The Online Game Industry is an Excellent Way to Study the Economics of Fun

While scientists developed sensory-input devices to mimic the sensations of a virtual world, the games industry eschewed this hardware-based approach in favour of creating alternative realities through emotionally engaging software. “It turns out that the way humans are made, the software-based approach seems to have much more success,” writes Edward Castronova in an illuminating guide to these new synthetic worlds.

Millions of people now spend several hours a week immersed in “massively multiplayer online role-playing games” (MMORPGs). These are often Tolkienesque fantasy worlds in which players battle monsters, go on quests, and build up their virtual power and wealth. Some synthetic worlds are deliberately escapist; others are designed to be as lifelike and realistic as possible. Many have a strong libertarian bent. Sociologists and anthropologists have written about MMORPGs before, but Mr Castronova looks at the phenomenon from a new perspective: economics.

Mr Castronova’s thesis is that these synthetic worlds are increasingly inter-twined with the real world. In particular, real-world trade of in-game items, swords, gold, potions, or even whole characters is flourishing in online marketplaces such as eBay. World of Warcraft Gold, EQ2 Gold, DAOC Plat [http://www.favgames.com/daoc/daoc.php] and other game currencies have been traded in dedicated webstores for many years. This means in-game items and currency have real value. In 2002, Mr Castronova famously calculated the GNP per capita of the fictional game-world of “EverQuest” as $2,000, comparable to that of Bulgaria, and far higher than that of India or China. Furthermore, by “working” in the game to generate virtual wealth and then selling the results for real money, it is possible to generate about $3.50 per hour.

Companies in China pay thousands of people, known as “farmers”, to play MMORPGs all day, and then profit from selling the in-game goods they generate to other players for real money.

Land and other in-game property has been sold for huge sums. In some Asian countries, where MMORPGs are particularly popular, in-game thefts and cheats have led to real-world arrests and legalaction. In one case in South Korea, the police intervened when a hoard of in-game money was stolen and sold, netting the thieves $1.3m. In-game money is, in short, no less real than the dollars and pounds stored in conventional bank accounts.

Virtual economies are an integral part of synthetic worlds. The buying and selling of goods, as the game’s inhabitants go about their daily business, lends realism and vibrancy to the virtual realm. But in-game economies tend to be unusual in several ways. They are run to maximise fun, not growth or overall wellbeing. And inflation is often rampant, due to the convention that killing monsters produces a cash reward and the supply of monsters isunlimited in many games. As a result, the value of in-game currency is constantly falling and prices are constantly rising.

Mr Castronova’s analysis of the economics of fun is intriguing. Virtual-world economies are designed to make the resulting game interesting and enjoyable for their inhabitants. Many games follow a rags-to-riches storyline, for example. But how can all the players end up in the top 10%? Simple: the upwardly mobile human players need only be a subset of the world’s population. An underclass of computer-controlled “bot” citizens, meanwhile, stays poor for ever. Mr Castronova explains all this with clarity, wit and a merciful lack of academic jargon.

Some of his conclusions may sound far-fetched. In particular, he suggests that as synthetic worlds continue to grow in popularity, substantial numbers of people will choose to spend large parts of their lives immersed in them. Some players could then fall victim to what Mr Castronova calls “toxic immersion”, in which their virtual lives take precedence, to the detriment of their real-world lives.

But perhaps this is not so implausible. It is already possible to make a living by working in a virtual world, as the “farmers” demonstrate. In one survey, 20% of MMORPG players said they regarded the game world as their “real” place of residence; Earth is just where they eat and sleep. In July, a South Korean man died after a 50-hour MMORPG session. And the Chinese government has recently tried to limit the number of hours that can be spent playing MMORPGs each day.

As technology improves, players could make enough money to pay for the upkeep of their real-world bodies while they remain fully immersed in the virtual world. Mr Castronova is right when he concludes that “we should take a serious look at the game we have begun to play.”

A Good Stickman Makes Casino Craps More Fun

A live casino craps table is typically manned by a crew of four people. The “boxman” sits at the center of the table by the casino’s chip stack. Her job is to control the game, ensure the dealers don’t make mistakes, and to protect the casino and players from cheats and thieves. Two dealers stand to the sides of the boxman. They collect bets when the casino wins and pay bets when the players win. They also position players’ chips for bets that are not self-service (i.e., players are not allowed to position their chips on the layout for certain bets, so the dealers do it for them). The “stickman” stands at the center of the table across from the boxman and calls the game. The stickman also retrieves and controls the dice after each throw.

A good stickman can add tons of fun to the game. If he’s good, he’ll use a big vocabulary of craps jargon to add humor and make the game more interesting. For example, if a die bounces off the table and lands in a player’s chip rack (i.e., the wooden shelf around the table perimeter where players hold their chips), the stickman is obligated to say, “No roll,” and then he retrieves the die for the boxman to inspect it. The stickman then pushes the dice with his stick to the shooter to roll again.

A good stickman adds lively banter to the game to make it more fun for the players. After all, the more fun the players have, the better mood they’ll be in, which increases the likelihood that the players will make more bets (good for the casino) and give the dealers more tips (good for the crew). To liven up the game, instead of boringly saying, “No roll,” a good stickman might say in a loud, rhythmic voice, “Die in the wood, roll no good,” or “I can’t read her, she’s in the cedar.” The game is much more fun when the stickman spouts all kinds of craps jargon and rhymes.

Over the years, dealers have dreamed up lots of cute slang for the results of a dice roll. The following are the ones I commonly hear when playing. I suspect that there are just as many that I haven’t heard. Listen for them the next time you play. The number 2 (i.e., a 1 on one die and a 1 on the other) is called “aces.” Aces are more commonly known as “snake eyes.” They are also called “eyeballs.”

The number 11 (i.e., a 6 on one die and a 5 on the other) is called a “yo,” which is short for “yo-leven” (with emphasis on the “yo”). The stickman says “yo-leven” to distinguish “eleven” from “seven” so the players don’t misunderstand the call.

The number 3 is an “Australian yo.” When a 3 shows (i.e., a 1 on one die and a 2 on the other), the opposite number (i.e., the number on the bottom of the dice) is 11, which is “down under.” On dice, 1 is opposite the 6, 2 is opposite the 5, and 3 is opposite the 4. So, when a 1-2 combination shows, the opposite side “down under” (i.e., the bottom of the dice) is 6-5.

The number 12 is called “boxcars” or “midnight.”

The combination 3-3 (i.e., a Hard 6) is sometimes called “Brooklyn Forest.”

The numbers 2, 3, and 12 are all called “craps.” Note that when a shooter establishes a point and then subsequently throws a 7, it’s called a “seven-out.” A seven-out is not a craps. Remember, a craps is the number 2, 3, or 12, so when the shooter rolls a 7, don’t show your inexperience by yelling in disappointment, “Oh, man, he crapped out.” The correct whine is, “Oh, man, he sevened-out.”

The number 8 is sometimes referred to as “Eighter from Decatur.”

The number 9 is sometimes referred to as “Jesse James” (he was shot with a.45, and the 4-5 dice combination is a 9). The number 9 is also called “Studio 54” when the dice combination 5-4 shows (the combination 5-4 is a 9).

The combination 4-4 (i.e., a Hard 4) is sometimes called “Little Joe.”

The combination 3-2 is sometimes called “OJ” (OJ’s jersey number was 32).

The combination 5-5 (i.e., a Hard 10) is called “lady’s delight.”

The combination 1-4 is occasionally called “One-eyed chicken in the weeds.” I don’t have a clue what that means, and neither did the dealer when I asked him. He said he learned it years earlier from another dealer and has since repeated it.

Hearing the stickman bark funny craps jargon makes the game more fun. It also gets the players to interact more, which usually adds to their enjoyment. Imagine the shooter rolling the dice and they show a 1-4 combination. Imagine the stickman blandly saying, “Five.” Now, instead, imagine the stickman shouting, “One-eyed chicken in the weeds!” The players laugh and begin asking each other, “What did he say?” Their questions then lead to more talking and interaction, which adds to everyone’s fun. The casino values a good stickman because happier customers are more likely to be repeat customers.