Money Matters: Play Money

Marketplace Staff Sep 15, 2006


KAI RYSSDAL: Dungeons and dragons and bears, oh, my. Or maybe I should say, “Oh, money.” The virtual world might be filled with scary creatures, but those games have created a real economy. Players can spend actual money solidifying their online presence: a bigger sword, a better dagger, a three-story castle, even. Online stores like eBay are rich with those kinds of trinkets that exist only in cyberspace. Julian Dibbell found a way to cash in. His new book about it is called Play Money.

Mr. JULIAN DIBBELL: I spent my time buying and selling the product of the play time of other people. So I wasn’t so much going in and farming the goods in these games as I was operating at the retail level.

RYSSDAL: It’s a little curious because there’s real economic theory that says, ‘Well, of course a virtual game in some real economic cap and stance are going to come together.’ I mean how did, I guess how did it begin?

DIBBELL: The way it starts out is you have these innocent online virtual worlds, right?

RYSSDAL: And there are a million of them.

DIBBELL: And there are a million of them. And in the beginning, a lot of them were sort of, ‘Oh, we have this digital universe. You can be whoever you want to be. You can change the world in whatever way you want to. Go forth players. Here it is. Make of it what you will. Do whatever you want.’ And it sounded good on paper, but in fact, it wasn’t that attractive to people. The worlds that were attractive were the ones that included the one thing that the Internet doesn’t naturally supply and that is scarcity. Online, people don’t want to go in these worlds where all there is to do is sit around and talk and change what your character looks like a million times. They want a challenge. They want to get stuff that’s hard to find and takes a lot of time to get a hold of. They want to get it pretty bad after they’ve been trained up into it.

RYSSDAL: Just for example, there’s a character in a game, whatever it might be, who decides to make himself some money-making swords. So first he has to go mine the ore.

DIBBELL: Exactly.

RYSSDAL: Then he has to spend time at the forge hammering out the sword.

DIBBELL: Exactly.

RYSSDAL: And then he has to . . .

DIBBELL: Don’t forget he has to smelt the ore because he has to . . .

RYSSDAL: Of course. That’s 47 mouse clicks itself. Then he’s got to find somebody to buy it, and that was you I suppose.

DIBBELL: Occasionally, yes.

RYSSDAL: Let me ask you about a guy you talk about in the book: Troy Stoly?


RYSSDAL: Stoly, he is a carpenter in the real world. Spends 10-hour days out in the blazing sun or wherever it is, or in the freezing winter, hammering nails into wood. And then he goes home and you write that he spends hour upon hour upon hour clicking his mouse to generate revenue or buy a home, or do whatever it is. How is that fun, I guess, in a real sense of the word?

DIBBELL: I don’t know, Kai. You know, I saw him. He’s a construction worker. He’s banging on those nails, getting whacked in the head. Now, it’s miserable work, and then he comes home and he’s, like you said, he’s click, click, click, click, clicking. It’s a very similar tedious thing. And I asked him, you know, why? And he said, “Well, it’s not work if you enjoy it.”

RYSSDAL: The thing you point out is how he has gone and he has bought himself a tower, Stoly’s Tower and then there’s a whole long series of how he finally got to buy this tower. But my thing was that the man spent $750 real-world dollars for this thing that exists in cyberspace.

DIBBELL: Oh, well, Stoly was the man who built the tower. He ended up selling his whole account for $500. Eventually through a series of middle men, it ended up with a Wonderbread delivery man in Oklahoma, who paid $750 just for the tower. Now why did he want the tower? That’s a good question. Why did he spend real dollars on it? Well, a simple way to understand why real money comes into this at all is just think of these games as very complex puzzles. Just think of the, you know, the daily crossword that people do, and there’s always that little phone number down at the bottom of the crossword puzzle tempting people to say, ‘Oh, come on, just spend $2 to get the clue and finish the puzzle.’ And that’s basically what this market does, is it solves the puzzle for people.

RYSSDAL: People do that, though. They take their credit cards and they go to town, and get a pretty high-level start in these games.

DIBBELL: They were my customers.

RYSSDAL: Ah, yes, commerce. Julian Dibbell’s book is called Play Money, or How I Quit My Day Job and Made Millions Trading Virtual Loot. Julian, thanks for coming by.

DIBBELL: Hey, it was great being here.

There’s a lot happening in the world.  Through it all, Marketplace is here for you. 

You rely on Marketplace to break down the world’s events and tell you how it affects you in a fact-based, approachable way. We rely on your financial support to keep making that possible. 

Your donation today powers the independent journalism that you rely on. For just $5/month, you can help sustain Marketplace so we can keep reporting on the things that matter to you.