Massively Multi-Player On-Line Role-Playing Games

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Massively Multi-Player On-Line Role-Playing Games

In 2001, an unknown 38-year-old academic named Edward Castronova was teaching at Cal State University in Fullerton, California, and feeling like a failure. His career had never gone anywhere, and he felt like he was at a dead end. He was so lonely at night he just sat around and played video games.

It was April when he joined an on-line role-playing game called EverQuest for $10 a month. EverQuest was a Medieval role-playing game owned by Sony. Members would go on-line, create an identity, and vie for wealth and power. As an economics professor, Castronova began to notice something interesting: The virtual world had a real, functioning economy, where people could go from rags to riches or build entire empires with fake goods and money. Soon Castronova found out that the players were selling their virtual goods and fake money on-line for real U.S. dollars as well.

After watching the auctions on places like eBay and calculating the value of what people were selling, he came to the startling conclusion that EverQuest’s fake currency, called a platinum piece, was worth one U.S. penny on the real currency market, which is more than the Japanese yen was worth.

In fact, each player was generating real-world wealth at a rate of $3.42 per hour, higher than the average wage that most people in the real world earn. Calculating the gross national product per capita of the on-line game at $2,000, he realized that it was larger than that of India or China, according to an article in The Economist.

Castronova began surveying the players and amassed data about them and their habits. The average player was a 24-year-old male and owned about $3,000 worth of goods on-line.

When he published his findings, expecting a few eccentric readers, he was shocked to find an enormous appetite for his work among both on-line users and academics alike. He had hit a nerve. He had also pointed out that for the first time, economists and social scientists had a real-world lab in which to study behavior in its purest form. All EverQuest players start equal — poor and weak — and must earn their wealth. It’s a true meritocracy.

And Castronova found that the game proves what Adam Smith theorized: that people don’t want the world to be equal. Even though everyone starts off the same, very few amass great wealth on EverQuest, just as in the real world. In fact, some companies have offered games with socialist rules, and people have rejected them. And this, understandably, has touched off a political and economic debate that continues today...

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