We think the paper is notable because it is the first instance (as far as we know) of published, peer-reviewed, basic economic tests using actual large-scale data from a virtual world. No estimates, no samples, no bootstrapping--just all of the data, period. These data were anonymous and privacy protected, and what we analyzed were the macroeconomic trends and patterns. We have three main findings, below the fold:
First, the virtual world we studied appears to behave in the way a real economy does. The people there are as rational (or irrational) as we are offline. As a result, there are price indexes, an inflation rate, etc. This suggests some at least rough mapping is taking place for the world's economics, and that maybe, just maybe, these worlds might serve as testbeds for economic research and policy tests.
Second, the results were not particular to one server. A
natural experiment occurred in which a new server came online, and it's
economic indicators quickly approached and matched those of the
existing ones. This suggests the powerful role of code in shaping and directing human behaviors in the aggregate. Another point scored for Lessig.
Third, the data give a much more accurate picture of the real-world value of the assets generated and translatable via RMT markets. Updating Ted's foundational work in the space, we now find that for this world at least, the numbers are lower than previously thought--about $130-160/year, or on par with Liberia and Congo.
The paper is the result of fantastic work by the PhD students at USC and Northwestern: Cuihua Shen, Yun Huang, Brian Keegan, Robby Ratan and Li Xiong. This crew is really something.
Castronova, E., Williams, D., Huang, Y., Shen, C., Keegan, B., Ratan, R. (2009). As real as real? Macroeconomic behavior in a large-scale virtual world. New Media & Society. 11(5) p. 685-707.