The Real Bubble of Virtual Worlds.
With the world economy recovering from the greatest financial crisis in modern times, researching its effect on the virtual economies that people playfully or laboriously engage with in online worlds would be interesting, relevant and difficult. The supposed correlation between real world economy and virtual economies in/between online worlds could be a good starting point to investigate the promises virtual worlds and virtual economies did or did not quite live up to.
Poised to be the next big thing, virtual worlds received press, academic interest, and were generally firmly occupying popular debate on new media and web 2.0 in 2005, 2006 and 2007, just before the onset of the economic crisis. Before 2008 we could luxuriate in elaborate philosophical questions pondering the implications of the very notion of virtual currency and exclaim how every stage of production has drifted into the farthest corners of abstraction.
It is only three years ago that Madison avenue was pumping millions of dollars into expanding brand names in virtual world like Second Life, making sure they would not miss out. Given the current financial turmoil in most of the Western world these investments could very well use a critical assessment. Not only from a purely economic point of view but also pertaining to the social and cultural aspects that helped create a climate in which investing currency, the paper kind, in frivolous pixels and polygons was believed to be profitable.
The most prominent virtual worlds have already been examined for signs of post credit crunch stress. At the beginning of this year Bruce Sterling reported for Wired.com that: ‘The Second Life real-estate bubble is holding just fine’ explaining that user to user transactions had increased up to 65% in 2009. This summer however layoffs at Linden lab instilled a lack of confidence in the future of Second Life which resulted in a drastic devaluation of the Linden dollar. Self contained as this incident might seem, the real life working conditions of the facilitators obviously influence the strength of virtual economies.
Working from a humanities perspective would mean to shift focus from the macroeconomic perspective to the perspective and experience of the users. In describing the changing regard for virtual economies in light of the recent recession one could attempt to dissect the individual user and user communities at the receiving end (?) of corporate investments. Do users still have an opportunity to create and sell items? What happens to copyright after brands have invaded, claimed and perhaps abandoned virtual spaces?
Julian Dibbel showcased an in-depth account of his participatory observation of those players who managed to make a living out of virtual loot in his 2006 book Play Money. He submerged himself in the subculture of the hardworking merchants of MMORPG items, he quit his job and committed himself to a fiscal year of trying to make millions trading virtual loot. The end result is predictably not the money, but rather the blog he kept and the story he published. His research is not a moneymaking guide, it is a careful study of play and how play and work have merged, a philosophical interrogation on how abundance and scarcity relate in environments where these concepts should be meaningless.
Cultural critic Steven Shaviro, in turn, used Dibbels’ work from two very distinct cyberspace ages to contrast the definition and reception of the virtual. The early nineties virtual as described in My Tiny Life: Crime and Passion in a Virtual World, and the post dot-com crash virtual as portrayed in Dibbels’ last book Play Money. If quitting your day job in order to fully understand the subculture at hand seems slightly too committed, this comparing of analyses can result in newly contextualized conclusions that the initial research could not have foreseen.
Whether participating or not, with these very general questions and objects of study as multifaceted as MMORPGs and their position in past and current mediascapes, the answer might not even include the recession. Other developments (increasing use of smartphones for example) and changes over the past three years also need to be described and considered.
Dibbel, Julian. Play Money. Or How I Quit My Day Job and Made Millions Trading Virtual Loot. New York: Basic Books, 2006.
 Dibbel, Julian. My Tiny life: Crime and Passion in a Virtual World. New York: Holt Paperbacks, 1999.