One year from now, 17 year old Emily quits her job at the local supermarket. She has just made more money than she was able to by working there by selling spoils of war and by playing the stock market in her favourite online game.
Emily's future career change will be the culmination of a gradual movement in online gaming over the last few years, in which virtual economies have moved closer and closer to their real world counterparts. Until now these economies have been the work of fans who have traded virtual objects for real money through third parties such as eBay and PayPal. In this way fans have opened a door between virtual and real world economies. This door is now being blown wide open.
May 15th sees the launch of Diablo III from Blizzard, already widely known for World of Warcraft - one of the world's leading massively multiplayer online role playing games (MMORPG).
Diablo III will as a fully integrated feature introduce an Auction House that allows players to buy and sell the gear (weapons, armour and the like) that they have won in the game - for real money. Blizzard allows players to transfer Auction House money to real world bank accounts and thus completely remove it from the virtual world where it originated.
Thus, Emily will be able to spend a few hours defeating virtual demons after which she can exit the game with more money on her bank account than when she logged on. Her Tuesday night pizza will be paid for with monster blood.
It's not the first time in the history of online gaming that this has been possible, but it's the first time that a major gaming company creates an official economic link between a virtual world and the real one.
But it's not real!
Whenever the discussion regarding the addictive properties of games has been raised, a distinction has typically been made between games involving monetary gains and games without such gains. It is a common opinion that the two are very different. We disagree and argue that they are in fact very similar in the way that they affect us.
Research indicates that games have a profound impact on our brain whether there is money involved or not. Neurochemically, the most powerful dopamine release occurs when we believe we have found a way to understand something that previously seemed random and unpredictable.
The most intense gaming-related psychological rush is encountered when we experience greater but not absolute control over something that previously appeared uncontrollable. This applies equally to the computer gamer who experiences an increase in monster killing skills and to the poker player who experiences a gain in the ability to "read" his opponent's hands. In other words, our brain responds in the same way to virtual and real world successes.
Will the Auction House increase the number of people addicted to online gaming?
No; we believe that the introduction of the Auction House in Diablo III won't open the door to the same addiction issues as common in traditional gambling. Blizzard fundamentally sidesteps this issue by designing their Auction House in such a way that it is impossible to lose large amounts of money quickly. Blizzard's decision not to include the Auction House in the game's Hardcore Mode - where if the player's character dies, it's for good - is also a way to avoid leaving players in economic ruin after an unsuccesful day among the demons.
In our opinion the Auction House is more likely to create a variety of more or less problematic grey areas between real world economy and its virtual world counterpart. Why not grab just a few more hours slaying monsters if it helps pay the monthly internet bill?
How do the non-gamer parents react when their teenaged kid after a gaming session has won a magical sword that he wishes to sell and transfer the money he receives to his father's bank account? How likely are players - via items bought in the Auction House - to enter into arms races with their friends? What does the ambitious young gamer do, when he is told that membership in a popular clan requires that he buys a certain expensive item in the Auction House as entry fee?
As game theoreticist and researcher Rune Lundedal from Copenhagen's IT University puts it:
"If you want to go raiding with the tough guys in the class, you need the right gear. Diablo III has the potential - for some people - to become a very expensive hobby."
Time is money.
Even though the Auction House thus offers a shortcut to success, we believe that few serious gamers will take it. By and large, people who play cooperation heavy and time-intensive online games are used to committing to long term, complexly structured tasks; many are "in it for the grind" as opposed to just seeking a money fuelled quick fix solution that appeals more to players with less ability, experience and/or money.
Will some players spend fortunes on equipment? Maybe; probably. We won't know for sure until the House launches.
Acknowledging the virtual world.
Blizzard's Auction House has the potential to bring about a change in the way players of online games are perceived. Time spent gaming might very well be more widely accepted if it's functionally equivalent to traditional part-time jobs.
After all many jobs are considered to be of value not because of what we learn while doing them, but because of the money we make in the process. Why shouldn't this apply to games? Blizzard's officially sanctioned merging of virtual work and real world money thus sets the stage for a fundamental rethinking of the criticisms typically levelled at online gaming, such as "it's a waste of time", "you gain nothing from it", "you learn nothing doing it".
We're not worried that Diablo III and the Auction House will mean an huge explosion in the number of people who spend too much time gaming. We do however believe that the introduction of money in the virtual world has the potential to serve as an eye-opener to people who themselves do not play online games and who hold these games in low esteem.
Games activate very powerful and very basic systems in our brains. That real world money and virtual activities now for the first time officially are being brought together is an acknowledgement of the value of our time spent in games.
Illustration: Owen McFadzen