August 5, 2005 7:18 AM PDT
Virtual gaming's elusive exchange rates
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If you happen to find yourself short of fantasy gold pieces for the purchase of that battle hammer in the game "World of Warcraft," for example, you can surf to one of the many third-party Web sites trafficking in "World of Warcraft" gold, pull out your credit card and exchange real dollars for fantasy coinage.
People who play online fantasy games routinely buy and sell fantasy-game currencies and other cyber-game assets using real dollars, sometimes on Web sites hosted by the game developers, sometimes on third-party sites.
Because there is no regulator controlling exchange rates for virtual currencies, rates vary widely from site to site, making market prices for virtual currencies difficult to track. These micro-economies fascinate academics, who point out that as the volume of virtual-currency trades increases, so will the tax implications, which may eventually force the exchanges to regulate their pricing.
At the Web site IGE.com, $51.99 can get you 500 "World of Warcraft" gold pieces, enough virtual currency to buy you the handy Hammer of the Titans weapon. IGE and its competitors also sell the virtual currencies of other major online games such as "Everquest," "Ultima Online" and "City of Heroes."
But according to two of the leading experts in the economies of these virtual worlds, getting a fair price in the exchange of real dollars for fantasy coins can be a crapshoot. Turns out it's hard to find reliable data about the dollar/virtual currency exchange rates in a pretend world where there's no Alan Greenspan setting interest rates and scolding everyone about irrational exuberance.
"I have looked at this data acquisition issue for some time and...keep hitting a brick wall," said Dan Hunter, an assistant professor of legal studies and business ethics at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.
Given that millions of real dollars are being spent every year on these virtual currencies--perhaps as much as $880 million annually--buyers could well be getting short-changed if they're paying sellers more than the true value, whatever it is, for their gaming gold. While some game companies try to keep a tight lid on rates of exchange between real dollars and fantasy coins on their own sites, they can't control the impact of secondary exchanges.
Here's how it works: Since most multiplayer games allow players to transfer their virtual gaming possessions, enterprising players can temporarily leave the gaming world and buy and sell their virtual currencies on exchanges like IGE and auction giant eBay.
Players looking to sell or buy typically use the secondary exchange sites to find one another. On IGE, for example, a buyer and a seller can strike a deal for 10 million "Ultima Online" gold pieces and exchange real dollars for them. But in order to transfer the fantasy gold, they have to meet up back in the gaming world for the handoff of the goods.
IGE also acts like a middleman, buying with real money fantasy coins from game players and, in turn, selling them to other players.
It's the currencies and the behaviors of these massive multiplayer games' virtual economies that fascinate academics who find that they often mirror real-world economies and can sometimes predict the way people behave in the real world. And like the black markets of the real world, the secondary exchange sites of the fantasy gaming world are a difficult-to-quantify factor.
One Chinese Web site, GameUSD, is trying. GameUSD claims to have the most up-to-date exchange data for several of the biggest games. Its results show that, ironically, given the dollar's weakness in world markets, in almost every case, the games' currencies are losing value against the greenback because of inflation.
The problem is pretty simple: Without a central bank controlling the flow of all this virtual currency, more and more of it floods the market every day. So what can buy a castle today is perhaps only enough to buy a battle ax tomorrow.
GameUSD's lead researcher, Tianmin Zhu, said he and his colleagues collected the data by aggregating exchange rates
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