“...the truth is that those who reluctantly cast their vote for Trump were far outnumbered by those who did so with a kind of gleeful rage. They may cite the Supreme Court or low taxes, but it’s Trumpism that they love, a politics unconstrained not only by rules or laws but by basic human civility.

When Trump tosses around childish insults and acts as though any American who doesn’t support him is his enemy, they don’t say, ‘I don’t like that; it’s the other stuff I like.’ Trump’s vulgarity and hatefulness is exactly what they like. It’s a feature, not a bug. Seeing a political leader who enacts their darkest impulses on a daily basis thrills and intoxicates them.”

— Paul Waldman in The Washington Post

Play Time

Analysis of MMORPG play as economic activity

Play Time: An Introduction

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Abstract

This work outlines the topics to be discussed in the Play Time project, and defines basic terminology that will be used throughout.

Contents

1 Trade in MMORPG

MMORPG worlds are not just settings for play; they are distinct societies within which characters — and by extension, players — meet and interact. Characters act singly or in concert to produce goods. They compete and occasionally fight for resources. And, inevitably, they trade.

The in-game exchange of goods is a natural part of MMORPG play. A character’s path through the game world is largely a matter of destroying monsters, looting them of powerful or valuable items, and using these to plunder still more dangerous and profitable enemies. It is rare that a character’s output exactly matches their wants, and to address this ‘problem’ (really an intrinsic element of MMORPG design), game worlds include currency systems and other features to facilitate or imitate trade, such as auction channels and computer-controlled merchants.

While many players use these features to trade within the game context, others sell game possessions in real-world markets, particularly at auction sites like eBay. A casual survey of these auctions shows surprisingly large sums being paid for game assets, with rare items and quantities of game currency selling for $20 to $100, and well-placed properties for more than $1000. And not only are game items exchanged in real-world markets; often, entire accounts are sold. While some presumably use real-world markets as efficient alternatives to game markets, others use this trade to convert real-world wealth into game wealth, and vice-versa. This allows players to skip the apparently burdensome task of actually playing the game; instead, they can buy their powerful characters and artifacts, starting the race just a few steps from the finish line.

2 Questions

Many fascinating questions are raised by this practice:

  • Why do game goods hold so much value for players? What is the source of this value?
  • Traditionally, economists concern themselves with the problem of scarcity. Within virtual worlds, there exists the problem of abundance: game goods can be freely instantiated by developers, so why not create vast quantities of them? It has been suggested that (where games are concerned) economic constraints might actually benefit those they affect (Castronova 2002), but this argument is contrary to experience and reason. What really constrains in-game wealth?
  • The ostensible purpose of buying a game is to play it, so why do some pay others (in effect) to play for them? How does the real-world trade in game goods affect play?

This project attempts to answer these questions. It consists of three parts:

  • The first, Play Time: An Overview of the MMORPG Genre, introduces the MMORPG world and acquaints non-gamers with the nature and institutions of MMORPG gaming. This will hold little interest for experienced gamers and developers.
  • The second, Play Time: The Problem of Abundance in MMORPG, outlines various wants motivating players and developers, and identifies the economic factors that constrain those wants. It argues that many definitive aspects of MMORPG design work primarily to balance these forces, while at the same time serving the developer’s profit motive.
  • The third, Play Time: Principles of MMORPG Asymmetric Trade, presents a simple microeconomic analysis of the real-world trade in game goods.

3 Conventions

Throughout this work, the following definitions will be used.

3.1 Computer roleplaying games

Three characteristics distinguish this class of games:

  • Realism: Play is set within a virtual world that (subject to much artistic license) models physical and social aspects of the real world;
  • Characterization: Within the game world, players are represented by and act through the agency of ‘characters’. Play largely focuses on the increase of these characters’ abilities within that context;
  • Persistence: The characters, items, and settings within the game world persist from one session to another.

3.2 MMORPG

This will describe computer roleplaying games that host thousands of players simultaneously. As of 2004, all games that meet this criterion are commercial products. While not definitive per se, the commercial nature of MMORPG has important implications for the genre, as will be demonstrated.

3.3 Developer

This term will be used as a portmanteau for designers, programmers, customer service staff, publishers, and owners. In economic terms, this is the firm that produces the game. The developer sets box prices and subscription fees, creates game rules and content, manages game servers, and collects whatever profit is forthcoming. These roles are very diverse, but in commercial games, all are motivated and coordinated by a common desire for profit.

3.4 Game goods

This term will be used for all forms of game wealth that can be transferred between players. This includes game items, in-game real-estate, entire accounts (plus the characters associated with them), and even services such as crafting or courier work.

3.5 Asymmetric trade

Players can exchange game goods within the game context or outside it. The term endogenous trade will be used for exchanges that take place within the game. These are trades involving only game goods, and coordinated through in-game meetings, auction channels, or other developer-implemented means.

Exchanges of game goods negotiated outside the game (as on eBay), or involving non-game goods or real-world money will be described as exogenous trade. Two categories of exogenous trade will be recognized: symmetric trade and asymmetric trade.

Symmetric trade occurs when balances of game wealth and non-game wealth remain constant for each participant. For example: two players meet outside the game and agree to exchange a suit of armor for some gold. Since these items are theoretically equal in market value, and since no exchange of real-world goods is involved, both game and non-game balances are unchanged, and the trade is symmetric.

Asymmetric trade occurs when exchanges alter the distribution of game and non-game wealth. When a game item is auctioned through eBay, the buyer’s game wealth increases, while their non-game wealth decreases. The seller, conversely, loses game wealth and gains non-game wealth. Though it is not limited to eBay, asymmetric trade is known popularly as eBaying.

3.6 Fiat sale

While players must toil to create game goods, developers can instantiate them in arbitrary quantities at essentially no cost. Unsurprisingly, some game companies have chosen to enter the asymmetric market themselves, creating game assets for direct sale to players. This is a form of asymmetric trade, since it changes balances of game and non-game wealth. As will be seen, it has much in common with a government’s ability to print fiat currency, so it will be called fiat sale.