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Play Money: Or, How I Quit My Day Job and Made Millions Trading Virtual Loot [Hardcover]

Julian Dibbell

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Book Description

July 10 2006
Play Money explores a remarkable new phenomenon that's just beginning to enter public consciousness: MMORPGs, or Massively MultiPlayer Online Role-Playing Games, in which hundreds of thousands of players operate fantasy characters in virtual environments the size of continents. With city-sized populations of nearly full-time players, these games generate their own cultures, governments, and social systems and, inevitably, their own economies, which spill over into the real world.The desire for virtual goods--magic swords, enchanted breastplates, and special, hard-to-get elixirs--has spawned a cottage industry of "virtual loot farmers": People who play the games just to obtain fantasy goods that they can sell in the real world. The best loot farmers can make between six figures a year and six figures a month.Play Money is an extended walk on the weird side: a vivid snapshot of a subculture whose denizens were once the stuff of mere sociological spectacle but now--with computer gaming poised to eclipse all other entertainments in dollar volume, and with the lines between play and work, virtual and real increasingly blurred--look more and more like the future.

Product Details

  • Hardcover: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Basic Books (July 10 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0465015352
  • ISBN-13: 978-0465015351
  • Product Dimensions: 23.5 x 16.4 x 2.7 cm
  • Shipping Weight: 612 g
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #997,697 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Product Description

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Something had to give in author Dibbell's life: either his day job freelancing for such magazines as Wired, or his 20 hour-a-week online gaming habit. Dibbell chose the latter, making it his business to exploit "the radical confusion of production and pretend" that massively multiplayer online roleplaying games (MMOs), such as EverQuest and Ultima Online, have instilled in their millions of users. In this cultural analysis-part memoir, part history, part economic investigation-Dibbell chronicles his attempts to get a piece of the estimated $880 million market in virtual goods, commodities such as armor, currency and even houses that exist only in the gaming world-but which people are willing to pay very real money for. Funny and uncommonly thoughtful, Dibbell takes us into the computer fantasyland, introducing us to real-world game players, virtual economies and the places they interact, such as a legendary office in Tijuana where unskilled workers make $19 a day to play online, "harvesting the resources of imaginary worlds." Dibbel disects the history of computers and games and tackles a number of issues legal, ethical and esoteric, including the IRS perspective on profits from dreamed-up merchandise, the difference or lack thereof between "real" and "virtual" currency, and the knotty question behind all the time, energy and cash spent on so much mouse-clicking: "Why would anyone enjoy it?" An unusual narrative, careful scholarship and real passion drive this circuitous (pun intended) study of a new American pastime.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.

About the Author

Over the course of a decade of writing and publishing, Julian Dibbell has established himself as one of the most thoughtful observers of digital culture. His previous book, My Tiny Life, was published to great reviews. Dibbell’s essays and articles have appeared in Details, Spin, Harper’s, the New York Times, Rolling Stone, Le Monde, the Village Voice, and TIME. Currently a contributing editor for Wired magazine, Dibbell lives in South Bend, Indiana.

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Amazon.com: 4.2 out of 5 stars  25 reviews
53 of 60 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Patchy Sept. 19 2006
By Michael Phipps - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
This book is well-written (mostly) and a good look at an interesting subject. However, the author seems not to trust his own subject, since he constantly moves away from the interesting part of the book (the story of how the strange market in imaginary goods works) in order to pad the book out with boring digressions on watching his daughter play, or even more boring half-baked essays on What It All Means (no surprise that the author is a contributor to Wired magazine.) Still, if you read the reporting parts, which are good, and skip over the self-indulgent, meandering attempts at philosophy, which are not, you'll learn a lot and enjoy yourself.
27 of 30 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fabulous Writing July 14 2006
By Reader - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
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.
9 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Making Hay Aug. 30 2006
By Jane Tompkins - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Play money is a fantastic read. It pulls you into its tale of Internet adventure and doesn't let go until the final word. I loved its refusal to separate the author's exploration of internet games, and his meditation on the economies they've generated, from the events of his off-line life -- child care, depresssion, marital break-up. Like a teenager, he starts out killing lizardmen in the fabulous realm of Ultima Online and ends up selling enchanted swords, pieces of gold, and miraculous suits of armor for a living. A real living, not a virtual one. (Is this play or is it work is the question.) The race to see if he can meet a deadline proving that he can earn more selling magic weapons and gold pieces than he can at his day job keeps the pages turning, and the painful -- and sometimes joyful -- unfolding of events in his actual life is riveting.

The book is an elegy to the world of play we lost when adulthood got us, a critique of a workaholic culture so preoccupied with its own games -- er, goals -- that it can't see the value in play, and a love song to fatherhood. And, it's like, totally cool, dude, what can I say?
8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Strange new worlds...... July 10 2006
By Glenn Hendler - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover|Verified Purchase
At one level, "Play Money" is one person's story of getting immersed in a weird little subset of the online world. "Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games" are basically really huge, really complicated, and apparently really engaging versions of Dungeons and Dragons. Dibbell provides a clear, fun, personal account of his experiences in these games, and tells the story of his attempts to make a real living selling virtual products that are much in demand in these online worlds.

But he's not just looking for gold here, real or virtual. He's after answers to big questions. What makes something valuable? What is a market? What is an economy? What kinds of abstractions are we exchanging when we buy a material object, or a service, or a ticket to a movie, and put it on a credit card? In a world where the price of something as simultaneously abstract and material as "pork belly futures" is announced on the radio (in the Midwest, at least), is it really all that odd to put up a virtual store in a fictional place called Brittania, where you sell virtual swords? Is that store any more fictional or real than e-Bay, or than the one Dibbell puts up outside the game world, where he charges real money for these imaginary items?

"Play Money" ponders these big questions, but it isn't all Marx and Baudrillard. It's a gripping and funny and sometimes even poignant story, told in a conversational style that's a breeze to read. Dibbell is a great guide through this world, for a newbie like me, because he stops to explain the way things work--the intricacies of the games, of course, but also the arcana of economics and the complexities of computer science--in ways that are clear without ever seeming dumbed down. I've never learned so much from such a page-turner.
11 of 13 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Fascinating account July 6 2006
By A reader - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Hardcover
Entire parallel economies exist in online virtual worlds, and they can be quite addictive to play in. Dibbell spent most of his time in Ultima Online, a sword and sorcery MMOG, but sometimes, it seems, the real cloak and dagger activity isn't happening in the game, but behind the scenes, where quasi-criminals devised ingenious cheats to raise game money, which they then sold on eBay, possibly even running Chinese and Tijuana sweatshops on the side where workers were employed to level up and generate even more game money. Even though I'd spent a lot of time in these worlds, Dibbell raised a lot of interesting questions, and conjectured a world where work is becoming increasingly indistinguishable from play.

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