Games and role-playing are as ancient as Mankind. Rome's state-sponsored lethal public games may have accounted for up to one fifth of its GDP. They often lasted for months. Historical re-enactments, sports events, chess - are all manifestations of Man's insatiable desire to be someone else, somewhere else - and to learn from experience.
Last week, Jeff Harrow, in his influential and eponymous "Harrow Technology Report", analyzed economics of Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPG). These are 3-D games which take place in comprehensively and minutely constructed environments - a medieval kingdom being favorite. "Gamers" use action figures known as avatars to represent themselves. These animated figurines walk, talk, emote, and are surprisingly versatile.
Harrow quoted this passage from Internetnews.com regarding Sony's (actually, Verant's) "EverQuest". It is a massive MMORPG with almost half a million users - each paying c. $13 a month:
"(Norrath, EverQuest's ersatz world is) ... 77th largest economy in [real] world! [It] has a gross national product per capita of $2,266, making its economy larger than either Chinese or Indian economy and roughly comparable to Russia's economy".
In his above quoted paper, "Virtual Worlds: A First-Hand Account of Market and Society on Cyberian Frontier", Professor Edward Castronova, from California State University at Fullerton, notes that:
"The nominal hourly wage (in Norrath) is about USD 3.42 per hour, and labors of people produce a GNP per capita somewhere between that of Russia and Bulgaria. A unit of Norrath's currency is traded on exchange mark ets at USD 0.0107, higher than Yen and Lira. The economy is characterized by extreme inequality, yet life there is quite attractive to many."
Players - in contravention of game's rules - also trade in EverQuest paraphernalia and characters offline. The online auction Web site, eBay, is flooded with them and people pay real money - sometimes up to a thousand dollars - for avatars and their possessions. Auxiliary and surrogate industries sprang around EverQuest and its ilk. There are, for instance, "macroing" programs that emulate actions of a real-life player - a no-no.
Nor is EverQuest largest. The Korean MMORPG "Lineage" boasts a staggering 2.5 million subscribers.
The economies of these immersive faux realms suffer from very real woes, though. In its May 28 issue, "The New Yorker" recounted story of Britannia, one of nether kingdoms of Internet:
"The kingdom, which is stuck somewhere between sixth and twelfth centuries, has a single unit of currency, a gold piece that looks a little like a biscuit. A network of servers is supposed to keep track of all gold, just as it keeps track of everything else on island, but in late 1997 bands of counterfeiters found a bug that allowed them to reproduce gold pieces more or less at will.
The fantastic wealth they produced for themselves was, of course, entirely imaginary, and yet it led, in textbook fashion, to hyperinflation. At worst point in crisis, Britannia's monetary system virtually collapsed, and players all over kingdom were reduced to bartering."
Britannia - run by Ultima Online - has 250,000 "denizens", each charged c. $10 a month. An average Britannian spends 13 hours a week in simulated demesne. For many, this constitutes their main social interaction. Psychologists warn against addictive qualities of this recreation.