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With the economy tanking, one industry remains strong: video games. A new consumer study estimates that this year, 22% of holiday shoppers will buy games as gifts. This entertainment isn’t a complete escape from economic reality, though. Many games have their own virtual economies and, increasingly, they resemble the real world. Rebecah Pulsifer went to a gaming convention in southern California to learn more.

 

BlizzCon--one of the largest conventions for online gamers—takes place each year in Anaheim, right around the corner from Disneyland. Mickey Mouse ears are expected in this city—but costumes like Philllip Jaenke’s still stand out.

“It’s basically a large cow on two legs to put it simply. I’m actually walking in hooves—they’re about nine inch heels” Jaenke says of his costume.

Jaenke, a computer tech from Ohio, drove across the country to compete in the BlizzCon costume contest. He modeled his outfit after his avatar in the online game World of Warcraft. He’s one of over 10 million players worldwide who spend an average of 17 hours a week battling monsters in Azeroth, a fantasy-themed world.

Doing battle doesn’t come cheap. Matt Mowdy—another World of Warcraft player—said, lately, he’s paying more for virtual items his avatar needs. Mowdy’s avatar is a healer. The “medicine” he uses in his virtual profession is more expensive than it’s been in the past.

“The prices are getting out of reach for your average player. I couldn’t afford do some of the stuff I wanted to do unless I went out and do really boring stuff for a few hours to actually go and do an hour or two of fun game play,” Mowdy says.

Boring stuff, like repetitive missions called “daily quests.” In the game, Mowdy’s avatar spends hours finding hidden items and selling them for gold. Once he has enough, Mowdy can go back to doing something “fun” in the game.

Other players want to avoid that drudgery and save time. They buy virtual gold with real dollars.

It’s known as real money trading—not unlike, say, buying Euros for dollars. Julian Dibbell knows this system well. His book Play Money describes his experiment making a living selling gold for real money to players hungry to get ahead.

“They [players] acquire over time a fortune—imaginary in some ways, but in other ways very real. But because these things are so hard to get a hold of in the game, people will look for other players who are willing to sell their treasures for real money and thus they can skip the hard work,” Dibbell says.

There’s so much demand that entire corporations specializing in this practice have cropped up online. Julian Dibbell estimates these “middle man operations” make hundreds of millions of dollars each year.

Despite its popularity, real money trading was still a taboo subject at BlizzCon. One World of Warcraft player, Fred, wouldn’t even share his last name when asked.

Pulsifer: Where do you sell your gold?

Fred: I don’t sell my gold—that’s against the terms of service. Pulsifer: What happens in the game if they find out people are selling gold? Fred: If they have conclusive proof you’ve bought or sold gold, they just go ahead and close your account permanently.

The makers of World of Warcraft have done their best to ban the real money trade because it puts new players at a disadvantage. Virtual cash floods the economy, inflating prices for players who prefer not to spend real dollars on their avatar. For players like Matt Mowdy, that investment sounds more like the real world than a game.

“I don’t know why anyone would actually spend money on a virtual item, because I mean the whole point of the game is to have fun. But I guess some people are willing to spend cash, so the prices of everything are going up and up and up and up,” Mowdy says.

The richest players can afford the latest virtual items--a fancy polar bear riding mount, the latest in sword technology--while poor players struggle to keep up. This leaves Julian Dibbell wondering if games are the diversions they once were.

“It’s really hard to tell the difference and really hard to know when you’ve crossed the line from doing something fun and into doing work,” Dibbell says.

The game’s makers think World of Warcraft will stay popular, but players like Matt Mowdy are frustrated as Azeroth seems increasingly like the real world—except for one thing: you can always turn a game off.

For Intern Edition from NPR West, I’m Rebecah Pulsifer.

 

© NPR Intern Edition, Fall 2008