The auctionhouse (AH) in World of Warcraft is an interesting place. I like it mostly for the fact that it’s one of the few unscripted places within the world, where player autonomy means that a number of unplanned and emergent features can emerge. We’ve mentioned a few of these before: here, for instance, and, um, here, and, oh, also here. An interesting aspect of this though is that emergent, player-created artifacts are not viewed with universal enthusiasm. My guildies and I have been trading in the AH a lot, and this weekend we start work on our cartelization program. I doubt that we’re going to win any new friends with this little initiative. But even in the normal operation of the market the response of some players is fascinating.
The most active AH camper in our guild is Eric Nickell, one of the happy crew at Xerox PARC who study MMOGs and who report their findings at the fabulous Play On blog. He recently came into abuse when he asked for advice in the trade channel about what price he should list a particular item. He was told figures between 100g and 150g, and also, “1000g for you, auctionbitch.” Now this latter comment may be explained by the fact that he was probably undercutting the auctions of the unhappy defamer. But in another incident he got into an increasingly heated exchange over the price he was prepared to sell a particular item. He offered to sell it for 239g, but the would-be purchaser only wanted to pay 160g because “Allakhazam says it costs 175g” , and then later “But I can use it in PvP!” , and so on. When Eric stuck by his price the would-be purchaser started to become abusive, to the point where Eric stuck him on /ignore.
I’m interested to explore these sorts of reactions, and why they happen fairly often in MMOGs, but relatively rarely in real life. Is it because the AH is seen by some players as a kind of distributed NPC vendor with semi-stable prices; or maybe that these players have limited sources of information (ie Thottbot and Allakhazam) and so don’t really see the AH as a market at all? Or is it because the would-be purchaser doesn’t really understand markets, or is unhappy being on the wrong end of the supply-demand curve? Are derogatory comments about being an “auctionbitch” or “AH camper” an indication that there is one or two sanctioned ways of playing these games (PvE and PvP) and all other activities are seen, at best, as secondary to or supportive of these two; or, at worst, inferior to them?
Obviously I don’t know what the individual answers are in relation to any of the incidents above. But I think it’s interesting that the marketplace plays such an unusual position within the game, and that there seem to be different constructions of the market in the minds of different players. (This is tied into the construction of the concept of “Chinese gold farmers” about which we’ve talked about a bit—here, —here, and here, for example—and about which the Xerox PARC guys and I will have more to say in a couple of months).
I think that most people have a fairly clear and shared understanding of the nature of private markets within the real world (even if they are not always happy about them, or may contest the application of the market in certain contexts). But I’m not at all sure that this is true in the virtual worlds.