Utopia’s Beachfront Property Suggested area: E-Government, E-Democracy and citizenship

Mikolaj Kocikowski


Massively Multiplayer On-line Role Playing Games, or MMORPGs, put tens of thousands of simultaneously connected players in a virtual world. Since Sony’s release of Everquest, the first large, commercial MMORPG in March of 1999, a number of titles were added to the fastest growing genre of computer games. Though the majority of MMORPGs follow the dragons-swords-magic paradigm of the original “Dungeons and Dragons” role playing games, a number of worlds have opted for other settings. As the market diversified, some of the games altogether did away with monster killing and treasure hunts (be it in deep dungeons or in deep space), and focused instead on building communities, which in time turned into on-line societies. The government of these societies presents an interesting case for computer ethics because of the fundamental differences between the workings of virtual and of real societies (area of volition), and the fundamental similarities (area of property).

One of the fundamental issues which confronts political theory is the question of volition and the broadly understood social contract – a concept which has undergone many mutations since Rousseau’s time, but which, in essence, has always signified a binding agreement which an individual has made with the society, in which the responsibilities and duties of both sides are stated. The problem of volition in this case boils down to the simple fact that in the modern world the social contract is handed down to an individual, who has no choice in the matter; one can immigrate only so much, and in practice has no opportunity to reject the social contract, to live outside the society. But while in the “real” world an individual’s options are limited, the choice is free when it comes to the MMORGPs. Here, almost all the participants participate out of their free will, out of desire to do so; and while not everyone who wishes to do so can participate (for financial or other reasons) almost no one is forced to participate against their will; moreover, in the virtual world one doesn’t have to concern oneself with physical survival – all of which means that Utopia finally has found a fitting place. Almost.

The “almost” has to do, as it often does in “real” societies, with money and property. The MMORPGs are the fastest growing segment of the multi-billion dollar electronic games industry. Because MMORPGs’ revenue model is based on subscriptions, not on one-time sales, a single player usually generates more revenue for a company than in “traditional” gaming market – while maintaining a significant amount of real control over the game-maker. It is as if in the real world the taxpayer could simply stop paying his or her taxes if he or she became dissatisfied with the government’s doings. But more important than the fees each user has to pay to participate in a virtual society are the internal economies which these societies have developed.

For all the MMORPG societies, property is paramount. Be it a magic sword, a space yacht, or a piece of land, every type of property has value: abstract, expressed in the currency of a given world, and real, expressed in the amount of real world time that it takes to manufacture, buy, or otherwise obtain given item. It might take months of player’s real life time to find the enchanted spear of […], a quantity of real-world time which has begun translating into quantities of real-world money.

As I write this, EBay lists just under twenty thousand of in-game items (and characters with highly developed skill sets) for sale. The currency is the US dollar; the prices often reach into thousands. And so Utopia has become a place of work for the real-world folks; but not only individuals work on-line to sell virtual products for real cash. Because on-line games are protected against the use of automated players, or “bots”, there are companies which employ real people to work for meager wages in on-line factories (or, maybe better to say: sweatshops?), where hour after hour they hammer out magic swords or whatnot. Not all of Utopia’s denizens play out of their own free will: some do so to survive in the physical world. The non-negotiable social contracts of the real world have bled their way into the virtual.

Currently, all but one of the MMORPGs have strict rules against real-world trading of game items – rules which they can not enforce. The market for trading of virtual items is estimated at $2 billion, which puts it ahead of economies of some smaller countries, and is growing. In the real world, questions of property, when translated into more immediate questions of food and greed are notorious for breaking the best thought-out social systems. How will the real-world economic concerns influence the virtual Utopias which could have, it seemed, been genuinely free (of compulsion to participate, of compulsion to eat, of the overbearing power of the rich)?

In the paper I will analyze some of the existing MMORPGs with the aim of developing above themes. I will seek to correlate the development of on-line societies with the history of western societies, focusing on the relationships between various forms of freedom and property. I hope to find space to touch on some more financially complex aspects of virtual societies’ economies, such as real estate development and currency trading.

The title refers to a recent US$26,500 purchase of an island in a MMORPG world called “Entropia.”