Saturday, May 01, 2010

Money From Virtually Nothin' at All

From college into my mid-twenties, I spent most of my spare time as a staffer on various text-based multi-user online games, most of them set in the World of Darkness roleplaying setting. My emphasis was on the Mage: the Ascension game, though I did have some overlap with Vampire: the Masquerade and Changeling: the Dreaming. My focus was then (as now) on telling a good story, and I was told by many that I was one of the best "storytellers" (as those who "run" these games are called) that they'd dealt with. The games that I was involved with were what were called MUSHes (multi-user shared hallucinations) or MUXes (not really sure what this ever stood for).

In 2003, though, I finally got drawn into the graphics-laden world of Massively Multiplayer Online Roleplaying Game (MMORPG), which include the better known games like Everquest, Ultima Online, Dark Ages of Camelot, World of Warcraft, and the like. The game that finally got its hooks in me was Star Wars: Galaxies, in which you were able to play a character in the Star Wars universe. Starting in the last few weeks of their beta test release, and continuing into the full version of the game, I played for nearly a year and a half as a Mon Calamari character, loyal to the Empire. (As a boy during the Clone Wars, my family's transport had been rescued from destruction by rebels thanks to a young Darth Vader, and Lord Vader forever after had my allegiance. Remember - it's all about telling a good story!)

My character - Evrab Akicky was his name, if I recall correctly - was an artisan (crafter) and merchant. In the course of the game, he obtained the profession titles of Master Artisan, Master Droid Engineer, Master Architect, Master Chef, Master Merchant, and possibly a few other master professions. (They have since, I'm told, revised the Profession system a bit.) Mostly my emphasis was on being a Chef and Merchant, the two Master-level rankings (along with Master Artisan) that I kept throughout my tenure in the game.

I built top-notch mining equipment, with which to extract the needed raw materials for my creations. I would go to a website that featured a list of all of the minerals available on all of the planets, along with their various statistics, then analyze the requirements for my recipes to figure out which places I needed to mine to get the most valuable resources. Then, in game, I would go to that location and try to find the highest concentration of the choicest resources. These resource deposits shifted regularly, so the process required careful attention or the mining machines would be sitting idle, costing me valuable credits and time.

As a Chef, I also needed materials like hide, bone, and meat from animals, which means I needed to commission Rangers to hunt for me (for resources, again, whose quality I obtained from the same website). Eventually, I created another character - a Master Ranger, Master Marksman, Master Rifleman - who could help me obtain these things without having to go through others exclusively. I was known throughout my guild as having some of the best resources around, and I honestly made more off of the trade of raw resources than off of selling my Chef concoctions (although in SWG at the time such food and drink provided powerful "buffs," playing the role that magical potions provide in fantasy-based games, so they were valuable in their own right and I made a pretty penny off of them).

As a Master Merchant, I was specifically designed to get the highest return, able to have many mechanized, customized vendors placed throughout the universe, on various planets. My trade only increased with the "Jump to Lightspeed" expansion, in which I gained the ability to craft customized spaceships.

This all sounds like I never actually played on the game, and that is certainly not true. I helped my guild found an in-game city, crafting many of the municipal buildings myself. In probably one of my proudest gaming moments at Star Wars: Galaxies, I officiated at the online wedding of our two guild leaders, wherein I told a touching homily about two ancient Sith Lords, whose love was torn apart by a deceitful Jedi who sowed distrust between. (Remember, I was an Imperial character.) The moral: be ever mindful of the importance of love, and mutual trust, in holding a relationship together.

My point in all of this is that for nearly a year, I spent about as much time "working" in Star Wars: Galaxies as I did in my day job. (I was single through most of this time, for reasons which should now be obvious.) And it was only toward the end of this time that I became aware that there were markets for selling in-game credits for real-world money. I never got involved in these sorts of transactions, but it did occur to me that it would be possible ... at around the same time I began dating again, and slowly got out of the gaming life, so never personally profited from it.

So when I saw the book Play Money: Or, How I Quit My Day Job and Made Millions Trading Virtual Loot by Julian Dibbell, I was instantly intrigued. At the same time I was playing Star Wars: Galaxies, Dibbell was diving head-long into the Ultima Online loot trade in an effort to make a living at it in real-world dollars. There but for the grace of God go I, and all that. I ended up getting Play Money on audiobook from my local library, and it was excellent!

For those who have familiarity with these worlds - who have once, as I have, been addicted to them - I would really recommend reading Play Money and seeing it through Dibbell's eyes. It's part nostalgia, part reality check, and part economic philosophy lesson. Here's a quote from my Amazon.com review of the book: 
The most intriguing aspect of the book is Dibbell's analysis of what it means to be "real" in an economic sense. Why do things have value? If people work for hours to establish a virtual economy, and that virtual economy has an exchange rate to the real-world economy, then is the virtual economy any less real than the real-world economies? In light of the recent financial crisis, caused in large part by the trading of insubstantial "derivatives" far removed from the tangible home assets that they purport to represent, in some obscure fashion (they actually represent the trust placed in a person to pay the mortgage on a home, not the value of the home itself, after all), Dibbell's questions become even more relevant.  Are the virtual economic decisions made by virtual game designers at a gaming company, in regards to how much money to introduce into the economy for example, substantially different from those made by the Federal Reserve? Isn't the only difference one of scale? There are more people affected by the U.S. economy than by the Ultima Online economy, and that's the only sense in which it is "real."

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