eBay Launches Virtual Property
by Jon Katz
On eBay, people are shelling out thousands of dollars for gaming characters, symbols, armor, magical potions of trinkets. The media has missed the real story as usual: it isn't online violence, it's digital property. eBay may be even more significant than Mp3's. As the middle-class plunges into gaming, the Net is facing real world problems like housing costs and congestion. The result is another landmark in Net evolution: the owning of virtual property, something that may change the nature of Net economics and knock the gaming world for a loop.
Heads up: here comes another Net landmark: the broad-based mainstreaming of computing games by the hundreds of thousands of middle-class Americans pouring online in a continuing stream and preparing to pay big bucks for characters, property, tools and symbols.
Conquering new virtual property.
Here goes another online neighborhood, literally.
For the Net, the past couple of years has already been a Wall-Busting time: MP3's, open source, e-trading, and now, bidding for virtual property.
New but mushrooming trading for characters and property on games like Ultima Online has significance way beyond gaming. It suggests that space on the Net isn't infinite after all, and that people may have to begin paying or trading for access to the parts of it they want to use. Also that people with money can alter the balance of Net and Web culture suddenly and dramatically.
As usual, our phobic media has been obsessing on the wrong story: it isn't online violence, but online property.
The idea of virtual property is radical and new, almost completely unforeseen by the legions of futurists and cyber-theorists studying about the Internet. EBay, it turns out, will perhaps be even more revolutionary than the Mp3.
This week on eBay, Ultima Online players are spending real $US, sometimes thousands of them, to acquire video-game assets.
According to a story by Ariana Eunjung Cha in the San Jose Mercury News, players are bidding at online auctions to own imaginary resources that are becoming increasingly scarce as tens of thousands of people try and play.
Since its release in l997 by Electronic Arts the number of Ultima players has been growing by the thousands each month. Ultima is bringing the formerly geeky world of MUD's to the middle-class. Ultima, played by more than 125,000 people globally, and is, increasingly, creating its own reality for people who once viewed computer games as obsessive behavior for weird kids.
On Ultima, people are born, get married, are happy and stressed, get and lose jobs and die, just like they do in the real world.
But so many people are coming online to play that Ultima is facing serious real world problems, especially over-crowding, congestion and runaway housing costs.
So players are buying imaginary but increasingly scare resources as empty lots for housing, tower or castle developments sell out. Although Ultima's software engineers update and expand the game each month, they can't keep up with the population explosion, which means that gamers are trading with other players for virtual property. It's a shocker, perhaps an inevitable one, but urban and suburban planning problems are hitting online games. Perhaps Web designers, social planners and architects can do better than their real-world counterparts.
For the past two months, reports the Mercury News, eBay has offered gamers the chance to bid on property, characters, gold, armor, magical potions and trinkets. Ultimate Online sells for $39.95,plus $9.95 a month for access to the servers. But on eBay, one gamer sold his account for $4,000, and others have gotten anywhere from $1,500 to $3,000. This morning eBay has nearly 200 different items listed for sale.
This trading could permanently change the culture of gaming, as well as Net economics. The amount of time consumed in getting established in games like Ultima is enormous. Some players have spent thousands of hours over months, even years, to develop characters so they are experienced enough to explore the towns and countrysides of the game without getting maimed or killed.
Now, people with money can acquire sophisticated players and property with little work or time. Inexperienced players can have mature characters. That would change the whole nature of gaming.
"I don't want to spent a year developing my character, building property, getting savvy and confident only to find myself up against some Yuppie who's buying his way past me. That alters the whole idea," wrote Jared from Chicago, an online friend who plays Ultima almost every night of his life. "I have to earn the money I collect, and some newbie can start twice as rich as me because he's willing to pay. It's wrong, and I hope they stop it."
They won't. Company officials told the Mercury News that trading is perfectly legal, that they couldn't do anything about it even if they wanted to.
Still, it's amazing to see that the problems, pressures and rewards of a virtual game are suddenly morphing to real life. People are trading real-world money for virtual property. That takes recreation to a completely different level, and alters the very idea of how conventional property-buying works.
The Ultima trading began when a Texas firefighter decided to put his account up for sale when he got a second job and no longer had the time to play. The minimum bid was placed at $39, and it sold a week later for $521. Two weeks ago, a network security consultant from Chicago paid $1,000 on eBay for five virtual characters, three virtual houses and 300,000 pieces of virtual gold. An Ultimate Online fanatic, he bought the characters and property as a gift to a friend.
The eBay trading is especially ironic in the weeks after the Littleton, Colorado school massacre, when computer games - particularly those like Quake and Doom -- were widely described in media as responsible for aggression and violence. The CBS News broadcast "60 Minutes" devoted a whole hour to this question: "Are Video Games Turning Your Kids Into Killers." As more middle-class Americans turn to gaming, and experience its complex, creative and communal nature, the notion will seem even more ludicrous than it already does.
In the most literal sense, gaming is about to be about as controversial as buying a new car or fixing up a second home. In fact, it might soon be almost indistinguishable from it.
Maybe it's time to get your characters in shape. You might soon be using them to buy some new hardware, or pay for your real-world vacation.
May 1999 Imaginary Realities, the magazine of your mind.
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