Buying into the unreal

For no clear reason, an elf woman starts beating the guardian with a sword. Tapping away at the keyboard, I try to explain that I am not, as I appear to be, a novice knight with the build of an American footballer in silver-plated armour, dragging a sword the size of a broom handle, but a reporter in London. The elf woman stops attacking me and, without a word, teleports away into nothingness.
This keeps happening. But I must persist.

This is not an abstract electronic quest. This is not about points on a scoreboard or racing for a finish line. This is about money.

Most of us are familiar with the idea of conventional computer games: you buy, borrow or steal a piece of software for a desktop computer or a PlayStation-like console, load it up, and use a keyboard, mouse or joystick to steer a character through a challenge. You race a car round a course, or run a football team, or kill monsters, or slay gunmen. The game ends: you start again, or buy another. You can play with a few friends over the Internet — but it is still a game that ends and, for those dissatisfied with reality as it is, that’s not good enough. Now, most notably in east Asia but increasingly in the United States and Europe, another kind of computer game is gaining ground, which blurs the boundary between the real and the computer-generated.

In the software business, the games go by the indigestible acronym, MMORPGs (massively multiplayer online role-playing games), but they are more easily understood as virtual worlds. Aden is a virtual world in an online game called Lineage, created and run by Korean company NCsoft.

Lineage’s four million mainly east- Asian subscribers make it the biggest, although the more recent Japanese virtual world of Vana’diel, in the game Final Fantasy XI, which has a large following in the US and is about to launch in Britain, recently passed the 500 000-inhabitant mark.The most curious element of the virtual worlds is not the fortunes they are making for their creators, although these are real and remarkable enough. NCsoft’s profits run at more than £4-million (about R50-million) a month.

Unlike conventional computer games, which players pay for only once, virtual-world residents pay a monthly fee, typically about R50, for the right to stay alive in these privately run universes.

What is most bizarre about the virtual worlds, in which all players were supposed to start out equal and acquire wealth and status by their own efforts, is that the inequality of the real world is intruding.

Players who are wealthy in the real world are using real money to buy virtual goods and virtual characters from players who are real-world poor. Players who, in the real world, are time-rich and cash-poor are putting in hours of graft in the virtual world, killing virtual monsters and seeking out virtual treasure to produce non-existent magical weapons and characters that can then be sold for thousands of dollars on the Internet.

At first encounter, the virtual-world concept seems simple — an ingenious merger between two familiar, PC-age institutions: the fantasy role-playing game and the Internet chatroom. At any one time, thousands of people are online in the same virtual world as you, dressed up as magicians or dwarves. Sometimes you chat, sometimes you try to kill each other, sometimes you gang up to fight another gang for control of a castle.

But just as you are more likely to be killed if you are poorly equipped and inexperienced, so you are less likely to be chatted to and invited to join a gang if you are poorly equipped and inexperienced. To get equipment and experience, it is necessary to carry out dull, repetitive tasks, such as slaying goblins or testing your sword against a training post.

US economist Edward Castronova, who spent months roaming the virtual world of Norrath in Sony’s game, EverQuest, used exchange rates based on black-market Internet prices for virtual goods, virtual money and pre-developed characters to calculate that Norrath’s real-world gross national product per capita makes it wealthier, citizen for citizen, than China or India.

He found that almost a third of adult subscribers spend more time in Norrath in a typical week than they do working for pay in the real world. He writes: “One can almost believe that many people do live there, wherever it is, and not on Earth.’‘

Officially, the companies that run the virtual worlds don’t approve of selling virtual items for real money: according to their rules, players who are caught doing it are kicked out. Lance Stites, of NCsoft’s US subsidiary in Texas, points out that if the firm acknowledged a real value for unreal things, it could face legal action from players. “If something’s got real-world value at some point, we’ve got an obligation,” he says.

Yet the buying and selling of online goods and avatars is being carried out brazenly. A Hong Kong-based company, IGE Ltd, employs 50 people exclusively to buy and sell non-existent wands, weapons, cloaks and virtual currency from virtual worlds such as EverQuest. Another firm, Team VIP, will sell you 10-million adena — the virtual currency in use in Lineage — for 250 real US dollars.

A third site, called mysupersales.com, offers EverQuest “spider venom’’ for $699,30. The venom isn’t real, nor are its effects, and, more intriguingly, any “advantage’’ that the buyer might gain from using it would seem to be confined entirely to the micro-circuits of a humming server in San Diego, California. Mysupersales.com specialises in selling avatars — virtual characters that a subscriber has brought to in-game wealth and power at the expense of real-world advantages, such as a social life. One recent avatar being sold was a level-74 magician for Final Fantasy XI. The asking price was $1 299,99.

If it seems extraordinary that anyone would consider paying the best part of R7 000 for a virtual magician, you are unfamiliar with the addictiveness of virtuality. EverQuest is popularly known as “Evercrack’’ among hardcore Norrathians. “The sad truth is that, in many ways, EverQuest is better than real life,’’ an anonymous 36-year-old woman player told US psychological researcher Nicholas Yee. “I can be beautiful, fit and healthy in EQ — in real life I am chronically ill and there isn’t much fun or achievement to be had.’‘

South Korea has led the world in cheap, fast Net connections (broadband access). It was in Korea last year that a 22-year-old man was arrested for playing the new version of Lineage, Lineage II, in an Internet café with-out paying. He started playing the game on November 29 and was finally dragged from the computer on December 17. Police reported that he had not washed during that time.

According to the Korean national police agency’s Cyber Terror Response Centre, 70% of crimes committed by young people are related to virtual worlds, mostly attempts to steal virtual money and virtual items. In October 2002 a 24-year-old man, Kim Kyung-jae, died of a deep-vein thrombosis-like illness after playing an online game, Mu, virtually non-stop for three-and-a-half days.

Virtual worlds resemble real life in that there is no specific, common goal, no “game over’‘. There are quests, narratives, but the game continues when and whether these are completed. The only remaining goal, then, is to find out why you are there in the first place and because, unlike in real life, the gods, the bureaucrats and the bosses are one and the same, there is a sense that one day you might actually be told the meaning of virtual life, that the grand design might be revealed. — Â

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