Julian Dibbell‘s Play Money, Or, How I Quit My Day Job and Made Millions Trading Virtual Loot is his account of a year spent, not just on the MMORPG (massively multiplayer online role-playing game) Ultima Online, but actually trying to make a living buying and selling Ultima Online artifacts on sites like eBay, for “real” US dollars. Dibbell endeavors to earn as much money through virtual artifact-trading as he ever did as a freelance journalist (which is his regular day job); and, though he doesn’t quite succeed, he does enter and explore a shadowy world, having to do with money and commerce, and blurring the lines between virtual and actual, reality and fantasy. Working in these markets is as strange an experience as anything he could have encountered purely online, in Ultima or elsewhere.
Play Money is something of a sequel to Dibbell’s earlier book, My Tiny Life: Crime and Passion in a Virtual World, which recounted his time spent, in the mid-1990s, in LambdaMOO, a text-based virtual world. (I discussed that earlier book briefly here). The difference between the two books speaks profoundly to how our experiences of “virtual reality” have changed over the last decade or so.
Much of the difference between the two books is encapsulated in their very different subtitles. Dibbell has moved from “crime and passion” to money-making schemes. My Tiny Life is mostly about what it felt like to live in a virtual, online environment, at a time when not many people had ever done so. The book has its roots in Dibbell’s celebrated 1993 Village Voice article, “A Rape in Cyberspace”, which was revised to become the book’s first chapter. This article recounted an incident on LambdaMOO in which one of the players hacked the system in such a way as to control the actions of other characters, so as to subject them to various sexual indignities. My Tiny Life went on to narrate the aftermath of the incident: how the virtual crime was sanctioned by a virtual punishment, the banishment of the offender from LambdaMOO; and further, how the whole order of things on the MOO was turned upside down, and something like an experiment in virtual democracy was born. Dibbell explored the rich texture of life on the MOO in the years following the incident. He described the social, sexual, and aesthetic aspects of virtual life, its often intense satisfactions and equally insistent annoyances. He raised questions about how virtual identities and virtual experiences related to physical ones, and about the gender fluidity, multiplication of identities, and strange emotional intensities that seemed to characterize life in cyberspace. Above all, he sought to persuade his readers — many of whom might have never experienced it first-hand — that a life lived as a made-up persona in a world composed only of bits and texts was nonetheless “real” in any way that really mattered: in terms of time and interest, emotional experience, relationships with other people, creativity, and even a sort of physical engagement.
Play Money, on the other hand, comes at a time when immersion in the Internet — whether in the form of game-playing on MMORPGs and on networked servers, or in the forms of email, chat rooms, P2P filesharing networks, blogs, social networking sites like myspace.com, and personal media distribution sites like youtube.com — has become a commonplace for most of the population of the United States and other industrialized countries. It is no longer a question of convincing people that an online, virtual “life” is “real,” as of tracing the ways that the “virtual” aspects of our lives intersect with other aspects. Today, there is basically a continuity between physical contact, contact over the telephone, and contact online — it no longer makes sense to oppose one of these to the others, as Rl (“real life”) used to be opposed to VR (“virtual reality”). It no stranger that people should spend much of their leisure time slaying dragons and making artifacts on Ultima Online, than it is that they should spend their leisure time going to baseball games, or watching DVDs, or knitting sweaters; and indeed, all these other activities increasingly have online components as well. So it’s not surprising that, in his new book, Dibbell writes about how an online virtual world intersects with the rest of his life, rather than how that online world is a self-enclosed place of its own.
Play Money is about the trade in virtual artifacts. The economist Edward Castronova has written about how MMORPGs have virtual economies that, translated into “real world” dollar terms, are larger than those of many developing nations. People spend much of their time in Ultima Online, and other such worlds, making virtual artifacts, like houses to live in, armor to fight better, objects that allow one to cast spells, and so on. These artifacts can be made by doing a lot of pointing and clicking. Sometimes it is purely mechanical, other times it involves real creativity (writing, or programming, new features that appear in the game’s visuals, and that have actual effects on character behavior). Within the game, these artifacts can be bought and sold for virtual gold. (You can also earn virtual gold by doing such repetitive tasks as killing monsters for a bounty). Ultima Online thus has a virtual or simulated economy, arising (as mercantile and capitalist economies do in the ‘real world’) as a result of scarcity.
But why is there scarcity in Ultima Online? The answer is, that it is programmed in. In My Tiny Life, Dibbell had already written about the “economy” of LambdaMOO. Since this virtual world ran on a single server, hard-drive space was necessarily limited. Each player was given a certain number of bits: you could use these to program, or to make virtual objects and spaces. If you wanted more hard drive space than was allocated to you, you had to present your plans to a democratically-elected review board, which decided who would get the scarce additional quota. LambdaMOO thus had a non-market, socially administered “economy” of sorts.
Ultima Online and other MMORPGs run on multiple servers, profitably funded by the players’ monthly account fees; so this sort of scarcity doesn’t need to exist. And online, as many theorists have noted, “information” is plenteous and (aside from the scarcity enforced by copyrights and the like) nearly free, because — once the system is in place — the marginal cost of generating and reproducing additional information is vanishingly small. Nonetheless, Dibbell suggests, people enjoy scarcity, enjoy the experience of struggling to overcome constraints. Online games in which anything was possible haven’t done very well. But lots of people will pay to be stimulated by the challenges of scarcity in games. “In an atmosphere of oxygen, our bodies learned to breathe; in a world of scarcity, the soul might just as likely learn to need the universal obstacle to its desires” (43). I always think of this as the Captain Kirk principle: again and again, the Enterprise comes upon what seems to be a utopian world, a world of effortless play. But Kirk always ends up destroying these worlds — in direct violation of the Prime Directive — for the worlds’ peoples own good. Since if they don’t have obstacles, if they don’t have something to strive for, they are decadent and ultimately doomed. This is the anti-utopian side of MMORPGs (in contrast to the utopianism that suffused places like LambdaMOO in its glory days, over a decade ago). There’s something weirdly perverse about all this, as Dibbell freely admits. But perversity, of course, is itself endlessly fascinating, as so-called “normality” is not.
Anyway. So scarcity is built into worlds like Ultima Online. And people willingly do a lot of what might be thought of as work — even though it is taking place voluntarily, inside a game — in order to increase their virtual wealth within the game, to have a nicer house, a more prestigious social position, cooler or more aesthetically pleasing artifacts. But what’s more — and this is really where Dibbell’s own experiences come in — there’s a spillover between the play (or simulated) economy of the game, and real-world money and economics. If you want a nice mansion in Ultima Online, but don’t have the patience to spend 800 hours of game-playing time killing monsters in order to accumulate enough virtual cash to be able to afford to buy and furnish the mansion, you can take a shortcut and buy the mansion in eBay with real US money. Thus, as Castronova explains, you can calculate an exchange rate between Ultima Online’s virtual money and real-world currencies; most of the stuff never gets sold off-world, but you can calculate its value all the same, which is how Castronova compares the virtual economies of MMORPGs to the actual economies of developing nations.
Pursuing this thread of virtual economies, Dibbell uncovers a strange world of mercantile activity related to Ultima Online and other MMORPGs. There are brokers who make a living by acting as middlemen, buying and selling Ultima Online artifacts on eBay, and pocketing the difference. There are “gold farmers” who discover loopholes in the virtual world’s programming, which allow them to produce virtually valuable articles easily; they run bots to perform the repetitive tasks necessary, exchange the virtual goods thus produced for virtual gold; and sell the virtual gold on eBay and other sites for actual US currency. There are even, apparently, entrepreneurs who set up virtual sweatshops: hiring workers in developing countries like Mexico and China to play the games eight to twelve hours a day, making virtual artifacts or earning virtual gold; the entrepreneurs pocket the difference between the (real currency) wages they pay and the (real currency) money they get for selling the virtual artifacts and gold outside the game. This last scenario is one that Dibbell spends the entire book trying to track down; he hears tantalizing reports and rumors, but is never able to verify it; finally the New York Times reports it as fact. It’s a mind-blowing scenario, really; it involves a process of production, and an extraction of surplus value, that is entirely based on virtual activity; and it suggests that leisure and play, as well as work — or more precisely leisure-as-work — can itself be exported to the Third World by corporations seeking to maximize profit.
Most of Play Money is mostly autobiographical, as Dibbell adopts the purchase and sale of virtual artifacts as his full-time profession. There’s something gripping in his narrative of profit and loss, of economic ups and downs, of profitable coups he made, and of the ones that got away. My Tiny Life was all about community and social life online. But in Play Money, as Dibbell gets more involved in these economic pursuits, he increasingly loses interest in the social, community, and networking aspects of life in Ultima Online, and indeed in the Dungeons-and-Dragons-like gaming aspects as well: “as I invested myself more and more in the economy of UO players, I could feel myself drifting further and further from their community”; he is no longer interested in “the dungeon quests, the crafting trades, the big houses and the little chunks of fame that came with owning one”; all he is interested in is the money (149).
But interwoven with the personal narrative, Dibbell offers a number of provocative theoretical asides on the relation of work to play, of the real to the virtual, and of money to the activities it makes possible, and for which it substitutes. He eventually suggests that we are entering an era of “ludocapitalism,” in which work and play merge, and Weber’s “iron cage” of the capitalist economy’s “meaningless hyperefficiency” gives way to an economy based on “contriving meaningful activity… through the mechanisms of play” (298-299). This is a prospect that I find considerably more disturbing than Dibbell does — though I cannot give good reasons for explaining why I am disturbed without lapsing into a sort of Adornoesque melancholic moralizing.
Dibbell demonstrates convincingly, in any case, just how real the virtual economy — or play economy — actually is. Of course, from a global perspective, corporations and individual entrepreneurs or arbitragers who make money from the commercial activities surrounding MMORPGs are pretty small-potatoes. But the world economy of “casino capitalism” is increasingly driven by virtual wealth, by speculation in things like derivatives, the money value of trades in which exceeds by several orders of magnitude the value of the world’s physical economic production. Such money is entirely virtual — there is way too much of it to be used in purchasing physical goods or investing in physical production — yet it has powerful effects on “real” economic conditions, as trade in derivatives can easily crash whole economies, and relegate millions of people to very real misery, through a short series of nearly instantaneous computer-mediated transactions. Something further may follow of this masquerade.