Opening Pandora’s Box: The Problem with Diablo 3’s Real Money Auction House

In his 2009 TED lecture on Predictable Irrationality, Dan Ariely described the hidden reasons why we sometimes think it’s all right to cheat others for our own benefit. He posits that the reason for this is that our intuitions on many things are both wrong and irrational and that we need to subject our intuitions to the scientific method.

Ariely goes on to describe an experiment regarding the concept of cheating and concludes that people who cheat are often insensitive to the potential economic gains relative to the chance of getting caught. Instead, Ariely says, we are indifferent to cheating when we do it in small degrees, as long as we don’t see a change in our own impressions of ourselves.  In these situations, we can rationalize our conduct as not being wrong per se, but just as “fudging” ever so slightly. When you think about it, this seems to make sense, especially when we extrapolate the idea to our own lives. Imagine the difference in guilt you would feel in the following situations:

  1. Taking home a pencil and notepad from your job at Starbucks; or
  2. Taking home an extra $2.00 dollars from the tip jar.

Most would agree that the former isn’t as morally repugnant as the latter. Yet, both are technically stealing. When we take home a pencil and notepad we tend to view it as just “fudging.” But when we take those few extra dollars from the tip jar, we are moving beyond fudging, and instead entering the realm of what society (and our own intuitions) deem stealing. So, what is really going on here? Ariely proposes that the farther we get from real money, the easier it is for us to cheat and/or steal. That’s why we constantly hear news reports of insider trading and securities fraud–in each case the item of value isn’t cash, it is an item that represents or acts in place of cash.

What does this have to do with gaming? Well, every video game requires that the player place themselves in the shoes of a digital avatar. This digital avatar then interacts with scripted characters in a world with a set of clearly defined rules. Based on the rules of the game, the gamer then determines how to act, i.e. whether to choose the path of a Paragon or Renegade, the Dark Side or the Light Side, the hero of the wasteland or scourge of the desert. As such, the gamer and his digital avatar have effectively been given carte blanche to act as either a saint or a villain, with little real world consequence. Because of this, the line between what is moral and immoral has been further blurred.

Who cares, right? What does it matter if we allow ourselves to escape into a world where we kill without consequence or steal bottle caps from an old blind woman? In truth, it doesn’t–or rather it didn’t, until recently. You see, a little game called Diablo 3 launched a few months ago, and on June 12, 2012, Blizzard opened up an auction house that utilizes real world currency to purchase digital items found in the game. All of a sudden that sense of moral impunity inherent to gaming could be economically dangerous, especially considering how far removed selling items in a digital auction house is from stealing from a tip jar.

The gaming world has already reacted negatively to the introduction of the real money auction house (RMAH). Countless articles since the game’s release bemoan the creation of a system that sanctions monetary purchases in lieu of skill or dedication to the game and its system of rules. In Diablo 2, many players would often band together for the sake of completing “dungeon crawls” or “Mephisto runs” to get rare equipment that could not be found elsewhere. Now all we need to do is click on the auction house link and buy whatever we need. Moreover, Diablo 2 is an inherently more social game than Diablo 3–and the auction house is further proof of this. In Diablo 2, skills and classes often included a social element that would benefit an online party. The Paladin, for example, had an entire skill tree devoted to “auras” that would bolster the stats of other members of your party. This fostered a sense of comradery and community as players would pick their party based on skills that complement each other.

This is heavily contrasted in Diablo 3, where the individual is the focal point, as evidenced by the skill-boosting items available for purchase in the RMAH.  With Diablo 3, the bonding experience shared by players has all but disappeared because of the introduction of free market capitalism. Instead of working with others to beat a boss on the hardest difficulty, any individual with a fat wallet can simply hack their way through the higher difficulty levels and upgrade their equipment as opposed to their tactics or parties. By doing so, we’re being forced to participate and cheat by way of transactional expediency and not actual work or skill.  Blizzard has changed the rules of the game and discounted social interaction for the sake of individual accomplishment (all while requiring an Internet connection just to play single player, ironically). And like the person who takes a pencil and notepad from work, nobody thinks there is anything wrong with buying a better item in lieu of earning it through teamwork.

But what about the second situation? Should we be worried about outright theft? Is there a chance of an employee, or in our case, a member of the Diablo 3 community, stealing from other players? Based on what Ariely says, yes there is. Remember what his study showed us: people are more prone to cheat and/or steal when the item involved is not cash per se. I believe that this is the real danger of the RMAH and one that will be exploited in the coming months. As people around the world realize the value of certain items found in this newly sanctioned digital marketplace, we will hear more stories of our digital avatars having their identities stolen. The temptation to clean out high level players for the sake of making up to $250.00 per transaction is too great; hackers with access to sophisticated technology won’t be able to resist capitalizing on their skills. And as mentioned above, the cheaters won’t see it as being wrong because they aren’t stealing money, but merely digital items that don’t actually exist. That’s about as far from cash as you can get, and as we’ve seen from Ariely’s analysis on human nature and our moral intuitions, the further we get from cash the quicker we are to discount or ignore our conscience–all while Blizzard takes a cut.

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