Dungeons & Dollars Redux

Dungeons & Dollars Redux
The Industrialization of Play

Shannon Drake | 12 Dec 2006 07:00
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To the real world, Julian Dibbell is a contributing editor for Wired, with other work appearing in New York magazine, Feed and Topic. To the hardcore MMOG player, though, Julian is one of Them: a gold farmer, someone who plays an online game for hours upon hours only to sell the loot he picks up for real-world money. He documented his farming experiences on his website, and then wrote a book about it called Play Money: Or How I Quit My Day Job And Made Millions Trading Virtual Loot. I sat down with Dibbell to get an idea of what the MMOG industry's Devil would say about his book, farming and the industry in general, given an open mic.

I ask him how the book has been received. Surprisingly, he says reviews have been positive. More than anything, he seems bemused by the occasional blast of negative attention paid to the industry he worked in and documented. "I'm certainly aware that RMT [real money trade] and people who actively engage in it are hated by a significant faction ... of gamers and game developers," he says. "I quote Mark Jacobs standing up at E3 in 2003 and saying that he hates the RMT market with 'every bone in his body.' So, there you go. The curious thing to me is that, even as the blog was unfolding, and since the book has been out, I have not heard any direct evidence of anybody personally hating what I was doing, other than as a representative of the business."

While he's quick to point out that he worked as a broker and didn't actually do the gold farming himself, he's also acutely aware of how much his fellow players dislike what he does. "I have an assignment from the New York Times Magazine to write about the Chinese gold farms. And I went to a few of them, and I actually pulled a shift at a leveling shop. And, you know, not a half hour into my shift playing as some European player's gnome mage, I was spat upon," via the game's emote system, "by one of my fellow players."

He says it was different during the time he was writing the book. "For one thing, I was working in Ultima Online, which has a different culture about this stuff, right? The gold, the RMT market has been tolerated there from the get-go. It was even kind of encouraged in the beginning. ... For another thing, you know, it just kind of rolls off my back, to the extent that people do single us out for opprobrium." Indeed, he seems like a very laid-back, affable guy that just happened to indulge in a trade that gets the MMOG industry spitting mad.

He describes the arguments against the RMT industry as "often very crude. ... They're along the lines of, 'Hey, I worked my way up to level 60, and then daddy's little rich kid comes along and bought his way up to level 60, and that takes away the meaning of my achievement.' ... How does it take away the meaning of your achievement? It doesn't affect your ability to accomplish things in the game. Second of all, let's look at the metrics by which you're measuring achievement. Everyone knows that MMOGs are tests of your ability to sit on your ass in a chair for a week, or whatever it takes to get to level 60. If someone has the will to do that, or the time to do that, more power to them. If somebody has the commitment to the game to plunk down $800 or $1,000, that's a kind of crazed obsession, too. I'm perfectly willing to honor either way of measuring [that].

"And furthermore, it's such a limiting view of the complexity and open-endedness of these games to say that it's all about getting to level 60 or Warlord or whatever you get to before the other guy does. There's so many ways to play these games and so many reasons to play these games that if you think that's what the game is entirely about, that's fine, but that doesn't define it for everybody else who's involved."

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