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You may have heard the recent news about e-theft; in case you haven’t here’s a quick re-cap: Two boys in the Netherlands physically attacked (in the real world) a third to get to acquire items in RuneScape. The verdict? On top of assault, they were guilty of theft. This is only the latest in a series of similar rulings establishing precedent for real world value for online concepts.

The notion that items which exist solely on the Internet still have some intrinsic real world value is not a new one. You might recall the virtual island which sold for nearly $30,000 several years ago, or the Supreme Court ruling over ownership of domain names. However, this case is unique in that it’s not tens of thousands (or more) of dollars at stake here. It’s basically the equivalent of two kids beating up another to get his prized baseball card – and the courts are recognizing this as just as valid an issue, despite the fact that the stolen item exists solely in a game.

I VALUE MY DARN FULL MALEVOLENT GEAR OMG

I VALUE MY DARN FULL MALEVOLENT GEAR OMG

The ramifications are interesting. IRE‘s EULA provides a solid blanket of cover, ensuring that items such as credits and artifacts are always protected, while items you acquire in-game are subject to game world theft, subject to the individual game’s rules. However, what does this say about the value of our characters themselves and the items they hold? Do they now have a real world or monetary worth? Can items which exist solely in the virtual ether have any sort of price tag attached to them, or are they just intangible abstracts?

An intriguing way to look at this is to consider what in itself denotes value. Basic Econ 101 courses look at real world goods in this way, assessing factors which contribute to an item’s value. One theory suggests that value derives from the inherent costs of production. For items which exist solely online, however, the need for labor and materials is completely absent – a virtual sword doesn’t require a smith’s time or iron ore to make, just like a house in Achaea’s subdivision doesn’t need masons and stone to actually build. Yet these can be highly desired things to acquire in games, so there is obviously something else which plays into how much an e-item is worth – a more subjective scale of perceived use and desirability.

For the most part, items fall into three categories, although there is understandable interlap: utility, enjoyment and rarity. A rune for your blade or a set of wings, a special design for your unicorn in Avalon, or a meta gem in WoW – are all clear examples of items which are highly valued for their utility. These items augment your fighting or greatly ease your travel through the land, and carry high price tags which players consider worth paying because of how useful they are. A house one can roleplay within or a fancy mount, on the other hand, would be an item considered valuable because of the enjoyment factor it contributes  to. These types of items often are acquired more for roleplay or sentimental purposes. Finally, rare items, such as prizes earned through events or promotions, or pets which have a very low chance or spawning, are valued primarily because other people don’t have them, or need them and find them hard to acquire.

Artifact auctions provide a great example of this sort of valuation in practice. Aetolia, for example, is currently holding a unique type of auction, where several of the items can only be bid on with special tokens which players acquired in an earlier promotion. One of the items, a torc which gives the Druid vitality skill, currently has a very high bid, due to how useful the ability is perceived to be in combat. Another item, though, is a special traveling house, and is also rising high up on the bid list, because of the “fun factor” many see in driving a gypsy wagon around. The currency itself, finally, is a great demonstration of the notion of rarity – before the items were announced, most people didn’t value the tokens that highly and they sold for rather low prices. Now, however, that the auction is underway and people need the tokens (and the amount available is becoming more scarce) the price these are being traded for is skyrocketing.

It’s somewhat fascinating how the game world can mirror the real one, but with its own distinct spin put on it. Without the fetters of some real world constraints, such as production and material costs, other aspects of the economy come to the forefront, making for a interesting system to sit back and observe.

How about you? What items do you most value in your game of choice, and why?

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