But what is it that's really being bought and sold here? The fact is that a great deal of our real-world economy these days consists of things that would be termed "virtual" in another context. Take this magazine, for instance. Chances are you're reading it on the screen of your computer. Does that make it virtual? No. Because The Escapist is more than just a pattern of colored pixels on your screen, it is the ideas that are contained in its words. You're buying (or in this case, getting for free) the content, not the physical product itself. The same is true for movies, music, software and a host of other things we buy, sell and consume each day. Yet none of those things get slapped with the "virtual" label. No one rolls their eyes when you tell them you just bought Photoshop or rented a DVD. But try to talk about the market for your favorite MMORPG's armor and weapons, or the pair of thigh-high stockings you just bought for your Second Life avatar, and often enough the eyes don't just roll, they glaze over at the same time.
For those who've never set foot in a virtual world it's hard to imagine why someone would pay cash for a sword or a skirt that's made of nothing but software. But what even most gamers don't realize is that the things they're buying and selling in online worlds aren't virtual at all.
You might not be able to hold Aimee's panties in your hand (as much as you might like to), but that's not the point. You're not buying them because you want to wear them in the real world. You're buying them because they add something to the character you're guiding through the online world. They add to the story that unfolds on your computer screen each time you log into Second Life. In that sense, they're no different from buying the latest issue of your favorite manga or taking yourself to the movies. When you buy a DVD you're not paying for a piece of plastic (which costs pennies to produce), you're paying for the content stored on it. And Aimee's skirts and stockings are content in much the same way. There's really nothing virtual about them.
The same goes for the virtual items bought and sold in more traditional MMORPGs like World of Warcraft, Guild Wars and all the rest. They add to the narrative that is the reason you've logged on in the first place. That Bewildering Sword of Whoop-Ass you've been coveting isn't something you can hold in your hand, but it's something that will make your avatar's story more interesting. It's extra content in the same way that buying the director's cut of your favorite movie is - you get a richer, more engaging narrative out of it (except in the case of Apocalypse Now Redux). There's nothing virtual about it.
And this is what game companies fear.
In March of this year, Blizzard Entertainment, makers of World of Warcraft, banned more than 1,000 accounts for selling WoW currency and goods on eBay and other sites. In June, CCP, the Icelandic company that developed Eve Online, moved against what it described as "a virtual crime syndicate, dealing in vast sums" of the game's currency. More than 80 accounts were permanently banned. And yet WoW gold and items are still sold on eBay and elsewhere every day, and at least one "power seller" runs an eBay store that is clearly flagged as offering Eve Online goods, and has been doing so for over a year. IGE moves vast sums in game goods and currency every day. And even a site like MarkeeDragon.com, which deals only in Ultima Online items, does a million dollars in annual transactions.
As Marcus Eikenberry, who runs MarkeeDragon, points out, Blizzard has been known to send "cease and desist" letters to dealers informing them that they will have to provide financial records to the company of just how much they've bought and sold, but they rarely if ever back it up with legal action. So why don't game companies move more decisively against the people who profit from the "virtual" items they claim sole ownership of? Why haven't they gone to federal regulators to stamp out this trend that is supposedly destroying the integrity of their games?