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Play, work or crime In late April 2008 I received a phone call from a friend and fellow guild member in Sweden. This immediately struck me as awkward, given that our communication was customarily conducted through email and in-game chat, and there are charges attached to calling from Sweden to the Netherlands. The reason she called was to ask a question: had I been online in the game that day? My answer was no; I had become a father just a week before, so playing World of Warcraft had not been on the menu for some time. She replied that she had been expecting this answer – my guild was aware that I had become a parent – and informed me that she and other guild members had still seen several of my characters online during that day performing all kinds of irregular and strange things. My characters did not reply to any in-game messages or other forms of communications when prompted. Worse still, some of my characters had been actively absconding with large numbers of valuable items from the guild’s bank.
It did not take me long to understand that my account had been compromised.
And indeed, after I hung up the phone and tried to log into the game I found that my password had been changed, preventing me from reaching my characters. I part iv claiming the game quickly ran all the virus, adware and spyware scanners on my PC and, after having persuaded myself that all would be safe, I retrieved and changed my password through the official website’s account management page.76 Finally and with a freshly reset password I could log into the game. Those responsible for compromising my account had been very active indeed. All my high-level characters had been dispersed throughout the game world. The most unpleasant surprise however was that, for the most part, all the items in their bags and bank accounts had disappeared. All the gold and most of the items I had compiled were gone. My characters were robbed right down to their virtual bones.
What happened when they broke into my account and stole my virtual belongings goes beyond cheating. Duping players into giving you their virtual currency inside of the game is one thing, but breaking into your account outside of the game in order to log into the game and strip characters of their belongings is a significant step beyond the boundaries of acceptable behaviour. Calling such practices a crime nevertheless remains difficult in terms of real-world law. We could say that the robbery of my virtual goods is a virtual crime, in the same way that the robbery of real goods can be called real crime. The problem with the term virtual crime is the word “virtual”. As law scholars Gregory Lastowka and Dan Hunter put it, ‘the term virtual crime can be just as meaningless as the term “virtual pet” if it is defined to include all computer-generated simulations of crime’, adding that ‘realistic simulations of mass murder occur every day on the computer monitors of those playing Grand Theft Auto III and on home entertainment centres displaying DVDs of Hamlet’ (Lastowka & Hunter 2006: 123). My aim here is not just to show that the theft of my virtual goods or the burglary of my account were indeed a crime but to convey how my quest to retrieve my virtual belongings led me to investigate what allowed the game environment to become a place where I could be robbed in the first place.77 The battlefield of negotiation addressed here revolves around the so-called Real-Money Trade (RMT), the buying and selling of virtual currency for real money, a practice briefly mentioned earlier in the book when I described twinking as a form of luxury play. RMT is also closely linked to the reason many players resort to speedrunning and power-leveling guides, also discussed previously, as buying gold reduces the time needed to play (after all, you earn gold by doing quests and killing mobs). The practice of buying gold is widespread in the genre.
Games researcher Nick Yee gathered data on MMO users and found that twentytwo percent of all respondents admitted to having bought virtual currency at one point (averaging $135), with older respondents – likely to have less time for play and more money to spend – turning out to buy virtual gold more often, and in larger quantities, than younger respondents (2005a). Levelling takes time, as does earning gold and collecting good items in the endgame. And this is where a typical market system reveals itself; if a player wants something badly enough, he will pay any asking price for it, even if it means coughing up real-world money. The 132 battlefields of negotiation resulting RMT phenomenon has been a significant part of a growing global virtual economy (characterized by the exchange of virtual goods, currencies and digital labour), which, according to a report commissioned by the World Bank, has an estimated revenue of three billion US dollars (Lehdonvirta & Ernkvist 2011).
A well-known early study on the relationship between MMORPGs and the realworld economy raised quite a few eyebrows when it was published. Castranova calculated in 2001 that the gross national product per capita of Norrath made it the 77th richest country in the world, on par with countries like Russia and Bulgaria (2001: 28). Norrath, of course, is not a real country but the fictional world of MMORPG Everquest. But, as Castranova pointed out, ‘from an economist's point of view, any distinct territory with a labour force, a gross national product, and a floating exchange rate, has an economy’, including virtual territories where the labour force consists of thousands of players and their labour is play (2001: 16).
The most important difference between the real-world economy and virtual economies is the legal status of trade. Whereas a real-world country’s government usually promotes the import and export of goods, many commercial games like World of Warcraft are controlled by companies who see such activities as illegal, and who do not hesitate to act accordingly when they find out you are guilty of RMT practices. Therefore, stealing virtual gold from other players is a virtual crime, but so is buying it with real money. On the level of game contract, Blizzard considers such trade punishable. One of the main reasons for deeming this form of trade illegal is that it can cause problems such as hyperinflation within the ingame economy (as seen in the twinking case), problems that could potentially interfere with players’ enjoyment of the game. Still, many entrepreneurially minded players and, in some cases, companies actively promote RMT because there is money to be made.
Due to the relative newness of MMORPG money trading, RMT exists in the grey areas of real-world law and has attracted some highly dubious business practices as well as outright criminal behaviour. One of the larger players in the RMT field, virtual currency buyer/seller Internet Gaming Entertainment (IGE), is especially infamous for what journalist and author Julian Dibbell calls its large-scale ‘entrepreneurial madness’ (2006b: 203).78 In addition to RMT activities, IGE is also notorious for its involvement (through its parent companies) in buying up the three biggest World of Warcraft information databases thottbot, allakhazam and WoWhead, leading many players to fear that these user-generated databases would be bombarded with gold selling ads.79 Whether or not these fears were warranted in this case, they were certainly understandable.80 World of Warcraft players live under a constant barrage of gold selling spam, both in the game (through in-game chat and mail) and outside of it (on websites, forums and even Twitter).
part iv claiming the game The supply side of RMT to a large degree involves the large-scale use of farm bots, third-party software programmes able to play the game without the need of human action (prohibited by the EULA), and the exploitation of workforces in low-wage countries. In the last case, we find cunning entrepreneurs who set up sweat shops where people “play” 24/7 in shifts to produce virtual goods and/or power-level characters for those who want to pay for it (Dibbell 2006b, 2007).
Since their appearance on the MMO scene, these so-called “Chinese gold farmers” have become the focal point of anti-RMT player sentiment.81 Worse still, RMT spawned an army of “players” using phishing, keylogging and other dubious practices to try to get access to players’ accounts, stealing whatever there is with real-world value. According to a report from software security company Symantec, 2007 saw the black-market price for World of Warcraft account details rise to ten dollars, rivalling the price of credit card details (Symantec). It is not much, considering what you could potentially get for that sum. An accounting using the exchange rate between World of Warcraft and US dollars at that time showed that what was taken from me was worth about $186, and that number only represents the value of the gold pieces, not the value of the huge stockpile of sellable items that was taken from my characters and the guild bank.82 I can be considered an average player in terms of accumulated virtual wealth, yet the potential profit of stealing virtual goods is large. These acts, as well as the use of bots and other dubious practices, are far removed from actually playing the game. Even though the dichotomy between the notions of play and work is more imagined than real, these “players” are at “work” making money, using a playful medium (or their users) as their field of work.
In the two paragraphs above, I have put the terms play, player and work in quotation marks to signify that, when dealing with RMT issues, what is considered play and work becomes rather elastic. I do not share the classic view that play is an activity entirely unrelated to work or, as Johan Huizinga once put it, an activity that has ‘no material interest, and no profit can be gained by it’ (Huizinga 1955: 13).83 Rather, I agree with game scholar Jesper Juul who regards potential real-world profit from play a negotiable consequence of play (2005: 36). Soccer can be played “just for fun” but also professionally, for money. The same goes for card games, or pretty much any game you can bet money on (which, arguably, can be done with all games). Games are characterized by ‘the fact that they can be assigned consequences on a per-play basis’, including making money through play (ibid.).
Whether people on the supply or demand sides of RMT are still playing instead of working, however, does not merely depend on social codes of practice. This is something I investigate in the third section of this chapter. First I will show that, for Blizzard, buying or selling virtual goods is very much a non-negotiable consequence of play. While for players, the negotiations concerning RMT might take place on the level of game community, Blizzard’s opinion on RMT is codified on 134 battlefields of negotiation the level of game contract – the EULA does not allow it, and if caught, your account will be blocked from accessing the game temporarily or indefinitely.
The power of small print When I found out that my account had been broken into and plundered, the first thing I did was to report the theft by sending a message to Blizzard’s in-game helpdesk. It took a mere five minutes for Blizzard to reply, although the company
did not contact me within the game. Instead, I received the following email:
Greetings, We are writing to inform you that, unfortunately, we have had to temporarily suspend your World of Warcraft account and place a final warning on it.
Account Name: ACCOUNT Type of Violation: Involvement in online trading activities Investigation Concluded: 28/04/2008 Consequences for Account: Account suspended for 72 hours, Password Reset and Final Warning issued.
It is with regret that we take this type of action, but it is in the best interests of the World of Warcraft community as a whole, and for the integrity of the game.
After your suspension has expired, you will be able to access the World of Warcraft servers again.
Please note that should any further violations of our Rules and Policies occur, this will almost certainly lead to the permanent closure of your account. (personal communication with Account Administration Team, Blizzard Entertainment Europe, 29 April 2008).
Instead of a talk with a Game Master (GM), the usual result after sending an inquiry to the in-game helpdesk, I was confronted with a seventy-two hour ban for ‘online trading activities’. I could no longer log into the game. Even worse, the “final warning” assigned to my account pushed me all the way to the top of Blizzard’s “Penalty Volcano”, a tiered system of punishments ranging from temporary bans to account deletion which serves as a ‘visual representation of both the severity of each of our penalties and how often each type of penalty is given in relation to the others’ (Blizzard Entertainment 2007a). I was suddenly one tier away from the top-level account closure penalty, which would mean I would lose all my characters. This would potentially jeopardize years of play and potentially harm my research.
part iv claiming the game My logical reaction to this email and temporary ban was to fight the accusations and state that I was not responsible for ‘involvement in online trading activities’ with my account. Apparently, the person or persons responsible for compromising my account had used my account for trading activities. I sent Blizzard several petitions through the official website and, after the ban was lifted, opened a new in-game inquiry in order to contact a GM. The latter of which worked. As the excerpt from the in-game conversation I had with this GM below shows, Blizzard took this very seriously.
5/2 12:14:54.357 To Durngold: i got an email from blizz charging me with online trading activities 5/2 12:15:08.065 To Durngold: they suspended my account for 3 days and put a final warning on it 5/2 12:15:29.659 To Durngold: I did not involve myself in such activities, and have never shared my account 5/2 12:15:30.963 Durngold whispers: That would be due to the person on your accounts actions.
5/2 12:15:41.162 Durngold whispers: And any actions on your account, are your responsibility.
5/2 12:15:54.569 To Durngold: even if hackers did it ?!
5/2 12:16:11.461 Durngold whispers: Well yes. Because it was your responsibility to keep the account safe.