Virtual Games Create A Real World Market

Increasingly popular
Increasingly popular "massively multiplayer" computer games have created a shadow economy in which players can sell what they've earned in a virtual world for real-world money.

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By Mike Musgrove
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 17, 2005

For a year and a half, Tod Kellen roamed the universe in the online computer game Star Wars Galaxies, living a fantasy life as a successful Jedi knight. Last week, Kellen decided the game was stealing too much time from his real life as a salesman for a chain of Wisconsin funeral homes, so he took extreme action: He auctioned off his fictional alter-ego on eBay.

The winning bidder paid $510 for the game character Kellen had created and all the winnings he had accumulated in hours of play -- a top-notch light saber, a speeder bike, a nice chunk of real estate on the planet Lok and a bank account containing millions of Imperial credits.

It was a simple trade of cash for the product of someone's labors, except that all the goods exist only within the confines of a computer game, electronic blips to be transferred from one account to another.

Kellen's auction is just one example of how increasingly popular online role-playing games have created a shadow economy in which the lines between the real world and the virtual world are getting blurred. More than 20 million people play these games worldwide, according to Edward Castronova, an economics professor at Indiana University who has written a book on the subject, and he thinks such gamers spend more than $200 million a year on virtual goods. One site, GameUSD.com, even tracks the latest value of computer-game currency against the U.S. dollar, an exchange-rate calculator for the virtual world.

On the Internet, real-world dollars can buy a virtual bazaar of odd items: A St. Bernard dog for the virtual home in The Sims Online fetches $129.99. A "Blood-bladed dagger" for use in the game EverQuest: $40. A two-handed sword for use in World of Warcraft is listed at $66.59.

As such items gain value, real-world problems are creeping into the virtual world. In China this year, a man was stabbed to death for selling a virtual sword that didn't belong to him. In Japan this summer, police arrested a student for creating a software hack that killed and robbed other characters in Lineage II, a game with nearly 4 million subscribers worldwide.

After Hurricane Katrina, the operators of EverQuest II assured more than 13,000 members in the Gulf Coast region that their virtual property would be protected and preserved until they could resume playing.

West Virginia resident Bob Kiblinger is one of the pioneers of the virtual marketplace. He started playing a game called Ultima Online in 1998 and discovered he could make money by buying other players' accounts and reselling their virtual property online.

Eventually he quit his job as a chemist with Procter & Gamble Co. and now says he makes "six figures" annually selling items for more than a dozen online games through his site, GamingTreasures.com. "I had a really good job with Procter & Gamble, but I wanted to be in control of my own destiny," Kiblinger said. "This was it. It was perfect."

In online role-playing games, players pay a monthly fee to take part in a virtual world with a science-fiction or fantasy theme. They create a character and spend hours going on adventures in a computerized landscape, gathering items and gaining experience points the longer they play.

But not every fan who plays Star Wars Galaxies is willing to spend a year meticulously maintaining a virtual career to attain the cool powers of an advanced Jedi. And as the average age of gamers rises, more are finding themselves with intrusive real-world lives. They have less time but more money.

"I work fairly long hours, plus I have a wife and kids at home," said Doug Robinson, a game fan in Kentucky, who said via e-mail that he has bought and sold game characters and currency in Star Wars Galaxies and other online games. "I just don't have the time to grind for 10 hours a day to get to the fun content in most games, I had rather spend a little real-world cash."


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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