Thursday, December 01, 2005

NPR Covers "Mining" and Other MMORPG Economic Practices

If you want a perfect example of how useful a well developed journalism career can help a journalist stumble through unfamiliar territory and still come up with an entertaining and informative story, you need look no further than this piece by Robert Siegel for NPR's All Things Considered.

NPR is no novice when it comes to writing stories about the virtual economy and its inter-relationship with the real economy (having been writing about it since as early in 2003, at that time it was about Everquest), but this interview and accompanying article are a great primer for the parent wondering why their kid wants you to purchase a bidpay moneyorder or find out your paypal password.

Robert Holt, an NPR Manager and avid MMORPG player, helps guide and describes the phenomenon (along with Siegel) in language that even the those with only a minimum understanding of what a Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game is, and that knowledge need only be that their child wants to play World of Warcraft for this piece to be informative. Holt doesn't merely describe the phenomenon though, and neither does the NPR piece for that matter, he also discusses his opinions about the morality of Gold Farming and Power Leveling. To quote:

In my opinion, there are many reasons why you shouldn't buy items or power-leveled characters.

• It destroys the economy of the game. In the game, unlike in the real world, all users start on a level playing field. I like that. There should be no advantage to you in the game if you're rich in real life. This may be idealistic, but I play games to get away from things like this. It also causes items that are being auctioned to become over-valued because large amounts of gold are easily purchased. This puts the purchase of powerful items out of the reach of the player that doesn't purchase gold using real money.

• Sure, it's great to be all-powerful, or "uber" in game parlance. But at what cost? I consider it cheating to buy your way in to an uber character. In order to be truly "uber," you need to earn it. Besides, it takes a lot of skill to use a high-level character's abilities to their fullest, so an inexperienced player that has purchased a high-level character will very often lose a battle or die because they don't have the experience of all that playing time.

• For me, the point of playing these games is not to win -- it's to be immersed in the worlds, and to interact with fellow players. You miss out on truly experiencing the world if you don't earn your items and character abilities.

I find two things interesting. First, I agree with his first and third points and these same opinions are why I play the way I do. But second, and equally important, is that all his opinions are rooted in how the game "ought" to be played. They are moral, or since this is a game possibly aesthetic, opinions as to what makes the best game. For some merely being "uber" is what they game is about, even if they are "pwnt" by a more experienced player who isn't a "n00b" in disguise. As to the phenomenon destroying the economy of the game, this was certainly true of Ultima and Everquest, Blizzard's "soul bonding" mechanic addresses some of this phenomenon but the fact is that many of the farming activities in World of Warcraft (fishing, hunting/skinning, cooking, mining, etc.) are fun minigames in themselves. In the case of fishing there is no reward save the items you receive in the gaming (i.e. no level gain) and you might as well make profit off it. Though whether that "profit" should exist solely in the virtual world and not in the real world is up for discussion.

I think what baffles people about the phenomenon is that what is being purchased isn't a real and physical thing. The object purchased (or Power Levels acquired) are temporary and non-tangible with no real world application. People sometimes have a hard time understanding why these things have any value. Not ironically, Locke's section on Property in his Second Treatise actually answers this question for us. These things have value because of the labor put into them. More specifically, they have value because of the labor one must put into acquiring them. For some, the exchange of real world time vs. virtual time is very costly. Their real world jobs take a lot of time and are worth a lot of money, but they want to get "as much" development as they can in the limited amount of time they have. Couple this with people who have lots of time that isn't worth as much money, and you have a marketplace. Sure the items are virtual, but so too (technically) is money and the economy is better for money being virtual. Trade is more fluid when currency is floating, even the Spartans understood that the medium to process trade (money) should not have any intrinsic value. Otherwise it should be put to the use for which it has value.

All these things said, I have never purchased levels or items because I like to experience the world I am adventuring in. Whether it is City of Heroes or World of Warcraft, I find myself plugging along leveling at a slow and steady pace all the while examining all the nooks and crannies the worlds have to offer. I am having a blast. It's like reading one chapter a book a night, but reading it very carefully. Funny thing is, sometime I encounter a "n00b" who has one 40+ level character who has just started a new "alt" and thinks he can "pwn" me. All these "suxxors" are good for is giving me reputation. My character may be low level, but his "user" (to use an old Tron term) is "l33t" and patient. As the saying goes, "youth may be stronger, but age is crafty."
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