Amazon.com has had, for about a year, a beta feature/forum called Askville.com. According to the web site:
What is Askville?
Askville is a place where you can share and discuss knowledge with other people by asking and answering questions on any topic. It’s a fun place to meet others with similar interests to you and a place where you can share what you know.
An online Q&A community is not exactly a new idea. There's the defunct Google Answers and the non-defunct Yahoo Answers. And see USENET, that virtual community where netizens still share and discuss knowledge, ask and answer questions, and all that good stuff.
What's intriguing about Askville is not the substance of the exchange, but the incentive structure they have wrapped around it. There are experience points and Quest gold that can be earned by answering questions. For instance, if you look at the charts on that FAQ page, you'll see that in order to be a level 4 user on Askville, and get a 20 gold payout bonus, you'll need to have 1,500-2,999 experience points. The real innovation here is that Amazon is apparently targeting all the Gygaxians out there. Is that a good idea? Is it a fun idea?
The promoted incentive in Askville is to have fun leveling up and earing Quest gold. Quest gold is supposed to be valuable at an upcoming website, Questville.com, but the opening of that site has been delayed a bit and it isn't clear exactly what folks will be doing at Questville. Maybe you'll be given a quest to do combat with 10 mechanical Turks. Maybe you'll be tasked with setting information policy for the bookstore of Babel. The possibilities are endless.
In the meantime:
8. Can I redeem my Quest gold for anything, such as money?
Except for any special limited time redemption offers that we may make available from time to time, Quest gold are not redeemable for anything at this moment. Once Questville.com launches we hope to have exciting new ways to use your Quest gold. Until then, keep on stocking up on your Quest gold!
Hmm -- but why do we want that Quest gold if we don't know what we'll be doing with it? At another point in the FAQ, the site states "collect as many Quest
gold as you can and show everyone how active and helpful you've been on
Askville." So Quest gold signifies your degree of altruism? Well, actually, there's a potential monetary payout as well. Quest gold was recently redeemable for Amazon gift cards of up to $100 value. So collecting Quest gold shows everyone how active and helpful you've been, plus how likely you are to possibly earn a $100 gift card. Interesting.
Tech Crunch took note of all this a year ago. Virtual World News made mention of it over the summer, which caught some attention among the virtual worlds blogerati, and recently Alice Taylor picked it up, then James Au from her, and then yesterday Nick Carr pointed it out.
Carr says: "One thing's for sure, anyway: If you can pay your workers with virtual money, you've got a helluva labor strategy." Yep. As Nick Yee has pointed out, there are actually a bunch of interesting things that might be done by harnessing large scale play behaviors.
Amazon's World of Answercraft (the promised Questville) is interesting to me because I'm finishing a symposium essay (for this symposium) on the topic of user-generated content and virtual worlds. One thing I'm interested in exploring is the tension between what I'll call: 1) market economies, 2) reputation economies, and 3) ludic economies.
Market economies are just what you'd normally think of as economies. Reputation economies are not as well defined, but essentially they add the twist that the primary capital consists of social status and influence -- I talk about what I think the term might mean in this post at Madisonian and a bit more in this paper. As for ludic economies, I don't have a short or long definition of that term (yet) but you can probably guess at the gist of the idea -- it is related to the acquisition and transfer of what Mia calls "gamer capital" in her recent book and ties into some ideas that Thomas has worked on in this essay.
One of the interesting things about reputation and ludic economies, I think, is that the modes through which reputation and ludic capital are acquired and dissipated are quite different from what one sees in idealized market economies. For instance, complete market transfer of one's reputation to another is generally not possible, though endorsement and community membership might be described as a type of exchange. Reputation is also not understood as universally fungible, but is instead situated in the context of particular communities and even specific personal relationships. See the microfamous.
As I implied in this post, virtual worlds are structured in ways that create incentives for the pursuit of reputation and ludic capital. Though they are profitable for owners as online services, game economies based on Quest gold and such are primarily ludic arrangements where status is earned only according to investments and accomplishments obeying the set rules of play. (Cf. The Mitchell Report.)
Part of the issue with the
RMT, I think, is that market economies have always existed in an uneasy tension with
both reputation and ludic economies. Reputation can be lost when a person "sells out". Games are almost always constrained by rule sets that prohibit market economies from intruding into certain aspects of play.
As I'll be writing about in the essay, and as other have observed, so-called Web 2.0 efforts often seem aimed at monetizing reputation economies indirectly. Essentially platform owners seek to find ways, and sometimes do find ways, of profiting from online communities that are premised on sharing or non-market competition.
As I explain in the Digital Attribution paper, this has interesting implications for how we should react to some of the rhetorical claims of Web 2.0 proponents. While there is no inherent contradiction between the pursuit of fame and money (often they go hand in hand), there are quite different rhetorics surrounding the pursuit of play and social reputation versus the pursuit of market wealth.
Carr has been an astute observer of the gaps between rhetoric and practice here. He claims that many Web 2.0 models amount to sharecropping the labors of sharing communities. So I find Carr's confusion about how to read "Quest gold" very interesting. He says:
In July of 2006, I entered into a quasi-wager with Yochai "Wealth of Networks" Benkler about the ultimate economic structure of the most popular social media sites. I predicted that the dominant sites would pay for their content - that they would, in Benkler's terms, be "price-incentivized systems." Benkler predicted that the sites would be pure "peer-production processes" existing outside "the price system."
So what happens if people get paid with virtual gold: Is that price-incentivized or not? I would argue that it is. If you're working for gold, whether real or fake, you're putting a price on your labor. I mean, if you take beads in trade for something of value, then the beads are money, right? But of course I'm biased, being a participant in the wager. Maybe Benkler would argue that fake gold is more like a token of esteem or a gift of the heart than like a wage.
Ah, there's the rub. The question we might ask is: why would this matter? Other than for tax purposes or interpreting the language of wagers, do we really need to place those beads neatly in one of two boxes: money or esteem?
If you can exhange Quest gold for an Amazon gift card, then it is money. But if it also "show[s] everyone how active and helpful you've been on Askville" then it is also something else--a token of esteem. So, like many status markers out there that people might pursue (e.g. the Nobel Prizes or an NFS grants), Quest gold belongs in both boxes at once. Prizes have valences in market, reputation, and ludic economies.
So Carr's question is a bit too binary. He seems to devalue ludic rewards and prioritize the balance sheet as the ultimate authority. The most interesting thing, for me, is looking at the ways these various forms of capital are permitted to interrelate and looking for instances where their exchange is permitted or prohibited (e.g. payola).
One of my observations in Digital Attribution was that Benkler's claims about peer production often idealize reputation economies and gloss over their complicated dynamics. When we look at reputation economies we often find winners and losers following predictable incentive models in ways that seem rational and self-interested. Practices can be sharp and injustices can occur.
While Benkler seems to conflate the absence of pecuniary exchange with the presence of a superior social order (based on, e.g., norms of sharing and collaboration), it isn't clear that peer production (or Quest gold production) changes that much at all from a normative perspective. Reputation and ludic economies feature a different form of capital, but human nature remains the same. Even if we accept that we're in a transition from away from a "price system" for certain forms of information online (which I think is correct), what do we stand to gain and what do we stand to lose from that transition?
So I'll be interested in seeing if Amazon can make World of Answercraft into something interesting. Here's a question (perhaps I should post it to Askville!):
Q: At this point, Askville wants Quest gold to signify status, potential money, and gaming success. Is that type of currency confusing? Is it fun?