Friday, June 01, 2007

Virtual Worlds: Politics and Economics

There's a conference going on this month at Indiana University. The topic? Public policy and virtual worlds (read: World of Warcraft, Second Life, and all those other massively multiplayer whatchamacallits that are either glorified chatrooms or virtual worlds, depending on who you talk to.) Thing is, the conference itself is being done as a sort of game:

The Synthetic Worlds Initiative at Indiana University announces: Ludium II is tentatively planned for June 22-23, 2007. The theme "Videogames and Public Policy" will be explored through a game that puts participants in a 19th century US political convention, complete with smoke-filled rooms and bombastic delegates. OK, due to health concerns we will not allow cigars, but bombasticism will be encouraged regardless of the risks. Gameplay: The delegates will form caucuses and compete to get planks on the party platform. They'll also elect a party nominee for President. Results: A platform recommending 10 (or so) Principles for Sensible Video Game Policy, and a single person, the nominee, who will become our defacto spokesperson for the ideas in the platform. From the Ludium's end until November 2008, we will point to the nominee whenever we are asked about games by the media, legislatures, courts, lobbying groups, or voters. Prizes go to participants who get the most ideas on the platform, and for being a candidate or the eventual nominee. Participation will be open. We have room for 400 people.
Bolding mine. Wish I could go, I can't for various reasons, but I do have to ask- if this is about virtual worlds, then why the hell isn't the conference happening virtually? You'd think this would be ideal for, say, Second Life. (Warts and all.)

Why does this matter, by the way? Because it looks like the central issue of virtual worlds, whether or not virtual property has real value, is about to break wide open. First, because of Linden Labs' ongoing legal problems regarding virtual land deals and the enforceability of their Terms of Service. I think it's more due to a seemingly silly "class action lawsuit" against the gold-selling company IGE by users. From Broken Toys:

Someone filed a class-action lawsuit about World of Warcraft.

But it isn’t filed against Blizzard. Oh no. Been there, done that. No… this is against…


For gold farming.

And devaluing the gold piece.

And throwing Arena matches.

I swear to God, I am not making any of this up...A key assumption in the lawsuit is as follows:

Because of IGE’s infusion of gold, virtual currency being held by honest Subscribers is constantly devalued. The devaluation of this virtual currency has an economic value in real dollars as reflected on Defendants’ website.
First, "Lum der Mad?" Is he really the old Lum the Mad? That was one of my favorite sites way back when. Anyway.

He's missing the point here. I don't think this is even about IGE. This is about a way to get a legal ruling on whether Warcraft "gold pieces" are worth anything. You could never pull this off against Blizzard because they are pretty adamant about virtual items not being worth anything. IGE's very EXISTENCE, though, is predicated on the concept that there's a material value to virtual property. That's why Blizzard never sued them: they really, really don't want to get the law involved.

Now, though, they may have no say in the matter. Even if they come in on IGE's side, they aren't going to be able to settle and keep this out of the courts. Even if the class action lawsuit doesn't work against IGE (and I think it's unlikely to), it will almost certainly provoke a "virtual gold" ruling, and there could be TONS of money in it. Inter-game currency arbitrage schemes alone could make people millionaires, if they knew that the game's owners couldn't simply shut them down.

It seems like a joke because it's a misdirection.

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