Julian Dibbell was one of the first journalists to cover RMT (Real Money Trade), the sale of videogame items for actual money. When he began investigating the market, he started hearing rumors about “Chinese gold farms” where low-paid workers gathered in-game resources to sell to wealthier players. For years the farms were just a rumor, but Dibbell was eventually able to confirm their existence.

“I visited these factories in China that were literally guys working 12-hour shifts, seven days a week, living in factory dorms, playing World of Warcraft, just cranking out the gold,” Dibbell says in Episode 245 of the Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast.

Such elaborate measures made sense because RMT was highly lucrative. Marcus Eikenberry, a leading figure in the virtual goods industry, says that for years he enjoyed phenomenal success trading items in games such as World of Warcraft and Ultima Online. But the business was always unpredictable.

“I made my first million in videogames and I also lost it in videogames,” Eikenberry says. “I’ve been incredibly wealthy at one point from videogames, from doing this stuff, and I’ve been bankrupt twice.”

Eikenberry is still involved with RMT for games such as Eve Online, Shroud of the Avatar, and Crowfall, but these days he only works with developers who endorse him as a certified business partner. It’s part of what he sees as a maturing game industry, with reliable RMT vendors replacing the shady black markets that plagued earlier games.

“The games that I’m dealing with these days, we don’t see that kind of stuff,” he says. “And in fact we don’t see the Chinese farms a whole lot either. It’s interesting how the industry has changed to defeat this.”

Dibbell says that while gold farming may not be the issue it once was, game developers still have plenty of other problems to deal with. “There have been lots of articles written in law journals about the nature of property in virtual worlds, and what kinds of property theories would allow a player to make a claim against a game developer who says, ‘Yeah, that’s yours, but you can’t sell it,’” Dibbell says. “I mean, that’s a weird claim to make in the real world, and what is it about these virtual worlds that changes that?”

Listen to our complete interview with Julian Dibbell and Marcus Eikenberry in Episode 245 of Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy (above). And check out some highlights from the discussion below.

Marcus Eikenberry on “rares” in Ultima Online:

“[The designers] never envisioned anybody would have any need to do anything with horse dung in the game. It was just something that was in the stables in different towns. But there were a couple places where you could pick it up, and so we were picking up horse dung and putting it in our backpacks and trotting back home and going, ‘Hey honey, look what I found!’ It had like a $20 value. We would build our own stables at our houses, and we had some authentic horse dung to put in it. It was all just pixels and everything, but that was one of the rare items. … And no, they didn’t make us any better players or whatnot, but part of owning items in these games is being able to show them off. … So people wanted these things.”

Marcus Eikenberry on anti-cheating measures:

“One of the guys that I’d been working with for a fan site, he’s just this mega fan of Shroud of the Avatar, and he owns a town in the game—he’s got a significant investment, he’s somewhere between $5,000 and $10,000 into the game—and he decided he was going to take all his empty lots in his town and plant cotton on them. So he plants all this cotton, and there’s this giant cotton field, and he decides he’s going to spend an afternoon picking all the cotton once it’s grown. … The next thing he knows he’s banned from the game. … What had happened was he statistically went so far above the norm on how much cotton anyone had picked that the game itself said, ‘Hold on, we’re suspending your account until someone can review this.’ The next day he had full access back to his account, and it had been reviewed that he wasn’t abusing the system or anything, he just has a lot of cotton.”

Julian Dibbell on virtual theft:

“This is why we have property laws, it’s because people feel very strongly about property, and they will commit violence in the interest of it if we don’t have legal regimes in place to help people sort this stuff out. So yeah, there was a guy in China who played one of the multiplayer online games, and [in the game] he had a very valuable sword. He lent it to his friend, who then sold it for a lot of money. He went to the local police, but local law enforcement historically has not taken theft of virtual property very seriously. He was laughed out of the police station, and in a fit of frustration he took a real knife and cut his friend up. And that’s when law enforcement decided to get involved.”

Julian Dibbell on Edward Castronova:

“One of the early observations that Castronova made was that there were all these virtual worlds in the ’90s where the whole point was just to hang out and build the world. There were all these open, sandbox games, kind of like Second Life. … [They presented] what economists think of as a utopian world where nothing is scarce—if you want a chair for your character to sit on, you just snap your fingers and there’s the chair. But the games that really took off and attracted people were the ones where stuff was hard, where if you wanted a chair you had to go out there and chop the wood—or slay the wolves and sell their pelts for enough money to buy a chair. The idea that scarcity is fun and gives people a sense of meaning is important, because it doesn’t fit into the normal economic calculations.”

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