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All work and all play… April 9, 2007

Posted by Steve Field in Play Money.
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“This is really another world,” Caldwell was saying. “The Internet has really affected the world like nobody has understood yet. There’s gonna be greater impac, people are gonna be spending more time on their computers. TV is gonna go the way of the dinosaurs, eventually. There’s more and more people doing stuff online than ever before. There’s more women coming online. There’s more older people coming online. There’s more poor people coming online” (p. 17).

The world of virtual worlds is foreign to me, so reading Play Money by Julian Dibbell was eye opening. From coworkers, I was only vaguely aware that this subculture of people exsited; never could I have imagined that virtual worlds and virtual money contributed to a multi-million dollar online economy in the trade of virtual goods.

Dibbell provides two reasons for why the use of online roleplaying games (also known as MMORPGs, for Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games) for monetary purposes has arisen. The first is rooted in psychology. Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi talks about a condition he calls flow. Flow is the phenomenon where people get satisfaction out of an action simply for doing the action. This is the reason why many MMORPG players will repeat a task over and over to improve their character, even if the task is repetitive and boring.

The second reason that Dibbell points out is economic. The virtual worlds of these online games operate under scarcity and inequality. There are limited resources, and always others who have more. This fuels a desire to gather more, build more, learn more and achieve more.

Dibbell raises an interesting philosophical question when he notices his daughter playing. Why can’t everyone have the bliss of play? Why does that natural desire to play fade away into, as he puts it “production and reproduction?” I have two issues with this. First, the way he described “play” in the world of professional online gamers, doesn’t seem much like play. It, in fact seems very much like a job. The IM conversation in chapter 21 certainly shows how seriously these games are taken, almost to the point where they don’t seem fun anymore.

Second, I wonder whether the shift from play to work is natural, or chosen. I am reminded of the adage that one can either have a happy life or a meaningful life. It seems that the shift toward work might be from a desire to have an important life and not just a happy one.