Thursday, March 08, 2007

As promised, I'm going to discuss an online phenomenon and its impact on our IRL lives.
Unfortunately, the phenomenon I've chosen is one which, I suspect, causes some of my less-geeky readers to tune out.
You guys can scroll down to the bottom now. I'll even put in a picture of a kitten to mark the spot where I stop talking about . . . Massively Multiplayer Online Games.
By one easily found estimate, last year MMOs generated over half a billion dollars in revenue.
Initial cost for the games is minor, with an average being somewhere between $20 and $50 for the boxed version.
These retail copies exist not as sources of revenue, but primarily to bring in new gamers. Each subscription grosses the company about $180 per gamer year.
Between 2003 and 2004, the amount of subscribers has increased by 75%. At the same time, more traditional forms of entertainment (movies, record sales and (no joke) live theatre) have remained stagnant or actually declined. In some cases, the decline has prompted the RIAA to sue random people.
I've thought a lot about the appeal of these games. Not being one for self-reflection, I have tried to figure out what the other 15 million people see in them.
The first reason is clearly defined goals. In today's world, people are able to spend literally years wandering from task to task with no real purpose. In some cases, this can be enough and even financially rewarding.
For most of us, we'd like a purpose. Some computer generated guy needs 16 wolf pelts and once your character has collected them for him, he tells you that you are a better person and (in some cases) rewards your character with cash and honor. The to-do list is compelling and mostly planned out in advance. There can be a very real feeling of progress.
The second powerful component is the whole idea of playing at being someone else for a while. In fact, you can even decide what you are good at and what you look like when logged in. I think of this concept as the "Awesome You" effect.
I suspect a good number of high-level barbarian types are played by people who got beat up in gym class.
I also suspect a like number of advanced brainy spell casters are played by people who beat up nerdy kids in gym class.
In a real world where dodge ball has been banned, MMOs are the great equalizer.
So, with over $500 million in revenues, it is easy to overlook the fantasy money coming out of these games. I suspect that the government will soon stop the practice of overlooking it.
You see, most of these virtual coins a character can pick up from killing rats and pirates can be traded or sold for real, actual money. In some cases, the exchange rate is better for virtual cash (WoW gold) than for some available on currency exchanges (like the peso).
Most games will ban a player for participating in these kinds of exchanges (real world for online cash), but it is difficult to track.
Some games actively participate in it, however. Second Life, for instance, bases its entire business model around the sale of virtual money. There is still some debate over whether or not Second Life qualifies as a game.
The fact is, right now there are real people playing games and making the rent selling MMO gold for real money. There are also whole businesses based around third world MMO sweatshops where multiple people toil for currency in-game and the business owner sells it online.
Since people can tie their livelihoods into games, the rest of their lives will soon follow.
Online weddings are nothing new, but I can see the possibility that whole, legal marriages may exist between people who have never met in person. After all, "Awesome You" and "Awesome Them" can be extra awesome together online, especially without real life complications.
I can also pretty easily predict that sometime soon, someone will be prosecuted for the theft of an in-game item. I understand that in-game items don't exist in a conventional sense, but there are still some arguments to treat them as real for the purposes of theft charges.
First, the owner of the item derives joy from the ownership of the item, so the theft of that item can be defined as a loss of quality of life. The item (likely) has value out of game, and could even have been sold (against the EULA) on Ebay for actual money (minus auction fees and PayPal fees).
The counter-argument that the item is only useful in a game is compelling, but if someone steals a set of golf clubs I doubt it would hold water.
The harsh truth is that there is a lot of money and a lot of people pouring into these games, and government and even the entertainment industry will not ignore it all forever.
In fact, according to online rumors, a major studio is planning a movie based around the Lord of the Rings Online Role Playing Game.

Sadly, it doesn't look like this little fellow found this interesting, either:

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Anonymous said...

That little kitten looks completely tuckered out!

Garrick said...

Doesn't he just? Precious!

Anonymous said...



Anonymous said...

Although for cuteness....


Pamela Moore said...

Wow. What a cute post!