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12:30pm on Sunday, 15th October, 2006:

Play Money


I've just finished reading Julian Dibbell's Play Money, a little later than most of my peers in the virtual world research community because it wasn't available in the UK until recently (indeed, I got my copy for free after Julian sweet-talked the publishers into sending me one).

I have to admit that when I first heard of Julian's project, I was a little cynical: it occurred to me that the aim was not actually to make money from selling virtual goods for real money, but to make money from writing a book about selling virtual goods for real money. I was thus not surprised when the book duly appeared.

Having now read it, though, I'll have to forego my earlier suspicions as it does appear Julian did have every intention of making his fortune from trading in Ultima Online gold and objects. The idea of a book was perhaps a nice back-up if things went wrong, but he really did want to get in on this real-money trading bandwagon and pull in lucre by the barrowload. That said, I do expect — actually, I genuinely hope — that the book makes him much more money than his trading ever did.

I liked the book at several levels. First of all, Julian's writing style is wry, clear and appealing (he is a writer by trade, after all), and he has his facts straight — no awful gaffes for those in the know to pick up on and scoff about, as he himself is in the know.

Secondly, it's told as an unfolding drama, which, even if you already knew the story, was nevertheless compelling. The descent from innocent idealism to hard-nosed embitterment is vividly portrayed, and I particularly liked the way he was able to recapture the emotions of both the earlier and later stages while remaining able to comment on them in a detatched, objective way; that's degree of self-analysis is a great skill to have for writers.

Thirdly, I liked the way that the key issues were laid bare in a way that will make them clear to non-players of virtual worlds. The next time I speak to a lawyer who wants to understand what all this fuss is over "virtual worlds", I'll be able to point them at this book in the knowledge that it'll press all the buttons necessary to tell them why this is not a trivial topic.

The interesting thing from my point of view was how Julian went full circle in his view of virtual worlds. He starts off as a player, having fun just playing, then decides to stop being a player start being a trader, making money from those who are players. Because this is regarded as cheating by many players (although not by the developers of Ultima Online — it's End-User Licence Agreement doesn't prohibit the activity, just the mechanism most of the farmers use to obtain game gold), he finds himself in a murky underworld peopled by individuals and organisations running the whole scale from those who regard RMT as just part of the game to those who see it as a way to scrape a living to those who regard real-life laws with as little respect as they regard the EULA. At the end, when he bows out, he speaks to the US tax authorities and is given the opportunity basically to ask for a ruling that would effectively close down all virtual worlds if it went the wrong way. He declined to do so, in part because of the expense but primarily because to do so would spoil the fun of all those millions of players. So once again, player fun becomes the centre of his view of virtual worlds — what makes them important. He also has a very sharp observation concerning the difference between work and play, which I'm not going to elaborate here: read the book if you want to know more.

I read Julian's first book on virtual worlds, My Tiny Life, as both a lucid commentary on issues raised by aspects of newly-emergent virtual world culture and a love letter to his (by the end of it) wife. Play Money is, sadly, the reverse: a commentry on the reassertion of the real over the virtual, and a parallel of the breakdown of his marriage. UO wasn't the cause of his marital problems (the book doesn't go into details as to what they were — it doesn't need to), but there certainly seems to be an analogy between his gradually ceasing to play UO for fun and the way his private life was going. The central importance of fun in the lives of virtual world players is a token for the central importance of his daughter, Lola, in his own life. If you look at some things too objectively, it removes the subjectivity that makes them worth looking at in the first place; he does this with virtual worlds, but not with his daughter. You really have to admire the man for his attitude here; I was very impressed at his integrity.

Of course, I could be reading way too much into it, but hot damn, I'll be reading Julian's next book when it comes out, whatever.

Read Play Money, and have fun.

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Copyright © 2006 Richard Bartle (richard@mud.co.uk).