The Blurring of Work and Play
Sale of Virtual Goods
As Dibbell (2003) describes, virtual items and property in online environments such as Ultima Online have economic value, and users accumulate these items to sell for real money on Internet auction sites such as eBay. The transformation of gaming activity into economic activity is most striking in the presence of companies that pay teenagers in developing countries to "play" these games for 40 hours a week and derive a profit from selling these virtual goods for real money (The Walrus, 2004). This transformation of play into work is driven by entrepreneurial users who see the opportunity for bringing economic activity into the game, but what is more intriguing is how the increasing complexity of play in these worlds is coming to resemble real work.
The Growing Resemblance of Play to Real Work
Most MMORPGs base their core mechanics on operant conditioning, a system of rewards that increases frequency of a behavior. The rewards cycle is a random ratio schedule (exactly like casino slot machines) where a reward is given every x times an action is performed, where x increases exponentially as the user progresses. Simple actions are gradually replaced by complex, time-consuming actions and typical users are essentially trained to spend on average 22 hours per week in these environments. This is striking given that the average MMORPG user is 26 years old and about 50% of MMORPG users work full-time. As some users note,
The game just seemed like an endless race to nothing ... in other words it was more work than fun. [EQ, M, 21]
I stopped playing because I just didn't want to commit to the crazy raid times (6+ hours in the evening?) [EQ, F, 27]
But for every user who has burned out from the treadmill, there are thousands of users who are still "playing" industriously. One user articulates the seduction of achievement in these environments.
Rewards in EQ are proportional to the amount of time and effort you put into it. This is what becomes addictive, because as we grow older, so much less of our "real lives" gives us back anything measurable (and I stress the term "measurable" as in "quantitative"). "Working" and "being bored" in EQ are byproducts of our pursuit of goals for which we KNOW we will receive measurable awards. [Anon]
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