Credit: GG Video Game and Deputy Culture Editor Katrina Williams

Playing the MMORPG market

By Sophie Kernachan

When you imagine a cutthroat capitalist, it should be a level 10 mage from WoW you think of, not Jeff Bezos.

Contrary to the political views I occasionally broadcast into the void on Twitter, in the massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) world, I am a ruthless, uncaring, unabashed capitalist. Every day, my World of Warcraft bank alt dwells within the oppressive halls of the Stormwind auction house, feverishly checking the prices of crafting reagents, enchants, pets, mounts, waiting in eager anticipation for the market to tilt in my favour. If I put this much effort into actual stocks and accumulating real life wealth, my worries about finding a lucrative career with an English Literature degree would be gone. 

I’m not alone in this obsessive quest for gold; there’s a plethora of forums dedicated to the topic, all filled with my fellow wealth-hungry players, predicting the scope of the future market so they can hit the ground running upon the release of the next expansion. It all seems rather serious – but in a world steeped in Covid-induced recession, with social mobility becoming ever more mythical, it’s cathartic to live out that sweet capitalist fantasy of starting with nothing. Through the power of pulling yourself up by the bootstraps, you too can be absurdly wealthy!

But it would be untrue to say that the real-world economy doesn’t play a significant part in the world of MMORPGs. Gold farming, the slow and laborious generation of online currency in MMORPGs, has developed a rather infamous reputation; perhaps brought to light by the Guardian’s 2011 reports of online gold farming being forced upon prisoners in Chinese labour camps, making the equivalent of around £470-570 every day. For some, gold farming is a legitimate career, achieved by long hours completing mind-numbing dailies and vigilantly monitoring exchange rates. It all sounds a bit depressing; so wound up in the oppressive, cutthroat competitiveness of real-world capitalist systems. You’d think that for those who play casually, these games would be a much-welcomed escape from the stress of navigating real-life finances. But that assumption would be very, very wrong. From a woman selling sex on Craigslist for 5,000 WoW gold to an EVE Online scammer swindling their fellow players out of the online equivalent of $170,000, the business-inclined from all walks of life can find their wealth in these games, and their economies are as cruel and relentless as our own. Perhaps even more so in the absence of in-game taxes allowing wealth-hoarding to run rampant. And why shouldn’t it? In WoW, where a cool dinosaur mount costs 5m gold, everybody finds themselves scrambling to have their grip on the market.

But the capitalist dream doesn’t just stop at wealth-hoarding that Jeff Bezos can only dream of. We only need to look at Final Fantasy XIV to see that landlords also get to play their hand in MMORPG economies. In an eerie mirroring of reality, FFXIV has faced a player housing crisis since 2011, with wealthy players snatching up numerous land plots for themselves. Although players were presented with an array of land prices when the system was introduced to try and keep land distribution fair, allowing every player the joy of owning their own house, it wasn’t meant to be. Even new housing plots in previously untouched areas were quickly swept up, with two players buying 28 individual homes on one server. What followed was chaos; more people waiting in queues than there were available houses, and servers crashing from the heavy player traffic and rapid transactions. The issue was finally addressed in 2019, with restrictions allowing players one plot of land each, but only after eight years of condemning players to online homelessness.

Then there’s the economic monolith of EVE Online, an MMORPG with a system so intricate that economics students have written dissertations about how its system could fare as a potential microeconomic model. The game was created by a man with a doctorate in economics – and it shows. Quarterly and monthly reviews of the game’s economy are anticipated amongst its players; up to 50 pages filled to the brim with graphs and charts recording every economic component of the game down to the finest detail. The game focuses on numerous professions such as mining and manufacturing alongside the typical MMORPG exploration and combat, but the economy is far and away from the biggest focus. It comes as no surprise that the game has a staggering amount of real-world value to it: an in-game battle known as the “Bloodbath of B-R5RB” led to damages costing around $300,000. The game also serves as an anarcho-capitalist paradise, with players encouraged to deceive and scam others for the good of the free market. Such a scandal was uncovered in 2011, where a player roped hundreds of others into a Ponzi scheme that made them the real-world equivalent of around $50,000. Some muttered that they should be punished, but in a cutthroat economy like this? That’s just good business planning.

In all this talk about economies, remember folks: there are no moral billionaires. Except for my level 10 mage that lives above the Stormwind auction house. She’s cool.


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