Turning Play into Work

While visiting Stanford Law School earlier this week, I happened to catch a guest lecture by author and online gamer, Julian Dibbell, whose new book, Play Money: Or, How I Quit My Day Job and Struck It Rich in Virtual Loot Farming (Basic Books), will be out in June. In the tradition of George Plimpton, Dibbell decided to test his mettle as the determined amateur in an alien, high-performance demimonde — in this case, a massively multiplayer online game of Ultima Online. His self-selected challenge: to earn more money in a month of playing the game than he ever earned in a month as a professional writer. That meant he needed to earn more than $4,600 in a month.

Now, most of us associate online games with obsessional nerd-play. But as Dibbell revealed, there is a small but significant subset of gamers who have turned their “play” into a highly organized for-profit business. They do it by amassing as many “valuable” virtual game objects as they can — gold, prized weapons, suits of armor, buildings — and then selling those totems for real money via eBay. Although the corporate hosts of these games prohibit such sales, it persists as a kind of black market. The serious gamers resent it because it enables rank newbies to masquerade as accomplished players. What talented gamer wants to encounter some no-talent idiot who “bought” his way to Level Seven of the game? It ruins all the fun.

In any case, Dibbell set out to become an RMT — a “real market trader” — who would aggressively acquire valuable virtual objects in order to sell them on eBay. In the course of his experience, he encountered a gamer who had 21 PCs in a closet, each running Ultima Online and programmed to do valuable activity within the game that he could then sell them for real money.

Dibbell also encountered a group of gamers based somewhere in southern California who called themselves “Blacksnow.” They were so serious about turning Ultima into a money-making machine that they set up an office in Tijuana, Mexico, with a T1 Intertnet line and eight PC workstations. Then they hired 24 unskilled Mexican laborers to play Ultima in order to make virtual gold in the context of the game, which Blacksnow then resold for real cash. They found that they could make about 150 units of gold in 38 hours; the gold generally converted to US dollars on a 20:1 ratio.

One Blacksnow boss was unapologetic about hiring Mexicans to play Ultima for cash: “They’re playing video games instead of working in a field somewhere. They love it!” China is apparently a favorite location for similar “virtual sweatshops,” “loot factories” and “gold farms.”

Blacksnow participants were constantly scheming to find ways to monetize aspects of the game. It got so business-like that they wrote macros — strings of computer code — to “automate” the making of virtual gold in the game. This injected more “money” into the game, affecting its “economy” and the game-play. Inevitably, disputes broke out over how Blacksnow should manage its illicit gold-making factory. Some of the nasty online dialogue gleaned by Dibbell resembled something out of The Sopranos.

This almost diabolical conversion of play into deadly serious business calls out for explanation. Economists are fascinated by how virtual communities “create value” in almost spontaneous, self-organizing ways, and have set out to study it. One account mentioned by Dibbell is a monograph by Edward Castronova, “Virtual Worlds: A Firsthand Account of Market and Society on the Cyberian Frontier,” published by the Gruter Institute in 2001. It seems that “value creation” in the conventional economic narrative is utterly abstracted from everyday notions of “value.” That helps explain why the idea of hiring poor people in developing countries to play online games for their cash-crazed U.S. bosses seems so decadent.

Undeterred, some economists have assigned proxy sums to the gross domestic product of virtual economies, based on the sales value of game artifacts. For example, the GDP of EverQuest, another online game, has been estimated at $135 million. This may not sound like a lot of money, but as Dibbell pointed out, it amounts to a per capita annual income of $2,260, which exceeds the real-life per capita income of the average Russian ($2,250), Chinese ($520) and Indian ($370). On a per capita reckoning, Dibbell has pointed out, EverQuest is the 79th richest nation on earth, and it doesn’t exist.

These are only some of the reasons why the online game world is worthy of serious study: it helps illuminate the dynamics of people’s actual behavior, and it helps illuminate the frailties of our mental models, such as neoliberal economics.

I guess I’m going to wait for Dibbell’s book for the rest of the story (although one account of his game-play appeared in a December 2002 Wired magazine article). Dibbell did reveal that he didn’t make his goal of earning more than $4,600; he came away with only $3,900 after a month’s “play.” Still, not a bad take, if you can stand turning fun into such dreary, vacuous “work.”