Atelier: Real Sweat Shops, Virtual Gold

In December of 2004, a 22-year-old Australian gamer spent $26,500 of real money to buy a virtual island in the online game Project Entropia. Its game developers described the virtual island as containing “…beautiful beaches ripe for developing beachfront property, an old volcano with rumors of fierce creatures within, [an] outback… overrun with mutants, and an area with a high concentration of robotic miners guarded by heavily armed assault robots indicates interesting mining opportunities…” Though the sheer dollar value of the purchase may strike us as a fairly outlandish (pardon the pun) sum to be laying out for a castle in the sky, the virtual real estate market is booming; it’s quite possible that this young Australian gamer will even turn a profit on his virtual property once he has rented, leased, or sold plots of his island paradise to other online gamers. It is not only virtual real estate, however, that is being traded online.

As a result of the wide-spread popularity of MMORPGs – an acronym which stands for massive(ly) multiplayer online role-playing games – virtual objects of all kinds have begun to emerge as sources for potential profit. Online site No Sweat, describes the trajectory of online trading as follows:

“In these games, as in other role playing and computer games, over time one acquires possessions, skills, rank and so on. Often, moving on in the game is a long, slow tedious process — and many computer gamers look for short-cuts to get beyond the lower levels of the game. In MMORPGs, those shortcuts might involve getting hold of objects (including virtual money) from other players. Those objects can be traded. Which means that outside of the virtual worlds, trading can also take place. Many players seem willing to part with their cash (real-world cash, that is) in order to buy virtual objects in the games.”

The end result of this virtual trading is staggering; as virtual world critic Julian Dibbell points out, the economic yield of virtual commerce is very real:

“[I]n an academic paper analyzing the circulation of goods in Sony Online’s 430,000-player EverQuest…an economist calculated a full set of macro- and microeconomic statistics for the game’s fantasy world, Norrath. Taking the prices fetched in the $5 million EverQuest auctions market as a reflection of in-game property values, professor Edward Castronova of Cal State Fullerton multiplied those dollar amounts by the rate at which players pile up imaginary inventory and came up with an average hourly income of $3.42. He calculated Norrath’s GNP at $135 million — or about the same, per capita, as Bulgaria’s. In other words, assuming roughly proportional numbers for other major online role-playing games… the workforce toiling away in these imaginary worlds generates more than $300 million in real wealth each year.”

Even more alarming, however, is the fact that this virtual economy has begun to employ exploitative methods more commonly found in the “real world.” In a recent U.S. court case, a member of the online gaming world of EverQuest sued Sony Online for its newly enacted ban of virtual object trading. During the course of the case it came to light that the plaintiff had been running a series of Mexican sweatshops in which workers were paid to play these online role-playing games and to virtually farm, forage, and otherwise produce virtual objects that were then sold for real U.S. currency on E-bay and other online trading houses. And this is hardly an isolated incident. According to an article by Tim Guest , in mainland China “people are employed to play the games [from] nine to five, scoring virtual booty which IGE [Internet Gaming Entertainment] can sell on at a profit to Western buyers.” And a California-based company known as was employing Romanians to play MMORPGs for ten hours a day, earning $5.40 a day, or the equivalent of $0.54 an hour.

Insofar as these virtual worlds are capable of producing objects which seamlessly enter into our real-world economy, items that are priceable, desirable, and scarce, if not exactly material or useful in the ways that we are used to, and insofar as these virtual objects have a real effect on the “real economy”, the distinction between the virtual and the real seems to have become disturbingly attenuated. The fact that these virtual objects are as exchangeable as any other material commodity seems to suggest that, at least from money’s lofty perch, it looks like dollars all the way down.

MMORPG programmers, in fact, have become quite adept at tweaking these online economies. The Economist reports that programmers

“routinely produce the virtual equivalent of an antiquities market, creating overwhelmingly high demand for certain virtual objects that have no other utility within the game, a demand based on nothing more than the sheer scarcity of a given item. They control the inflation rate of their online currency by having players sink huge amounts of virtual gold and platinum into exorbitantly expensive luxury items [according to an online report, neon-colored avatar hair dye has recently become the luxury item par excellance] that can only be bought from non-player merchant bots, effectively taking large sums of money out of general circulation.”

Given the sheer oddness of our increasingly digitized economy, how is it, then, that we still tend to view the world (if we, in fact, still do) as a relatively stable place? From what golden coffer do we pluck out that highly burnished but unfounded belief that our money will be worth as much tomorrow as it is today? As Nigel Thrift has pointed out, “…unlike previous times, there is remarkably little anxiety now about the apparent loss of traditional representations of money. Generally speaking, the system of money is trusted.”

That the value of these virtual items, (including various forms of virtual gold which serve as currency in many of these online gaming worlds, and which seem to function and accrue value as any other “real-world” currency would) is predicated upon nothing more than the online gaming communities acknowledgement of their value is, in many respects, nothing new. A similar epistemological structure – one dependent upon our shared belief in the power of socially produced fictions – seems to underpin all of our monetary and financial instrumentation. This begs the question: Does this newly emergent virtual online gaming economy mark a threshold in how we have come to transmit, to produce, and to imagine value? Or is it merely the case that these gamers are a new type of virtual investor, one whose play happens to yield real monetary value and, consequently, produce real exploitative side-effects?