In the world of MMORPGs, money is time. The spending power of every gold coin is directly related to how long it took to earn. Buy gold, and you’re able to bypass hours of grinding and arm yourself with desirable gear without the mindless farming. Lose gold, and you could be set back weeks or months of in-game effort.

So it’s easy to imagine my reaction when I learned my mumbling little brother had lost three months of his life.

***

I’m getting jealous of my little brother as I listen to Mom. I reach into the fridge, grab a piece of string cheese, close the door, lean against the island in the kitchen, open my snack and contemplate.

She neatly chops celery on the cutting board. “I know it sounds like a good idea, and that he would like it, but remember when you were in second grade and going to St. Joseph’s Grade School for the first time? You wanted the fancy pencils with all the basketball teams on them. You left with the entire league and came home with only the Seattle Supersonics. I don’t want that to happen to your brother. What would that be the equivalent of? Him leaving with a light saber and coming home with a rock tied to a stick?”

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Agreed. Getting Bill Guild Wars gold for his 12th birthday is a risky venture. I’m not sure where they came up with the idea, but my parents seem caught in the situation and have come to me with some questions. Is it cheating? Is it legal? Is it safe?

“Will it ruin everything?”

Leave it to my parents to take the Alexandrian approach to a Gordian knot. For a couple who can barely Wii bowl, they have educated themselves on gold farming, transaction practices and the legal consequences of playing with purchased gold. But they wanted me to tell them whether it would take the fun out of the game.

A thin strand of string cheese dangles from my mouth. “Think of it this way. If you get him this gift, it will let him play the game as if he has sat there for about 200 hours. It takes the boring part out and lets him jump right into the fray. Normally I’d say earn it yourself, but he’s busy with school and loves to play. I think it’s a great thing for him.”

Picking a supplier should be easy enough, though dear old Mom makes it complicated. With an open notebook and pen, she scrolls down the eBay listings taking down names and convincing herself every digital gold dealer is cracking a whip in a sweatshop crammed with oppressed Easterners. After three hours and several “Gold Farming” searches on Google, a young man listing himself as a college student trying to help pay for groceries wins her trust. She places her faith in his good-natured made-in-America demeanor and “Turquoise Star” seller rating. Dad comes into the computer room, double checks that the right card is charged, gazes out the window at the rusting basketball hoop, sips his can of Coca-Cola and tells me he wants me to go in place of Bill for the exchange.

Mom agrees. She thinks the deal may go sour and offers to drive the get-away dragon. Dad advises I carry a cleverly concealed magic wand. The deal goes down while Bill is still in school.

***

The birthday comes, and Bill’s eyes glow as Mom tells him about the gift. He stares off into the six-layered ice cream cake and doesn’t say a word. I know the look. The tumblers are falling into place as he performs mental gymnastics, calculating the new builds and gear available to him. He sticks the landing and the smile spreads ear to ear.

He says in a clear voice, the first time in months he hasn’t spoken down into his chest, “I can make a really cool Monk who can’t die and I can use him to farm for a few minutes a day and then I’ll be set and have more than enough left over. Thanks Mom, thanks Dad, this is the best.”

Mom utters her fallback line, picked up from an episode of Freakazoid years ago: “Sweetie, dear, you’re boring us again.”

The birthday boy composes himself and makes sure he enjoys the cake and company, though I notice his eyes drifting toward the computer room.

He logs onto his main, a warrior named Kraven the Badger, and spreads the good news. The guild sounds thrilled and starts combing the markets for the sigils and gear he needs to make his new character, an invincible monk who heals himself faster than baddies can kill him and reflects damage. The plan is to run solo for 15 or 20 minutes and reap the rewards. That’ll provide him with a steady gaming income and free up his online time for adventuring and guild warring.

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He gathers all he needs and, being an alt junky, loads up his healer alt, Funky Monkey. I am amazed as he types entire conversations in perfect grammar. Something seems odd though: Not a single person has asked for a handout. Over twenty names are flashing through the chat, all of them full of smiley emotes and advice. His mail-box is crammed with letters of congratulations, wishing him a happy birthday.

***

Three days later I get the phone call.

“It’s gone. Bill’s broke.”

Mom’s voice quavers, hitting a heart wrenching note between bewildered betrayal and righteous fury.

“They took it all. All of his friends, all those guild people you said were so nice, that he trusted and thought were good people. He was sulking around the house. I asked him how much he had left. He told me none. How does that happen? He lost it to people he trusted.”

She’s hurting for him. Not because his shiny new toy was stolen, but because he was had. By people who were more than friends: They were his comrades.

“Here’s your father”

Dad is livid. His voice doesn’t rise but carries intensity and paternal protection.

“Sorry Dad. There aren’t receipts for trades and exchanges, all we can do is file a complaint if he got conned …”

For the third time in my life, he interrupts me “That’s it, though! That’s what makes it more than his mistake. If he screwed up, I’d let him deal with it. But he wasn’t stupid, he was being nice.”

I was raised in a house of silver linings, so I grasp for the only one I can think of. “He still has his money-making monk, right? He can make it back.”

The phone is passed back to mom “I guess that got narc’d last night”

“You mean nerfed?”

She laughs for the first time, breaking the tension “It could be super-soaker’d for all I know. The game changed something and it won’t work anymore. We don’t want to corner him but we want to know what happened. Would you talk with him?”

“Yeah, but over AIM. I can’t understand him on the phone.”

“Thanks Brendan, I’ll let the mumbler know you’re online.”

I log in and send an instant message.

“Hey Bill, heard you had a rough run yesterday.”
“Yeah, Mom and Dad are really disappointed. And angry at the internet.”
It’s a delicate situation but I can’t resist. “Think they are going to write an angry letter to the internet?”
He sends a smiley emote. “It’s not that bad, they missed the point.”
“What do you mean?”
“I know I gave the gold away, I got the signets I wanted and gave the rest away.”
“… Really?”
“Yeah, nobody wanted to take the gold from me but I bought them gear they could use and made it a gift so they would accept it.”
“So you weren’t grifted?”
“Nope, gave it away.”

All this hubbub over nothing? That was his gift, for him to use, not to give away. “Why? That was yours to play with, you know, to enjoy.”

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Almost no pause. “I enjoyed using it. We’re able to do a lot more damage together now. Still not top of the pile but it helped.”
“So, I came on to console you and you wound up teaching me a lesson.”
“You’re the one who said that the problem with playing games these days is nobody remembers what ‘playing’ means: having fun with friends.”

And here I thought I was going to have to restore his faith in humanity when in one generous swoop he strengthened mine.

“/shoulder punch. You’re alright, kid, but if everything is OK with the money, why are Mom and Dad convinced you’re bummed?”

“I am. I found out that ‘kraven’ means cowardly. I just thought it sounded cool.”

Brendan Sears is a freelance writer and improv comedian living in the Quad Cities area (on the Illinois/Iowa border). Drop him a line at cardboardcolossus@gmail.com.

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