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February 21, 2005

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Citizens of EverQuest

Aeons ago, Clive Thompson wrote up this humdinger about the economies of virtual worlds — MMORPGs and the like. Because people have begun assigning real-world monetary value to in-game items, the article explained, it’s possible to study these games as if they were real economies.

So we can, for example, calculate the Gross National Product of Everquest, as Thompson’s economist Edward Castronova decides to do — it’s $2,266 U.S. per capita. (“It was the 77th-richest country in the world,” Thompson writes. “And it didn’t even exist.”)

And of course, we can actually profit from our in-game activities, Thompson reports, enough to pull in a six-figure salary or even power a whole company, with 100 full-time staff members.

The 6,200-word article is somehow chock full of fascinating little revelations. My favorite moment is when Thompson points out that Everquest began as a perfect meritocracy, “the world’s first truly egalitarian polity,” making it the economist’s ideal social laboratory. That realization leads to this:

Ultimately, Castronova says, EverQuest supports one of Adam Smith’s main points, which is that people actually prefer unequal outcomes. In fact, EverQuest eerily mirrors the state of modern free-market societies: only a small minority of players attain Level 65 power and own castles; most remain quite poor. When game companies offer socialist alternatives, players reject them. “They’ve tried to make games where you can’t amass more property than someone else,” says Castronova, “but everybody hated it. It seems that we definitely do not want everybody to have the same stuff all the time; people find it boring.” It is a result that would warm the heart of a conservative.

Yet progressives, too, have been drawn to Castronova’s research. Robert Shapiro, formerly an undersecretary of commerce for Bill Clinton, views the economist’s findings as nothing less than a liberal call-to-arms. EverQuest players tolerate the massive split between the virtual rich and the poor, Shapiro tells me, only because they know that this is a level playing field. If you work hard enough, you’ll eventually grow wealthy. In Shapiro’s view, Castronova’s research proves that the only way to create a truly free market is to support programs that give everyone a fair chance at success, such as good education and health care. “This may provide the most important lesson of all from the EverQuest experiment,” he wrote in an essay. “Real equality can obviate much of a democratic government’s intervention in a modern economy. . . . If EverQuest is any guide, the liberal dream of genuine equality would usher in the conservative vision of truly limited government.” In other words, maybe the best way to save the real world is to make it more like EverQuest.

In an article in Legal Affairs, Dan Hunter and F. Gregory Lastowka argue that Shapiro takes the business too far. After all, they say, in the real world, Congress can’t just code away poverty.

And they conclude that the best way to save EverQuest is to make it more like the real world:

You could make a virtual world without the possibility of crime—but it would probably be about as dynamic as Pong or Tetris. It turns out that as we build denser, more immersive, and more compelling virtual realities, we bring into our virtual realities numerous unanticipated real-world potentials. By creating virtual lives, investments, and freedoms, we create the conditions for virtual crime. Is there a solution? Short of changing human nature, there is probably no way to avoid the difficulties of crime, at least if we want our virtual worlds to be as engaging as the real one.
Posted February 21, 2005 at 12:16 | Comments (3) | Permasnark
File under: Video Games


Hello to Matt, Robin and anyone else who'll listent. It's been a while since I've seen this place, and I have to say I like the new look.

But the real reason I'm commenting is because I have an irrational hope of being the first person to bring up a story that's actually now 4 days old in this space. So get ready for the headline...

"Real-world pizza, fake world game" - or something like that, I don't know, make it up. I'm in radio now.

Anyway, here's a link to Clive Thompson's comment on it.

And, uh, this virtual world thing is amazingly interesting aside from the pizza. I'd do a story, but I can't even wrap my head around all the issues going on here.


Posted by: Dustin on February 21, 2005 at 03:17 PM

Yeah, that Clive Thompson post was what precipitated this one, as he links to the virtual economies article in it. The pizza thing strikes me as pretty low-tech; I mean, is it really that hard to Alt+Tab out of EverQuest and Firefox your way over to (Which is basically what the program does.) The pager thingie he mentions also seems unimpressive (does anyone remember Majestic? And also -- pager?? Is this the '80s?), and as one of the commenters in the Collision Detection thread mentioned, this more utilitarian form of game/life synergy has been going on for years.

But I'm fascinated by the point at which video games become so intertwined with everyday life that we can learn concrete, practical things about ourselves from the worlds we create. Dustin, you must have caught this NPR story about Tactical Iraqi, the game that uses voice recognition and artificial intelligence to teach players the language and culture of Iraq. Voice recognition and artificial intelligence! A world of heuristic, semi-sentient avatars created solely to be your personal language tutors! Remember when computer language-training software looked like this?

Speaking of Iraq, the military's been using games and other artificial scenarios to learn concrete, practical things for years now: just look at the tumult over Ret. Lt. Gen. Paul Van Riper's defeat of the U.S. military in the U.S. vs. Iraq war game a few years back ( What's really astonishing about the Everquest scenario is the scale, and the lack of coordination and breadth of knowledge of its component members. Nevertheless, the idea that Everquest can provide both a descriptive map and prescriptive advice for social-scientific theories relies on a granted premise: that people's goals in life are ultimately a lot like their goals in a video game. And the world of online gaming is fundamentally a solitary, libertarian one, and only occasionally a communitarian one. The goal in Everquest, the telos out of which pleasure is derived, is advancement -- of experience, wealth, levels of adventure, etc. To a certain extent, this mirrors our real-life goals, but the degree of structure that knits together our social relations is fundamentally different.

This disconnect should be obvious -- anyone who's ever royally trounced their girlfriend or boyfriend in a board, puzzle, or video game, then felt bad about it (or been made to feel bad about it) afterwards, understands the difference between the morals of a game and the morals/mores of relationships. There's lots of stuff I would be bored stiff by in a video game that I do either for pleasure or obligation in reality (often a combination of both): spend time with my family, rearrange my bookshelves, fill out envelopes and write checks to pay my bills. Never mind reading, writing, and teaching, which I plan to do for the rest of my life: killing orcs is more fun.

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