I just finished Julian Dibbell’s informative and entertaining new book on virtual economies Play Money. If you will recall, I purchased both the virtual and real world versions of the book last month, opting to read the dead tree edition.
It’s a quick read, told from the wry and clever personal perspective of the author, a Wired journalist and casual gamer.
Julian Dibbell’s goal was a simple one: to make as much money in a virtual world economy as he makes as a writer (i.e. more than 50K a year).
Along the way he encounters a motley crew of online entrepreneurs and speculators, from a mysterious Chinese businessman to quasi-mobster cartels of gold farmers to a Wonder Bread delivery man and a construction worker. Most of the action takes place in Ultima Online, a dungeons and dragons-based MMORPG, with some forays into World of Warcraft, Everquest, Star Wars Galaxies, and Second Life.
As a fellow at the Stanford Law School, Julian muses on the very nature of play versus work, money as a tenuous concept, and the potential intersections of virtual economies and the IRS tax code. I loved the book’s denouement where Julian attempts to discuss with a couple of IRS auditors what the tax liabilities are for the hundreds of thousands of Americans trading virtual goods. Suffice to say, the US government is not ready to grok the fiscal implications of these quasi-anonymous, transnational, real/virtual economies.
Frankly, the financial, business aspects of virtual worlds are the least interesting for me personally. But I’m fascinated by the ethical, moral questions of "playing" in virtual space. For example, one UO player opines that it is morally okay to use your character’s thieving and stealth skills to break into someone else’s castle and loot their gold and valuables. The game itself supports "thief" as one of the possible vocations, so clearly those actions are within the bounds of "fair play." But to break into someone’s Paypal account or use the game to steal someone’s real world identity is beyond ethical play.
There are lots of other interesting moral dilemmas. I.e.
- Running "bots" to automate the more tedious aspects of MMORPG play and to earn money
- Buying a high-level character from another person instead of "earning it" by slogging through all of the adventures and acquiring all of the skills yourself
- Purchasing a high-value object meant to be obtained through some arduous quest or dangerous dungeon
It’s clear that most people playing characters in online virtual worlds don’t consider their avatars actions as carrying the same moral weight as their real world activities. I.e. read the chat log of this interaction between some clueless newbs trying to scam some Second Life Linden currency from another resident. These kids don’t equate their avatar’s actions with something morally wrong.
Which makes sense. In these worlds, you run around with guns and swords and kill other avatars and non-player characters. If you are allowed to murder avatars, why can’t you steal and cheat them? (Or for that matter, have sex with them?)
Sounds like this would be a useful discussion to bring together some theologians, ethicists, and gamers to sound off on.