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Is it Ethical to Use Real Money to Gain an Advantage in a Virtual Game?

Everquest is a popular fantasy themed massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORG) released in 1999 that is played by millions of people. In its world of Norrath consisting of over 400 zones, players kill monsters and enemies to gain loot, experience points and in-game currency known as platinum pieces (pp). Most players' end-game goal is to join a top raiding guild, which is a close-knit group of people who socialize and team up to kill large raid mobs that drop the best gear found in the entire game.

In order to join a raiding guild, a character is generally required to have reached the maximum level of 95 and have good armor. Reaching these requirements can take a person up to 80 full days of play-time--however, the more platinum pieces a character has the better armor that they can buy earlier in the game and thus the quicker that they can level up to 95. This demand to level up as fast as possible, led to the development of the Everquest virtual economy where in game items, platinum pieces, and getting in-game help power leveling your character can be bought with U.S. dollars.

Sony's Everquest End User License Agreement specifically states, "You may not buy, sell, or auction any game characters, items, coins or copyrighted material." Despite this clear warning, the underground Everquest virtual economy thrives. To satisfy the massive demand for plat pieces, the plat farmer was born. Plat farmers generally play on multiple accounts and play in the same spot 24 hours a day, every day of the week--most plat farmers are from China where farming gear and pp is a legitimate way to earn a living. Their strategy is to hunt named mobs that drop rare items, and then sell the items for in-game pp, which is sold for real money. This tendency for plat farmers to stay in the same area for long periods generates hostile game behaviors such as kill stealing and training. Kill stealing occurs when a player kills a mob that was first attacked by another player while training occurs when someone intentionally pulls a large number, or a train of mobs, to another player with the intent of killing them. Kill stealing and training negatively detract from the game and are serious offenses that can get your game account cancelled.

While the average player can generate 319 plat pieces per hour, the professional plat farmer can make up to 10,000 per hour. This massive influx of pp into the Everquest economy by farmers leads to inflation--average players are hurt because they have to pay higher amounts of pp for gear from the bazaar than they would in a normal economy.

Another important but controversial aspect of the underground virtual economy is power leveling. Power leveling occurs when a higher-level player plays beside a low-level character helping the lower level character to kill difficult mobs that they could not kill by themselves. This in turn, causes the lower level toon to level up quite fast--power leveling is the quickest way to reach the maximum level of 95.  Power leveling a character to max level can cost up to $500, and is often done by players who do not have the free time to spend playing the game. A negative side effect of having a character power leveled is that the player usually does not know how to play their character really well, since they have always relied entirely on the assistance from higher-level characters.

The final part of the virtual economy is buying and selling characters, in-game items, and platinum pieces with real money. A fully leveled and geared character can cost $2,000, single armor pieces regularly sell for $50, and 1,000,000 pp will cost you $100. Being able to buy your way through the game, allows someone with financial resources to get into a raiding guild much faster than a casual player.

To summarize, the ability to use real money to gain an advantage in Everquest directly led to the development of the underground virtual economy. Arguably, this virtual economy positively benefitted several thousand people--it allowed them to earn a living selling virtual items and currency for real money. However, the virtual economy has had several negative effects on the game. First, the virtual economy required plat farmers. This in turn led to unsocial in-game behaviors such as, kill stealing and training which negatively affected the millions of rule-abiding casual players.  In addition, plat farmers' ability to generate massive amounts of pp has caused massive inflation hurting the ability of the casual player to obtain gear and items from the bazaar. Second, the virtual economy allowed a player to have their character power leveled, which led to players not really knowing how to play their character making them a liability when grouped with casual non-power leveled characters. Finally, the underground economy made it possible for wealthy players to buy a fully geared and leveled character, allowing them to join a raiding guild much sooner than a casual player. Because the virtual economy has hurt far more people than it has helped, I conclude that it is unethical to use real money to gain an advantage in a virtual game.