February 07, 2005

Not Ambition, but...

The Punctured Magic Circle

I found this MSNBC article, by Tom Loftus, on Slashdot. According to him, "Digital sweatshops, businesses where Third World laborers play online games 24/7 in order to create virtual goods that can be sold for cash, are [...] on the rise." He further discusses the very realness of so-called "virtual worlds"-- "virtual goods", or coveted game components, sell for real currencies. Resulting behavior is not always desirable: this Wikipedia article describes the emergence of gangs, which employ collusive behavior to rob other players, among South Korean virtual-gamers.

This is one of the top ethical issues facing gamers and game designers in the 21st century: how much reality-- sociological, economic, and otherwise-- will we tolerate in our game worlds?

These "virtual worlds", some of which encourage realcommerce of game components, turn online role-playing games, literally, into a form of gambling. Input: time and money. Output: virtual capital, which can be sold on real markets. Elements of chance, skill, and strategy determine the success or failure of these investments, just as in any other gamble. The $150.00 battle axe might help a player vanquish bigger monsters and procure lucrative treasures... or it might be utterly destroyed in an unfortunate encounter with a Rust Monster.

I make no value judgment by invoking the word "gambling". For most participants, virtual economies are, in truth, harmless fun. All forms of recreation-- travel, sports, games, hobbies-- cost time and money, and on occasion pay off economically. Why should online role-playing games be different? Perhaps they shouldn't, but there will be debate. For example, should we prevent a 13-year-old RPG enthusiast from engaging in a virtual world out of the fear that he might be gambling, risking valuable time-- perhaps better-suited to education or social development-- in a premature chase for virtual and real power? Or should we regard this behavior as harmless play?

I don't have all the answers on these issues because, frankly, I don't know. Make no mistake, though: participation in a virtual economy is gambling, and we in the gaming and game design community need to recognize it as such. This doesn't mean it's wrong, doesn't mean it's bad, or anything of the sort. It does mean that these virtual economies have the potential to present some very real dangers.

"Game-like" economic transactions are heavily regulated, to ensure fairness. The use of shills in auction houses is illegal, as is collusion at the gambling table. Onlike poker websites employ sophisticated algorithms to detect collusive behavior. Those judged unfit to gamble (e.g. minors) are forbidden from entry in virtually all U.S. casinos. "Insider trading" on the U.S. stock market is a jailable offense. Virtual game worlds are not held to the same legal standards: they are controlled by a single company with nearly autocratic control of the game world, should they decide to use it. Many of these developers do self-police, to varying extent.

The ludologist's "magic circle", or the separation between a game world and "reality", with its gritty social and economic complexities, may be a relic of past millenia.

When I was eleven (1994) playing Magic "for ante" seemed so badass. Ah, the times...

Predictions:

2005: At least one major accusation of nepotism within a game world will be made before the courts; a person somehow linked to the developer is found to have been awarded favorable treatment that would have been judged unacceptable in a casino environment. Game developer's counter-argument: It's our world, we're free to do as we wish. Nasty, ugly legal case ensues. The debate may spill over, as well, into IP Law, especially as disenfranchised game-citizens begin constructing their own game-worlds with similarities to pre-existing ones.

2006: United States efforts-- federal and local-- to ban underage participation (18 or younger) in virtual economies, the argument being that this should qualify, legally, as gambing. Trading card games (e.g. Magic) that generate virtual economies may also be at risk of falling under this ban. Counter-argument: Low-stakes gambling (marbles "for keeps") is centuries-old among minors and mostly harmless. At the federal level, I expect the debate to cross-cut ideological and party lines: there will be bipartisan support, in the House and Senate, for both sides of the debate. If a US ban occurs, the European Union may follow suit.

2007: U.S. and international law schools begin offering courses in "Virtual Property (VP) Law", which will emerge as a lucrative subdiscipline.

2008 and beyond: Abstract issues of risk-- its inherent morality or immorality-- that are today considered peripheral and philosophical, will dominate political, economic, and social debate. Today's "Big Issues"-- unemployment, healthcare, environment, education-- will remain, but framed in a Risk Paradigm. Human behavior as observed within virtual worlds will be cited in policy decisions. Abstract risk debates, I predict, will cross-cut existing party and ideological lines.

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