If we understand MMORPGs to be simply a form of entertainment, then we should expect value in MMORPGs to exist primarily in the experience of playing. We don't pay others to complete crossword puzzles for us or play Monopoly for us merely so that we can "own" Boardwalk and Park Place. If the experience of playing MMORPGs is the value that subscribers pay for, it would seem that MMORPG players who pay for virtual goods are essentially robbing themselves by paying extra cash to others in order to avoid the enjoyment of the game.
In theory, we play games because we enjoy them. So if the value of the game is in the experience, why would anyone ever pay anyone else to play a game for them? The common theory of the market for game assets (described cogently by the Julianator here) is that paying for virtual property is equivalent to paying for manufactured goods in real life. An individual with money pays another who has more time or greater ability. E.g., I don't want to whack at rats and snakes in Norrath for three hours to reach level 10, so I pay someone time-rich to do that for me. But while paying for chores makes sense in the case of mowing lawns, baking bread, and even coding games (all these have to be done and can be tedious), does this dynamic make sense in the case of playing games? In theory, shouldn't entertainment environments, where all adversity is arbitrarily imposed, have different dynamics?
One might hypothesize that the trade in virtual assets amounts to a game design flaw. If I want to play as level 10 just in order to see what level 10 is like, and I find playing as level 1 a chore, then the game designer's choice of making levels 1-10 all about the tedium of killing rats and snakes was (probably) a bad design choice. Indeed, the fact that most single-player games are released with "cheat" modes suggests that game designers are well aware that skipping the chore factor in games can make a game more enjoyable. This is consistent with the common gripe of game reviewers that certain games do not allow frequent "save" intervals, requiring repetitive drudgery as a punishment for mistakes. But I'm unaware of any MMORPG that has cheat modes -- at least not ones that are sanctioned by the company. (I'd welcome corrections.) The reasons for that seem obvious.
While I don't think analogizing the sale of virtual property to the sale of a cheat code presents a complete picture of what is occurring with the sale of virtual goods (it probably doesn't explain what is happening in There, for instance), I do think it takes us part of the way.
[Tasteful animated GIF courtesy of the Animation Factory.]