I just spent this weekend reading Julian Dibbell's Play Money: Or, How I Quit My Job and Made Millions Trading Virtual Loot. Needless to say, I loved it. It tracks Julian's journey to make as much money trading virtual property online in one year as he did during his most financially successful year as a writer. After some preliminary interviews with big-time money makers in Ultima Online (talking 'bout six figures), Dibbell takes the plunge, deciding to dedicate himself full-time to playing UO. He hits some snags along the way and the learning curve for him is sharp, but before long, his feet are wet in the industry and he is making a name for himself among the hardcore vendors in UO. He starts out trying to sell miner's maps for a new virtual region that had recently opened, but realizes that he cannot make a living doing such nonsense, and eventually gets hired to run items for a more big time dealer. He steadily moves up the chain, encountering more of these vendors, whose activities and practices are at best unsavory and at worst straight cheating. He meets bot farmers: players who had written computer programs to play UO constantly, doing mindless tasks that generate huge amounts of virtual gold that can be sold for real money. At first, Dibbell rejects these "cheaters," wanting to make an honest living. These sentiments fade though as he realizes that he never really knows where all of the virtual loot he deals in comes from: some of it is from farmers, some of it from players who steal from other players, some of it from good old-fashioned gamers. After a failed venture with a Chinese Sweatshop (he paid a working wage of $1.50/hour, but now this is down to around $.25/hour), Dibbell cares not where he gets his goods and begins distributing the loot the farmers gather. In the end, his experiment comes down to generating $4,500 in a single month. See comments for Dibbell's final cash total.
I found the most interesting aspects of the book to be the nuts and bolts of how these virtual fencers actually operated and the social structures required to run what are essentially virtual rackets. One consortium of supporters in the book actually call themselves the UO Cartel. While their practices are not expressly illegal, monitors from the UO maker, called GMs, patrol the land deleting accounts of players that do not play by the rules (i.e. the farmers with automated programs). Game developers thus far have not condoned the practices of virtual fencers like Mr. Dibbell and they actively work to stop them (recently, Sony opened two servers of its MMORPG EverQuest II to a totally regulated market where customers can purchase any item they want in the game from Sony for real cash; Check it. Most the scams involves searching for quirks in the game that allow the purchase of one item for say 3 gold pieces, a totally midless task of converting the item from A to B, as in turning a chicken into a cooked chicken, and reselling the cooked chicken for 6 gold pieces. Repeat 30 times a minute, 24 hours a day, and before long, stashes of virtual loot. Bam.
Spliced between these gameplay experiences are some musings on the seeming indistinguishability of work from play in these games. I think the book illustrates that if you consume your life with any endeavor, even games, you will work to feel the accomplishment of expertise. In MMORPGs, people do different works for different expertise. Average players will spend hours working toward building their character, doing tasks in the hope of unlocking some virtual prestige, or opening up a previously inaccessible dungeon. Virtual vendors take it to a whole new level: they do not so much play as observe their markets, patiently waiting for good deals, and work the system when the right opportunity comes around. Dibbell was willing to dedicate himself, not only to vending virtual goods, but the larger academic project of rooting around in this largely unknown territory --> he put in the effort and was rewarded with expertise.
Overall, the book was an enjoyable read and I recommend it for anyone who has ever lived, even temporarily, in one of these worlds. My WoW character Nightstalker, a night elf hunter, had to be shelved after I hit level 40 precisely because playing felt much more like a grind than play (I was only halfway time-wise to the maximum level of 60); I still miss my pet cat, Peepers.