I just ran across this piece describing economic research that Dmitri Williams and Edward Castronova are carrying out using datasets from EQ2 provided to them by Sony.
Don’t worry, it’s all anonymous. Williams refers to virtual worlds as the equivalent of rat mazes and petri dishes. The main advantage of a virtual world is clean data. Everything is there, to the last transaction, and on a fairly large scale. It can be argued that are many artificialities in a virtual economy, such as EVE or EQ2. That’s why they make the analogy to a petri dish. There’s lots of economic behavior going on, and it can be tracked with complete accuracy.
Williams and Castronova’s article opens with a fascinating quote:
In The Treachery of Images (1928–9), René Magritte painted a picture of a pipe above the words: ‘Ceci n’est pas une pipe’ (‘This is not a pipe’). In virtual worlds, there are no pipes either, yet users manage to use virtual objects and characters in a vast array of social transactions. When observers see a virtual sword on the computer screen, the paraphrase of Magritte’s admonition – ‘Ceci n’est pas une épée’ (‘This is not a sword’) – surely comes to mind. However, is the sword only an image? Or does it become invested with some kind of socially constructed realness as a result of playing a role in human communication and exchange?
Which really reminds me of the phrase you hear in MMO’s a lot: “It’s just a game.” They go on to describe their plan:
By examining transactions from a large commercial virtual world with hundreds of thousands of players, the current mapping test concerns whether the items and economic behaviors within a virtual world function in the same way that they would in the real world – where, it is noted, currency is also largely representational (a dollar is only a piece of paper, but is assumed to have a value in gold backed by the US treasury). Do the same behaviors that make a US dollar bill economically ‘real’ also make a virtual sword economically ‘real’? Does economic behavior map from the real world into the virtual?
What may have started out as unreal, through our time and effort becomes real to us. Now the associations and emotions we have around it may well have a different slant: We are likely to be less risk averse, for instance. There’s a less scholarly discussion of this on the EVE forums, addressing the question, “Is it just a game?”
One of my favorite quotes from that discussion, which isn’t terribly EVE specific, and worth a read:
I used to bring this up to the goons now and then. They’d literally spend hundreds of hours planning and organizing ways to annoy people, and then when some random guy who only plays a couple hours a week complained they’d say “it’s just a game”.
Props to Sony for providing their data to economic and sociological research.