It will probably come as no surprise to the seasoned gamers reading this that people will leverage any advantage possible to succeed in the virtual world up to and including dropping actual hard cash to secure an extra few stat points or sword capable of cleaving through lower level players like a lightsaber through through a Stormtroopers shaft. Something that came to the attention of non-gamers thanks to an expedition to the virtual realm of Norrath in 2001 by an economist called Edward Castronova.
For anyone unfamiliar with the land of Norrath is it’s the primary location the game EverQuest takes place in and to avoid sitting on our own balls we’re going to speak about it in as broad a terms as possible to not piss off any Quest Heads. Anyway, as noted in the intro, in 2001 Castronova initially took a trip to Norrath as a tourist until something in the world piqued his economist brain. Massive, almost comical levels of wealth inequality that made Pre Revolutionary France look almost tame in comparison.
This intrigued Castronova because, on paper, the game was an ideal utopian society where equality was not just expected, but enforced. Which kind of makes sense when you think about it, when you make a character in a video game, for the most part, things like race and sex are incidental. As Castronova himself would later note in a paper on the subject –
“In a Virtual World, people choose their own abilities, gender, and skin tone instead of having them imposed by accidents of birth. Those who cannot run on Earth can run in [Norrath]”
However, despite the creators of the game going to great lengths to ensure every player started on equal footing, wealth distribution was, to put it simply. Fucked. This is because players could use real world money to power level the shit out of their in-game avatars, giving them a hard numerical advantage over players without big dick money here in the real world.
Again, none of this is going to surprise a seasoned MMO player or even someone peripherally aware of video games, but to Castronova it was a revelation. So much so that he would eventually pioneer the field of virtual economics in an effort to understand it. Which I’ve already written about before, so let’s get to the fun stuff. Smuggling and tax fraud.
You see, while researching Norrath and it’s burgeoning virtual economy one thing Castronova realised is that many of it’s wealthiest citizens, much like real life, were fucking assholes who used their wealth to keep their shit-covered boot heel on the throat of the working man. Doing things like pay people the equivalent of pennies on the dollar to do pointless busy work for them like collect acorns.
Likewise, he noticed that said rich assholes hoarded their wealth and when they did deign to sell their more powerful gear, would do so for real world money. Which is where taxes come into this because Castronova, much to his own surprise, discovered that living and working in Norrath could earn the equivalent of minimum wage if players farmed the right shit and sold it to the aforementioned rich assholes. Money they obviously wouldn’t pay any taxes on because nobody even knew it was possible to earn money like that.
Something he did learn that the game’s publisher, Sony, tried to crack down on which amused Castronova when he realised that, in economic terms, the players illegally selling in-game items were the real-world equivalent of smugglers. He also found it doubly amusing that despite occurring in a wholly virtual world where people could walk around half-naked, when people traded in-game items illegally they’d usually do so in dark alleys or abandoned houses to avoid drawing attention to themselves.
Which more than anything just goes to show that people, are gonna people.