Sunday, September 24, 2006

Online Gaming and Chinese Gold Farmers

The Sunday Times reports a new documentary by a University of California in San Diego student looking at the economics of internet gaming. Essentially Chinese players work huge stretches gaining the experience, currency and items which make a character powerful and then sell this to Westerners who are not willing to take the vast amount of time required to progress. That this practice has developed to such an extent does not surprise me. People care a lot about these games and there have to be plenty cash rich enough to afford such a service but time poor to the extent that they will not be able to manage the enormous task of reaching the end stages of an online game like World of Warcraft.

The growth of online games begins to make the more modest online worlds imagined by authors like William Gibson in his Virtual Light trilogy appear far less science fictional. There are millions of people for whom the quick typing of "irl" to denote an event or thing belonging to the real world signifies a need to shift their perspective out of a virtual world. They are generally playing as themselves, this is not roleplaying in the classic 'being' your character sense, but they are developing social networks which often overlap with but are not dependent upon real life connections. It is a virtual reality in a far more real sense than could be provided by any futuristic headset.

What no one has ever convinced me of is exactly why this is a bad idea. The most common answer is the truistic but unconvincing "it isn't real". Of course it isn't but the real world isn't perfect. If people want to spend their spare time somewhere else where's the harm?

"It inhibits the development of social skills". No it doesn't. While plenty of people playing these games may well, in real life, have problems with social interaction that is not necessarily a product of playing the game. Plenty of people in the world at large have problems with social interaction. The question is whether it is better for people, when facing such problems, to be interacting in the safe environment of the game or not interacting at all; the answer is clear. Equally, plenty of those playing these games do not have social problems, they choose to spend part of their leisure time playing them because it is a form of social interaction that forms a natural part of a modern, wired, existence; they still have the time to meet friends for drinks etc.

"People get addicted and screwed up". This is probably the most serious criticism of these games. A South Korean who died after playing for 50 hours is the, somewhat heroic, extreme. Others have stories of educations or working lives ruined. However, compare the numbers to those injuring themselves through other leisure pursuits such as harder edged sports or drinking and you'll find this risk is a relatively minor one. Millions play these games without any serious harm.

Online gaming is big and here to stay.

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