Project Dystopia


Over the Christmas break, while many of us were spending a week or two by the sea in a rented house, David Storey was fitting out his new island. The twenty-two-year-old graduate student at the University of Sydney bought the deed to his new piece of real estate at an auction on 14 December, and has since been settling in nicely.

And why wouldn’t he? The property includes a gigantic abandoned castle, some beautiful beaches ripe for development, and ample potential for hunting and mining. What’s more, Storey picked it up for what some might consider a snip: $35 333.

The only catch is that the island isn’t really real. It exists only within the confines of cyberspace, inside a multi-player computer game called Project Entropia. But the money Storey paid for it is very real.

‘I paid the computer gaming company,’ he says, ‘I deposited the money into the company’s account and the company’s representative inside the game handed me the deed to the island.’

The deed comes with rights. If other players come to the island to hunt or mine, Storey gets a percentage of their takings, automatically deposited into his account. On top of that, Storey will be able to sell five plots of virtual land on his virtual island a month for the next year, the total proceeds of which are expected to top $40 000. Other gamers are expected to buy the land to develop, hunt and mine themselves.

Storey is only the latest and most radical example of a trend that is sweeping up literally millions of geeks across the globe. Massively multi-player online role-playing games (MMORPGs) have attracted an enormous subscriber base, becoming a magnet for nerds by creating vast and rich worlds that continue to grow and change even when the player is not online.

Gamers are attracted to them because they have overcome one of the biggest problems of traditional computer games: loneliness. While a person playing a one-player game is destined to blast away at the aliens all alone, a MMORPG player does so in the company of other dweebs from around the world. Project Entropia was developed by a company in Sweden, but its players come from all over. The underbidder for Storey’s island was a DJ from New York, and Storey was backed (emotionally if not financially) by a multinational syndicate, all of whom stood around at the auction – inside the game – cheering him on in real time.

The game itself has 180 000 players, each of whom has created their own persona – species, sex, and capabilities. On the internet, they say, nobody knows you’re a dog, and this is nowhere truer than project Entropia. Players work to improve themselves and to earn special items – magic swords, cars, feather hats.

Project Entropia is unique in the MMORPG world because it does not charge monthly subscription fees. The larger multi-player games, such as Lineage, have up to four million subscribers, each of whom pays US$10 – US$15 a month to play. Generally they forbid any further commerce from taking place inside or outside the game, but the world in which David Storey has chosen to seek his fortune is free to participate in, but its creators take a cut from the commerce that happens inside its confines.

For a player in the MMORPG world, there are two ways to advance: spend a lot of time working inside the game on self improvement or making stuff, or simply buy better capabilities. Those games that forbid buying and selling have seen a thriving black market in characters, capability and in-game currency appear on e-bay, with over $8 million of virtual stuff auctioned on e-bay in the last six months.

Economic complexities
Until now, computer game manufacturers have been concentrating on perfecting the worlds they create for their players, whether that be a medieval kingdom with dragons and knights, or a suburban scene with neighbours and extra marital flings. Now, however, MMORPG managers are finding themselves managing enormous economies. Edward Castaneda, an academic at the University of Indiana has built a career out of studying the economics of these worlds.

By looking at how quickly players in MMORPGs accumulate wealth for toil, Castronova calculated that the average gamer has the same level of productivity as your average Bulgarian. More than that, by totalling up the number of players in the online world and their level of production, he reckons the economies of the online gaming world are about the same size as that of Namibia.

He says the important point is not whether his arithmetic is correct: ‘Statistically and economically these worlds matter already, and its only 2004.’

Managing such large economies, the game developers have faced financial crises Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan would struggle with. The largest MMORPG, EverQuest, experienced an inflationary crunch when gamers figured out how to program their characters to work extra fast and extra hard, without them even having to be online. Essentially they were printing their own fantasy cash. Game developers have had to come up with strategies to prevent this crashing their economies such as withdrawing cheaters licenses and crushing black market currency factories.

Dr Castaneda reckons it is hard to underestimate the impact that these virtual worlds will have on our societies over the coming decades. The games’ power comes from their ability to replicate the things that humans enjoy doing the most, one of which is work itself.

‘There are many steps involved in commerce, from finding iron ore, smelting it into iron, hammering it into a sword, selling it for gold pieces and using those to buy new clothes,’ he says. ‘Each of these is a compelling activity for humans.’

David Storey, Project Entropia’s star player, agrees. As a computer scientist, studying computer gaming behaviour for his Ph.D, he thinks that participating in games teaches players much more about the world of business than it does about computing.

‘It teaches you about how markets grow and change, about people’s motivations, who’s trying to scam you and why, and about how to strike a profitable deal,’ he says. Over the Christmas break he spent about ten hours a day playing the game. ‘I’ve got lots of work to do, deals to cut, people to invite to the island.’ Too busy, even to come out for a cup of coffee with us.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.