Books, culture, fishing, and other games

September 12, 2003

On the "Moral Repugnancy" of External Markets for Virtual Goods

Julian Dibbell (Play Money), whom I mentioned below, brought up the issue of the ethics of selling virtual world goods for real world (out of the "proper" virtual world) money. He recently starred in an NPR segment on his project to file his 2004 income tax return with his primary source of revenue coming from his trading of virtual goods. There the majority of his callers found his actions reprehensible, and he himself admits to mixed feelings on the ethics of the activity. I shared this distaste for many years, decades even. But I have a distaste for cleaning my gutters too, and I do that. For that matter I'm not crazy about having to work for a living.

But more seriously, those who don't game may not understand the dilemma the less ethically challenged face. Playing role-playing games (most especially, but it applies to some degree to other games too) has traditionally been about the journey, not the destination. One starts with a weak, sort of come-of-age, character, and through dealing with hardships, challenges, and flat out battles, leads him or her ("her" hereafter, because I play mostly female characters these days, it's more challenging role-play) through a process of maturation and development of real skills in her chosen field. Eventually she ends up a super hero in powers, able to handle all but the most advanced and deadliest circumstances with little effort. To a true role-player, the goal is not that state, it's the process of "being" the character, of becoming so involved that you just twitch the way the character you've created would, not the way you normally would. If you're a guy playing a girl, you act like a real girl (within the cultural millieu of the game) would, not the way an adolescent boy enduring an excess of testosterone wishes she would. If you're a guy playing a coward, when faced with danger you do a Monty Python, you run away, you don't whip out a six-foot greatsword and go to town slicing and dicing.

This is not the way the majority of those who play these games play. Even so, the idea, the meme of the role-played character or game, endures subliminally within the community. A larger proportion of players than actually ascribes to hardcore ideas of roleplay acknowledges the concept and its ideal. This group clashes with another, the mostly later generation, or the less geekly, who came up playing shooters they call role-playing games, such as Diablo. (To a purist, calling Diablo a role-playing game is like suggesting Ripple is wine to a connoisseur.) To them the object is to be bigger and badder than all the other guys. It is this latter group that drives the out-of-game markets for in-game goods, I believe. That's not to say that some role-players don't participate. We do. But we do it with knee-jerk reservations that we have to overcome first, we don't gleefully dive into a wheeler-dealer free market in virtual goods that we see as a bit tawdry.

With that as context, I've examined my own thinking on the subject. Considering such trade tawdry is, in fact, a bit absurd. The logic is missing. If, and it's a big if, everyone agreed that the driving idea of these games is to start weak and grow strong, and the process is the object, the logic that buying your way ahead is improper would make sense. But is this idea what is roleplay?

The market has long decided it is not. I don't mean the market of virtual goods; that has simply confirmed it; I mean the market for these games themselves. Dungeons & Dragons, the granddaddy of the genre, eventually worked in schemes that allowed players to begin with more developed characters. Later, at conventions and such, pickup sessions were arranged with pre-created characters of levels of power far beyond anything that could be considered starter. This progressed to where in other games, such as Warhammer Roleplay, characters can be created that have "pre-endured" through multiple prior careers, all through a roll of dice (as in Traveller) or through specific player choices. They thus have a broad range of useful skills, though they normally start the game as characters just starting off in a new career. Other games, such as Ars Magica and Vampire start the player with a powerful character. The former, especially, focuses very strongly on "storytelling," character development in the literary sense as opposed to character development in the power sense. Thus we can see the paradigm has shifted away from the original meme. Role-play is more about acting, character development in a literary sense where a character is made more real, with flaws and strengths, rather than in the cardboard power sense where the character has all super-hero strengths. This undercuts the moral argument against an external market even among the roleplayers because many games give them no mechanism to start off with the character they envision.

For example, say Bob, who loves playing bards, wants to play a great bard from a far country, well-known there, but a nobody in the present land. In most games before he can reasonably present himself as a great bard he must find a way to "grind" out levels and levels of experience so that he has a skill set that can impress people (in game and out). If he pretends to be a great bard with a typical starting bard character, he will lack the funds to even set himself up with proper equipment and clothing. He will be more of a clown, pretending to be a great bard, than what he wishes to roleplay. An external market, and a bit of real world dollars, allows him to buy what he needs, perhaps even a developed bard character.

What he is buying is someone else's time. He wants to play a specific sort of character that he can't get within the normal game mechanics without a large investment of time. He also has to wait while it develops before he can go into his role. As a serious roleplayer, this means he either becomes known as a developing bard, which ruins his backstory, or he goes off somewhere alone, plays mostly solo and in secret, to develop the character, then "comes out" when he's ready. I've done this. It's tedious.

One could argue that the games themselves should allow this. I agree, but there are major issues revolving around them being games and balancing effort and reward on a character (as opposed to player) basis. Would there be any weaklings otherwise? In a game played purely by roleplayers there would, but in a game dominated by the ex-Diablo group the weaklings will be rarities. They might not be proportionately represented even on a roleplaying server. Few of us aspire to be weaklings, even in a fantasy context.

Ideally a game population should be a cross-section of society. Practically, as games mature, that is difficult to maintain. The low-level content is bypassed. This may make the developers unhappy from an artistic point of view, but they shouldn't let their ideal overwhelme the reality of what their customr base seeks. They could give them all superheros to start, but if veryone is a superhero, is anyone a superhero? It's better to let the market sort out issues of status. And status is always a slippery thing. Some come to it the "proper" way, through their own effort, others clamber up the shoulders of others, sometimes by chaining those others into place first. Allowing, even encouraging, a real market in virtual goods and avatars, gives players more choices in how they choose to play without directly affecting the game world's internal balance. Buying something "outside" that is actually inside that "vworld" (I'm going to coin a word here, it's easier) doesn't create any wealth or property inside the vworld; it simply moves it from one player's control to another. In a strict, roleplay sense, one character gives another something for inexplicable (or unknown to others) reasons. This happens often in real life; we don't explain every apparently unreasonable transaction to others.

This jump-starting is no different from the way our society deals with other leisure activities. If we look at other sports and hobbies, our free market has long decided that it's worth money to buy instant (or more instant) effects when it comes to fun time. An example of a sport in which this controversy also exists, to some degree, is fly fishing. That too is an art driven by purism. Fly fishing, compared to most other forms of fishing, stacks the odds against the fisherman and in favor of the fish. The traditional meme of fly fishing involves communing with nature more than catching fish. The great literature of fly fishing is as much literary as goal-driven. What it teaches and exemplifies is a state of mind, more than a how-to guide on catching more fish using flies. But as the sport became "modern," especially in the last two decades, the how-to aspect moved in. Scientific studies on the reactions and habits of fish, on the insects and other fauna they eat, and on the presentation of flies began to dominate the books published. Many of these maintained high standards of writing, and certainly of information, but there has been a shift away from the success of the experience per se to the success of the experience as in "I caught a boatload of fish and most were hogs."

This is the effect of technology on sports. As the technology gets better, more people with fewer skills can "succeed" without paying the usual, and historical, price in pain and practice. One could argue that fishing guides are morally repugnant because they make the fishing too easy. It should be hard. But that's simple hardcore purism, not practical market theory.

People want to do what they want to do; they don't want to spend years, or a lifetime, to reach the point where they can do what they want to do. If there's a shortcut, and it's not flat out illegal, most of us will pounce on it. Some will even if it's illegal. The smart businessman finds a way to help people get what they want easier than they otherwise could. For most, it's easier to earn a few hundred, or a few thousand, dollars working their day-to-day job, than spend ten times that amount of time developing in game what they can buy for those real world dollars. Or they can spend it to pay a fishing guide who puts them onto fish and may even helps them hook the fish, rather than spending months, years, or a lifetime learning the fish, the water, the area, the weather, and the innumerable variables that a studied fisherman knows almost subconsciously (but not quite) from years of steady fishing.

Yes, to a degree seeing these "sports" (as the clients of fishing guides are called) annoys the purist who did earn the skill the traditional way. It always will. It's the conflict between the dilettante and the amateur (in the traditional sense of "for love") and the professional. The first wants the experience without the normal price. He may pay a different price willingly, even gladly. The second wants the experience, and the pride of earning the skill with sweat, tears and maybe even blood. The third wants to profit from the experience, so is willing to invest sweat, tears, and maybe blood for the eventual payoff in something other than the experience. All three classes of sports, or players, make up a community. Attempts to limit a player base, or a sport base, to just one class will, in the long run, destroy the game, or the sport, as a working market. As such, it will doom it to failure.

I've come around to thinking that online massively multi-player games should encourage out-of-game trading. They should, in fact, find a way to profit further from it. This will lead to better profits for them, which in turn means more money to invest in making games better. Ignoring the potential income of such activity, and not seeing the players who make a bit of money from it themselves, as a benefit to other players is flat silly. If it weren't a real benefit, why would people actually pay "real" money for the service?

Greed and selfishness are human traits that cannot be eliminated, but they can be channeled. The free market is one of the best ways we've found to channel those less-than savory drives. Use it, or lose it. Someone else will come along who will find a way to use it better, and you will fade into history.

Julian cites an article by Raph Koster on this topic with regards to Ultima Online. He makes similar points. He's a developer of that game, so his thinking is especially interesting from that perspective.

A note on the sex of players of these games: Though these are mostly guy games, girls are more apt to play real role-play games online in my experience. They tend to dislike the combat aspect, and prefer the social aspect and crafting, on the whole. But the opportunity for real roleplay is there and many of the larger games have offered, or players have created ad hoc, servers more focused on roleplay. It's hard to get a real picture of what sex the players are without attending conventions and actually meeting the players, though. Role-play often extends beyond the game in these groups, so someone may present himself as female outside the game world too, when he is not. For the record, I avoid that, though I don't always tell people the person behind the character is a guy. Sometimes I just say nothing. Since we are characters within a defined world, players are "OOC" and really don't pertain, in any case. But I'm not the hard-core purist. If they ask, and they are someone I interact with regularly, I tell them.

Posted by dan at September 12, 2003 12:29 PM | TrackBack
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