Edward Castronova on the Rise of RMTs in MMOs

Edward Castronova has a peculiar post on what he sees as the end of resistance to real-money trades in MMOs.

Castronova sites a study finding that people who want to role-play within MMOs are a decidedly small minority, and then concludes from this that RMTs are inevitable since, apparently, the only argument against RMTs was that they break the immersion that role-players want from a game.

As Fairfield notes, it is becoming weird now to insist on an RMT-free gaming experience. I freely trade money for time all day, every day. The community here in Bloomington finds this utterly normal and so does the most of the community in Azeroth. As devs will argue, they don’t make all this stuff for free; they have to get paid somehow, and given the general disinterest of their players in pure refuge, there is quite a lot of give along the immersion / cash spectrum. How can I oppose RMT?

But these events are worth noting from a social theory perspective: Even such strongly framed alternative environments have had little effect on the way people act. The fact that people do NOT role-play, that they do NOT treat dragons as monsters, the fact that they do NOT treat evil as Evil and good as Good, nor kings as Kings nor quests as Quests, the fact that if they change at all it is only to revert to strategies of mooning the whole world just for the adolescent joy of it (which, I respectfully and lovingly submit, turned out to be a special devotion of my gameplaying colleagues in academia), seems to reject social construction theories. Drop a society of 20th century people into World of Warcraft or Lord of the Rings Online, and you get a masked ball, only: A thoroughly unremarkable 20th-century society playing around with high-fantasy costumes. You cannot remake a people by changing the world in which they live.

What I don’t get about this is why Castronova and others would prefer to establish multiple identities (at a minimum, a real world identity and a virtual identity) but then restrict that virtual identity to just a single mode of interaction. Since MMOs involve dealing with multiple identities at the outset, it seems inevitable that rather than be constricted by some artificial restriction on identity (which is already an omnipresent feature of the “real world” for many of us), players would want to take both varying approaches over time to their virtual identity.

I see no conflict at all between logging on to World of Warcraft and roleplaying one moment, making a crude joke in the Trade Channel the next, and discussing some real world event that my guildies and I happen to have in common. In fact it seems kind of strange that Castronova and others would see as desirable a strict adherence to just the first identity given that MMOs tend to give players tools to easily manage multiple in-game identities.

So I don’t see how RMT transactions in-game detract from the immersiveness, anymore than does the fact that each month a $14.99 charge appears on my credit card, or that I have to boot up into Windows first before launching a game.

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