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By Joel Klebanoff

The New Alchemy

I've come to the conclusion that there is either far too much money in the world or far too little intelligence. Since I'm one of those people who thinks that there's no such thing as too much money (particularly on those rare instances when it's in my pocket), it must be the latter.

How would you like to buy a Mystic Tree located in Blazing Falls? By way of full disclosure, I should mention that it's not really particularly mystic or even particularly real. It's part of The Sims Online, a massively multiplayer game on the Web. Blazing Falls is a virtual location in the game. As of the time of writing, someone had bid $40.99 on eBay for this ethereal tree. If you don't want to get into a bidding war, another seller is willing to let you have a Mystic Tree, also in the fictional Blazing Falls, for the low, low price of just $65, which would eliminate your having to go through the agony of participating in an auction. That seems like a lot of money for a tree that exists only as electrons in cyberspace, but at least you won't have to rake up the leaves each autumn.

If a Mystic Tree is too rich for your blood, how about 4,000 Linden dollars? Someone bid $18 for that. That virtually sounds like a deal to me. Those Linden dollars are used in Second Life, another Web-based massively multiplayer game. If the fierce eBay bidding required to win this prize makes you a little hungry, I wouldn't recommend trying to use your hard-won Linden dollars to buy a meal at your local burger joint, or anywhere else for that matter. I highly doubt you'll be successful, but that's just a guess on my part. If you do try to use Linden dollars at a real-world retailer and you're anything like me, you might feel obliged to tidy up a bit before the obligatory visit from the friendly, white-smocked men carrying very large butterfly nets. Don't worry. I hear that straitjackets are de rigueur this season.

Also up for auction is a Max Storage House in Luna on the Atlantic Shard. That sounds like a great piece of property. Unfortunately, it wouldn't offer me much refuge from the cold winter winds here in Toronto. You see, you can occupy it only virtually in Ultima Online, yet another Web-based game. The last time I checked, the top bid was $132.50. What a steal! How can you possibly pass it up? However, this item might not sell at all because the reserve price had not yet been met when I looked. If you're not one for competition (it's a good guess that you're not if you're buying game objects rather than trying to earn or win them through the game), the seller will cancel the auction and let you have it outright if you're willing to pay the measly sum of $1,200 for those very special electrons.

Oh by the way, I just checked and, according to the Ultima Online site maintained by the game's developer, Electronic Arts, you can only own one house per account. If you buy this one, any existing house in your account will automatically be condemned. You will have five days to transfer it to someone else before it irreparably decays.

Aren't you glad that's not how things work in the real world? "My, what a lovely cottage. I'll buy it! Here's the cash from my preapproved mortgage. Hey...wait a minute...what just happened to my principal residence?" No, I prefer the real world. There are no silly rules whereby your first house disappears shortly after you buy a second one. Actually, that's not entirely true. The banks have rules like that, but they come into play only if you can't afford both mortgages. Of course, your house doesn't actually disappear in those circumstances, but you might find that your key doesn't work five days after missing a few payments and, depending on the lender, you might want to invest in some Kevlar kneepads if you're planning to miss the occasional remittance.

I have just one question: Are these people totally deranged? Obviously, I'm referring to the buyers, not the sellers. The sellers are geniuses. They've figured out how to make money while sitting at their computers day in and day out playing games until they eventually grow old and die. What could be better than that? Oh, sure, they might want to, from time to time, grab a bite to eat, meet some friends at a café, catch a movie, read a book, participate in a sport, travel, make out, go for a walk, or otherwise just enjoy the real world. But other than that, what?

Now, as to the buyers, that's another story. Is there such a colossal shortage of tangible things for them to acquire in this world that they've got to spend their hard-earned dollars on make-believe crap? Why not just cash in your pension, sell your house, take all of your savings, go to eBay, buy every game token and weapon that you can possibly can, unilaterally declare yourself the game's winner, and then grab a bite to eat, meet some friends at a café, catch a movie, read a book, participate in a sport, travel, make out, go for a walk, or otherwise just enjoy the real world. Come to think of it, you might only be able to take a walk, make out, or just enjoy the real world because you'll have just spent all of your money, and none of the other things come free. No, wait. Scratch the "just enjoy the real world" thing. It's hard to enjoy the real world when you can't afford a cracker or a sip of water, let alone a roof over your head. Oh, and you can probably forget about the making out thing too. If you're enough of a fool, not to mention a very serious geek, to spend all of your money on something as ridiculous as virtual game pieces, I wouldn't count on finding anyone willing to neck — or use any other body partwith you. So we're down to just the walk. I sure hope you enjoy going for endless, aimless strolls.

And what was the point of the game in the first place? I thought the fun was supposed to be in the playing, not in buying a win. That would be like if, at the start of a National Hockey League game involving the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Leafs went to the referee and said, "We'd like to buy the rights to have ten extra players on the ice throughout the game, give all of our players their own pucks that they can legitimately use to score goals at any time, and completely obstruct the front of our net with a large piece of plywood."

If you know anything about the Maple Leafs, that's about the only way they're ever going to win the Stanley Cup again in my lifetime, but never mind. What's the point of the game if you can just buy whatever you need to win? You might as well put down your money, declare victory, and go have a beer. Come to think of it, not being a sports or online game fan myself, that doesn't sound like such a bad idea.

Why do I get the feeling that if these buyers of virtual stuff were members of the street crowd in the classic Hans Christian Andersen tale, The Emperor's New Clothes, they'd be shouting at the top of their lungs, in their gnarliest voices, "Cool threads, Emperor dude!" as they surreptitiously dispatched their representatives to the Emperor's court in order to bid all of their wealth in return for the right to be first in line when the Emperor casts off his new sham clothes.

Here's something else to consider. These people are buying electrons. All electrons look pretty much alike. I have it on good authority that even the electrons' mothers can't tell them apart. If the keepers of the game haven't already done so, I think they should take advantage of this insanity.

Here's my plan: First, they create a virtual club (the thing that a violent psychopath hits with, not the thing you join) that they, using a number of different assumed identities, sell on eBay to all players. Within the context of the game, they define this club such that it can cast a fatal blow against any player who doesn't already own one. Keep in mind, the game-keepers can create as many new clubs as they want and satisfy an unlimited demand with just a few keystrokes.

Once everyone has clubs, then the game-keepers create virtual guns that can kill anyone who has only a club. Again, the game-keepers can use hidden identities on eBay to sell these virtual guns to all game players. Then, when everyone has guns, the game-keepers make virtual bazookas; then virtual rocket-propelled grenades; then virtual missiles; then virtual atomic bombs. Since this is just a virtual world, they could also make a weapon able to defeat an atomic bomb. Then they could make another weapon to defeat that weapon.

This could go on until the keepers of the virtual world possess all of the riches in the real world. Then they'll have to buy some very powerful, very real weapons to protect themselves from all of the players who get terribly upset over the fact that the game-keepers cleverly made fools and indigents of the game-players by taking advantage of the latter's incredible lunacy. Fortunately for the game-keepers, since they will then have all the money in the world (less the money they spend on armaments, which they can get back by selling some virtual weapons to the real arms dealers), they won't have to worry about life imitating the arms race that they created in their art.

That's my proposal for the game-keepers, but let's get back to the people who are already making real money selling online game objects. I truly admire them. Some of them are earning a lot more than chickenfeed, virtual or otherwise. A May 29, 2005, article in The New York Times mentioned one person who had earned $25,000 each year for three years by trading Ultima Online artifacts. That's not a bad income for doing little more than playing a game. But it gets better. According to the article, someone else was on track to earn about $100,000 in her first year of selling virtual real estate. So, if I miss my deadline on next week's column, you'll know what I'm doing.

This article originally appeared as part of a weekly series of "Tech Tirades" in MC TNT from MC Press Online. The first year's worth of Tech Tirades does not appear here. Instead, you can find them in BYTE-ing Satire.

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