Intrigued by Julian Dibbell's recent grand opus, I started to poke around into "Ebay" Eve-Online currency transactions. Along the way I had a number of discussions with folks, dabbled in a few trades. I have little data but the anecdotal, but I do have a theory...
For discussion here, let us assume a type of virtual world with an efficient internal (in-game) market. And let us assume that my case example, Eve-Online, qualifies. To my experience, most of what is available for sale on Ebay for Eve-Online is currency. Rare blueprints are sold too, but as these are often aggregated into large collections, they are designed to provide a convenience value-added. If the in-game market is efficient, then there should be little benefit to selling items per se on Ebay (versus buying cash and directly in-game buying the item). This would appear to be largely true for Eve-Online, although there are a few exceptions.
Claim: Players hoard cash. Lots of it in some cases.
Working hypothesis: Ebay, and other external markets, can incentivize players to redistribute in-game capital amongst themselves and discourage cash hoarding.
Note, that I'm not addressing motivations of players to trade $ for ISKs (Eve-Online currency), but the consequences.
So. Why might player's hoard cash? Well, let's mutate a set of theories (below) with respect to goods hoarding given by Zachary Simpson for Ultima Online. My comments are in italicized blue and are graded by my estimate of their relevance to cash hoarding (number of exclamation marks, e.g. "Yes!!!"):
- Decoration. People will line their houses with such things as helmets or cloth to make their space interesting and special. No!
- Laziness. Why bother throwing things out if there is plenty of space and it doesn’t cost anything to warehouse? Yes! - players have few opportunities to make in-game capital productively work (easily), without getting heavily involved in trading etc.
- Speculation. If players think that the price will go up on an item, they will hold it in hopes of selling it for more later. No!
- Pack-rat syndrome. "I might need this someday." Yes!!
- Mementos. Objects can serve as reminders of old adventures. "Remember when I got that from the dragon during…" No!!
- Status symbols. Huge piles of wealth show how experienced the player is and can be used for bragging rights. Yes!!!
- Achievement. Many games are filled with arbitrary goals, some players will create them even when they don’t exist. "I have a million gold, I win!" Yes!!!
Cash hoards, therefore, exist primarily because they are Status Symbols, Achievement markers and Pack Rat goodies. Thus:
Theory: External markets such as Ebay can dampen in-game hoarding pressures by allowing players to satisfy Status Symbols, Achievement and Pack Rat instincts with their cash pile externally.
My question then is this. Given the earlier hypothesis, can Ebay and its ilk offer duct tape for virtual economies? Perhaps as a safety valve to allow them work more efficiently (or to live with imbalances in cash distribution for purposes of game play).