I recently finished reading “Play Money: or How I Quit My Day Job and Made Millions Trading Virtual Loot” by Julian Dibbell.
Actually, I recently finished listening to it. It was available on Audible.com and I took it as one of my two monthly titles.
Often listening to a book like this, one containing some level of detail, can be a bit annoying. Having somebody read off numbers or statistics doesn’t work well for me, especially if they change over the course of a book. I always like to flip pages to compare these sorts of things.
“Play Money” is a little bit different, as much of the numbers read off are available online. The book is based primarily on a series of blog posts from 2003 and 2004 by Mr. Dibbell.
You can actually get the basic information the book delivers by just reading his blog. But you would miss out on some of the cool stuff in the book.
What the book delivers is the story behind the blog entries. What drove particular entries, who he was working with, what he was thinking at the time, and what really goes on… or went on… with gold sellers in a virtual world.
The virtual world in which this all takes place is that of Ultima Online.
This actually struck me as odd at first. With the time frame set mostly in 2003, I tend to think of UO as past its prime at that point.
But UO had one advantage when it came to an external, real money economy: Mythic Origin did not take a hard stance against selling in-game currency and items for real money. So, unlike SOE, Blizzard, CCP, and other companies, Mythic Origin did not spend time shutting down eBay auctions, banning gold selling accounts, or any of the other activities that we generally see today in response to the sale of in-game currency.
That lax attitude by Mythic Origin made for a vibrant external economy even when the game was past its heyday.
The book itself is woven about three things.
First, most of the book goes into the methods and dynamics of the gold and item trade; bots, exploits, scams, cartels, trade wars, alliances, and Chinese gold farmers. You will recognize some of the players in that trade including Brock Pierce, who founded IGE, and Markee Dragon, once a big gold selling site and now one that sells, among other things, EVE Online Game Time Cards… and has a tutorial on how to trade them for ISK. Where have I heard that before?
Second, the book also goes into some detail about the game itself, something I found at least as interesting as the dynamics of the external trade. I never played UO, and probably never will at this point, but the book gives some fairly rich views of the world of Sosaria that I quite enjoyed. If you played the game these sections will probably bring up a good deal of nostalgia for the game.
Finally, the book tries to make a few over-arching points about play, the future impact of virtual work and virtual economies, and the tax implications thereof. While the theories of play and the studies of virtual economies are interesting, the author, in my opinion, never quite completes any of the big points he starts out to make. Even on the tax implications, something that you would think might be cut and dried (unless you actually do your own taxes), he comes up empty, though only after an amusing set of encounters with the IRS.
While the book does not makes its case for existence with any sort of big picture conclusion, it is quite an enjoyable read for those interested in the smaller picture dynamics of the gold trade and its interaction Ultima Online. The characters the author meets, their motivations, and how the game itself becomes nothing more than a backdrop for the “bigger” game of the gold trade make for a rich enough story.
I am tempted to pick up a hard copy of the book just to go back over some of the Ultima Online chapters. That is the problem with audio books, you cannot flip back and re-read sections very easily. There is a soft bound version available at Amazon.com now.