Currency tampering in MMOs

I’m an avid reader of Joystiq, and one of its recurring columns is the Law of the Game, which speaks to how various laws apply to the video game world. The column is written by Mark Methenitis, a lawyer in the state of Texas whose take on many issues I often find insightful.

Mark’s 12/12/08 column was about the potential for currency manipulation in the persistent worlds of MMOs, particularly at the hands of unscrupulous developers. This article was framed in light of the recent insider trading crap that has been going down on Wall Street.

In the article, Methenitis correctly states that the developers of a game have a control over that world’s prices that would never be possible in the real world. For example, if Blizzard wanted to make Frostmourne available in-game (maybe it already is – I don’t play WoW), but only have one such sword available to each server, the price for that piece of gear on the open market would be astronomical. But they could easily start dropping Frostmournes more often at no incremental cost to them, which would cause the price to plummet. This situation (and it’s inverse where gear drops less often) has the potential for “insider trading” by rogue devs who have information the public does not possess. A similar play would be available if a dev knew an upcoming in-game event would raise or lower the relative value of the currency.

Where I begin to disagree with the article is the potential for federal government intervention in such cases. Here’s why. It seems to me that the crux of his argument requires currency to be legally traded against or bought for real world money. Is game currency bought for real money? Sure it is, but not legally. As I understand it, legally nothing you possess “inside” an MMO actually belongs to you, rather it belongs to the developers. Sure people sell their accounts to other people, but I believe that is technically an illegal transaction.

So here’s the problem. All real world transactions are effectively black market transactions. If you got ripped off, what is your recourse? Do you go to the police and say that an illegal advantage was used which devalued your transaction, which was also illegal? That’s like reporting your pot dealer for selling you zoysia. (Somebody stop me if I’m way off base here – I’m certainly far from a lawyer- but the situation as presented does not seem plausible. I’ve probably screwed up some of my legal analysis somewhere above.)

Regardless of whether or not the above situation could happen, the harm that such developer manipulation would do to the games economy and playerbase enthusiasm would obviously be irreparable.  Take the recent EVE controversy for example, which will most likely have far-reaching economic consequences for that game. 

It is so obviously in the interest of these MMO developers to keep their employees in line and not game the system that I don’t really see this issue being a problem.  If it did happen though, I don’t think there’s anything the subscribers could do about it.

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