Virtual dollars, real economics
(or, "Do you think that's money you're spending now?")

--by Bruce Rolston

"What is real? How do you define real? If you're talking about what you can feel, what you can smell, what you can taste and see...then real is simply ... electrical signals interpreted by your brain."

--Morpheus to Neo, in The Matrix

Imagine you could drop your real life today, and just keep one of your virtual ones. If you were making money playing your favourite elf-ranger alter-ego in Everquest, or The Sims Online -- enough money to live on, say -- what would it take to tear you away? And as the worlds inside our computers get even more beautiful, realistic, and magical, how much stronger is that temptation going to get? Put it another way: if that virtual world you visit now was a real one, would you emigrate? Economist Edward Castronova thinks you just might.

The California professor-gamer’s thought-provoking study Everquest character economics is raising new questions about how seriously some people are taking their games. "Virtual Worlds: A First-Hand Account of Market and Society on the Cyberian Frontier," one of the most talked-about economics papers of the last year, has sparked debate not only among gamers like himself, but in professional economists' circles as well. It's caused a lot of people to re-evaluate what exactly's going on when you log on to slay dragons.


In "Virtual Worlds" Castronova describes the behaviour of his fellow players in Norrath, the virtual world of Everquest. Like the other massively-multiplayer titles, Everquest offers a persistent world. You can log in and log off as you wish, but the sun rises and sets without you. There is no winning or losing in massively-multiplayer games. You can raise your skills and so unlock new adventures you'd otherwise be too feeble to experience, but the choice is up to you: you can just walk around and do nothing, too. The world, Norrath, is exceedingly large... if you need to cross it, it takes as long as your character takes to run, or otherwise magically cross the distance. If your character acquires something, you keep it, even after you log off, until you sell it or throw it away: each time you come back you come back with the same possessions and status and in the same “place” you left off. In a way, it’s almost like your elf or gnome fell asleep in Norrath, and dreamed they lived on earth, working or going to school in Maine or Wyoming, until they woke in Norrath again.

The realism of these worlds grows with each new game and expansion pack, as game companies push the video graphics envelope. The feeling of reality, of occupying another body in another place, when one logs in, is becoming harder and harder to escape. That illusion aided by sharing the fantasy with thousands of other human interactors, also occupying their own replacement bodies, and capable of a pretty wide range of typically unpredictable human behaviour. It may be the closest thing our society has yet to cyberpunk William Gibson's future vision of humans "jacking in" to "consensual hallucinations." You can dismiss it as pixels and bits if you want, but in many respects these are the first, functioning, visitable alternate universes: human intelligences, human souls, inhabiting virtual bodies in a computer-generated world.

On this earth, Castronova’s an economist, In Everquest, he found himself focussing on the buying and selling of goods all around him, the players exchanging virtual goods with each other, for virtual money. The business world of Norrath, he realized, was thriving... he felt, he says, like an economist who parachuted into a jungle enclave and found a fully-fledged monetary system none of his academic colleagues had heard about yet.

"There's a standard set of reactions when I bring this up with my colleagues," he says. "First they light up with a big smile: 'Hey, it's the guy who talks about video games.'... but after about eight minutes, they start to scrunch up their faces. By the end, they're usually looking at the floor. All of a sudden, they see the future... this [Everquest] isn't just a game. This is A PLACE."

Norrath, he realized, had tremendous potential for proving some basic economics theories. If the way humans interacted in as unusual a place as Norrath were similar to what they did in the real world, that could mean those behaviours were universal, and would reproduce themselves wherever people got together. For instance, because players can choose the appearance of their avatar (man, woman, short, tall), he saw the possibility that the game itself could be used to study the impact of gender and beauty on one's economic fortune.

But when he started his research with an online survey of Everquest players, he found himself startled by the results. The average Everquest player, he found, was a well-educated American single man, earning about $20 an hour with a full time job (although a large number were students). The average serious player, though, was spending six hours A DAY in the game. A full quarter of the dedicated adult players were spending more hours killing monsters and earning Everquest money than they were working and making real money. And, more remarkably, 40 per cent of players surveyed said that, if there was a way they could earn a living wage regardless, they'd quit their jobs and play Everquest ALL DAY.

Then Castronova looked at the then-thriving internet market for high-level characters and items, on EBay and other auction sites (characters at the time were selling in the $500-$1,000 range). He calculated in-game goods were being traded for real-world money at a rate of about $5 million a year. Castronova did the math, and came up with a startling conclusion... the average high-level player at the time was actually increasing her personal wealth, by about $3.42 an hour. A player playing 80 hours a week and selling their work could be making $12,000 a year doing it, he figured. You might not be able to live well by being a full-time Everquest player, but you might not exactly starve, either.

There’s evidence a small number of players may even be doing this already. Mythic Entertainment programmer Scott Jennings recalls interviewing a "placer" from the game Ultima Online. "His job was to place houses in UO. That was it. It's how he made his living. He made a website glorifying his prowess in "placing" -- which basically meant sitting around waiting for someone's house to decay and slapping a new one in its place immediately. So you basically have someone who was making quite a comfortable living for themselves out of UO."

Players aren’t supposed to make money off of gaming, of course. Nearly all game companies get players to agree not to sell their characters or possessions in the real world. But what if these aren't rights one can just sign away, Castronova wonders? "Basically as a player you've signed a paper saying, 'I have no rights.' But I don't have the right to sign away my own right of free speech. I don't know if I have the ability to waive my economic rights, either."

Diehard virtual world players like these, he concluded, were coming closer and closer to being cyber-commuters. They lived in their real world houses, but turned on their computers and travelled to Norrath to do stuff... to work, to buy and sell, to profit and lose. Maybe not many of them were doing it purely for monetary reasons, yet, but there was nothing really stopping them, either, if they wanted to. (After all, lots of people say they don’t just work for the money in this world, either.)

Sanya Thomas, Mythic Entertainment's customer relations representative for the game Dark Age of Camelot, says she can certainly relate to the diehards’ point of view.

"I am firmly in [that] group. My real life socks are a mess, but I know exactly how many more greens I need to farm to score my next suit of armor. I will say with utter certainty that the people who stay with a game for month after month are as much residents of their servers - worlds - as they are residents of their real states or countries. Sometimes more so, in an age where people move every few years due to their jobs or their divorces."

But game designer Greg Costikyan is more skeptical of the logic. "I wouldn't call [persistent games] places where people live; they're more analogous to the local bar than a nation. You go there to hang out with your buds and kill a few gnolls."

How many people are we talking about, really? Castronova calculated about 90,000 Everquest players were spending more of their waking, productive hours in their computer reality in 2001 than in their real one. Earth, for them, was like a "bedroom community" outside a big city... only a place to hang their hat, to sleep, to eat. What gets scary is when you take that to its logical extreme: if virtual worlds are places you can make money, like a downtown office building, does that mean the game owners were something like landlords, and the computer players tenants?

It's a way of looking at persistent virtual worlds that makes the game companies themselves profoundly uncomfortable. To them, the games are meant to be games... to make them more than that opens up a whole range of legal issues that they frankly admit they're incapable of handling. Rick Hall, executive producer of Ultima Online, says he can't buy into the prof’s logic.

Origin's position, he says, has to be, "We own the characters, and you're just playing in our world. We still have to protect ourselves legally. To do otherwise would just be a Pandora's Box of problems for us.”

For instance, what if a game company chooses to close down a server, or a game, he asks? If it’s just a game, it’s unfortunate… but if you start to feel as if you’re living in that world, then the game company could be seen as taking away your belongings, your livelihood.

But Castronova frankly wonders, as these worlds get even more popular, if that will even be an option. "Let's say I build a beautiful island in the Pacific, and invite people to live there," says Castronova. "Could I then close the island and kick them off, if I decide I want to change it into a oil rig? In the real world I can't."

Hall still doesn't buy the comparison: surely, he says, the presence of dragons and hobbits and the like should be a clue which world is real, and which is not. "There's no such thing as bankruptcy in our worlds. You don't have to worry about survival. You can be financially irresponsible, and just buy neat stuff. Gamers want to escape FROM reality, not TO reality."

What the game companies are content with is a kind of cyber-feudalism, the economist argues. The players’ virtual bodies and all our possessions belong to the sovereign, and can be taken away or given out as the rulers please. But Castronova says its naive to think the as virtual worlds become more popular, more realistic, and more a legitimate place to spend one's time, that people won’t start demanding real-world rights in cyberspace, too.

"In the long run, developers of these games may need to think of themselves as landowners, or central bankers, as opposed to emperors and gods of these worlds. What they're doing now is basically like trying to run a nation-state with a customer service department. It ignores all those useful things we've come as humans to value: justice, consent, legitimacy."

But Costikyan, for one, doesn't think the revolution is coming yet. "Well-run games often do behave something like a 'government,'" he says, "Trying to satisfy as many of their customers as possible, provide a safe environment to play in, and trying to keep on the good side of their players. But this is just good business."

"If a [virtual] world is a ‘nation,’ it's a bizarrely governed one--a private, profit-making subsidiary of a corporation. But all its ‘citizens’ know this going in--and also know that they have complete freedom of emigration to a game with rules they like better, if they object to how this one is run."


"The Matrix is everywhere. It is all around us. Even now in this very room. You can see it when you look out your window. Or when you turn on your television. You can feel it when you go to work. When you go to Church. When you pay your taxes..."

--Morpheus to Neo, in The Matrix

As the realism of virtual worlds only continues to grow, the day may soon come when your necromancer logs out after sweeping your keep of mongbats, and then use the proceeds to buy you a real-world case of Coke. Take a look around: don't most jobs you can do involve some work at a computer? If the cash ever becomes exchangeable, is "working" at monster-slaying every time you go to your favourite game, really that different from other kinds of "virtual offices" and freelance work-at-home arrangements we're now seeing, particularly in the high tech industries?

It's not quite the same of course: no one can survive on gaming alone... yet. But at its core, Castronova's work is also asking a much more disturbing question: if you're spending 50, 60, 70 waking hours a week in a virtual space, at what point are you no longer a citizen of THIS world? How many hours of gaming a week do you need to put in, before you're really, for all intents and purposes, living IN THE MACHINE instead?"



SIDEBAR #1: Gaming advice from the gamer-economist

What tips would a professional economist have for players trying to get the most out of living in a virtual world? We asked Edward Castronova:

About player conflict: "Success in these games... it's about working on your emotional issues. A lot of players get into a lot of trouble by getting bogged down in interpersonal conflict. It only wastes valuable time. You need to show more emotional maturity. Never blame the other guy: blame yourself first. If the people you hang around with are driving you nuts, maybe you should ask yourself 'What is it about me that I always group with idiots? Think about it."

About initial character selection: "Remember, an attribute like race generally doesn't matter. And equipment will always compensate for any early mistakes. You will have a lot more fun, and so spend a lot more time in game, if you try to roleplay more, and look and learn. Don't focus on the rules. Use the time working on your social interaction and social skills."

On working on tradeskills vs. hunting. "I wonder why anyone does tradeskills. If you hunt and get money, you can buy anything you want. There are always other poeple who are willing to do any tradeskill for you for cash. So if your goal is to get to the top level game the quickest, hunt, hunt, hunt, hunt, hunt."

On soloing vs. teaming up: "Good soloers can kill anything. But then they generally have to recover for a LONG time. In almost all of these games, the advantage goes to the tight-knit groups of six to eight friends, all playing at the same time. These people can get to the top levels 6-10 times faster. Yes, it can be done solo, but the game mechanics themselves aren't THAT exciting, especially if you are doing it around the clock. Casual grouping is inefficient, too, because so much time is spent seeing where people are and hooking up with them. Ten guys in a fraternity will always have a statistical advantage."

On "camping" vs. roaming around: "A lot of players don't pay attention to the opportunity cost of their time, of the experience lost by moving around, as finding a good spot and letting the monsters come to you. But it always depends on the player's objective. Camping can be the quickest "route to 60," sure, but if the objective is fun, camping is also incredibly boring."


SIDEBAR #2: Do avatars have rights?

Castronova's not the first person to talk about the virtual serfdom of virtual worlds. In January, 2000, Raph Koster, one of the designers behind Ultima Online, penned the first "Declaration of the Rights of Avatars." (You can find it at Based on the U.S. Bill of Rights and the French Revolutions' "Declaration of the Rights of Man," it attempted to define what the rights of virtual representations of people in a virtual space would be. "This document holds the following truths to be self-evident," it begins. "That avatars are the manifestation of actual people in an online medium, and that their utterances, actions, thoughts, and emotions should be considered to be as valid as the utterances, actions, thoughts, and emotions of people in any other forum, venue, location, or space." Rights of avatars, he said, included the right of a fair trial, of free speech, freedom of assembly and association, and property rights. The document is not widely accepted by game developers, including the current team running Ultima Online. Koster himself is currently lead designer behind the next-big virtual world, "Star Wars: Galaxies."


SIDEBAR #3: The Norrath Economic Report

Castronova's main focus of study was Everquest's Norrath, the most popular virtual world in 2001. He came up with the following statistics about its population that year:

Average population at any one time: 60,000
Gross National Product: $135 million ($2,266 per capita)
Annual income of an 80-hour-a-week player: $12,000 when converted
(Poverty line in the U.S: $8,800.)
Exchange rate: 107 PP to the dollar
Deflation rate: 29 per cent a year