Op-Ed

Op-Ed
On Behalf of the Chair Kickers

Joe Blancato | 5 Jun 2007 18:00
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It's kind of like, if someone pays for a ticket to go see a movie, and if someone else comes in behind them and kicks their seat, you can get them to stop doing that. We're just trying to get IGE to stop kicking the seats. - Richard Newsome, Representing the Plaintiff in Hernandez v. IGE

Earlier this week, Antonio Hernandez and his attorney, Richard Newsome, filed a class-action lawsuit against real-money trading (RMT) firm IGE on your behalf. They claim that if you're playing World of Warcraft, you're being harmed by IGE's business, which is to buy in-game gold from "farmers" in third-world countries and resell it to rich Westerners like you or me at a markup. Hernandez and Newsome, and 8 million other prospective plaintiffs, say IGE made a "calculated decision to reap substantial profits by knowingly interfering with and substantially impairing the intended use and enjoyment associated with consumer agreements between Blizzard Entertainment and subscribers to its virtual world called World of Warcraft." In layman's terms, they say IGE's farmers - who are monopolizing certain locations and monsters in-game in order to maximize the amount of gold they're able to acquire -- are limiting your enjoyment because you can't kill what they're already killing.

The idea that your gameplay experience could be impugned by anyone in WoW borders on the absurd. Other than City of Heroes and a few other niche games, WoW is the most heavily-instanced MMOG out there. And the higher you go in level, the more time you spend inside zones created on the fly just for you and your closest friends. Just about any foozle you want to whack can exist only for you, any time you want. Even in outdoor, public zones, monsters respawn quickly, provided you even want to bother with them on your way to Molten Core. To say IGE is getting in your way to the point that it requires legal counsel causes me to wonder if this is less about the consumer not getting the experience he wants, and more a case of traditional gold farmers unable to compete with an online version of Wal-Mart.

Let's take a walk back to the '90s, before RMT giants like IGE existed. Back then, a man could turn a decent profit by selling his digital wares on eBay. In fact, people made hundreds of thousands of dollars moving Ultima Online gold and real estate. For a time, a piece of UO gold traded against the dollar better than the Vietnamese dong. It wasn't the first time people made money off a virtual world, but it was the first time it happened on such a huge scale. This was the future, and it was here, right in front of people who discovered their time was worth a lot of some people's money.

I was one of those who made this discovery. I cleaned up. I was a high school kid who couldn't be bothered to do his homework, but I still managed to leverage my Economics lessons. I figured out there was a finite supply of something in UO: time. Everything you did in-game, whether it was drinking fake ale or killing dragons, required you to spend time doing it. Luckily, since I was a kid with no job, I was time rich. It only made sense to use my time wealth to exploit someone else's time poverty.

When I finally gave up on UO, I left with enough cash to put together a computer powerful enough to play EverQuest. Not a bad haul, just for quitting a game. EQ was an even bigger goldmine; since it was item-centric and relied on people grinding their way up an arbitrary ladder, my loot commanded an even greater premium. By the time I quit EQ, I'd probably raked in a few thousand bucks, about what I'd have made at a summer job, and I got to play the game the way I liked to play.

I farmed, both for money and experience, but so did everyone else, whether or not they were trying to monetize their time. MMOGs are, at their core, endurance contests. As Julian Dibbell told The Escapist, "MMOGs are tests of your ability to sit on your ass in a chair for a week, or whatever it takes to get to level 60." This is true and has been since UO and the MUDs that preceded it. The current generation of games isn't much better. Everyone who's played WoW beyond the newbie levels has farmed something for either experience or gold. Want that mount by level 40? Put on a pot of coffee, Susan, because you're in for a long-ass night.

It's just not feasible to achieve hardcore gamers' goals in WoW without repetitive gaming, to the point that if you identify as a hardcore gamer, you're probably a farmer, too. I'm sure Molten Core is a great instance, but after the 30th run, that glazed expression you're wearing is very familiar to an RMT farmer's an hour before quitting time. And that, I think, is why the people who take their time to become part of a gaming community are so vocal about farming. They run into farmers more than casual players because they're trying to farm, too, only they call it "grinding," a simple change in nomenclature that's enough to create a gaming Red Scare.

Consider the two sides of this coin: One the one hand, you have the typical endgame player clad in armor that drops 0.01 percent of the time, which meant he spent hours and hours sitting in a chair, pushing a button, doing one single thing over and over again in the hope the right shiny thing would drop. Moreover, since he's probably in a "hardcore" guild, he has had to do the same thing many other nights in a row without hope of a reward of any kind. This time investment serves the function of status: You know just how "hardcore" a player is by the baubles he carries, and the hardcore set competes over loot status the way the rich sneer at those who drive a BMW instead of a Bentley. Versace sword? So last year, darling!

Contrast with the farmer, who runs around in cheap gear, killing monsters, gathering herbs and mining. On the one hand, there's the traditional human conflict: Competition over scarce resources that have value, monetary for the farmer, status or game money for the high-end player. Not only are the plebes taking the player's monsters, herbs and ore, they're cashing in on what, in the hardcore player's mind, he rightfully deserves.

Worst of all, the farmer overthrows one of the cherished conventions of MMOGs and their players: The pseudo-meritocracy, based on butt-sitting ability, is turned on its head. Now whoever wants to shell out the money can buy a mount, which devalues mounts both in an economic sense and as a status symbol. When Ford bought Jaguar, Jaguar lost much of its cachet. When IGE lets anyone with $50 buy a mount, mounts lose their cachet, and making matters worse, the foreigners selling them are them, the other, another race and class in the real-world sense, not just the MMOG one. It's easy to picture, and jingoists latched onto the "Chinese gold farmer" the same way the ones that came before did southern European immigrants in the 1800s.

Throw RMT out the window. Throw intellectual property philosophy out. (While you're at it, toss click-through ToSes out, too. Another court case recently declared them non-binding.) That's what Mr. Newsome is doing. He's only concerned about a firm like IGE getting in the way of others' fun. Breaking down what they do - organize a group of players to pool up large sums of money - you have to ask what the difference is between IGE and a large guild who wants to work toward getting all its low-level members really expensive gear. Both are inflationary, both require extensive farming. But IGE are the bad guys because they dare to look at a bottom line other than who's more "1337"; they embrace that age-old notion that time is money, no matter how much people try to convince themselves otherwise.

And so, class-action lawsuits against the people who brought the Chinese farmer to our front door are born. The jingoists will get their say in court, and that's OK; that's why the courts are there. But if it's Mr. Newsome's opinion that farmers really are disruptive to WoW-players at large, he may want to consider expanding the scope of his lawsuit to the people he's representing.

WoW has 8 million subscribers. Roughly 15 percent of gamers fall into the hardcore demographic. Let's be conservative and say half of that 15 percent ground their way up to level 70 by repetitive questing, running instances ad nauseum, farming gold to buy gear and/or farming monsters to get rare drops. Let's say half of that number, 600,000 people, are just as disruptive to the remaining 7.4 million people - not to mention each other - playing the game. Who's really the problem, here? To the casual gamer, the one who pays just as much as the hardcore instance-runner, there's little difference between the naked Rogue killing his quest monsters and the guy in Tier 3 epic loot doing the same thing.

Perhaps we could examine what the real problem is: the way MMOGs are designed. With rare exception, MMOGs have been crafted to force the player to invest an inordinate amount of time to reach the fun parts. This is an attractive approach for two reasons: 1) By forcing people to spend more time in your world, it actually feels, you know, like a teeming mass of humanity interacting on numerous levels to achieve something, and 2) forcing people to spend more time in your world, plodding through a long, arduous grind with other people breaks down their individuality and increases the chance they'll be addicted, not only to the Skinner-esque random reward system, but to the friends with whom they've suffered.

Suddenly, people are worried about leaving not only all the stuff they've worked so hard to attain, they're worried about leaving people as psychologically affected as they are. And they can't stand the people who don't buy into the mentality that their hard work and time investment are equal to another player's willingness to pay to get around the work. Now, people can make objective choices about how they spend their time, and whether or not the fun parts at the end are really all that fun. And that's where RMT may actually affect someone's gameplay: Eliminate the sunk cost psychology, and the gold at the end of the rainbow loses its luster.

***

Joe Blancato is an Associate Editor for The Escapist. He quotes Wayne's World and Dr. Strangelove too much. But someday, it will be funny. Oh yes, it will be funny.

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