Meta-Game: Real/Game Transfers

David Ethan Kennerly, January 2001

This point exposes a serious community/game design problem, which is similar to what many games define as "meta-gaming".

To be fair, though, I can imagine many games where (real <--> game) asset transfers would detriment the game's popularity. For example: professional sports, or professional chess. Imagine if a coach/manager sells the right to lose a game for real world money. He could propose it as: I will sell you {x} number of game points (or chess piece sacrifices) for {y} number of dollars.

The point Rickey made is very similar to meta-gaming (of which (real <--> game) asset transfers are a subset of), but not quite the same. In most games that forbid meta-gaming there is an adequate staff of referees. So the meta-gaming ban is enforceable a significant percentage of the time. Here, though, how often can any MMOG (Massive Multiplayer Online Game) cost-effectively enforce meta-gaming? (see "Are eBay sales more than just a fad?") As MUD-devver's posted (see "Criminalize Community Volunteers?", and the ironically titled conversation "paying volunteers"), a lot of the referees are, or almost, unilaterally (therefore unbound; i.e. volunteers) agreed players. These referees enforce have little inclination to enforce meta-gaming, and are completely ill-equipped to detect at least this form of meta-gaming, real <--> game asset transfers.

Meta-gaming itself is not a problem. It all depends on the game design. Matt has posted on Achaea's business model, which succeeds because of (real <--> game) asset transfers. In this since, it's not really "meta" gaming any more. The real life survival credits (money) become game life credits of some sort.

Another very good example of successfully-incorporated meta-gaming is Magic: The Gathering. Real-world dollars equals game world lottery tickets. That is, each pack bought is another chance to get the game-mechanically superior asset, the kick-ass card.

And finally, another is every time-based MMOG. In these, of which EQ is currently the second most played, players' real-world time asset is directly transferred into game-world points. The game requires very little skill and very much time. By little skill, compare EQ or another whack-the-monster/sell-the-item game to tennis or chess. Those with the most real-world assets of time, win.

Obviously every game requires some amount of real-world time, but there is a vast difference between, say, chess and EQ. In chess, skill will win a game. That game skill was developed through real time investment (real time --> game skill), but the skill is independent of the game. You don't have to play ChessMaster for 100s of hours to be good at ChessMaster. You have to play just chess. You _do_ have to play EQ for 100s of hours to have a high standing in EQ. Playing a similar MUD won't only informs you of the strategy you ought to take, which is time-intensive, per individual, copyrighted game.

At first it could be thought that time-based MMOG's are not designed to reward (real <--> game) time advantages; therefore, they are not designed for (real <--> game) transfers. But that was well over 20 years ago. Today, if a MUD designer incorporates this, he wants to reward (real <--> game) transfer of time converted into game points, which makes business sense to the pay-per-hour model, and (through more advanced chain of reasoning) to pay-per-month model. It also makes sense to the free MUD. You want people to play your game? Reward them for playing your game.

Personally, I prefer skill-based elements of a game. Then the (real <--> game) transfer works to my real-world advantage. My game investment becomes a real reward. Solving puzzle games helps the player to solve some real puzzle-like problems. Playing a social RP MUD, in a certain manner, helps the player to create spontaneous prose in real-life. Playing a good resource management game (e.g. Civilization, SimCity) helps the player to manage real-life resources.

By "real-life", one could just about substitute "other-game". Any introductory textbook on cultural anthropology expounds on this much better than I could here or now.

If there is no transferable skill involved, and if game asset status is the game reward, then a player who bypasses his time investment by paying someone else to play for him has achieved the game reward without playing the game, depreciates the game service provider's asset, the game. For a subscription-based model in a world that has spontaneous generation of game assets, the players, over time deplete the value of the game and the income of the game service provider by paying the third-party, the other player, for the game asset gain. This happens without discouragement, in Magic: The Gathering. But in Magic: The Gathering, each asset is paid to the company. In a non-pay-per-hour model, a surplus of real world time translates into more efficient game value depletion.

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