play money
DIARY of a dubious proposition



BY JULIAN DIBBELL
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PLAY MONEY now at Amazon THE RUMORS ARE TRUE:
PLAY MONEY IS NOW A BOOK.


(And you can buy it at Amazon.)

Friday, August 29, 2003

How Much Do I Suck?  

For those of you who missed it, here is a link to the archived version of Wednesday's "The Connection" on NPR, on which I appeared with MIT media studies professor Henry Jenkins, Wonderbread delivery man John Dugger, and your host Dick Gordon to discuss the lunacy (or not) of trading virtual items for real money.

The show went well, I thought. But I was surprised to find how much the conversation about my newfound profession, particularly for the call-in participants, revolved around the question not of its insanity but of its moral bankruptcy. Jenkins was predictably nuanced and generous in his judgments, but the callers (and for that matter your host Dick Gordon) seemed pretty well settled on the point: Players who buy their way up in a virtual world are cheaters, and I am their enabler.

Now, I'm not entirely unsympathetic with this view. But as you might imagine, I think it's a tad more complicated than that, and someday I will try to sort out my thinking on the matter right here before your very eyes.

In the meantime, though, may I suggest Raph Koster's thinking on the matter? It's as eloquent a response as I have seen to the claim that eBayers ruin games like Ultima Online, and the fact that Raph pretty much created Ultima Online only adds to its eloquence. A choice sample follows:

For every person you see selling an account on eBay for a lot of money, every greedy escapee from UO you see trying to make a profit, there are a bunch of people bidding, too. And they are bidding on intangibles. They are offering up their hard-won real money in exchange for invisible bits and bytes because they see the intangibles of UO as being something worth having. A tower for a sense of pride. High skills for greater freedom of action. A place in an online community--they are paying real money for something that many argue doesn't even exist. I find it odd that people think this cheapens the whole thing. I think it validates it. It says to me that there are more people who want to be deeper IN than there are who want OUT. That there are strong emotional reasons for being a participant.

Yes, it may seem unfair that to the rich of one world go the advantages of the other world, but hey, life isn't fair. Heck, I don't even know if the sales on eBay are legal. But I DO know that wanting to be more involved with a virtual world doesn't sound like a marker of that world's ending. It sounds more like a sign of its strength.


3:47 PM



Thursday, August 28, 2003

Market Watch (Day Late, Dollar Short Edition)  
My Internet service got knocked out on Tuesday, thanks to one of those brooding electrical storms that tend to saunter through Indiana on a summer afternoon and turn the sky a dark, bottle-glass, bottom-of-the-sea type of green right before all meteorological hell breaks loose. The outage lasted till this morning, and consequently this week's figures reflect a Thursday reality rather than the usual Wednesday. I'd like to believe that explains why the numbers are so saggingly low, but let's not kid ourselves.

Here, once again, is your weekly UO eBay market snapshot, based on average sales figures for the preceding 14 days.:

Total sales: $117,060 (-11,501 from last week)

Total sales, annualized: $3.0 million

Total volume: 2,898 sales (-295)

Exchange rate: $15.76 (-0.42) per 1 million Britannian gold pieces

Price of an 18x18 house in the new Malas region: $193.43 (+35.23)

My gold holdings: 77.4 million gp ($1,219.82)

My dollar holdings: $282.38

My profits, year to date: $1,128.10

(Numbers crunched with help from HammerTap's DeepAnalysis, an eBay market research tool.)

3:37 PM



Tuesday, August 26, 2003

Play Money Makes NPR  
And this time I'm telling you before it happens. That's right, radio fans, tomorrow morning at 11 a.m. to noon East Coast time you can hear me on NPR's highest of high-tone call-in shows, The Connection, holding forth on the very topic that makes this blog go. My fellow guests will be John Dugger -- the Stillwater, Oklahoma, Wonder Bread delivery man I profiled in the Wired article that first led me down this rabbit hole -- and the illustrious Henry Jenkins, MIT professor of cultural studies and surely the biggest piece of intellectual artillery currently aimed at making sense of video games.

Catch it on the airwaves, catch it streaming live and online, or catch up later at The Connection's online archives. You can find out how to do all three, I'm told, right here.

5:25 PM



Friday, August 22, 2003

Play Money Makes the BBC  
Good heavens, leave the office for a week and a half and look what happens! While I was away, the BBC ran two little items on my heroic efforts here. One was posted to the Beeb's news site on Monday, August 11. The other, a radio interview taped a few days before I hit the road, was broadcast the same day.

For regular readers of this blog, there's no real news in either piece. But if you go to the Web item, you'll see this revealing photo of your correspondent, taken by Justin Hall in the unholy glow of the E3 game convention earlier this year:



And if you sit through the archived broadcast till my interview comes on (I've had neither the patience nor the courage to do so myself), you'll have a voice to go with the face.

Or you could just watch my delightful animated children's television show and get both at once. (I have no idea who the pale dude in the foreground is.)

12:28 PM



Wednesday, August 20, 2003

Market Watch (Homecoming Edition)  
Another weekly UO eBay market snapshot, based on average sales figures for the preceding 14 days. Lots of green in there, suggesting either that this little economy's recession hit bottom while I was out on the road -- or that it's just taking a breather in mid-plummet. Either way, these are nice numbers to come home to:

Total sales: $128,561 (+15,512 from two weeks ago)

Total sales, annualized: $3.3 million

Total volume: 3,193 sales (+46)

Exchange rate: $16.18 (-0.32) per 1 million Britannian gold pieces

Price of an 18x18 house in the new Malas region: $158.20 (+7.4)

My gold holdings: 74.9 million gp ($1,235.85)

My dollar holdings: $174.04

My profits, year to date: $1,128.10

(Numbers crunched with help from HammerTap's DeepAnalysis, an eBay market research tool.)

3:41 PM



Saturday, August 09, 2003

Enough Already  
Do you mind if I ask a personal question? What are you doing here?

I mean, it's the second week in August. If you were European, you would already be halfway through your annual six-week vacation. Do you really think reading this blog on the sly at work even remotely resembles a break from the misery of 21st century, productivity-obsessed American capitalism? (And if you are European, why are you here and not passed out face down in the sand outside some beach bar in Ibiza or Phuket or wherever it is you're supposed to go to pretend to escape the meaninglessness of 21st century, welfare-state EU capitalism?)

Enough already. Go away. And if you don't, don't come here looking for more excuses to stay planted. As of this evening I will be on the road with Jessica and Lola, headed east and homeward -- after a glorious year in San Francisco -- to somewhat-less-than-glorious South Bend, Indiana. This will be my last entry for at least a week, maybe two.

You'll survive, I promise.

8:58 AM



Den of Thieves! (International Edition)  
OK, so maybe I've trafficked in one stolen good too many -- but it seems I've still got a long way to go to catch up with the MMORPG mafiosi of Korea. Adding some hard numbers to the rumors and anecdotes that have been tantalizing us over the years, the South Korean National Police Agency recently revealed that of 40,000 "cybercrimes" reported this year, 22,000 involved online games, with traffic in stolen game currency the typical modus operandi.

In further evidence that South Korea is now officially science fiction, the same article reports as old news a game-theft felony case of the sort merely hypothesized in this year's Black Hat "hacker court" trial: "two people were arrested earlier this year amid claims that they had hacked into an online game server and awarded themselves huge amounts of cybercurrency, which they had then managed to exchange for 1.5 billion South Korean won" (about US$1.25 million).

Ingotdude, eat your heart out.

12:47 AM



Friday, August 08, 2003

Castronova-thon and On...  
This just in: Dr. C drops mad science in an interview with the legal-studies blog GrepLaw. Dig him on why studying the economies of game worlds matters:

First, broadly speaking, economics has gotten stale. Itís out of touch with the conversations going on in humanities, art, and even other social sciences, about the nature of social truth. Post modernism certainly hasnít had much effect on economic methods and subjects, thatís for sure. As an extension of that, contemporary econ hasnít seen whatís happening to communications. It hasnít sensed the possibility that the Net may have massive implications for daily life.... The long run objective of this project is to pose a criticism of the scientistic methodology of economics and similarly-inclined disciplines. Social science is as much aesthetic as it is scientific (in my view anyway), and games pose a problem that highlights the inadequacy of a purely scientific, mathematical, objectivist, positivist approach.

(Blog-rolling alert: Yours Truly is cited twice in this interview. Is it me or is there an echo in this chamber?)

10:52 PM



Market Watch (Brain-Dead Edition)  
[I had this all typed up and ready to go Wednesday evening, per schedule. Apparently I forgot to say "go." My deepest apologies, stat geeks.]

Is anybody out there as troubled as I am by the steady decline in overall sales since I started tracking? This is the 5th week in a row of contraction, a $52,000 drop from the initial figure of $165,871 on June 11, and at this point clearly no random fluctuation. What could it be, though? An inevitable cooling down after the excitement of UO's Age of Shadows release? Competition from the Star Wars: Galaxies launch? Summer doldrums? Only time, if anything, will tell.

Now here's your weekly UO eBay market snapshot, based on average sales figures for the preceding 14 days [as of two days ago, for God's sake]:

Total sales: $113,049 (-11,984 from last week)

Total sales, annualized: $2.9 million

Total volume: 3,147 sales (-341)

Exchange rate: $16.50 (+0.37) per 1 million Britannian gold pieces

Price of an 18x18 house in the new Malas region: $150.80 (-3.66)

My gold holdings: 74.9 million gp ($1,235.85)

My dollar holdings: $214.04

My profits, year to date: $1,088.10

(Numbers crunched with help from HammerTap's DeepAnalysis, an eBay market research tool.)

10:27 PM



Wednesday, August 06, 2003

Den of Thieves!  
"good grief," I typed. "here's a dilemma. of the ethical variety"

I was typing at Mr. Big, in ICQ, and if there was anyone on the planet better qualified to judge the dilemma in question, I couldn't think who.

"ok, remember that Bone Crusher i was asking you about?"

He did. And so I explained:

It had come to my attention that a person calling himself Jammaster (pseudonym changed to protect whoever) was looking to sell an exceedingly powerful magic mace known as the Bone Crusher, one of several UO "artifacts" so rare that only one or two of each kind are thought currently to exist. The reason I knew Jammaster was selling his Bone Crusher was that he had ICQ'd me, pretty much out of the blue, asking if I would post it for sale on Tradespot for him, as he was temporarily unable to do so himself.

"my web browser is broke," he explained.

This struck me as odd. I barely knew the guy. On the other hand, I knew an opportunity when I saw one. I quickly ICQ'd Mr. Big to ask how much he would pay for a Bone Crusher ("15 million") then ICQ'd Jammaster asking how much he wanted for his.

"i mean, i can post it for you," I added, "but maybe we can make a deal right now and save us both some hassle :)"

The reply, curiously, came a day later: "How much will you pay for it? To save us some hassle."

The question flustered me, a bit. I was hoping to pay no more than 10 million, but I really didn't know what the going price was. Fidgeting, I called up Tradespot on the unlikely chance that a similar item might have been advertised recently so I could get a rough price check -- and lo and behold, there before my blinking eyes was a sell notice for yet another Bone Crusher, posted just an hour or two earlier by one Harcourt (name changed again). The asking price was 10 million.

"i was thinking around 8 million," I wrote to Jammaster, then quickly to Harcourt: "you still have that bone crusher?"

"oh...," Jammaster answered, "I had a bid of 9 at bank yesterday, I was hoping to get 10 mill even, so I can purchase a home"

"no," Harcourt answered, "scammed :("

Me: "scammed? how?"

Harcourt: "i was gonna sell it to this guy. i had it locked down in my house. the guy came to my house and waited outside while i went in to get it. the second i unlocked it, it disappeared. i guess he snuck in somehow."

Me: "i'll be damned"

Harcourt: "yeah. sucks."

Me: "when did this happen?"

Harcourt: "about 30 mins ago"

Me: "what was the guy's name?"

Jammaster: "If you can pay 10, ill meet you anywhere right now =)"

Harcourt: "Jammaster"

Oh.

So there I was, stuck between a dirty deal and a quick 5 million gp profit. I'd been stolen from in the game before, and I knew how much it hurt. Players can use hiding and thieving skills to slip into your house right under your nose and walk away with everything they can carry. It's not just impoverishing, it's humiliating, and I wasn't eager to be part of any such business. That Jammaster had lined me up as a fence a full day before committing the crime didn't help -- anybody that calculatingly predatory was plainly nobody to get mixed up with.

And so, vexed, conflicted, and, finally, stumped, I turned to Mr. Big for advice. I ICQ'd him the details and sat back to await his response. There was a nice long Solomonic pause, and in it, I realized I was expecting, and half hoping, that Mr. Big would advise me to walk away from the deal. He is a scrupulously honest trader, I've found, and I felt certain he would tell me that in the long run my reputation, karma, and conscience were far more important to my business than any quick killing, that I would thank him someday for this advice, and so forth.

But virtual reality is a funny place, and here is what Mr. Big replied instead:

"Well - to be honest - stealing in game is not unethical to me. Rogue/theif is a player skill - so I would have no problem with that. Now, if it involved real life theft - real money or out of game scamming - that is a totally different story. But using stealth/stealing in game is totally acceptable in my mind"

I shrugged and laughed -- and quickly closed the deal with Jammaster. Then just as quickly I resold the Bone Crusher to Mr. Big, and as I counted up my profit, I couldn't help sharing a wink and a chuckle with the thief who had made it possible.

"good luck with that house you're buying," I ICQ'd to Jammaster, "and be sure to lock it up tight when you get it :)"

"why?"

"lotta thieves around :)"

There was a pause, then finally: "lol. i know what ur hintin at"

"just an observation," I replied, "about this wicked wicked world we live in ;)"

Yeah, I was pretty pleased with myself. But since then the amusement has faded, and despite Mr. Big's serene advice, the ambivalence remains. Was it all just business, fair and square -- or did I in fact buy that Bone Crusher with a piece of my soul?

Reader, I'll let you be the judge.


12:56 PM



Black Hat Verdict  
On a related -- and belated -- note, here as promised is the verdict in last week's "hacker court" moot trial at the Black Hat computer-security conference in Las Vegas:

Hung jury!

That's not to say no decision was reached. As the prosecution's expert witness, economist Edward Castronova, reports, there was solid consensus among members of both jury and audience that the stolen goods at issue in the hypothetical case (the "Staff of Viagra" swiped from the victim's online game account) had real economic value and therefore justified prosecution. In the event, the jury hung on the question of whether the defendant had actually participated in the crime. That a crime had occurred, however -- and a federal crime at that -- was apparently never in doubt.

As a highly leveraged virtual property holder, needless to say, I can't help feeling cheered by that result. But I also can't help wondering if that's the right way to feel. I'll give the last word, therefore, to the humane common sense of defense counsel Jennifer S. Granick, as paraphrased by Castronova:


Granick mounted a strong counter-argument, namely that we might, as a society, decide that it is just too difficult to classify game-related damages as real, just as we shy away from taking cases of lost sexual favors to court, even though there clearly are damages. This powerful argument suggests that losses in something we agree to call a "game" should also be free from legal oversight, even though, in fact, the distinction between game and life is arbitrary.

Granick's argument failed to carry the day, of course. But it may yet win the game.

12:39 PM



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