This semester our task is to create a game-within-the-game of World of Warcraft. That is, we’re going to be coming up with something that folks who participate in our study can do within WoW that isn’t regular WoW content, but is still fun and engaging. This is much more difficult than doing the same in Second Life because, of course, we don’t get to program explosions and build NPCs and plop down steampunk factories and mansions.
Instead, we have to come up with ways that we can use the interface (we’re creating an add-on) to change the meaning of what people do in our little game-within-a-game. So, you pick up a “Loosely threaded hat” which, in WoW, is a “gray” (valueless) item to be trashed or sold to a vendor. But in our little game you could see a message saying, “Congratulations! You found the hat you were looking for!” Changing the meaning from “junk” to “goal” is really just a matter of feedback, if you think about it.
I mean, what makes things desired or valuable in WoW? The game (i.e., interface) tells you that it’s valuable, and you experience an improvement or benefit that demonstrates that it is. Little numbers across your screen indicate that it will increase your damage done, your damage indeed increases, and other people want one. Et voila! Value!
So we’ll be identifying things, places, people as having a specific value by adding information to players’ interface (“You have found a clue”), and then they will want that gray hat. Or the pipe. Or whatever. Sure, it won’t help them fight better, but it will progress them in our little game-within-a-game.
Some people express amazement that “virtual goods” have “real world value.” That is, they go on and on about how amazing it is that you can buy and sell, say, fancy hair in Second Life for “real money!!” But of course we sell virtual goods all the time, and have done so for centuries. What is a service like a concert but a virtual good? I mean, sure your body is there for a while enjoying the music as an audience member, but when you leave you have nothing physical to show for the cost of that ticket. Same with the nice hair. No physical item, just the price of enjoying as an audience member some entertaining something or other. Long flowing locks might not stack up all that well against Mozart, but then again they cost less than a concert.
We regularly pay money for things that only have value within a certain world or system. Take education. You probably paid a lot for those college classes, all things considered. They make your life better (just as a better sword makes my WoW life better?) but they don’t translate outside the system: that advanced statistics class is pretty useless hiking in the wilderness. Can’t eat an R-squared.
Or what about that movie you saw last week in the theater? Experiencing those two hours of action-packed fun is really no different than purchasing a WAY cool dragon mount to flit around Azeroth on. Entertaining. Adds to the fun. Plus, I still have my mount to play with. Your movie was over in two hours.
So what’s to stop us from creating our own value in WoW? Adam Smith would tell us that if we put in the labor, we’ll generate value for ourselves. If other people want it, then it’s got market value for other people. We just have to come up with some good ways to make that hat and pipe fun for a while, give them value because we say they have value, and hope the fun people get is worth the time they spend collecting or passing or wearing them.