virtual community or butter? (bumbaugh) Fri 15 Sep 06 11:43
It gives us great pleasure to welcome to the Inkwell Julian Dibbell.
virtual community or butter? (bumbaugh) Fri 15 Sep 06 11:47
Julian Dibbell has, in the course of over a decade of writing and publishing, established himself as one of digital culture's most thoughtful and accessible observers. He is the author of two books on virtual worlds, My Tiny Life (Henry Holt, 1999) and Play Money (Basic, 2006), and has written essays and articles on hackers, computer viruses, online communities, encryption technologies, music pirates, and the heady cultural, political, and philosophical questions that tie these and other digital-age phenomena together. Currently a contributing editor for Wired magazine, he lives in South Bend, Indiana. Leading the conversation with Julian, is the Well's own Jamais Cascio, a San Francisco-based foresight specialist looking at the intersection of emerging technologies and cultural transformation. Cascio has consulted for numerous commercial and non-profit groups, and has written for a variety of print and online publications. He has advised several science fiction TV and film projects, and designed multiple acclaimed game settings. In 2003, he co-founded WorldChanging.com, an award-winning website dedicated to highlighting ideas for building a better future. He currently blogs at his own site, OpenTheFuture.com, and speaks on issues of sustainability, collaboration and technology. He is a Fellow at the Institute for Ethics and Emerging Technologies, and is an affiliate at the Institute for the Future. In early 2006, he joined the Metaverse Roadmap Project, looking at the future of online immersive communities. Welcome, you two!
Jamais Cascio, World-Builder (cascio) Sat 16 Sep 06 22:53
Thanks, Bruce! I'm really looking forward to this conversation. I've followed Julian's work for a few years. Folks who have been online for awhile may recall his essay "A Rape in Cyberspace" in the Village Voice in 1993 (still readable at this link: http://www.ludd.luth.se/mud/aber/articles/village_voice.html ...and an important enough essay to warrant its own Wikipedia entry: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/A_Rape_in_Cyberspace ) His new book, Play Money, follows his effort to see if he could make a living selling virtual goods. Julian, what prompted you to give this a try?
Jamais Cascio, WorldChanger (cascio) Sat 16 Sep 06 22:57
(Just noticed that Julian has a copy of the the 1993 essay at his own site: http://www.juliandibbell.com/texts/bungle_vv.html ...sorry, Julian.)
Julian Dibbell (juliandibbell) Mon 18 Sep 06 11:08
Thanks for the nice welcome. It's good to be back after all these years. Those of you who remember the Rape in Cyberspace article may also remember the long, smoldering thread it sparked here on the Well when it first came out. I wonder if that thread is still tucked away somewhere on the site? And I wonder how it's aged. So much has changed about our ideas and fantasies of the virtual since then, though maybe not as much as might seem. This question, actually, goes a long way toward answering yours, Jamais: What prompted me to try my hand at the virtual-goods trade was at bottom an urge to explore the big, defining difference between the virtual worlds of ten or fifteen years ago and those of today, which to my mind is the robust virtual economies that have emerged. I spent much of the 90s thinking about LambdaMOO and other virtual worlds, and by the turn of the millennium I had pretty much had my fill. But then, in early 2002, I saw the economist Edward Castronova's famous essay calculating the GDP of EverQuest (extrapolating from the values of EverQuest items on eBay), and soon after that I heard about a bizarre-sounding lawsuit in which a plucky little enterprise called Blacksnow Interactive challenged a game company's right to control its sales of virtual items from the company's game. Effectively, Blacksnow seemed to be claiming, these items were the property of the players who acquired them, not the company that created them. Both these sets of claims -- Castronova's and Blacksnow's -- made it clear to me that something new was going on in the realm of virtual worlds, something that complicated their relationship to the real world in very interesting ways. So I snagged an assignment from Wired magazine to write about virtual economies and did so. It was a fascinating piece to research, but the most fascinating bit of investigation I did never made it into the article. That was the three days I spent in Tijuana hoping for a first-hand glimpse of a phenomenon we hear more about these days but even now can't always get past its head-spinning, through-the-looking-glass effect on the imagination: the virtual sweatshop, a/k/a the offshore gold farm, where unskilled workers in a low-wage country sit harvesting loot from online games for cash. The Tijuana operation was Blacksnow's, and I never did get to see it. The Blacksnow boys got cold feet, and just as well -- news of the factory wouldn't have helped their lawsuit a bit, which fell apart unresolved in any case. But just thinking about the Blacksnow gold farm put a million questions about contemporary material life into my head -- about the blurring of lines between play and work, about the increasing evanescence of the things we value, about the curious synergies between games, digital technologies, and the logic of late capitalism -- and I've been trying to unravel them all ever since.
Jamais Cascio, WorldChanger (cascio) Mon 18 Sep 06 11:22
As you well know, people quite often spend more hours per week playing World of Warcraft or EverQuest or Ultima Online (or... or... or...) than they do working their nominal professions. The immersive quality is not connected to graphics, at least not totally: we saw similar obsession back in the days of text-only MUDs. But with World of Warcraft now claiming over 7 million subscribers world-wide, and the overall combined metaverse population coming in at around 13 million (see http://www.mmogchart.com/Chart4.html for the growth curve), it's no surprise that complex social interactions (such as emergent economies) have formed. What makes these games -- these virtual worlds -- so compelling?
Jamais Cascio, WorldChanger (cascio) Wed 20 Sep 06 09:01
And while we wait for Julian to get a chance to reply, a larger question: what does the evolution of virtual world economies have to tell us about the potential future of our "real" world economy?
Cupido, Ergo Denego (robertflink) Thu 21 Sep 06 03:02
Is there any relationship to imaginative living down through the years? I'm thinking of various religions where the devotees spend large amounts of time in observances, trances, worship, reading, whirling, flagellation, etc.. A lot of money and property has been conveyed for this purpose over the years, Is there any relationship to romantic love where the smitten live in a world of their own? How about being on drugs, etc.?
Julian Dibbell (juliandibbell) Thu 21 Sep 06 07:29
What do virtual economies say about the future of the "real" one? A big question, yes, and a good one. Let's start with a small example, a hypothetical business model proposed by psychologist and virtual-world scholar <a>Nick Yee</a href="http://www.nickyee.com/">. Yee considers an existing Internet-driven business case -- the digital offshoring of x-ray diagnosis -- and suggests a further transformation. Instead of transmitting digital x-ray images from Western hospitals to low-cost Indian radiology shops, Yee asks, why not port them into a sci-fi massively multiplayer game in which the usual range of crafting professions (Weapon Engineer, Armor Manufacturer, etc.) is supplemented by something along the lines of Pattern-Recognition Analyst? Instead of advancing by endless production of virtual doo-dads, players in this profession would pick out and click on endless anomalies in an endless sequence of varyingly complex images, eventually skilling up to a level at which some of those images would be the x-rays sent in for diagnosis. Give the same x-ray to x number of players, pass the results back through some kind of wisdom-of-crowds-extracting algorithm, and voila: You get the job done by workers who arent just cheaper than the average well-trained Indian but may actually pay you for the privilege. A wacky proposition, to be sure, but a much less outlandish application of the same basic logic is already widespread. The open-source software industry, after all, is powered entirely by laborers who work for no money at all, motivated to some degree by their beliefs in the political virtues or technical quality of free software but to a **much larger degree** by the playful thrills of hacking code and of competing with other hackers for recognition. Outside analysts have called the open-source business a gift economy, mistaking unpaid work for altruism. Insiders know better: Its a play economy. And so it grows. From MMOs to open source, the vanguard sectors of what I call ludocapitalism are expanding rapidly. Eventually to overtake all other forms of production? Its hard to imagine, but no harder, I suspect, than todays no-longer fundamentally agricultural economy would have been to an 18th century landowner. Ultimately we can only guess how virtual economies will affect real ones, but Im not ruling out the possibility that playan age-old motive force whose economic potential is just beginning to be recognizedwill be to the 21st century what steam was to the 19th.
Julian Dibbell (juliandibbell) Thu 21 Sep 06 07:32
Ah, so the Well remains an HTML-free zone, I see. Nice to know some things never change. Anyway, yeah, what I meant to say of course was "psychologist and virtual-world scholar Nick Yee (http://www.nickyee.com/).
virtual community or butter? (bumbaugh) Thu 21 Sep 06 07:35
<grin> There are ways of HTML-izng your posts, and users coming in with the Web interface will get HTML-ized posts, but users coming in with the text interface will get HTML. Squicky, that. And users who are not members of the Well -- who *are* using the Web interface -- are welcome to join in the discussion here. All they gotta do is send e-mail to email@example.com and we can post for 'em.
Vince Houmes (unclevinny) Thu 21 Sep 06 10:12
Hi Julian! As someone currently spending a crazy amount of his free time playing World of Warcraft, I have taken a lot of joy in reading your book. I'm about two-thirds of the way through, so there's still anticipation in the air... which partnerships will boom and bust? Will you ever see Radny again? Etc. No spoilers from me, of course. One of the things I'm noticing is how much I laugh out loud at this book. Virtual worlds are obviously compelling, exciting and funny to play at in person, but reading about the funny twists and turns that people take in these corridors is hilarious, too. The relationships I build online are the top thing keeping me coming back, and the "flow" you discuss is in second place. Gathering real world money is in a distant -- I dunno -- 34th place? I've been successful in WoW by my own standards; I have enough cash to buy the things I need to keep my characters playing the game, and give new characters the head-start they need to survive. But I've never seriously considered buying or selling any goods for real money. A big part of the reason must be that the "Farmers' Market" in WoW is allegedly pretty well covered by automatons, and any human wishing to actually make US dollars in the game had better get to work on some sophisticated robots if he/she wants to make serious money. I'm disinclined to spend my time coding farmer bots, so I'm happy living in an economy where other people are playing Ben Bernanke. However, I certainly spent a lot of time studying the auction house looking for openings, especially when my characters were poor and I was trying to learn about the world. Choosing and maintaining professions that would keep me in the black was difficult at first, and the few gold pieces came very slowly. One thing that strikes me so far about the book is how complicated the non-WoW virtual worlds seem. World of Warcraft is the first video game I've played in years, and so the complexity of the economy and the game seemed unbelievable at first. But now it seems quite manageable, especially compared to your descriptions of what's possible in UO and Everquest. Does this strike you as a fair statement? I would assume that a very complex game provides more loopholes and corners of the world for an entrepreneur to look for profit, does this ring true in your experience? I look forward to finishing the book, and will chat more in a jiffy. Thanks, though, for the funny and informative read so far!
Jamais Cascio, WorldChanger (cascio) Thu 21 Sep 06 12:07
Vince, not to step on Julian's answer, but just from my own experience playing EverQuest for quite a few years, and now having played WoW from its launch: the WoW economy is more streamlined than that of previous games, but that's part of the overall effort to make World of Warcraft more accessible to new gamers. The WoW designers were able to study the choices and mistakes of earlier games, and built WoW -- including its internal economy -- in a way that consciously avoided the stumbling blocks and loopholes that dogged EQ, Ultima and others. It's not the first to do so, either: Star Wars Galaxies (aka Star Wars: Shopkeeper) had an entirely player-run economy, with no computer-controlled vendors. Every transaction you made was with another player. This allowed people who wanted to focus on resource gathering or product crafting the ability to construct elaborate storefronts and make major deals, but was problematic for casual players who just wanted to make a little in-game money by selling off "junk." Julian, building on Vince's question, how do you see the in-game economies evolving?
Jamais Cascio, WorldChanger (cascio) Thu 21 Sep 06 12:10
BTW, I love the term "ludocapitalism." For folks who are unfamiliar with the term, "ludology" is the academic study of games as systems of play, in contrast with the "narratology" approach of games as storytelling mechanisms. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ludology
Jennifer Powell (jnfr) Thu 21 Sep 06 12:29
Thanks for that pointer, Jamais. I was just about to ask what that word meant. I loved my Master Architect in Star Wars, and I loved running my shop. It was the best crafting system I've seen in any game today, but so complex that it was much like having a full time job, so in the end I didn't have time to keep up withit. I've also played EQ for years, and even there I found my primary enjoyment in crafting and trading. One day I looked at how I was spending my playtime and realized I ought to go back into business. So I did the opposite of Julian (welcome, Julian!) and started a small real-world retail business, which I am enjoying immensely. Earlier in my life I had worked in an assortment of retail and wholesale cooperative businesses, but over time I drifted away from that. Games made me realize how much I'd enjoyed it, and missed it.
Julian Dibbell (juliandibbell) Fri 22 Sep 06 09:46
Is there any relationship to imaginative living down through the years? I'm thinking of various religions romantic love being on drugs Another great question, and yes, we could talk a lot about the similarities between virtual worlds and these other kinds of imaginary spaces. But I prefer to emphasize above all the connection to the imaginary worlds of *play* and the *differences* between those worlds and the other types you mention. What strikes me first off in your list of imaginative states is how little room for ironic distance they allow, relative to play. To believe in God, or to be in love, demands a certain commitment to the *authenticity* of your fervor to the truth, more or less, of the propositions your imagination is tossing up. You know: God is great. Without you Im nothing. With drugs the effect may be more transient, more conditional, but its much the same: You sit there thinking, Gosh, the world is so much safer, warmer, more fascinating than I knew, and even though you know on some level its just the [coke/X/pot] talking, in that moment youre powerless to deny the emotional authenticity of your belief. Whereas with games OK, I grant you there was this one guy in my World of Warcraft guild who really did believe, and tried very hard to convince us, that The Horde is evil is as universally, nonfictionally true as 2+2=4. But the fact that we all thought hed lost his mind just shows the difference between the playful imagination and the more transcendent varieties you invoke. I think we could easily map the difference onto a distinction between the postmodernist worldview and its various antagonists, and certainly its no coincidence that postmodern theorists resort to metaphors of play and gaming as often as they do. But for the purposes of what Im trying to figure out, the important distinctions are not so much philosophical as economic. Simply put: Youre right, on the one hand, to note that people have poured a lot of money over the years into their religious, amorous, and pharmaceutical obsessions. But its a lot harder to extract value from these spaces to turn them into spaces of productive labor than to pour it in. 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. And maybe its for this very reason that games themselves are so much easier to turn into functioning economies than those imaginary spaces that thrive on the pursuit of transcendence. Just a theory.
Julian Dibbell (juliandibbell) Fri 22 Sep 06 10:21
Jamais, thanks for pointing to the Great Ludology/Narratology Debate. I think it's helpful to look at how that argument has played out when we try to sort out how to think about virtual economies. See, speaking broadly, there are two kinds of people who can be bothered to think about virtual worlds at all: those who stomp their little feet in protest at the notion that virtual worlds are games, and those who stomp their little feet in protest at the notion that they are anything but. The fans and producers of Second Life, for instance, tend to fall in the first camp; the fans and producers of World of Warcraft, as a rule, belong to the latter. Is it a productive dichotomy? Yes, to the extent that it generates a meaningful argument between the two. But given that the two sides have so far had a hard time even agreeing on a single name for the phenomenon they're talking about -- SL is a virtual world, WoW is an MMO, and woe to the n00b who misidentifies either in the presence of a true believer -- that's a tall order. I suspect the most productive thing the argument can do, in the end, is prove its own futility. Just as the ludologists and narratologists eventually did, the two sides of this debate are going to have to realize that neither can fully explain what they're talking about without resorting to the key concepts of the other. The hardcore Metaversalists are deluded if they think there will ever be a successful virtual world that doesn't have some kind of game at its core. The hardcore MMOers are deluded if they think it's gaming alone that makes their worlds successful.
Jamais Cascio, WorldChanger (cascio) Fri 22 Sep 06 11:26
Just as an amusing reinforcement of Julian's point, here's a brief story about a World of Warcraft guild that meets in Second Life to discuss raid preparations: http://azeroth.metblogs.com/archives/2006/09/at_last_something_useful_to_do.ph tml As the range of questions asked so far demonstrate, there's a great deal that can be said about this subject. But we're here as a result of Julian's book, so perhaps it would be good grounding for the readers for Julian to give us the fifty cent summary of what PLAY MONEY is all about.
Cogito, Ergo Dubito (robertflink) Fri 22 Sep 06 16:30
Reference to Weber is huge!!! Any possibility for turning his ideas into a role-playing game?
Jamais Cascio, WorldChanger (cascio) Fri 22 Sep 06 16:48
[resisting the temptation to write up a "Monster Manual"-style entry for Weber, Marx, et al...]
Jim Thomas (jthomas) Fri 22 Sep 06 22:22
I've just finished Play Money, and need a day or two to think about it before responding with anything directly substantive. Here are some preliminary thoughts: So many issues, subtext, and themes to tease out, so little time and space.... I read PM through several lenses. One, but not primary, lens was that of a non-gaming lay person who's never seen a MMPORG and only popped in on a MuD/MOO in the early '90s to see what they were. But, the core of PM seems less about MMPORGs than about the creation of alternate realities by obsessive compulsive fantasizers and the transition of virtual economies into those more substantial. On this level, it's a fascinating description both of process and outcome. The posts so far have been useful in helping frame some of the more arcane issues of virtual gaming, and they offer some insights that are thought-provoking, but in my ignorance of it all, I find a but confusing. Just a few random responses for now: Julian writes: "Is there any relationship to imaginative living down through the years? I'm thinking of various religions, romantic love, being on drugs..." We could also add other obsessive hobbies: Golf, bowling, stamp collecting, and wine tasting. One (imperfect) analogy that struck me from Julian's comment is cybersex. Role-playing, stakes of both virtual and substantive capital for players and entrepreneurs, and intense emotional investment. I'm not yet convinced that what's occuring in MMPORGs is really all that much different, structurally, from many other forms of obsessive game playing, other than the medium.
Jim Thomas (jthomas) Fri 22 Sep 06 22:50
Julian writes: > 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. 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 some ways, MMPORG real-world economic entrepreneurs remind me a bit of a chain letter - a few people rise to the top selling resources to others who may leverage them to others at the bottom until the pool of buyers runs dry. In the Marxian sense, MMPORG economy seems more like a service industry than a value-producing system. In some ways, not much different than term paper mills for students who upload one paper for three, and then some sell them on whatever e-outlet provides the best market.
Cupido, Ergo Denego (robertflink) Sat 23 Sep 06 06:32
>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.< IMHO, Weber was one of those that dealt honestly with unintended consequences and didn't try to impress an intellectual order on history as has been done by some others. The world is only piece-wise linear at best.
Jennifer Powell (jnfr) Sat 23 Sep 06 16:59
As someone interested in business, and also committed to both games and virtual worlds, I'm curious about how the interfaces for real-world/virtual-world commerce will evolve. eBay is a very poor place for inter-world commerce, though obviously lots of people take advantage of it since it's all they have. But the chances for various forms of scams and rip-offs are obvious, and from what I observe and what the book describes most people are not making much cash overall. I have to say that I hope these worlds evolve over time to allow small crafters and farmers to sell their wares, but I'm very much against the sort of wholesale bot-farming that Julian describes in the book. I have no idea what can be done about it, except to note that most game companies skimp far too much on customer service and in-world support. As the Chinese gold farms have become common in games, and even show up in video on YouTube, it does seem to me that even without computer bots farming may become so organized and massive that small scale crafters are already antiques. But again I'm not sure what can be done about that. Perhaps the coding problems can be solved with more coding. One
Jim Thomas (jthomas) Sun 24 Sep 06 16:59
>...Weber was one of those that dealt honestly with unintended >consequences and didn't try to impress an intellectual order on history > as has been done by some others. The world is only piece-wise linear > at best. Yep. He makes this repeatedly clear in PESC (along with his other works). He's also an encylopedic theorest, not mired to any given mindset or ideology. Have most people posting here read Play Money? It makes a diff, I guess, in how we talk about it - I'm still sorting through the various levels and subtexts. My first encounter with Julian's work was the Mr. Bungle episode in '93. I like that piece for the same reason I like PM: It's deceptively simple, entertaining, and seemingly just a timely story. We read it, walk away saying, "Hey, neat stuff," and it sticks with us. (yawn) - so do lots of others stories. What sets his work above most others is the deeply layered nuances that provide insights while also pointing to windows that we can open, look through, and see another round of nuances. There's lots to unpack in PM: -MMOs themselves -Internet culture -Economic shifts -Subtle (and occasionally not so subtle) socio-political theory -Changing legal issues -Psychology of games To read PM as just a story misses most of this, but trying to tie it together in short posts that make sense and doesn't sound disgustingly academic is a challenge. Maybe a simple question for Juilian: What primary master trope ties your Cyberworks together? Do you operate from some systematic intent/attempt to pull a fairly eclectic set of diverse threads into a fairly coherent mosaic? You seem to leave much work for the reader (a good thing) without fleshing out the implications. If that's intentional, what was your organizing theme for PM?
virtual community or butter? (bumbaugh) Mon 25 Sep 06 04:41
The socio-political theory is what first drew me to all this, I know that. Those aspects turn up in different ways in the Rape and Cyberspace essay (and in My Tiny Life) and in Play Money. In the former, they're on the surface, in a way, or in the foreground, but primarily as issues about governance *within* cyberspace. In Play Money, the foreground story is more Julian's Quest, but the socio-political issues are RL ones.
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