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Trading on the 'Neodaq'

In online games, virtual corporations sell shares, give shareholders voting rights and even elect and fire CEOs.

NEW YORK--If you play the online game "Eve Online" and traffic in some of the minerals found in its many solar systems, there's a good chance you're part of one of the approximately 2,000 in-world "corporations" that have sprung up over the years.

The corporations, which in some ways mirror the guilds of other online games like "World of Warcraft" and "EverQuest," give players a place to come together socially, form a community, and at the same time assert organizational control over the production and accumulation of resources. Many of these corporations sell shares, give shareholders voting rights and even elect and fire CEOs.

At a Friday panel at the third annual State of Play conference--a gathering of lawyers, academics, game developers, journalists and others who follow virtual worlds--several experts said that despite notions that virtual stock markets and other securities exchanges are a thing of the future, they can already be found in such persistent 3D environments.

As such, the Wall Street-like trading of commodities like minerals in "Eve Online"--a massive multiplayer online game, or MMOG, where players act as spaceship pilots seeking fortune and adventure in space--gives players a way to maintain some control over what would otherwise be a chaotic race to dominate those assets.

"There's a whole lot of volume behind these trades, and that creates a lot of stability, and that's why we see emerging traders," Kjartan Pierre Emilsson, the lead "Eve Online" designer at its publisher, CCP Game Design, told the audience. "It's why the game is played from an economic view, (and it's) like speculating on the future."

Alien Aisha and Virtupets
Naturally, "Eve Online" isn't the only online game or virtual world that has spawned trading of securities. In Second Life," one group of users formed a corporate-like entity called Cyberland, which does brisk business in land speculation. "Second Life" users can buy and sell shares in Cyberland, and its founder has promised to eventually pay dividends, said Philip Rosedale, CEO of the virtual world's publisher, Linden Lab.

Other games have forms of stock trading, as well. For example, the children's game "Neopets" has a stock market trading in shares of virtual companies like Alien Aisha Vending Ltd. and Virtupets. One user even created a stock index known as Neodaq.

With securities trading, of course, comes the risk of fraud, and some panelists and audience members wondered how game publishers handle that. But based on the responses of the developers on the panel, players shouldn't expect to look beyond the community of users for help if something goes wrong.

For its part, CCP Game Design approaches fraud by saying it can be a "fun" part of the game and something players have to deal with. As an example, Emilsson pointed to a situation in which one of the largest corporations in "Eve Online" was infiltrated and fleeced of thousands of dollars worth of assets. But he said that dealing with such situations is the players' responsibility.

Similarly, Rosedale said Linden Lab has not built in a system for resolving problems arising from bad securities trades and hopes that "Second Life" players, who already create nearly everything in the virtual world, would come up with a system if such a need existed.

"I believe the answer is that that will be an emergent (user-created) property of these environments," Rosedale said. "There is specific technology in "Second Life" to develop this stuff yourself."