Dungeons & Dollars

Dungeons & Dollars
Touching Aimee's Panties

Mark Wallace | 30 Aug 2005 12:01
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As Eikenberry puts it, "They don't want to go to court and actually have a value assigned."

His argument makes sense. If that suit of Runescape armor is legally found to constitute a separate product of Jagex, the company behind the game, a host of messy legal questions immediately crop up. For instance, what if Jagex's armor doesn't work as advertised? Is Jagex liable for damages? Or would it be the player who sold the armor on eBay? An 8 percent sales tax on $167.50 is $13.40. Who pays that, the game company or the player? And what if the buyer, the seller and Jagex (a British company) are all in different countries? What authority would collect those taxes? And, to take it a step further (though not that big a step), if game gold is a recognized currency, what would be the anti-money-laundering reporting requirements when large "money" transfers were made? Already, the game companies' nightmare scenario has started playing out in China, where in 2003 the Beijing Chaoyang District People's Court ordered the maker of the game Hongyue (Red Moon) to return the equivalent of $1,200 in virtual loot, including virtual biochemical weapons, to a customer who went to court after the items were stolen by a hacker. The court found the game company responsible for the holes in its security that allowed the hacker in - even though what was stolen was ostensibly the sole property of the company and not the customer. The prospect of these kinds of cases seeing the inside of a courtroom must strike fear in the hearts of many game companies in the far more litigious United States.

So they try to scare you off. But for all the bannings and press releases, MMORPG companies don't seem to be able to convince most players that there's anything wrong with the trade in game items. Instead, they feed the fantasy that what you're dealing in is somehow "virtual," something of no consequence anyway, so why bother. Don't believe them. What you're dealing in will only become more and more real as more and more people start spending time in virtual worlds.

In economic terms, there's actually no difference between real currencies like the dollar, the pound and the yuan, and virtual coin like the platinum piece and the Linden dollar. The value of each is determined the same way: through a series of agreements (in the form of transactions) that, when taken together, give a rough idea of what the currency is worth. That's what economics tells us: a currency is a unit of exchange facilitating the transfer of goods and services. The only difference between the U.S. dollar and the Linden dollar is that many more people deal in greenbacks than in Lindens. But the fact that Lindens can be used to buy dollars is all the proof that's needed that this "imaginary" currency is worth something in the real world. Already, game companies are beginning to admit this to themselves. Sony Online Entertainment's new Station Exchange program supports "real-money trade," as it's called, on a number of EverQuest II servers. Games like Project Entropia explicitly recognize the value of in-world currency by allowing players to buy it with a credit card, not just on eBay but within the game itself. Linden Lab is even considering hiring a virtual Federal Reserve board to manage Second Life's economy. Game currency not real? I don't think so.

Which brings us back to Aimee's underpants. They sell so well these days that Aimee, a 20-something web designer at an art services company, is toying with the idea of converting her virtual fashion line into one you could wear on your physical body. Others are taking similar cues from Second Life. A British trendspotting firm recently assigned someone to mine SL for commercial ideas, and a big North American bank is setting up a program to teach teenagers about money management in a dedicated region of SL's world. Sure, there are plenty of in-world items being bought and sold by SL's residents every day (almost $1.5 million worth in a typical month, according to Ondrejka). But where commerce is concerned - virtual or not - much more is going on than just fashion boutiques and land deals.

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