The Industrialization of Play

To the real world, Julian Dibbell is a contributing editor for Wired, with other work appearing in New York magazine, Feed and Topic. To the hardcore MMOG player, though, Julian is one of Them: a gold farmer, someone who plays an online game for hours upon hours only to sell the loot he picks up for real-world money. He documented his farming experiences on his website, and then wrote a book about it called Play Money: Or How I Quit My Day Job And Made Millions Trading Virtual Loot. I sat down with Dibbell to get an idea of what the MMOG industry’s Devil would say about his book, farming and the industry in general, given an open mic.

I ask him how the book has been received. Surprisingly, he says reviews have been positive. More than anything, he seems bemused by the occasional blast of negative attention paid to the industry he worked in and documented. “I’m certainly aware that RMT [real money trade] and people who actively engage in it are hated by a significant faction … of gamers and game developers,” he says. “I quote Mark Jacobs standing up at E3 in 2003 and saying that he hates the RMT market with ‘every bone in his body.’ So, there you go. The curious thing to me is that, even as the blog was unfolding, and since the book has been out, I have not heard any direct evidence of anybody personally hating what I was doing, other than as a representative of the business.”

While he’s quick to point out that he worked as a broker and didn’t actually do the gold farming himself, he’s also acutely aware of how much his fellow players dislike what he does. “I have an assignment from the New York Times Magazine to write about the Chinese gold farms. And I went to a few of them, and I actually pulled a shift at a leveling shop. And, you know, not a half hour into my shift playing as some European player’s gnome mage, I was spat upon,” via the game’s emote system, “by one of my fellow players.”

He says it was different during the time he was writing the book. “For one thing, I was working in Ultima Online, which has a different culture about this stuff, right? The gold, the RMT market has been tolerated there from the get-go. It was even kind of encouraged in the beginning. … For another thing, you know, it just kind of rolls off my back, to the extent that people do single us out for opprobrium.” Indeed, he seems like a very laid-back, affable guy that just happened to indulge in a trade that gets the MMOG industry spitting mad.

He describes the arguments against the RMT industry as “often very crude. … They’re along the lines of, ‘Hey, I worked my way up to level 60, and then daddy’s little rich kid comes along and bought his way up to level 60, and that takes away the meaning of my achievement.’ … How does it take away the meaning of your achievement? It doesn’t affect your ability to accomplish things in the game. Second of all, let’s look at the metrics by which you’re measuring achievement. Everyone knows that 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. If someone has the will to do that, or the time to do that, more power to them. If somebody has the commitment to the game to plunk down $800 or $1,000, that’s a kind of crazed obsession, too. I’m perfectly willing to honor either way of measuring [that].

“And furthermore, it’s such a limiting view of the complexity and open-endedness of these games to say that it’s all about getting to level 60 or Warlord or whatever you get to before the other guy does. There’s so many ways to play these games and so many reasons to play these games that if you think that’s what the game is entirely about, that’s fine, but that doesn’t define it for everybody else who’s involved.”

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As for the notion that allowing RMT only encourages gold farming, which ultimately inflates the economy because farmers play all day, he says it’s “a more compelling argument, but it’s not a particularly airtight one. … The problem is, catassing [repetitive play, usually at the expense of personal hygiene] … exists independently of gold farming.” That is, regular people spend all day playing the game anyway, so what’s wrong with farmers doing it, too? “You always have those outlying players that, because they have inhuman or superhuman abilities to sit there and waste their lives on [games], will [cause problems like that].”

Speaking of the players, I asked him what his thoughts were on the buyers, what motivated them to get involved in buying items and gold. The usual argument is “players are lazy,” while there’s another school of thought that sees a flaw in the game design itself. He opted for neither. “On the one hand, I don’t think it’s a matter of players just being lazy. I think it’s a matter of there being lots of ways to play the game. And for some people, there are great rewards in doing it themselves and pounding away at the grind. For others, the rewards lie elsewhere. They like keeping up with their guildmates and so forth. And, you know, just because they don’t want to play the grind sub-game doesn’t mean that they’re lazy. And just because some people hate the grind doesn’t mean that it’s a bad, stupid thing for developers to put in there, in the core of the game.”

For developers looking to stop RMT, he uses one example he’s gotten from the farmers themselves, such as “completely anonymous trades. [Make] the auction house the only way to trade, and [make it] completely anonymous, so there’s no mapping an eBay buyer onto an in-game player,” though he acknowledges that would be “breaking the socialization effect of the economy.” As for stopping gold farming itself, he points to a suggestion made by a farmer on Terra Nova: “You just make a map of the conceivable normal human player’s ability to acquire gold in the game, and there’s going to be a bell curve.” You can use that curve to determine the maximum amount of money any normal player could reasonably have and make that a hard asset cap. He does acknowledge that “you’ll piss off maybe one or two power players who get caught in that, but other than that, you just shut it off. Now, obviously, they’ll eventually find a way back around it … by splitting up bots and things, but that’s going to throw a monkey wrench in their works. For a while.”

That was one thing that really stuck out for me in the book. The gold farmers and merchandisers were absolutely relentless, poking at a game system for hours and hours on end looking at the most obscure mechanics, toiling away until they finally found an angle to work. “Yeah. I don’t want to piss off the anti-RMT faction any more, but in some ways, that to me makes [farmers] the ultimate power players. And, certainly, some of the guys I talked to,” he cites one farmer who had “a perfectly fine day job as a programmer for Microsoft, that was his big motivation. He really was like a player, and his play happened to net him $80,000 in fiscal year 2003.”

Even in the heart of gold farming country, the sweatshops in China where workers are paid to acquire gold, he was surprised. “I really expected that this really is the far limit of the industrialization of play, this gold-farming stuff in China.” He assumed the business would be “a racket run by middle-aged businessmen who have figured out an angle because their textile export business failed.” However, he says that was not the case. “In fact, everybody from the owners down to the players were gamers who, A, had to know about games and love games in order to be able to figure out how this whole thing worked; and, B, just still kind of got a kick out of the whole thing, out of being this close to the game and really struggling to figure out how to maximize their profits. … It certainly is surprising to find out how much closer to the average gamer in outlook these people are than the average gold farmer hater would expect.”

I muse out loud that they’re the kind of people who would probably be playing the game for eight to 10 hours a day anyway. “Not only would they, but they do,” he says. “That was the hilarious punch line of this story.” After his 12 hours of leveling work, he asked his coworkers what they did with the little free time they had. “About half of them went downstairs to the internet caf

Once the money and the workers arrive, the men in nice suits are soon to follow. Every now and then, there’s a rustling as the IRS begins poking around this new business sector. I asked him whether the government would ever start taxing virtual goods. “I think if they know what’s good for them, they’ll poke around and go away again, at least for a few years,” he said, though that doesn’t mean they couldn’t start taxing items. “It’s literally the case, as I relate in the book and elsewhere, that if you apply tax codes on barter and game winnings to the virtual economy, that every piece of loot that is created or dropped in any game is a taxable event.”

That said, he suspects the IRS won’t go after in-game assets, “if history is any guide.” He uses the story of Mark McGwire’s record-breaking home run ball as an example. A reporter called the IRS and asked if the fan that caught it would owe taxes for acquiring a million-dollar asset. “The IRS guy said no, that’s technically called a windfall, and there’s no taxes on that … but then pointed out that if the fan had done the right thing and given the ball back to Mark McGwire, he would’ve immediately be liable for a gift tax of $100,000.” They “trotted out some fig leaf legal explanation for why they wouldn’t. But in fact, they could, legally.” In the McGwire case, he says, “they saw the political writing on the wall and said it’s not worth it. … And I think they’re probably astute enough to say there’s just not enough revenue here to make it worth our trouble, but once they start looking at things like Second Life, and as things like Second Life start to [move more money around], it’s going to be a different story, I think.”

Since it’s been some time since his adventures in the RMT trade, I ask him if there was anything he took away from it, if it was something he enjoyed and looked back on fondly, or if it was just some crazy thing he did. “Well, it’s definitely a crazy thing I did,” he says, and he won’t be returning to the trade. “Not because it’s a soul-sucking horrible thing to do, but I’m not a businessman, and that’s a business. And I’m not even primarily a gamer. I think I’ve earned my chops in that regard, but I’m just more fascinated by the ways that cultures and economies and societies that are springing up in and around these incredibly complex games work. That’s what drew me to it. And [that’s] what has me stuck to it still.”

If you have a problem, if no one else can help, and if you can find him, maybe you can hire Shannon Drake.

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