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Virtual goodies, real greenies

Can selling cybergoods rake in more than your day job? In new book, Julian Dibbell gives it a shot.

The press release for Julian Dibbell's new book, "Play Money," hit my in-box Monday, and one sentence in that release summarizes why Dibbell's effort is so unusual.

"Behold: You bear witness here to the first mainstream-publishing title ever to go on sale simultaneously as both a physical and a virtual object, available for purchase in the currency of either the real world or a virtual one."

I had to laugh. I'd already been reading "Play Money" (Basic Books, $24--or an equivalent amount of Linden dollars, the coin of the virtual world "Second Life," where he will also sell the book). It's Dibbell's memoir of his attempts to become a titan in the shadowy world of the traders of "Ultima Online" weapons, buildings, gold pieces and other items.

Julian Dibbell
Julian Dibbell

The premise behind Dibbell's challenge to himself--the operating principle of his "Play Money" blog from which the book draws its name--was simple: "On April 15, 2004, I will truthfully report to the IRS that my primary source of income is the sale of imaginary goods--and that I earn more from it, on a monthly basis, than I have ever earned as a professional writer."

As a reporter who writes about the culture and economics of online games and virtual worlds, I was familiar with Dibbell's challenge. Indeed, I had covered the lead-up to his self-imposed deadline. I also knew him personally from conferences we'd attended. So I already knew the outcome of the book before I picked it up.

I won't play spoiler and tell you whether Dibbell succeeded. But in many ways, his virtual adventure is much more the point of the book than his project's success or failure.

Virtual scarcity
Perhaps the place to start with Dibbell's unusual personal challenge is to talk about the general concept of virtual economies, where people pay real money for the exchange of virtual goods. Can, for example, such economies be taken as real, serious economic systems in which market forces dictate prices and in which fortunes are won and lost overnight?

The short answer, according to many experts, is a resounding "yes." Credit what Edward Castronova, an associate professor of telecommunications at Indiana University, called the "puzzle of virtual scarcity."

Book cover

Castronova's idea was that in virtual worlds, as in the real one, goods that are scarce--like that powerful sword, magical spell or trove of gold pieces acquired through hours of game play--are more coveted, and therefore more valuable.

"'What we're learning is that scarcity itself is an essential variable,'" Dibbell writes, quoting Castronova. "'We just haven't needed to worry about it before. Thanks to God, the Man, or whoever's running this show, we're used to taking scarcity for granted. The emergence of virtual communities means that we have to make it explicit.'"

And in the real world, scarcity translates to a high price tag.

In fact, the question of whether virtual economies should be taken seriously is the fodder for any number of conferences and symposiums. For example, "State of Play," an annual conference in New York, brings together academics and other experts to work through legal, economic and social issues in the markets that sprout up around games like "Second Life," "World of Warcraft" and of course, Ultima Online.

By some estimates, those markets are worth as much as $880 million a year.

It shouldn't be much of a surprise, then, that Dibbell's transformation from casual player to wannabe market force to gaming addict did not take all that long.

"Does an addict ever know exactly when he crosses the line from curious to hooked?" Dibbell writes. "I'm pretty sure that moment was behind me now."

The weakness or strength of "Play Money" is in its early pages. If you're a literate reader interested in the philosophical underpinnings of virtual market economies and the history of play, then this book is a well-written page turner that backs up the drama of Dibbell's quest with historical fact and erudite critical theory. Casual readers, however, may be turned off by the weightiness.

That would be a shame, because Dibbell's journey is fascinating. Early on, he often felt like he was well on his way to Ferraris, mansions and the jet-set life--of the real world. Recounting how he had come into two houses on very desirable virtual land just days into his new venture, he speaks of getting ready to bank a quick profit by selling one of them.

"A thousand dollars' profit at least," he gushes. "And just two days into my new career! If things kept up at this rate, I'd be banking six figures before a year was up."

Over the subsequent pages, Dibbell spells out the highs and lows of being a mid- to low-level player in the multimillion-dollar "Ultima Online" economy. All the while, however, he seems to stay grounded, admitting that he will likely never be playing in the same ballpark as some of the real stars of this elusive market. While they are flipping goods at triple-digit profit margins, Dibbell laments being in the much more pedestrian 15 percent to 20 percent range.

That's even more true, he writes, when he discovers that Internet Gaming Entertainment, a large operation that employs dozens of workers around the world to "farm" virtual goods for later sale at far higher prices, would be bringing its juggernaut to his virtual world.

"'I haven't even had a chance to get my little five-and-dime up and running,'" Dibbell quotes from a November 2003 "Play Money" blog entry, "'and already the Wal-Mart is coming to town.'"

That's the true tension of the "Play Money" challenge: Dibbell is on the edge of success. He steels himself for the grind that the "job" requires. But he writes about losing touch with "Ultima Online" as a game, replacing interaction with other members of the virtual community with a strict focus on price structures, profits and losses.

In the end, that means being more a businessman and less a player.