Writing about technology, games, entertainment, and media (among many other things) for everyone from The New York Times Magazine to Wired, the Financial Times, Salon, and many more. Author of a book on online games and virtual worlds. Other stuff.
One of the best things about the internet, in the minds of many people, is the anonymity it affords. For gamers, that anonymity comes into play nowhere more than in massively multiplayer online games and virtual worlds, where the disconnect between our physical and digital selves gives us a chance to take on new roles and experiment with different aspects of the combined persona that bridges the gap between the two realms.
The fact is, there is no such thing as virtual commerce. You might think you've been making money buying and selling virtual items from your favorite MMORPG on eBay or IGE, but it's just not true. Don't tell the game companies, though. As far as they're concerned, virtual commerce is alive and well - and they'll do anything to keep it that way.
If that sounds like an upside-down version of the world you know, you may be in for a surprise. Let me explain.
As we all know by now (and the rest of the world is rapidly learning), the imaginary currencies that are earned, spent and traded in massively multiplayer online games and other virtual worlds are anything but virtual, themselves. For my money (virtual or otherwise), the biggest story of the year in virtual economics took place deep in outer space, surrounded by the harsh player vs. player realities of an MMOG known as EVE Online.
Published in 1899, The Theory of the Leisure Class was a scathing economic and social critique of America's habits of leisure, luxury and, to use the phrase Veblen coined, "conspicuous consumption." Though much of it is unreasonably harsh, Veblen's basic observations are no less salient today than a hundred years ago. If Veblen is to be believed, though, the fall of Western civilization is at hand - and it just may be gamers who are going to pull it down.
What's in a game? For those of us who are game buffs - in much the same way the cool kids were movie buffs in the latter part of the 20th century - it's a fascinating question. What makes a great game such a compelling experience? Is it that you're in the "flow" described by unpronounceable psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, that state of play (or work, for that matter) in which you're absorbed so completely, you enter a Zen-like state of oneness with your task? Or is it that you're caught up in the story, in the moral choices forced on your character, the moments of vulnerability and triumph, of uncertainty and resolution, the tale that keeps you glued to your console long enough to beat the next boss, reach the next level and find out what the next chapter holds?
In July 2003, television screens around the world were filled with images of the dead bodies of Uday and Qusay Hussein, sons of the Iraqi dictator, who had been killed by coalition forces in a raid in Mosul. American troops in Iraq had not been able to take the tyrants-in-waiting alive. But in the first mission from a small company in New York called Kuma Reality Games, gamers got the chance to do better. Just seven months after the brothers' deaths, computer screens across America were filled with similar images: a pixelated Uday and Qusay holed up in an Iraqi villa as a squad of American soldiers - commanded by players who had downloaded the game for free - made their way past sniper fire to capture the wanted men.