Playing for real – Observations – massively multiplayer online games discussed

Playing for real – Observations – massively multiplayer online games discussed – Industry Overview

Kristin Lovejoy

SOCIAL SCIENTISTS have typically lacked a laboratory environment for testing their theories. But an emerging genre of computer games known as massively multiplayer online games, or MMO Cs, may provide just that. Many of these games have fantasy themes where players assume the roles of ogres and dwarves and where slaying dragons and casting spells are highly valued acts. But as in the real world, the characters must work–perhaps starting with something menial like chopping trees to sell as firewood–to survive and to advance levels. And a character can interact with those of other players, to buy and sell goods, forge alliances, wage war, or just hang out.

What is unique about MMOGs compared to other kinds of simulations is the sheer number of individuals involved and how seriously they play. About 500,000 people subscribe to Sony’s EverQuest, for example, with about 60,000 players online at any given time, a population comparable to that of Portland, Maine. On average, EverQuest survey respondents play 5 hours a day and have spent about 800 hours developing online characters, finds economist Edward Castronova of California State University at Fullerton.

Game designers struggling to get the simulation right have found that their models are realistic enough to engender many of the same phenomena that exist in the real world, including market pricing, civic organization, friendship, environmental shortages, hyperinflation, theft, murder, and inheritance (or “twinking,” in which a player transfers items from one of his own higher-level characters to one of his lower-level ones in order to give it an advantage). There is even foreign exchange, in which a player pays real money to another player for game items described on a web site, and then the two players arrange to have their characters meet in the game to exchange the goods. Gastronova’s first time in the world of EverQuest immediately impressed him; the markets “had all the feel of professional commodities markets.” They performed so realistically that he thought they should have a board of trade.

Yet games may be better than the real world for research because the pace of a lifetime is accelerated, the goods have less value, and no human bodies can be injured. While these aspects may detract from their realism, MMOGs still offer social scientists an opportunity to do repeat experiments and explore topics such as auction outcomes, gender relations, governance, income inequality, and the behavior of different categories of players. And which games are popular can reveal the characteristics of society that people most enjoy, points out Castronova. Industry leader EverQuest is primarily meritocratic, yet 33 percent of the characters have less than 50 percent of the median character’s wealth, suggesting perhaps that equality of opportunity matters more than equality of outcomes. Opportunities for analysis will only expand as MMOGs both differentiate and spread into mainstream markets; SimCity, for example, which departs from the fantasy theme and has proven more popular with women than its predecessors, w ill launch an online version this year.

Black (magic) markets

The heart of the dragon Zlandicar sells online for $145, a

fungus-covered scale tunic sells for $430, and game characters can go

for thousands. Despite game-makers’ attempt to ban these extra-game

sales, “platinum pieces,” the game currency in EverQuest, are auctioned

often enough for economist Edward Castronova to calculate an exchange

rate for what would be the 77th richest country in the world.

IN THE WORLD OF EVERQUEST

Population at any given time 60,381

GNP (US$) $135 million

GNP per capita (US$) $2,266

Exchange rate $0.01072/platinum piece

Average character wage 319 pp (or $3.42) per hour

Average age of character 12.5 months

EVERQUEST PLAYER PROFILE

Average player wage $20.74 per hour

Average player age 24.3 years

Percent male 92.2

Percent single 60.0

SOURCE: Edward Castronova, “Vitual Worlds: A First-Hand Account of

Market and Society on the Cyberian Frontier,” CESifo Working Paper No.

618. See also; http://business.fullerton.edu/ecastronova/vwguide.html.

COPYRIGHT 2002 Federal Reserve Bank of Boston

COPYRIGHT 2004 Gale Group