people, books (e.g. the bible) may be interactive as various passages are interpreted and reinterpreted questing for more knowledge of God with various goals including favored treatment at death, winning more souls, reducing doubt, reforming existing sects, building a bigger church, getting someone elected, etc..
Brian Slesinsky (bslesins) Tue 26 Sep 06 00:49
Uh, similar reasoning could be used to prove that the playing cards in a poker game make it exciting, or that a baseball is what makes a baseball game exciting. Sure, some baseballs sell for thousands of dollars, but only *after* the game - the occasion and the players' skill gives them value. I think there's a similar effect in role-playing games - things become valuable because you worked for them, or because they trigger interesting effects created by artists who built the game. But valuable in themselves? Not really. Any other prop would do.
Julian Dibbell (juliandibbell) Tue 26 Sep 06 02:09
A quick check-in just to apologize for my absence over the last day or two. I am in Paris these weeks and learning a great deal about the realities of contemporary global communications (main points: [a] all communications are local, [b] sometimes your local ISP sorta sucks). More to come.
Cupido, Ergo Denego (robertflink) Tue 26 Sep 06 05:50
>But valuable in themselves?< May I assume that things that are "valuable in themselves" are those that have practical utility at the moment? If so, circumstances may exist where gold or a hair pin or whatever are of no value. Perhaps the full faith and credit of the US government confers value ;-).
Fiddy Cent (juliandibbell) Tue 26 Sep 06 08:47
So: The questions and challenges have piled up nicely in my absence. Good work, gang! Now where to begin? Jamais helpfully requested a fifty cent summary of PLAY MONEY a while back. Let me see if I cant put together at least a quarters worth: PLAY MONEY is, first of all, a true story. Its the tale of my encounter with what the game world calls the real-money trade (RMT) the exchange of real money (dollars, euros, yuan) for the virtual items (weapons, armor, play money) that make up the economies of massively multiplayer online roleplaying games (MMORPGs or MMOs). The story begins with my announcement in early 2003 (to a blog readership of dozens!!!) that I was giving myself a year to try to make a living trading virtual goods and ends in April 2004, after its all over but the crying. Along the way I make a friend or two, learn the true value of a 100% Lower Reagents Cost suit of armor, infiltrate the bot-farming underground, fail miserably in the attempt to set up a Chinese virtual loot factory of my own, and make a minor spectacle of myself, blogging the whole episode including, insofar as it affects the business, the tumult of my personal life. And there you have it, clocking in at approximately $0.28, 0.22, 75 Linden dollars, or 1 gold 85 silver (Azerothian), depending on your primary reality. But as Jim Thomas points out, theres a lot to unpack in PM, and the story alone really just opens the box. Heres Jims helpful bullet-point list of PLAY MONEY discussion topics, partially unpacked for your further consideration: > -MMOs themselves And how. The game I worked in primarily was Ultima Online, the oldest of the commercial MMOs, but the book also gives a peek at Final Fantasy XI, Star Wars: Galaxies, EverQuest, and on the far horizon of things, World of Warcraft. Theres a a glimpse, too, of their genealogy, going back through MUDs to Adventure and on to the origins of computer gaming, and a thought or two about what makes todays MMOs unique in the gaming landscape. > -Internet culture Well, naturally, virtual economies being a creature of the Internet after all. Whats interesting, though, is how deliberately they violate one of the basic tenets of Internet culture as weve know it: i.e., roughly, Internet stuff wants to be free. Whats often celebrated about the Internet is the ways it does away with scarcity, but a large part of what draws people to virtual worlds is that they impose scarcity on their inhabitants, with the full range of hilarious consequences documented in my book. This complicates our picture of what the Internet is about, to say the least. > -Economic shifts OK, so Ive hashed out some of this elsewhere in the thread, but basically the argument is this: The contemporary global economy is increasingly shot through with the phenomenon Im calling ludocapitalism, of which virtual economies are just the iceberg tip (or coal-mine canary, if you prefer). All that is solid melts into air, wrote Marx, and the argument starts there: With the relentless drive toward abstraction that Marx saw as one of capitalisms fundamental logics, and an exploration of that logics affinity with the realm of play and games. I look to Weber to dress this Marxian frame with an understanding of how the religious imagination has helped form capitalism (yes, Jim, Ill get back to this!), and I switch partners to get some ideas from Johan Huizinga about how and why the ludic imagination might now be taking religions place. Finally, I draw on Alan Turings formulation of the universal machine to help elucidate the essentially gamelike nature of computers and the way their increasing economic importance reinforces the gamelike aspects of capitalism. To review, then: Marx+Weber+Huizinga+Turing=LudocapitalismTheTheory. Next question. > -Subtle (and occasionally not so subtle) socio-political theory See above. > -Changing legal issues Hooboy. So yeah, reams of legal theory are being written about the nature and potential legal status of virtual property, and I gloss some of that in PLAY MONEY. There are also some interesting conversations with the IRS about whether virtual goods received as barter or lewt should be taxed as income, and if you think thats an easy question to answer, you should share your thoughts with the IRS, because theyre still scratching their heads over it. > -Psychology of games Indeed. Much of which comes down to the question floating around elsewhere in the thread: Why would people pay real money for fake items? A related question being: Why would people play games that feel so much like work? Both of which I leave as an exercise for the reader.
Jamais Cascio, WorldChanger (cascio) Tue 26 Sep 06 10:36
The "Chinese virtual loot factor[ies]" you mention are a particularly fascinating aspect of this phenomenon, as they presage a fairly radical reimagining of globalization. Cory Doctorow offered his peek into what that new virtual globe might evolve into with his short story "Anda's Game." http://www.salon.com/tech/feature/2004/11/15/andas_game/ Julian, tell us a bit more about these loot factories.
Jennifer Powell (jnfr) Tue 26 Sep 06 16:20
A bit of film of Chinese gold farmers on YouTube: <http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ho5Yxe6UVv4>
Julian Dibbell (juliandibbell) Wed 27 Sep 06 14:04
Nice pointer, Jennifer. And here's a little more context for you all: http://www.chinesegoldfarmers.com That site was set up by Jin Ge, the Shanghainese filmmaker who's doing the documentary that's excerpted on YouTube. I recently had the great and very strange pleasure of traveling to China and visiting a few of the gold farms he's looking at, with him as my guide, and I must say it was eye opening, even for me. Keep in mind the typical take on the gold farms, as represented by this recent London Times article reprinted on the Fox News site: http://www.foxnews.com/story/0,2933,215860,00.html Here we see the Chinese workers exploited and exploiting, holed up in near-sweatshop conditions and ruining the game for everybody else -- "mugging" regular Western players to take their loot and sell it back to some other Westerner. Personally, I've never put much credit in reports of active malfeasance by gold farmers. I've put in a *lot* of hours in WoW and never had a bad encounter with a gold farmer or heard of any such thing happening to anyone I know. Besides which, it doesn't square with the logic of the business -- why invite complaints to the GMs about you when getting your account suspended costs you a lot more than any extra profits you'd get from harassing other players? What I did believe, though, was the image of the workers as downtrodden drones -- immigrants just off the bus from Fujian maybe, clueless about the world of games but desperate for work and happy to sit at a computer all day long following an endlessly repetitive scripted routine for farming gold. And that was where I came in for a surprise. It's not that the work isn't on some basic level a misery. You punch your time card at 8:30am (if you're lucky; 8:30pm if you're pulling a night shift), you work 12 hours with two 45-minute meal breaks, 7 days a week, one day off a month, and after you're done you have an hour or two of leisure before you go to sleep in workers' quarters upstairs from the shop, 5 or 6 to a room on plywood bunks. For this you make about $4 a day, which even in China isn't great, in a job most other Chinese think is a little dodgy and at any rate not a stepping stone to better things. And yet: I pulled a shift myself, in a "power-levelling" shop in Jinhua, China, where Westerners pay to have the workers level up their characters for them. I did the whole 12 hours, taking some European World of Warcraft player's character into the player-vs.-player battlegrounds, an activity I *love* when I'm playing -- and found grindingly enervating to do for 12 hours straight with a supervisor keeping track. That much I expected. What I didn't expect was the little crowds of other workers who would gather around me, calling out advice, asking to sit down in my place to try out this or that move, shouting and hooting when I died -- *gaming*, ferchrissake. Nor was this just an observer's effect, the locals amused by the white guy giving it a shot. There were similar interactions going on all the time, here and there, between the workers themselves. And when the shift ended, can you guess where all the workers headed to spend their 2 or 3 hours free time? Sure, a few hung out in their rooms, a few watched television in the common room, but most of them descended to the Internet cafe on the first floor of the building to PLAY WORLD OF WARCRAFT. And yes, of course, there's a big difference between playing your own character for your own purposes and playing someone else's for work. But I spoke to a lot of these guys, and one of the conversations that sticks with me was with two who told me, yeah, the job was interesting at first but now it's a drag and a dead end and so forth. But when I asked them if, nonetheless, when they found themselves battling a monster and coming close to dying, their adrenaline didn't still flow and their hearts still beat a little faster, they thought about it for a bit and said of course. They were still players, in other words, even when they were working. And I'm still trying to sort out what that means.
Jamais Cascio, WorldChanger (cascio) Wed 27 Sep 06 16:02
Do you have any information on how long a given gold farmer will last at the job? Is this something that they do for a few months, then move on, or is this something they would willingly do for a year or more?
Julian Dibbell (juliandibbell) Thu 28 Sep 06 02:00
I spoke to many that had been on the job for a year or more. I think 2 or 3 years was about the maximum. And the oldest farmer I talked to was 30, the average being much lower, around 23. But that doesn't mean they all burn out and leave the business altogether. The owners and supervisors -- those who had committed to the business as a profession, for better or worse -- had all started out as laborers as long as 5 or 6 years previously. This too, by the way, was a surprise to me. In my imagination -- as in Cory Doctorow's -- there was a big gap between the exploited workers and the exploiting shop owners, whom I pictured as middle-aged businessmen moving in on a subculture that only interested them as a market. In reality, the owners hadn't moved in on anything. They had come up through the ranks. And like the people they employed, they were still gamers at heart.
Oy Weber! (juliandibbell) Thu 28 Sep 06 02:56
So, an aeon or so back I wrote: As Max Weber points out in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, religion succeeded famously, but only once, when it turned profit-seeking into a kind of sacred practice at the beginning of the Calvinist revolution. And the end result was modern capitalism, which soon kicked away its religious supports as an irrational, inefficient framing device, leaving us trapped, Weber argues, in an iron cage of economic rules. Without the spiritual motivations of the Puritans to drive us, he says, the only honest motivation we can have for participating in this system is the universal urge to play games. To which jimthomas replied: Somebody might clarify the Weberian connection for me. I'm not sure what's meant by religion succeeded famously, but only once... -- succeeded at what? Is there a cite for this? It doesn't seem to be what he's saying either in PE&SoC or in his Sociology of Religion. Weber saw an interplay between some forms of Protestantism, especially Calvinism, and capitalism, not a causal relationship. Other religions (e.g., Islam, Judaism) succeeded by accomodating in ways unlike Protestantism. Weber would likely argue that the motivation to participate in the system is no longer asceticism or calling, but the desire for more worldly pleasures that result from obtaining resources. I'm not convinced that Weber's analysis as all that relevant. In response to which Ill say this: I havent read Webers later work on religion, Jim, so youve got me there; and as both you and robflink have discussed, one of the great things about Weber is how little interested he is in squeezing complex social phenomena into one-size-fits-all explanations. That said, in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism I think he is clearly interested in shaking people out of their one-size-fits-all Smith-and-Marxian understanding of the origins of capitalism, specifically by showing how strongly the case can be made for an explanation that privileges cultural indeed spiritual factors over the strictly material or economic ones that are usually put forth. And that to me is the relevance of Webers argument to mine that he expands the realm of motive forces underlying capitalism beyond the bounds of the economic to include the religious and even the ludic imagination. Yes, the ludic, and Im not just projecting that onto Webers argument either. Heres the relevant quote, from the last pages of PESC where hes thundering on about the tragedy of the iron cage and lamenting the directions of contemporary capitalism: In the field of its highest development, in the United States, the pursuit of wealth, stripped of its religious and ethical meaning, tends to become associated with purely mundane passions, which often actually give it ***the character of sport.*** My emphasis, of course. And you could say Im stretching a point that Weber makes in passing, but given the central turn of his argument his privileging the role of imaginative factors in the rise of capitalism I dont think its such a stretch. What do you think?
Julian Dibbell (juliandibbell) Fri 29 Sep 06 15:18
Jamais, Vince, and Jennifer all asked variations on the question "Where are virtual economies heading?" and it's a good one. Jennifer, to address your emphasis on the interface between virtual and real economies, and particularly the weaknesses of eBay, well, heck yeah. It's precisely the frauds and scams that go on in eBay (which keep in mind offers fully insured fraud protection for just about every sort of transaction *except* virtual-item sales) that game companies sometimes point to when explaining why they ban RMT. But the reasoning there is circular of course: As long as RMT is banned, there's nowhere for it to happen except in unsafe places like eBay. Look what happens, on the other hand, when companies embrace RMT and give players the tools to make it safe. This can be a partial embrace, as in Sony Online Entertainment's setting aside a small number of EverQuest 2 servers where RMT is both legal and facilitated by in-game exchanges. Or it can be total, as in Linden Lab's Second Life, where the company both makes the market in in-game currency and sanctions third-party enterprises like SLExchange and SLBoutique, websites where players can shop for SL merchandise, pay real money for it, and see the goods immediately transferred to them in-game. Whence we arrive at today's Official Answer to the question "Where are virtual economies heading?": Toward legitimacy, is where. More and more, game companies will be recognizing the short-sightedness of stigmatizing RMT as cheating and will accept it, instead, as just another mode of play, like PvP or role-play. And I will bet you dollars to Linden dollars that as this acceptance becomes universal, 99 percent of what Edward Castronova, the London Times, and maybe even you yourself find unsavory about RMT will go away like bootleggers folding up after the repeal of Prohibition. That, by the way, is what we in the punditry trade call a *controversial* prediction, and you are all quite welcome to disagree with it. I dare you to, in fact. No wait, I double dare you. Yeah.
Jamais Cascio, WorldChanger (cascio) Fri 29 Sep 06 17:20
I'll take that challenge! The reason that real money trading is successful in Second Life and less so in games like WoW and Ultima has less to do with its legitimacy per se than with the nature of the virtual worlds themselves. To turn that around, in fact, the only reason why Second Life can so successfully legitimize RMT is because of the structure of the virtual world. It comes down to competition. When I enter Second Life, my perception of myself -- and the perception of others -- as successful or "powerful" in the world comes from my own creative capabilities. This is by its very nature subjective, and someone can easily think of himself/herself as creative and cool, even if others disagree. The degree that RMT facilitates the expansion of one's options and abilities in Second Life depends upon how much one's self-perception *and peer perception* depends upon the kinds of virtual stuff one has. To put it simply, your buying goods and money via RMT in Second Life does not objectively advantage you over me, as perceptions of success are subjective in a non-structurally competitive environment. In World of Warcraft, conversely, competition is inherent to the structure of the virtual world. I can objectively measure my success against yours through criteria like level, statistics (HP, mana), quality of gear, and so forth. While there are some people who play with non-competitive success goals in mind (seeking out the most unusual outfits, for example), the game structure does not encourage that. There are aspects of the game that directly pit players against each other in battle, where objective qualities like level, stats, gear, etc. matter greatly. To put it simply, your buying goods and money via RMT in World of Warcraft (and similar virtual worlds) puts you at an objective advantage over me, not because of luck or the randomness of the world itself, but because you took an outside-the-world step to improve your inside-the-world competitive capabilities. That's inherently problematic, and any legitimacy granted due to official recognition wouldn't do a lick to reduce the perceived unfairness (and, dare I say, corruption) of RMT-acquired gear and money in a competitive virtual world. How's that?
Jamais Cascio, WorldChanger (cascio) Fri 29 Sep 06 17:21
(stupid cut & paste EOL errors...)
Ludo, Ergo Sum (robertflink) Fri 29 Sep 06 18:09
>My emphasis, of course. And you could say Im stretching a point that Weber makes in passing, but given the central turn of his argument his privileging the role of imaginative factors in the rise of capitalism I dont think its such a stretch. < This puts me in mind of Ortega y Gasset's discussion of the sportive origins of the state which is a some what playful discussion of the serious impact of play.
Jennifer Powell (jnfr) Fri 29 Sep 06 19:52
Thanks very much for coming back to that question, Julian. As someone who loves business and games both, it's at the heart of things for me. I agree with (cascio) that outside transactions can really ruin the gaming experience. Emphasis on "can" and not on "must". I wonder if it might be worth experimenting with separate transaction servers, just as there are PVP+ and PVP- servers today. People who enter them would know the rules when they did. The gaming company could provide the interface, perhaps in the form of an intermal/external escrow service. This provides real-world/virtual-world trades that could benefit people who have more money than time, and also provide a way for businesspeople to turn their play efforts into cash. Perhaps some items could be sold, while others remain no-trade to retain the value of achieving them. That's a common game mechanic, and everyone would understand it. The larger and more difficult questions of bot-farming and gold-farming are harder to address. For one thing, huge infusions of cash can be deadly to the closed economies of game worlds. One game I play now doesn't allow alts to transfer goods and currency to a main account, just to discourage that type of farming and discourage inflation. The issues mirror some of the problems with large corporations in this world. When a business entity works solely to increase profit, and is large enough to rock the economy, it can cause a lot of pain in other ways, or create outcomes that actually harm society. In the case of games, the "pain" is that farming can suck out the fun in many ways, and if you lose the fun, you lose your players. Well, maybe I could argue that this is true in the real world as well, but I'm not up to it tonight. I'm biased towards really excellent in-game customer service. Most games skimp on this terribly. You need real human eyes, lots of them, who know your game and your players intimately, and who can personally intervene in cases that are abusive. But I don't see signs that games are moving in that direction.
virtual community or butter? (bumbaugh) Sat 30 Sep 06 05:09
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Ludo, Ergo Sum (robertflink) Sat 30 Sep 06 06:25
>turn their play efforts into cash.< Isn't this a common dream,(not that the game has the same pleasures when it happens)?
Jennifer Powell (jnfr) Sat 30 Sep 06 17:41
Yeah, I think it is, and it's one thing the book talks about.
Jazzy (jazzy) Sat 30 Sep 06 19:19
>Isn't this a common dream Not necessarily. Some people have more real world cash than time in-game to earn currency. Example: I was in a position when playing Anarchy Online a few years back where I was working 60+ hours per week _and_ trying to game. A very rare weapon that was pretty much my ideal end-game weapon dropped and was offered up for sale. I didn't have the in-game currency on hand to buy it, but for what I made in a couple hours of work I could easily purchase enough "credits" via Ebay to afford the item in question. And that's just what I did with zero regrets... That one item considerably increased my enjoyment of what little game time I had. I personally haven't encountered that same need in WoW, but I certainly understand where people are coming from when they do decide to go that route.
Julian Dibbell (juliandibbell) Sun 1 Oct 06 03:10
> This puts me in mind of Ortega y Gasset's discussion of the sportive origins of the state which is a some what playful discussion of the serious impact of play. < Interesting! Can you elaborate a little and tell us where he wrote that? It sounds a lot like some of Huizinga's theses in Homo Ludens. (And what do you know, Wikipedia tells us Ortega published Huizinga in his Revista de Occidente sometime in the 1920s or 30s. I wonder which way the influence flowed, if at all.)
Julian Dibbell (juliandibbell) Sun 1 Oct 06 03:55
> Example: I was in a position when playing Anarchy Online a few years back where I was working 60+ hours per week _and_ trying to game. A very rare weapon that was pretty much my ideal end-game weapon dropped and was offered up for sale. I didn't have the in-game currency on hand to buy it, but for what I made in a couple hours of work I could easily purchase enough "credits" via Ebay to afford the item in question. And that's just what I did with zero regrets... That one item considerably increased my enjoyment of what little game time I had. < Great example, and a couple thoughts: 1. I'd been thinking that the reasons RMT is so uncontroversial among non-U.S. players must be cultural, but I wonder, thinking about Jazzy's case, if there isn't an economic element to it also. For Jazzy, coming up with enough cash to buy the weapon was a matter of a couple hours' out-of-game work, as opposed to the many hours' gaming he'd have had to put in to farm the credits for the wep. In a labor market like China's, though, the number of hours' "real" work necessary to buy the credits approaches the number required to farm them. Hence RMT is inherently less "unfair" there (though in a way that depends on "unfairness" elsewhere, since the calculations depend on virtual-item prices' being set in Western markets). 2. On the other hand, it's my understanding that RMT is less controversial in Europe than the U.S. also, and over there (uh, here; I'm still in Paris!) an hour's work buys at least as much play money as in the U.S. So I still think cultural differences are key, and at a guess I'd say the main difference is the American emphasis on individual achievement and competition, Horatio Alger style. Which of course highlights the importance of Jamais's points about competitiveness and RMT. But more about that in a bit.
Julian Dibbell (juliandibbell) Sun 1 Oct 06 04:49
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