Ok, I've never played a massive multiplayer online game (MMO), but they are apparently very popular nowadays among many people, not just typical gamers. The most popular of these games is World of Warcraft (WoW), which, based on my admittedly limited knowledge, seems to be some iteration of the Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy type of role playing game. First of all, it's weird to me that people pay a monthly fee just to play this game, but apparently the game play is so good along with the fact that people make e-friends while playing that a whole community has built up around this game.
There are others that work in a similar way where you don't have to be an elf or a wizard. You can just walk around and be a regular guy and then the way you play the game is to pay real money for virtual shit for your character. How this is fun, I have no idea, but, like I say, it's apparently enormously popular.
I guess this phenomenon is true of all of these games, but I'll talk more specifically about WoW and then there are also a couple of examples from other online communities. The weird thing to me is the amount of real, actual, physical (consulting thesaurus for more synonyms) money that changes hands in order for people to exist in this virtual world. Here are two examples from WoW.
The first one I read about in the New York Times Magazine (which is fantastic reading, by the way. I often just skip the paper and read the magazine. "I like the crosswords. She goes straight for the magazine"). In order to play WoW you need to buy stuff for your character, weapons and whatever else. There are two ways to do it. You can earn the money through playing the game, which takes many, many hours, or you can pay someone real money in exchange for game money. A lot of people choose the latter route and there exists, therefore, a market for virtual WoW money. Filling that demand are many companies in countries with internet access and large numbers of poor people, aka China and Russia, that literally employ people in 12 hour shifts to play WoW and do whatever mundane task is involved in getting coins and stockpiling fake money, which they then sell to a middle man in some US company, who then sells it at a profit. There are guys whose job is to walk around this virtual world and do the easiest possible thing in order to win money, and that's it. And when you can employ some large number of people to do this 24 hours a day and pay them essentially nothing, you can turn a significant profit.
Now that's weird. The second thing is somewhat understandable, but seems to defeat the purpose of putting all this time and money into the game. I saw this on a TV show either on the DiscoveryHD or the MoJo channel (again, people, if you don't have a HDTV, you're not just missing out on picture quality, but on quality programming). Another business that has sprung up is where guys are employed in 8 hour shifts that span all 24 hours of the day, the one they showed was in like Ukraine or something, where you can send them your username and they will play the game for you for however long it takes to get you to the highest level of gameplay. Apparently in WoW, the worlds don't change really at all, but as you gain experience points, you move up from level to level and you're able to do more things. The maximum is to be a level 40 player. So you pay some Ukrainian guys to play the game for you and then when they email you back, this takes about a month, by the way, of non-stop game play by the Ukranians, then you are a level 40 player. You don't have access to your avatar while they're upping your level and so you're basically shut out of the community. What's the point of that? That's like paying someone to get all the triforces and heart containers in Zelda just so you can walk around and kill things with one sword hit instead of two.
In another online community who's name I forget you basically just walk around and try to buy cool shit for your avatar. And then you can go out to clubs and hang out and hook up with other virtual people and do whatever. It's like living life for lazy people. Anyway, this was also on that TV show, one guy was really into the game and ended up being really popular because he actually wrote a song about the community and played it at the virtual club and everyone really liked it and he eventually became like the hip DJ of the virtual club. So they tell this guy's whole story and the end of the story is that he mortgaged his actual house and some other stuff and paid a few hundred thousand dollars to buy a virtual space hotel. The centerpiece obviously was the dance club in the middle of it, but there are hotel rooms and permanent residences for the virtual people in it as well. He paid this several hundred thousand dollars because he fully expected that people would pay him roughly $1,000 per housing unit, and would pay to stay in the hotel, and go to the dance club and whatever else. And he had potentially made an investment that would net him a million dollars in actual money.
Something else I read about in the NYT Magazine was about an online community that was a little different than the others. Apparently most of these MMO games only have the illusion of being a gigantic universe where everyone is, and the reality is that there are many, maybe even hundreds, of identical universes where some fraction of players are situated and they exist on different servers and it's easier to manage that way. This one universe, again who's name I forget, actually had only one enormous universe. And they did whatever virtual people do, but there was going to be a coup in the universe because some people felt that the emplyees of the company were managing the game unfairly and some people had more power than others due to some unfair practices. This company actually took the step of electing a governing body from amongst the users, flying the actual people to their offices and holding deliberations regarding whatever issues they were having and planned to make it an annual event in order to keep up the fairness of the game.
That last one is interesting, but not necessarily all that weird, given how much people seem to care about these things. Those first three, though, really just kindof astonish me. It's just so strange.
On a related note, I wondered in the comments on Joe's blog a while back what type of people administrate Wikipedia, and it turns out that the people at the NYT Magazine were wondering the same thing, because they had a really interesting article about the types of people who moderate Wikipedia. Many people, largely high school and college kids, choose to volunteer up to 8 or 10 hours of their day moderating Wikipedia. And no one asked them to do it. They weren't solicited by Wikipedia or anything, they just decided that it needed to be done. Again, that's mad weird, but not related to capitalism in any way.