Role-playing games provoke legal concerns

If you ask the average Yalie if they have ever heard of an MMORPG, or better yet, played one, you are likely to get a blank stare. Outside of the gaming scene, MMORPGs, or massively multiplayer online role-playing games, are still not common knowledge. But the fact remains — despite limited public familiarity with the gaming genre — that MMORPGs are attracting many who wish to profit from alternate realities by legitimate and not-so-legitimate means.

MMORPGs currently attract more than 4 million subscribers worldwide, and the majority of those subscribers are paying subscription rates of $10­ to 15 per month. Of course, the real economic interest in MMORPGs does not come from the subscription fees; rather, it comes from all of the peripheral investments players make in the games.

One of the biggest draws for players of MMORPGs is the fact that the games exist in a persistent world. When a player decides to quit playing for the day, the game continues on without them. Much of the game remains relatively static — monsters will reappear, dungeons will repopulate themselves, and valuable loot will return to its chests — but the most dynamic aspect of many games is the economy.

MMORPGs encourage trade between players, and the hard-to-find loot is very valuable. Players who wish to acquire the best items in the game often have two choices: to play for hours each day or to pay someone else to do it for them. This is where the so-called “secondary market” comes in.

One example of such a market is in the game World of Warcraft, produced by Blizzard Entertainment. A search on eBay for the game’s title returns pages of results. Players willing to pay prices into the hundreds on eBay can hire someone to play their game characters until the maximum level is reached and almost all of the game’s content becomes available. Other offers include gold — the game’s currency — for cash, or items that can be equipped in the game.

Of course, Blizzard does not condone any of this, citing in the game’s legal documentation that all game items remain property of the company, not the users. This does not prevent the sale of gold on eBay or the success of companies that exist solely to cater to this secondary market.

IGE is the largest of such companies, offering services for most of the major MMORPGs and dealing almost exclusively in game currency — both between games and for real cash. For World of Warcraft, players are asked to identify their server and are presented with the going rate for a fixed amount of currency, operating almost identically to a real-life currency exchange. There is also the option for players who play different games to cash out of one game, and into another, much like moving from the United States to Europe and exchanging dollars for Euros.

While much of this acquired currency is legitimate, some of the collected gold comes from other means.

In many games, including World of Warcraft, players can create “bots” — mindless computer-controlled characters, which repetitively kill monsters and collect loot or currency for their owners. Using bots, or botting, is never allowed by the game’s creators and is generally frowned upon in the gaming community, but it occurs just the same. According to the Blizzard site, the company closed over a thousand accounts this year due to botting.

A low-tech alternative approach is to hire real people to play these games and collect currency and items. Whereas bot players can often be detected due to program errors or odd behavior, human gold farmers are much harder to detect. This has led to the birth of a sweatshop industry in many digitally connected but developing nations, such as China. According to gaming site 1UP.com, players in these online sweatshops will sit for 12-hour shifts, earning less than a dollar an hour, collecting gold, which the sweatshop owners will then sell online.

But while Blizzard is wholly against this secondary market, other MMORPG creators are beginning to accept and even embrace the trend. Sony Online Entertainment, the group responsible for the game EverQuest and its sequel, recently announced an online trading service called Station Exchange, which provides services similar to those of IGE but solely for its EverQuest II title. SOE markets this site as a method to prevent scamming and illegitimate sales, but there is also money to be made. This is not the same type of secondary market, however, since SOE controls both the generation of items and their sale. Thus, items can always be available for sale; in this case, prices are artificially fixed, not driven by scarcity as in the other secondary markets.

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