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A recent national survey from the Pew Internet & American Life Project says that 97% of American youth play video games.

Teenagers aren’t the only getting into the gaming action. A poll from shows that 4 in 10 adults play electronic games. Increasingly, articles and books are being writing about how players can make an actual living buying and selling goods in virtual gaming worlds. 

Wired contributing editor Julian Dibbell set out to write about his adventures to make money in a virtual world. His book, titled “Play Money” shows the author’s attempt to better understand the relationship between work and play. Dibbell does this by working to immerse himself in his play — literally. For three weeks straight, he plunged into the virtual world to see how he could earn a living in a play environment.

In his accounts, Dibbell plays the virtual game Ultima Online (UO). This game called a graphical massively multiplayer online-role playing game (MMORG), is a role-playing fantasy game that takes place in the Ultima universe. It’s played by thousands of gamers.

The author tries to make money by buying and selling virtual weapons, supplies, homes, and other products available in UO’s world.

Along Dibbell’s adventures, he raises several interesting questions about the gaming world.  For instance, he poses ownership questions. Who exactly owns the wealth that’s created in the virtual worlds? Does it belong to the companies that create the games or the players who play the games?

That raises an interesting point. UO provides a platform for the game. But the gamers are behind the economic success of failure of the game. What happens, as it did in the book, if UO decides to shut a successful player’s account down. It’s a fine line and one that UO needs to play carefully. There’s no reason why dissatisfied UO players couldn’t begin their own virtual game.

The author also poses questions about the complexity and confusion that gaming creates. The virtual world has become so intricate that the lines between gaming and society have blurred. Dibbell talks about how many of the players he met and interacted with worked equally as hard as workers who held traditional careers.

The book also delves into discussions about modern economics and the allocation of resources and scarcity. He cites several examples how UO’s gold and money supply created controversy and bitterness among fellow games.

At times, Dibbell gets caught up in the gaming world becoming fixated on being noticed and envied by other UO gamers.  He cites some of the reasons gamers are drawn to virtual worlds: camaraderie and friendships, fellowship and the social nature that gaming provides.

Fortunately for Dibbell he befriends several fellow UO players who help him understand the rules and ways to make money. At this time, the author encounters several ethical dilemmas about economic justice and the extent to which other players are willing to go through to make money.

After playing in the virtual world of Ultima, Dibbell concludes that the traditional definition of play doesn’t fit nicely into the play world. In the end, Dibbell says that it took a great deal of effort to make money by gaming. The author decides that gaming is in itself a different and distinctive path. He says “Ultima Online was a game, of course, but beneath it there were levels within levels of another game, the game of virtuality that Turing invented and refined.” He goes on to say that ultimately the relationship between the virtual world and the real one is complicated. Virtual worlds can serve to strengthen the bonds between people. It can also help to reinforce the importance of social networks.

I’ve never played a virtual game and quite frankly, before reading the book, couldn’t fathom why people would spend countless hours playing in a fantasy world. I did have several suspicions about why people play virtual games though. I thought that maybe it allowed people to achieve a certain level of success as defined in their own world that was unachievable in the real one. I also believed that it helped to provide another outlet that allowed gamers to interact and connect with other like-minded people.

After reading “Play Money” I’m further convinced that people play online games to fulfill a personal need. However, I agree with Dibbell in that the virtual world is far more complex and complicated than most imagine, something that’s difficult for non-gamers to fully comprehend. It makes me wonder just how far the lines of the virtual world and real world have already collided.