Play Money: Or, How I Quit My Day Job and Made Millions Trading Virtual Loot Hardcover – Jul 10 2006
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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.
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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.
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?
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.
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