Much for the Enchanted Mithril Broadsword?
By Rick Marshall
online games and other virtual worlds become ever more popular,
virtual economies are spilling over into the real world
Leatherman waits patiently in a shadowy alcove of the train
station, his bare arms crossed, his mustached jaw clenched,
his legs draped in digitized black chaps and planted shoulder-width
apart. He casts an occasional glance from side to side as
brightly colored figures pass by on the pathway overhead.
Eventually, a thin, spandex-clad male darts up to him, halting
only an arm’s length away.
duo stare out at the terminal silently, neither figure reacting
to this sudden reduction of personal space. After nearly 10
minutes, the spandex-clad figure streaks away without a word.
Leatherman steps out from under the pathway, peers around,
then (quite literally) bounds off, leaping over a nearby skyscraper.
funny because it really is a shady deal,” laughs Mike Carlip,
the Albany gamer behind Mr. Leatherman, a character on the
multiplayer video game City of Heroes. In the game, players
are encouraged to create and develop their own digital superheroes
and fight crime in an interactive world. Carlip began playing
the game less than a year ago, and says his involvement in
the game’s addictive world of superheroes and thugs has followed
a fairly cyclical path: several months of binge gaming followed
by a month or two of cold-turkey detachment, only to log in
one rainy day and get a taste for the game all over again.
“shady deal” he’s alluding to involves the purchase of 2 million
credits of CoH currency at a cost of 10 real-world dollars,
arranged via an eBay auction and delivered to his digital
alter ego by the seller’s own, spandex-clad avatar. With characters
able to give away their assets only in small increments, transactions
involving such a large amount of currency can take several
minutes of point-and-click activity on the respective gamers’
screens—hence the long period of time in which the two characters
appear, to outside observers, to simply be staring at one
By exchanging some of his U.S. dollars into the game’s digital
currency, Carlip says he’ll be able to bypass the hours of
playing time necessary to earn that level of wealth in the
game and afford a virtual arsenal capable of turning his “reject
from the Village People” into a force to be reckoned with.
And while the rationale for such a financial undertaking probably
won’t make sense to anyone who counts Pong or Space Invaders
among their most recent video-game experiences, there’s no
denying there’s big money to be made in the booming multiplayer
Yet, a big chunk of that money might not be coming from the
places you’d expect. From computer-filled sweatshops where
Third World workers “farm” virtual currency to games in which
the real-world exchange of the game’s digital currency dwarfs
the economies of several European nations, the business side
of video games is no longer relegated to their manufacture
In fact, some people have made a job out of playing games.
are people who make around $4,000 a month,” shrugs Mike Searles,
a 25-year-old local gamer who says that during the six years
he was a regular participant in Ultima Online, one of the
industry’s oldest and most popular “massively multiplayer
online games,” he made anywhere from $400 to $800 in a single
month selling currency and rare items he accumulated in the
game. What began as a game in which he and some friends could
all interact, says Searles, eventually became a method for
generating weekend spending money.
With most MMOGs charging users a monthly fee, and advancement
through the games often depending upon how much time you’re
able to spend engaging in repetitive activities like battling
enemy after pixilated enemy, the pressure to make the best
of your gaming time has led some to seek shortcuts—and others
to be more than happy to provide them.
I had a moral quandary about [paying for CoH currency],” says
Carlip. “I asked the same questions of myself that anyone
would who’s considering a shortcut—like a baseball player
thinking about steroids.”
The opportunity to make such a decision, says Carlip, is a
function of MMOGs’ “always on” status—even when you’re not
playing, other players from around the world probably are,
and passing you by. There’s not much fun to be found in paying
a monthly fee to receive virtual beatings from kids on summer
vacation or other people who can spend all day playing the
game and improving their characters, reasons Carlip.
a weird way, [buying in-game currency or items] sort of levels
the playing field,” he adds.
in recent years, there’s been no shortage of people willing
to sell their assets—or even their entire characters—for the
While some MMOGs have done their best to dissuade such trading
(Sony Online Entertainment, creators of the popular Everquest
games, recently blocked all eBay auctions related to in-game
assets), others have either grudgingly accepted the existence
of such a practice (as in the case of Ultima Online and CoH)
or, as is the case with some recent games, outright embraced
the injection of real-world implications into their virtual
environments. No matter what the game manufacturers’ reactions,
however, the economies of video games have tended to function
like their real-world counterparts—they develop wherever there’s
is a natural consequence of these complex, exciting virtual
worlds,” reads a passage of Internet Gaming Entertainment’s
company mission. IGE’s sole function involves the buying and
selling of virtual assets for more than a dozen MMOGs, and
with offices around the world and levels of trading similar
in scale to some of the real-world currency markets, the company
is one of the biggest fish in the sea when it comes to farming
dollars from the digital world. In addition to letting gamers
buy in-game currency with real-world cash, the company also
allows for the transfer of currency from one game to another
according to current exchange rates—15 million “credits” from
the sci-fi game Star Wars Galaxies for 500 pieces of “gold”
from the medieval World of Warcraft, for instance.
have assigned real-world value to virtual currency and other
in-game commodities, creating a vibrant secondary market for
MMOGs,” continues the IGE statement. “This secondary market
represents one of the most successful forms of emergent behavior
ever seen in entertainment.”
While the notion of paying real-world money for, say, Star
Wars “credits” or a virtual enchanted sword might inspire
some serious head-shaking among nongamers, those involved
with trading such virtual assets often argue that real-world
value isn’t applied to the items or currency for sale, but
to the time it takes to collect it.
And though IGE is able to measure this new market’s “success”
in millions of dollars of profit each year, that doesn’t mean
that digital commerce hasn’t adopted a few of its real-world
counterpart’s more undesirable qualities, too.
Slaves,” a July 2005 article in Computer Gaming World,
explored the seedier side of this emerging market—and discovered
that the same problems that plague real-world economies have
infected the virtual variety, too.
Lineage II Chinese farmer gets about 56 cents an hour,” writes
the story’s author, James Lee. Lee communicated with various
companies—and their employees—in the business of buying and
reselling online loot, and discovered a multibillion-dollar
international industry. Some build up credits, others create
powerful characters for resale. In one case, a manager at
a Chinese game-farming center told Lee he earned around $180
each month overseeing a crew of lower-wage workers who repetitively
point, click and horde virtual “gold” for 14 hours each day.
The manager told Lee he lived in his office—a common practice
that, he said, provides added incentive for employees to perform
well for fear of losing their homes.
Yet, despite the low wages and long hours, the article goes
on to state that many of the workers at these game-farming
centers don’t mind the click-and-drag routine of their 12-
to 16-hours-a-day jobs. In many cases, the working conditions
are often far better than in other typical sweatshop industries—say,
sneaker or jeans factories.
One American seller mentioned in the story, a part-owner in
an Indonesian game-farming shop who claims to have made $700,000
in a single year selling video-game currency, rationalized
the situation as such: “They get paid dirt. But dirt is good
where they live.”
For all of the abuses that accompany emerging markets, however,
some game creators have taken novel, and less familiar, approaches
to incorporating the financial potential of both their real-
and virtual-world businesses.
Kristian Cee, whose spiky-haired avatar in the MMOG Second
Life goes by the name “Kristian Ming,” recently began selling
fellow gamers in-game art created from snapshots he took with
his digital camera—some from his travels, some of local Capital
Life allows participants to purchase plots of virtual land,
build on them and produce and sell items in the virtual world’s
developing economy. Players are provided a weekly allowance
of in-game currency in order to purchase building materials,
buy items produced by other players, or take an active role
in the game’s economy in any other number of ways. Players
can also exchange their own, real-world money for Linden Dollars,
the currency of Second Life, to supplement their weekly earnings
or provide capital for a virtual business.
Gaming Open Market, an online company similar to IGE but devoted
only to the trading of Linden Dollars, has logged nearly $2
million in currency exchanges—prompting the development of
in-game ATMs linked to users’ PayPal accounts in order to
make these type of transactions even easier.
In order to facilitate more sales of his artwork, Cee has
begun constructing a gallery on a plot of land he purchased
within the game to showcase his artwork and make it available
to other gamers with single-click sales.
turning my original, real-world content into original, in-game
art,” says Cee, who adds that he’s sold fewer than a dozen
prints since joining the game in February, but expects that
number to rise quickly once his in-game gallery opens. Before
deciding to build a gallery, running his in-game business
involved traveling throughout Second Life’s miles of virtual
land—essentially, being a traveling salesman—showing off his
handiwork to anyone he met along the way. With a gallery,
he says, interested gamers will know where to find him and
So far, says Cee, sales of his artwork have netted him 1,000
Linden Dollars, an amount that, according to current exchange
rates, equates to about $4 in real-world cash. While it might
not be enough to pay his real-world rent, it’s not too far
from the monthly $5 to $10 Second Life requires from members
who own land (wandering avatars have to pay only a one-time
$10 fee)—making it quite possible that Second Life could become
a self-funded hobby for Cee at some point in the near future.
In some ways, the virtual world that is Second Life actually
defies the typical classification as a “game,” having no defined
goal or advancement system other than simply learning how
to create new and unique items—much like Cee is beginning
to do. Programming tools provided by Second Life creator Linden
Lab allow participants to construct just about anything they
can imagine, even in defiance of the real-world’s laws of
physics, as long as they’re willing to figure out how to write
the code that makes it possible. With more than 20,000 players
subscribing to Second Life in just over a year of the game’s
existence, and more than $200,000 of real-world transactions
logged within the game each month, the appeal of Second Life’s
“virtual home away from home” theme appears to be catching
In creating this virtual world, Linden Lab founder Phillip
Rosedale said in a February 2005 interview with CNET News
that a central part of developing a robust economy inside
and outside the game involved motivating players to create
something of value.
looked at the history of developing Western countries, and
the motivator to get people to create things . . . has always
been that there’s a sense of intellectual property,” he explained.
“You own something of value, and you can do something with
it. Creativity and Intellect wants to be expressed in some
form of currency.”
That sense of ownership—along with its legal implications—is
one of the things that sets the worlds of Second Life and
similar games apart from those of their peers.
In recent court battles related to real-world trading of virtual
goods, the creators of Everquest and several other MMOGs argued
that their players aren’t allowed to make money off in-game
assets because they sign away their ownership rights when
they install the game software (courtesy of that long string
of text new users are asked to read before clicking on the
“Yes, I Agree” button—commonly known as the End User License
Agreement). In most cases, the EULAs—and the game companies—have
But in Second Life, users retain ownership rights to anything
they create. This has led to some interesting money-making
opportunities for the game’s participants, including one player
who sold the rights to a simple puzzle-game he created within
Second Life to one of the nation’s leading cell-phone companies.
A player in Project Entropia, another MMOG similar in style
and content to Second Life, recently paid more than $26,000
for his own in-game island after the game’s developer, MindArk,
put the land up for sale. The buyer, an Australian who goes
by the name “Deathifier,” now collects payments from other
players for hunting rights and other land-use fees, and intends
to sell off the land for housing once an upcoming game update
allows him to bring in the bulldozers.
like in the real world, the virtual world has its share of
land barons, too,” shrugs Cee, alluding to the small number
of players in Second Life who have begun buying up large portions
of in-game land and raising the asking price. According to
Cee, one such player supports her entire family, including
her parents and children, with the money she earns in the
game from land acquisition and other projects.
So why isn’t everyone quitting their 9-to-5 gigs and plugging
in to the latest MMOG?
That’s the question Julian Dibbell, a contributing writer
for Wired magazine, wondered last year when he decided
to find out if he could earn more money selling virtual goods
on Ultima Online than in his best month as a writer. Dibbell
provided a chronicle of his one-month experiment in digital
commerce via Play Money, his online diary, including
tales of late-night trading binges that carried over into
the early morning, and hours paying close attention to the
daily events of a pixilated world while ignoring those of
the real world—and sometimes vice versa.
cringing now thinking of all the ways I betrayed the enterprise
in the last few days,” he wrote in an entry dated April 6,
2004. “Going to see a movie with my mom and my sister and
her wife . . . while inventory went untracked and unreplenished.
. . . Talking with my wife and daughter and far-flung friends
and family on the phone when my focus should have been nowhere
but on this laptop stationed on the dining-room table in the
middle of my sister’s house.”
the end, Dibbell fell short of his goal, earning a total of
$3,917 in 31 days as a virtual merchant. According to Dibbell,
the $47,000 that monthly tally equated to over a full year
was “nothing to sneeze at, of course, but nothing I haven’t
achieved as a professional writer.”
Yet Dibbell wrote that it was factors other than supply, demand
or salesmanship that played the most significant role in his
you’re good at reading between the lines, you may have guessed
that things are not going well for my marriage,” wrote Dibbell
on April 10. He described his decision to fly home to see
his daughter go on her first Easter-egg hunt as a sign that
he had “chosen that opportunity over the chance to meet my
wasn’t a very hard choice, to be honest,” he continued.
According to Dibbell, doing business in the virtual world
requires the same sort of sacrifices one must make in the
real world. A short peek through Play Money is all
it takes to see that job addiction in either world can have
some dramatic effects. From strained relationships to estranged
friends and family, both Cee and Carlip admit they’ve seen
the perils of game addiction, and they understand exactly
how Dibbell could lose himself in a virtual world—especially
when it becomes his job.
Seated next to Cee at a local bar, his girlfriend, Christine,
rolls her eyes when he claims that he “sees the value of unplugging.”
While she admits to the occasional gaming binge of her own,
she says she has trouble getting past the notion of paying
a monthly fee to play.
guess I don’t really understand why people are willing to
spend that much money on a game,” she shrugs.
And even after spending a month immersed in virtual commerce,
Dibbell wrote that he’s not quite sure he understands, either.
Pondering what motivates people to spend their hard-earned
money on playthings they can’t touch or hold, he theorized
that, at the heart of it all, it’s “the same thing that drives
people to value the playthings of material life in general,
the trappings of success, the visible tokens of accomplishment
that keep us on the treadmill of production and make the economy
Yet, he adds, the people who splurge on an occasional “cloak
of invisibility” or a piece of fine art for their virtual
home might be on to something.
anything, they’re closer than the rest of us to the sort of
enlightenment that frees you from the treadmill, if only because
they know that their striving is just a game,” reasoned Dibbell.
“May we all know it sooner or later.”