Julian Dibbell's Play Money is a fantastic contribution to the literature on MMORPGs. Dibbell's My Tiny Life was the book that inspired Larry Lessig to get interested in cyberlaw. Play Money is like My Tiny Life in a fermented form -- a little more mature, a little more powerful, a lot more complicated.
It is set in a fiction that is currently owned by the Microsoft of the games world: Electronic Arts. Play Money starts with Dibbell magically blasting lizard men, then having himself blasted by a superior magician, who insults him on the poor quality of the items on his avatar's corpse and kills his horse out of spite. Then we're off to Tijuana, in search of virtual sweatshops. The lyricism and wit of My Tiny Life is there, but the bloom is off the virtual rose, so to speak, and real violence, theft, duplicity are lurking constantly below the surface of the fiction.
Why? Because it is a book about commerce, mostly, and a peculiar type of black market that Dibbell got to know rather well. Ultima Online's fanciful world of magicians, castles, and knights in armor is the home of very real economies that have emerged in virtual property. And from Dibbell's description, the main movement in the economy is fueled by software exploits and botting.
Dibbell has to struggle with the gears of this trade, because he's really captivated by the fiction, fascinated by the line created between play and work, and curious about the implications of virtual sweatshops for Marxist theory. He has a philosophical bent, but the path of virtual business leads inexorably to the sweatshops in Tijuana and their equivalents: he finds himself becoming ever more cozy with the hackers who engage in something with roughly the same ethical valance as ticket scalping.
What is most amazing about the book, I think, is that he manages to pull off this combination of fantasy, tawdriness, and philosophy with a true page-turner. The scope is huge, but the pace is brisk -- we're alternatively striking out into ludological theory, recounting the mafia-type threats of competing virtual economy hackers, praising the wifi at Flying J truckstops, and recounting how his avatar watered the plants on the roof of his castle in Britannia while his good friend Radny's tailoring scissors went snip-snip-snip downstairs. It's hard to keep track of where the fantasy in this book begins and ends. At a certain point, you start to wonder if it matters.
Play Money is worth reading just to learn about the details of the real-money trade. But it is Dibbell's wonderful knack for words and stories that makes the book sing.