While known primarily for using videogames in his art (usually inserting himself into first-person shooters, often carrying a video camera), Chinese artist Feng Mengbo is also a painter. One project he listed, among others, involved rendering Chairman Mao as a 3D model that can appear multiple times or superimposed on various backgrounds. The work, he admits, is purely about the art market: if you want three Maos (hmm, very Warholesque), or a single chairman floating on a digital background of, say, an idyllic beach, it’s yours.
This notion of technology and pure capitalism lead into topics discussed by speaker Julian Dibbell, who presented on the fascinating world of MMORPGs, “massively multiplayer online role-playing games,” or MMOs for short. For his forthcoming book Play Money (Basic Books, July 2006), Dibbell set out to discover if he could make more money playing these games than he could as a professional writer. The games include complex economies, virtual currency, and intricate social interactions. World of Warcraft is the most popular of these insanely popular games (for some titles, hundreds of thousands play across the globe at one time), but others in the genre include EverQuest II, Lineage II, City of Heroes, and Star Wars: Galaxies. For his yearlong exploration, Dibbell played Ultima Online, one of the early MMOs. In the game, users interact and buy and sell goods using fake monetary units, but, as Dibbell points out, these games have real-world value.
He uses the example of a castle he sold to another player for the tidy sum of “20 million gold pieces and a south-facing bearskin rug.” Since such items are for sale on ebay, he could calculate the “real money trading” (RMT) value in actual dollars: one dollar can buy you 50,000 gold pieces–which is a better exchange rate than, say, the Turkish lira or the Romanian lei. With a little figuring, he discovered that the virtual building he sold online was worth 425 crisp American dollars.
It’s a fascinating realm, this space where people play with pixels and faux money to generate actual wealth. Dibbell cited the research of Edward Castronova who calculated the GNP of the game EverQuest, discovering that, based on the money generated by its users per year ($135,000,000), the game would rank as the 79th richest country in the world.
If it existed.
Apparently the wealth generation of such games is well-known. Some have set up automated game play using multiple PCs to spontaneously play MMOs, with characters who, day and night, gather online bucks, while in China there are “gold farms” (see Ge Jin’s forthcoming documentary), where workers are hired to work in one of three shifts to generate online gold. “It’s fun,” one worker says.
This kind of thing happens outside of virtual gaming, says Dibbell. Topcoder.com is a site where programmers compete to write the best computer code and win small prizes; little do many competitors realize–or maybe that do–that they’re developing software and applications that are turned around and sold for a profit. It dawns on me that this is similar to BzzAgents, those word-of-mouth marketers who basically volunteer to talk up various products on the street, or Public Insight Journalism, a volunteer networker of bloggers who feed stories and ideas to Minnesota Public Radio (I just learned of it over lunch; thanks Kathy at MPR).
In the end, Dibbell discovered that writing pays better than gaming, for him at least (let me tell ya, his writing fetches a higher price than mine!): during a particularly robust month, he made $3900 playing Ultima Online. Not bad. Apparently there is power in play. And that’s Dibbell’s main point:
“ Play is going to be for the 21st century what steam was to the 19th century.”
Next up: Howard Rheingold and K. Anthony Appiah…