Undercover Economist

Virtual virtues

Nurses leave Nigeria and come to the UK, hoping for a better career. Farmers leave Mexico to work in construction or catering in the US. Such migrants can have a profound impact on the economy, as well as the society and politics both of the country they leave and the country to which they move. Social scientists, naturally, take an interest.

But one economist, Edward Castronova of Indiana University, studies an unusual kind of migration. Unhappy with your job as a Starbucks barista? Why not become a starship captain instead? Impossible if you stay in the country of your birth, but simplicity itself if, instead, you emigrate to an online fantasy world.

In such worlds, players usually pay a monthly fee for the right to explore richly detailed three-dimensional landscapes inhabited by dragons or aliens or, in some cases, punks and strippers. They are also populated by other players – guess who plays the strippers. If a player spends enough time there, perhaps he has migrated.

You might protest that is not migration at all, and you’d be right in all sorts of ways. But Castronova thinks it is relevant nonetheless, and he may be right too.

Half-joking but curious, his studies began with a survey he conducted in 2001 among regular players of an online game, Everquest. He asked about how much they played, as well as their real and fantasy careers. A third spent more time in the Everquest world than they did working for pay (and the average respondent worked a 40-hour week). One fifth regarded themselves as residents of the Everquest world, and a similar proportion said they would spend all their time in Everquest, if only that were possible.

By itself, that means little. But it should set us thinking. There is no doubt that these games have a modest but real and growing economic significance. People spend time and effort inside the game, creating or obtaining items that other players value. Virtual currency can be traded for dollars, and performing mundane tasks inside a computer game can even provide an income that is attractive to Chinese and eastern European students. Paying real dollars for an in-game item sounds silly, but no more than paying for a new mobile phone ringtone, which is also a digital product of purely aesthetic value. Time is spent, fun is had, money is spent, economic value is added.

As many more people log on and spend time having fun in a synthetic economy, will that really change the mundane world, as Castronova argues in a new book, Exodus to the Virtual World? Is the phenomenon any different from, say, poker – which is also a game in which time is spent, fun is had, and money changes hands?

If there turns out to be a difference it will be because synthetic worlds offer us an alternative vision of how society might work. These are places in which alter-egos live and die, fall in love, and develop careers and alliances. Their politics are very different from those to which we are accustomed.

Most synthetic worlds, for instance, celebrate their huge inequalities. Some characters are helpless and penniless, others are near gods, and every facet of the game’s interface will scream the distinction at you. But nobody minds, because the game is seen as fair. Everyone starts from the bottom and works their way up without state intervention, a libertarian’s dream. Yet other facets of the game are centrally controlled with great care: tremendous effort goes into offering equal opportunity to all players.

Castronova believes that compelling, increasingly popular and radically new experiences in synthetic worlds will start to change the nature of politics “back home”. That remains to be seen. But I find the idea faintly encouraging: a little healthy competition never did anyone any harm.

Also published at ft.com, subscription free.