Let’s imagine a hypothetical economy. It’s a bit of an odd economy, since it’s partly “virtual” and partly “real,” at least by conventional economic reasoning — but in a way, part of what I’m trying to show with this hypothetical example is that conventional economic reasoning’s binary of “virtual” versus “real” has inadequate explanatory force. Furthermore, that inadequacy carries strong implications for the economic aspects of students’ work in the composition classroom.
Note: a lot of the following might feel a lot more clear if read in the context of the excellent Cory Doctorow short story, “Anda’s Game.”
Let’s ground this hypothetical economy in the Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game Everworld Galaxies of UltimaQuest. I write “ground” because the term “set” would imply that the economy is confined to the world bounded by the environment of EGOUQ, which — as will quickly become apparent — is not true: the game’s economy bursts the bounds of the “virtual” and spills over into the social “real.” And I know these scare quotes are gonna get irritating really quickly, but I hope you’ll bear with me: I’m using both terms, if I can be vulgarly Gallic, sous rature. Anyway: so we’ve got an economy, some aspects (we’ll call them “transactions”) of which take place in-game, others out-of-game. And the effects of those transactions cross that in-game/out-of-game boundary.
For example, the initial payments that allow players to play the game are considered market transactions: the exchange of cash or other immaterial and discrete units of value for a thereby commodified good or service. Market transactions are what most people think of when they think of economics, but there are other forms of transaction, as well. Imagine a computer programmer who works for the company that sells the EGOUQ software and charges monthly subscription fees for users to access EGOUQ‘s persistent online world — call the company, say, Blizungie. This programmer decides she’d like to give her significant other a special birthday gift, and since her significant other is an avid gamer, she uses her Blizungie privileges to code up a unique magical artifact for in-game use that gives her significant other remarkable powers in the EGOUQ persistent online world — call this artifact, say, The Amulet of Yendor. We’d call this a gift transaction: an object or service of value changed hands, but in an altruistic way, with no corresponding exhange of cash. Out-of game labor; in-game transaction of value.
Now: the SO uses The Amulet of Yendor and the remarkable powers it gives in combat with other players. And in EGOUQ, when one player defeats another in combat, some of the loser’s possessions of value are transferred to the winner. In the “real” world, we’d call this a theft transaction, like mugging. Value changes hands via the use of force. The problem is, though, that many (more on this in a bit) participants in EGOUQ are there voluntarily, and have signed a contract saying as much — so being robbed, in a way, is a part of the entertainment value of the game for players who are defeated by the SO who holds The Amulet of Yendor. And so we see our first evidence where forms of economic transaction get a bit weird and difficult to evaluate when they transgress boundaries between the “virtual” and the “real.”
Things get stranger still. Some entry-level players know they can’t compete with players like the SO and artifacts like The Amulet of Yendor, so they try to give themselves a leg up: they use out-of-game transactions to buy in-game currency, which in EGOUQ takes the form of gold pieces. They first check the conversion rates from “real” dollars or euros to “virtual” gold pieces, decide they want a nice suit of magical mithril chain mail armor and a vorpal blade that goes snicker-snack, and think they might be willing to part with up to twenty dollars for the advantage that such items will give them. Such players will evaluate how much gold the armor and weapon will cost in the in-game armorer’s stores, calculate the exchange rate, and then use their credit cards to pay “real” dollars for the appropriate amount of “virtual” currency. Commodified value is exchanged, both in-game and out-of-game. Again, market transactions.
Enter the Goldfarmer. The Goldfarmer understands three very important things: first, as explained above, people will trade “real” cash for “virtual” in-game cash. Second, because Blizungie is eager to profit from an expanding user base, cash is not scarce in EGOUQ: rather, gold pieces can be accumulated in tiny increments by the performance of menial and basic in-game tasks. Finally, exploitable workers can be paid minimal wages to control the in-game characters who perform these menial tasks, and the Goldfarmer can appropriate the surplus value of their labor for the purposes of exchange. (Yes, as I’ve noted before, this does happen.) The Goldfarmer puts these three pieces of knowledge together and constructs an EGOUQ sweatshop, wherein his employees perform those menial and easy low-level tasks to ‘harvest’ gold, to be sold at a profit by the Goldfarmer. Depending upon the degree to which these “real”-world workers control the circumstances of their labor, they might be understand as engaging in low-paid market transactions, engaging in feudal transactions for which the rewards are understood in terms other than that of cash or currency (feminist economists have offered highly useful insights about the ways in which housework might be considered a feudal transaction), or engaging in slave transactions, wherein the workers hold no control over the circumstances of production.
So: our hypothetical economy is constituted by a diverse array of forms of transaction: gift, slave, feudal, market. (There are others, as well.) Furthermore, all of these forms of transactions blur — and perhaps even collapse — the boundaries between “real” and “virtual” economies. Furthermore, one’s class position — whether one is an exploited subject of The Goldfarmer or someone who plays EGOUCQ for fun — help to determine the nature of the transaction.
Now: how might we understand the circulation of student writing in the composition classroom as comprising a similarly diverse array of transactions?