Monday, March 30, 2009

More than Pac-Man with a Bow: Super Smashing GENDER CONSTRUCTS

Now, I will be the first to admit that constructs are hard to take on. Between their immunity to critical hits and invulnerability to effects that require a fortitude save, they are tough hombres to smash. But I must prevail! How else can we hope to resurrect that one Wayans Brother?


All right. Got that out of my system. Now... where were we again? Right.

In each case, these characters have inherited signs from a more limited period of gaming technology, these vestiges are not so easily swept aside. Now codified into icon, they are projected through generations of gaming systems and gamers alike, becoming more elaborate through history and momentum.

These exaggerations of sign, from Peach's hyper-victimhood, Samus' dual role as able warrior and sexy space hooker, and Zelda/Sheik's gender and form ambiguity are all on full display in a game such as Super Smash Brother's Brawl, which combines gaming characters from a vast array of franchises to duke it out.

The results are as-expected. Peach still swings about frying pans and dishes out slaps. She cowers behind her retainer, floats about on a parasol, ever-reaching towards new heights of inspired uselessness. Samus is the same heavily-armored space mercenary, at least until she delivers her final smash and her suit literally falls off her body. And Zelda/Sheik are dual roles of the same characters, toggling between a slow, heavily defensive sprite to an agile finesse-fighter at the flip of a button. As a further point of gender-bending, here Sheik is referred to exclusively as a woman, and whose reconceptialized art is more feminine, while still retaining most of the masculine characteristics.

Sisters are super smashing it for themselves.

Though not every game can highlight the disparate signs of a handful of franchises as well as Super Smash, elsewhere the brawl rages on - where once game designers had to struggle to convey even the most basic information through their characters, today's characters must fight to be rid of the parasitic signs of earlier ages.

We've seen nearly three decades of damsels-in-distress and sexpot adventurers, figures either exemplified by their static weakness or their zealous enthusiasm to be fetishized while in the line of duty. These preconceived notions of what femaleness is, and does, don't only interfere with the creation of fully-formed characters. In defining playable, capable gaming experiences as implicitly male, and passive, captive and inert experiences as female, they perpetuate a false dichotomy within which gender discourse is bound to be skewed, misunderstood, or relegated to the sidelines.

Film historian Jan Oxenberg spoke of the experience of being "starved for images of ourselves on the screen". Despite modest successes, the stale tropes of an earlier age continue to deplete the cultural stock that video games, as a medium, draw from. In order to flourish, we will need new images: New generations of female characters drawing from new negotiations of sex and gender., communicated through new signs.

Only then will autonomous female characters become the norm. Otherwise, they are doomed to remain shadow imitators, relegated to the background: Just Pac-Man with a bow.

(Did you see what I did there I totally just used my title again.)

- Rook

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

More than Pac-Man With a Bow: Part 4

"It's like the Adventures of Link. He has to find Zelda, you have to find a house... "
"Boy, is that sexist."
"It's not sexist! It's... romantic."

- The Wizard, 1987

I've been invited by the Escapist to discuss the role of The Legend of Zelda's Sheik in an upcoming issue on gender. I'll link there from here when it goes live.

May I say, with the risk of spoiling the surprise, that dude looks like a lay-day.

- Rook

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

More than Pac-Man with a Bow: Part 3

"He touched my breast!"

"I touched her breast? She doesn't have breasts! "

- The Wizard, 1987

Originally, nothing much was known about Samus Aran, the protagonist of Gunpei Yokoi's Metroid. The instruction booklet only states that Samus is a bounty hunter, shrouded in mystery. At the end of the game, having blasted through a horde of hostile aliens, that mysterious shroud is pulled away, with Samus' armor flickering and disappearing, revealing a long-haired woman.

Metroid's twist ending, which outed the calm and collected space marine as female, has long been touted as the emergence of the first empowered female character in gaming. But what is often ignored is the context in which Samus emerges: One of glorified, 8-bit peepshow.

With Metroid being a non-linear game, the time it took to complete could vary greatly as players became more accustomed to the layout. Depending on the time taken, the 'reveal' of the ending changed slightly. Take longer than five hours, and Samus merely raises her first in triumph. Take between three and five, and Samus' helmet disappears, revealing her long hair. Less than three hours nets you a shot of Samus in a leotard... and less than one hour rewards you with a shot of Samus in a bikini.

In space, no one can see your tan.

Samus, then, manages to be both hero and damsel, half space pirate and half space booty. In her bulky armor, devoid of female signs, Samus is functionally male - the instruction book even goes so far as to refer to her as a man. It is only when the game is finished, the threat is overcome, and control is passed over to the credits that Samus may safely emerge as female. This movement from Samus-player to Samus-object is explicitly one of orientation: As controlled during the game, the Samus is inhabited. During the credits, stripped to her skivvies, Samus is merely regarded.

The idea of Samus naked under her macho spacesuit is one that has remained with the Metroid series through its many incarnations, to the point in which it moved beyond tongue-in-cheek end gag to gameplay feature. In Metroid: Zero Mission, Samus is ambushed by space pirates and makes a crash landing... which, of course, damages her suit. Here we are re-introduced to Samus in her undergarments, a form-fitting bit of blue spandex aptly titled a "Zero Suit".. though perhaps "birthday suit" would be more appropriate given the circumstances.

I had that nightmare again where I went to school wearing my Zero Suit.

The difficulty in representing Samus as big, bad Space Marine is a problem of competing signification: As a figure "shrouded in mystery", Samus is free to operate outside the influence of explicitly female signs. But once revealed as female, she has endured a gradual aesthetisization and re-signification of gender: her armor has become more slender in the waist and wider in the bust and hips, her visor has gone from opaque to translucent to constantly display her face.

Where once Samus' gender was locked away within an androgynous suit, her femaleness has been tortured into a cloying, all-encompassing presence. Like many strip-games, it may have been exciting at first, but in the end everyone is left feeling silly, uncomfortable... and more than a little cold.

- Rook

Sunday, March 15, 2009

Wuv the Power Gwuv

It is sooo baaddddddd.

Friday, March 13, 2009

More than Pac-Man with a Bow: Part 2

"Yeah, well, just keep your Power Gloves off her, pal."
- The Wizard, 1987

The character of Princess Peach originated as one of pure captivity: A literal damsel-in-distress, held captive by Donkey Kong, who must be saved by the heroic Jumpman. At the time, her name was simply "The Lady", and her long hair, pink dress, and frequent shouts of "HELP!" communicated all that you needed to know about her: That this was one long haired, pink-dressed lady in serious need of some HELP.

Re-christened as a princess in Super Mario Bros., a crown was added to the number of signs that communicated her character. But it wasn't until the North American port of Yume Kojo: Doki Doki Panic that she was given legs, so to speak.

While originally Yume Kojo contained characters from a Fuji TV television event, it was Marioified for a North American release as Super Mario Bros. 2. It was in this translation that the character of Lina, a young girl who could fly, was replaced by Princess Peach (or 'Toadstool' in the English version). Grouped alongside Mario, Luigi and Toad, each of these characters range in abilities such as their jump height and ability to lift objects.

The Princess' performance is on par with one might expect from a formerly-distressed-damsel: Peach has the most difficulty lifting objects and had the second-worst jump height, drawbacks that were mitigated through her ability to glide on her dress for short distances.

Though the end result is a playable character that still carries the signified femininity of a captured damsel, the messages that is conveyed treats women as both an exception and a burden: "Women can play games, too... it's just that they're weaker and slower." Even the benefit of being able to glide fits within this negative context. Jumping in the Mario Bros. games was difficult - so difficult that the original version of Super Mario Bros. 2 wasn't ported for fear that certain tricky jumps would frustrate novice North American gamers.

With such footwork an early badge of video game acumen, the idea of a female character - designed in part to appeal to female gamers - who could 'float past' the trickiest sections of the game serves only to re-iterate notions of handicap and inability.

It can be tough hiking up your skirt to make those jumps.

With Peach as a character serving the role of the perennial victim, and her victimhood dependant on notions of female paralysis, notions of gender and ability are inevitably linked. That is, her signified femininity defines not only the ways in which she is rendered incapable, but also sets the context through which she is playable. In Squaresoft's Mario RPG, Peach (as Toadstool) is armed with a wide variety of weapons including a parasol, a hand-fan, a frying pan, and, of course, good ol' fashioned slaps.

In the TOSE-developed Super Princess Peach, Peach is promoted to the role of protagonist, and navigates the game through the power of her emotions. In turns angry, happy, sad and calm, (calm?) each emotion changes music tempo and alters her ability set. Rather than discard the rudimentary signs of a hysterical female, these games extrapolate them to the point of caricature.

Peach, then, proceeds as a hyper-woman: Through femininity, weaponized.

- Rook

Tuesday, March 10, 2009

I Have 99 Problems But Navigating Procedurally-Generated Two-Dimensional Space Ain't One

pelunky bitches. Spelunky.

This game has me addicted and I blame Rook. He introduced it to me during the Murder Mystery/Birthday party he and his wife hosted recently and I've barely stopped playing it since.

It's sort of a combination of Mario and a Roguelike which makes for a good time. Each time you step into the dungeon the map is randomly generated and fully destructible. The objective is to work your way from the top of the room to an exit at the bottom 16 times. Every 4 rooms the setting changes from cave, to underground jungle, to ice cavern, to evil temple and any given room can have a number of 'feels' like an undead infestation, or complete darkness. You must navigate these rooms initially with naught but a whip, 4 hearts, 4 bombs, 4 ropes, and 3 flares.

Hearts are your life just as in the days of yore however with the danger of the dungeon and your small supply they are all too frequently not enough. Luckily you can save Damsels. Bringing a damsel to the rooms exit grants you a single heart. Granted just getting the ladies often loses you a heart or two from traps or critters, but what's a spelunker to do?

My only regret is that I have but four hearts to give.

As for the equipment additional supplies can be found through the dungeon in crates, on mini-bosses, or in shops. The shops randomly have additional bombs and ropes, or other equipment such as parachutes, guns, jetpacks and teleporters which you can purchase with the gold and gems you collect or make an attempt to steal the goods out form under the shopkeepers nose, though beware his shotgun. Killing a shopkeeper causes you to be wanted for the rest of your run, and many runs you will have.

Right now my score reads 456 plays, 455 deaths and 1 win. And I'm actually good at the game. Rarely do I die because the game is too hard or too cheap, in fact the game is rather simple and easy in it's design. More often it's because I don't take my time or I do something stupid like jumping down a hole before taking a look to see what's down there, and landing on some spikes.

Help Wanted: Tomb Raider
Pays approx. 1 million dollars an hour, make your own schedule
Self-resurrection experience a plus.

But that's the idea of the game, to die until you don't. There's a few reasons this works, first off, because the game creates each room randomly every time you enter it so every restart is new. You never have to play the same level twice. Secondly failures are generally just as entertaining as successes if not more so and finally, because each time you die you get better at the game.

That's my favourite part too, Learning little things piece by piece that make each subsequent run easier or more informed “Oh, I can hit things with the backswing from my whip? Spiders just got easier to kill.” “There's always a jetpack if I bomb behind the Alien ship? Easy mode!” “Oh, I guess the Countdown Ghost is invincible and kills me in one hit...well then.”

Ghosts have been oppressing video game heroes for far too long.

Since the beginning of my gaming history I've been drawn to the idea that I can get better at a game, not just through the conventions of the game, such as leveling up or finding better equipment, or even from gaining increased skill at controlling the game through dexterity and a better understanding of the control scheme. What really floats my boat is beating a game through mind powers. In the original Mario I eventually became able to beat the first level with my eyes closed because I simply knew where and when to jump. We all know the knowledge of where magic flutes and other warps are can expediate and ease the completion of a game and this sort of thing is becoming more and more prevalent.

It seems some designers aren't trying to immerse you in the game like so many of the current generations game developers do. They're simply saying “This is a game, see what you can do with it.” and while I appreciate being fully immersed it's also fun to just play a game sometimes.

Until next time, keep hitting things with a whip.


More than Pac-Man With a Bow: Part 1

"One is not born a woman, one becomes one."

- Simone de Beauvoir, The Second Sex

"Honey, don'cha know I'm more than Pac-Man with a bow?"
- Ms. Pac-Man, commercial for Ms. Pac-Man on the Atari 2800

In 1980, Midway purchased the rights to Crazy Otto, a popular hack of Pac-Man that featured added maps and improved random variability. They were faced with a problem: How could they re-market an update to their hit arcade game as an autonomous game in its own right? At the time, they were waiting impatiently for the Japanese company Namco to produce a direct sequel to Pac-Man, thus precluding the independent production of a "Pac-Man 2." How could they suggest difference, without operating in deliberate sequence? From this primordial marketing slop, Ms. Pac-Man was born.

Changing Pac-Man to Ms. Pac-Man was a relatively simple process. They simply added large eyelashes. And lipstick. And a big, bouffant bow. And a beauty mark. One wonders if they came inches away from adding a corset. In case this orgy of hypersexy signs wasn't enough of a clue, the advertisers weren't afraid to spell it right out for you: In an ad for the 1983 Atari 2800 port of the game, a glammed-up Ms. Pac-Man in a stole and high heels boogies about, breathlessly purring "Honey, don'cha know I'm more than Pac-Man with a bow?" while impressing us with her high-kicks. This burlesque show is for our benefit, insisting that rather than being a re-packaged and cynically re-branded product (despite that being exactly what it was), we were being introduced to something new and exciting.

For a character without legs, Ms. Pac-Man has a great set of legs.

Though the use of sex to sell a product is nothing new, what's interesting here is the spartan toolset that developers of the early 1980s had to work with to convey femininity: A splotch of pink could be female lips, or a bow, while a splotch of black could be eyelashes. (In a masterstroke, Ms. Pac-Man's beauty mark is a single pixel.) It's been discussed how many of the design choices behind iconic characters were either accidental or pragmatic - consider Mario's precursor, Jumpman, who wore a hat to avoid pixelated hair, whose overalls helped to distinguish his arms at his side, whose moustache served to separate his nose and lips.

This isn't to directly criticize the toolset available in these instances. A video game, especially in the early days of the medium, can only communicate within a finite set of fields: Between a colorful splat of pixels and a few words of sometimes poorly-translated text, any character representation must be both minimalist and iconic. But the transition from Pac-Man to Ms. Pac-Man is a good indicator of how freighted a gender discourse is bound to be in such an environment. Pac-Man is an androgynous non-anthromorph, but still, with an absence of gender signification, defaults to male. Ms. Pac-Man, thus, must become female... and to do that, she must be gussied up, a derivative Pac-"man in drag," rather than a unique entity.

But rather than being simply an embarrassing chapter in the history of gaming, many of these early females in games have come to set an iconic standard: No longer are they simple pixel formations, but 3d-rendered extrapolations of decades-old ideas. Video gaming technology has progressed at an exponential rate, yet this standard of signified gender continues in three major areas of negotiation: How female characters navigate game-space, how 'female' tropes are represented visually, and how sex, as a notion, is communicated.

In the posts to come I'll be taking a look at a few early female video game figures, to consider the ways in which these areas of negotiation affected their origins and how they continue to shape them today.

- Rook

Saturday, March 7, 2009

King Watches the Watchmen

So I just watched it, Watchmen that is. It was suggested I arbitrarily compare it to a number on a scale of 1 to 10 and chose 7. The folks I saw it with gave it a "9" an "8" and an "8 or 8-and-a-half"

They changed some stuff, they kept some stuff the same. The music was weird. I liked the film.

I'll tell you more about it when it isn't 2:30 in the morning.

Till next week,


Friday, March 6, 2009

The Whingemen: Update!

It would seem we're safe... for now. I keep peeking out the windows, but I haven't spotted any signs of frantic rioting in the streets. Watchmen was released, and the world hasn't ended.

So that's something.

But online, the crazy continues. I can't look away!

In the Toronto Star, Malin Akerman is interviewed in an article entitled "Watchmen star adds a feminine touch to kicking butt." where it is suggested that the film's sexism is countered by having ladies in it. As everyone knows, women are sexism's kryptonite. The author explains how the film's underlying hate on the the dames is alleviated by women in latex kicking things. Then, in an astounding flurry of doublethink, he demonstrates how totally-not-objectified she is by describing what she's wearing.

"Fortunately, Watchman film director Zack Snyder had no problem with women being women and looking that way, too.

And in the case of Akerman, who is dressed for an interview in a burgundy Prada dress and jeans, she's gorgeous both on and off the screen."

"I will fight you with my feminism!"

Elsewhere, Hitler is pretty upset that they left out his favorite part. I can relate... I liked the squid, too. And the guys over at Cracked have a great idea for an alternate, studio-friendly ending. I'd warn you that the second link contains spoilers, but, really, doesn't everything? I read somewhere that the human body is something like 83% spoiler.

The opinions are out there, coalescing. Will you have yours, when they come for you? There comes a time when every moviegoer must stare into the depths of their self, and ask a truly penetrating question:

Which of the Watchmen babies is your favorite?

- Rook

Some Muzaks

An old friend of mine recently returned from the British Columbias with a couple of new Folk-Rock stylings. Check out ScottGuitarOriginals. His last name is actually Guitar so you know it's gotta be good.


Thursday, March 5, 2009

Sweeeet Coraline, dah dah dah!

So I went to see Coraline the other day and was surprised to discover my ticket had smacked me for $15.50 instead of the usual $12.50. I was instantly excited that I would soon be learning all about the economy in university at which point this sort of bullshit would make sens- What. The. Fuck. I had just been handed 3D glasses.

I was shocked to say the least. I had come to see a magical children's story come to life on the big screen, not to dodge red and blue bat-dogs and button eyes flying off the screen into my face. Imagine my surprise then when I discovered what 3D movies were all about these days.

You could totally just wear these out to the mall.
Like, maybe with a nice hat?

Gone are the red and cyan cardboard glasses of days yore. Now they use Polarized glasses which create the illusion of 3d by limiting the amount of light that reaches each eye. The projector then projects two images, superimposed on each other, with opposite light levels and each lens of the glasses filters a different level of light tricking your brain into perceiving depth where there is none.


The result is a great effect. As the opening credits roll everything appears to be, for lack of a better analogy, in a fish tank. A mysterious pair of hands comprised of sewing needles is stitching together a rag doll. The hands appear to be occupying the space a fish would, the rag doll appearing just behind, the desk the doll is resting on would be the bank of the tank and the opening credit names look as though they were written directly onto the front of the tank.

We've come a long way.

What I'm trying to illustrate is that it's an extremely subtle effect which simply provides depth of picture. I can only recall two instances where something jumped out of the screen in an attempt to kill me. It is a testament to my awesome reflexes that I am here today to tell of it.

This new form of 3D is has also made it's way into video games with support from Nvidia, one of the major manufacturers of graphics cards. One of the things that easily fascilliatates games using polarized 3D is that they don't need to be designed with the feature in mind, it's relatively simple to add in later. And with other new discoveries in gaming technology who knows what the next generation of gaming, and movies could bring.

Until next time, may you see the sailboat


The Second Coming: Who Watches the Watchmen watch Watchmen?

TURNING and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer.

The end times are upon us. Have you seen the signs? Whispered omens flit across the internets like sparrows taking flight, spooked by some looming and inscrutable presence. They bespeak a dark hour, drawing ever nearer. The world ends tonight! Or, no it doesn't.

But either way, the Watchmen movie finally touches down. So that's something.

Much is being made of the imminent release of Watchmen. It could be argued that this film packs a larger pop culture cache than any in recent memory, a nerd syzygy of comics canon-meets-slick Hollywood blockbuster-meets 9/11-meets Billy Corgan-Meets Cute. During its time, the comic was a lurching step away from the exact modernism of comicdom towards an ambivalent and hyperstatic place, a clamorous "SOD OFF" to superhero geekdom that, somehow, managed to be canonized faster than Mother Theresa.

For those unaccustomed to the inclinations of such cultural currents, here is a handy barometer: Alan Moore's Watchmen was a bid to produce high art within low art, but was received so well as to become emulated, producing low art that has gained enough momentum to be adapted as boffo action flicks, which everyone knows are low art except the flicks themselves, which insist that they are high art and be taken super seriously.

Every single time a comic book adaption hits the right notes, people are eager to claim that they have finally uncovered that most precious of Rosetta Stones: The code that will finally allows us to craft that perfect pop homunculus, the SUPERHERO MOVIE. And then, like Sysyphus, things reset, so it can be done all over again. And now, here is Watchmen, with its hypernarrative plot lines and quantum mans to present what could be called a unified field theory of sorts.

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

As to what it all means is, apparently, up for grabs. We have a Tom Shone review dug up over at Slate, which blasphemously dares to suggest that Watchmen is no Ulysses, and in fact is only pretty okay. (To be more accurate, he seems to argue that Watchmen is Ulysses, but that Ulysses sucks and is lame.)

We have film buffs like Bill Emerson seriously mulling over whether he should re-read the comic before he sees the film, or whether that would render him useless as a critic (because what is the book is better, guys?!)

We have film data sites reporting that Watchman may break records, and that everyone and their kid sister may go and see it or maybe not.
It is a quantum event, you see, Watchmen the Biggest Hit Ever and Watchmen the Historic Flop co-existing in Schrodinger's Box, waiting to collapse into a single movie.

The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

Central to all of this is a peculiar fear - that if this Watchmen is not our Watchmen, or THE Watchmen, good, better, best, all Watchmen will suffer. The political Watchmen. The life-changing counter cultural Watchmen. The rollicking good read Watchmen. Our childhoods will suffer, and we will suffer. Such a task does not demand adaption, but transliteration.. best done by Gregorian scriveners in some arcane mountain retreat.

The boomers may have perfected nostalgia for childhood, but Gen X has one-upped them: We never got rid of our childhoods - they're safely tucked away, on eBay and Youtube and Wikipedia, still in mint condition, still in the original packaging. Yes, the only thing that can affect our collective pasts, coagulated together in a Jungian unconscious, is new stuff. Stuff that makes us pause, and say "Huh. Maybe.. maybe it wasn't so rad after all."

Perhaps it doesn't help that Mr. Moore himself is rushing about like a cultist fanatic, eager to spread the word that all that important stuff people drummed up about Watchmen was, in fact, all a dream. He has no plans to see the movie, you see, because it a perversion of his original vision. And if people had any sense at all, they would, of course, see that the message is clear: "Yes, Virginia, there ARE Superheroes. And they're nazi homo psycho punks." He helpfully explains that the sloppy, semi-literate teenage mouth-breather depicted in the book's final frames represents the reader, himself.

Par for the course for Mr. Moore, of course. But all the more reason that people are determined to take this so personally. They said it can't be filmed. They said it could never be adapted. Somehow, some way, they've got to be wrong... right?

The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

If you are the sort who gives a tinker's damn about what critics think, then let the record show that at least one critic doesn't know what to think. Roger Ebert, most unflappable of film goers, writes here that he is positively flapped. Not boggled, or baffled, or gobsmacked - these imply speechlessness, which of course Rodge is not - but simply an absence of meaning. He suggest it is good. It may be great. But, by george, he doesn't know why.

Could anything be more ominous? Even seasoned professionals, faced with such a looming horror, can only report that they saw it... and that they will need to see it again before it will begin to make sense.

Fandom has worked its magic on Watchmen for two decades, busy turning it from a book into a vast psychic exercise. And here to ruin it all is this blasted moving-picture, about to turn all the groupthink into so much hot air.

Because the final horror of the ominous doppelganger that looms before us, is that, once Watchmen: The Best Movie Ever and Watchmen: The Worst Movie Ever come crashing together, all that quantum entanglement will be gone. All that will remain will be Watchmen: A Movie, Once. And for many of us, perhaps that can never be enough.

And what rough beast, its hour come round at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?

There is that Warshow axiom, quoted endlessly, about how "A man goes to the movies. The critic must be willing to admit he is a man." Here is it turned on its head. A critic must be willing to admit he is going to a movie. Not a grand-mal-memestorm. Not a repudiation or validation of your entire cultural cache. A movie.

This may be the cure for these fever dreams. Take ten deep breaths. Click your heels together, for good measure. And repeat after me:

It is only a movie.

It is only a movie.

It is only a movie.

Now take a flipping chill pill.

- Rook

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Geekonomics: A Blog on Bling

With massive-multiplayer games blooming to big business, and bringing in the big bucks, much more media attention has been bent towards understanding the economics of these behemoths.


This attention only make sense. Once a successful business model has emerged from a volatile market, it's simply bad business not to know how the model works. For example, when I came over to Florida as a young but optimistic Cuban immigrant, and clawed my way to the top of the 1980's cocaine boom, everybody wanted to know how I did it. My secret? Don't get high on your own supply.

First I got the money. Then I got the power. Then I got the weeeeeeemon.

An exceptional amount of work has been devoted to understanding the real-world economics of such systems. Over at GigaOM, Wagner James Au breaks down the top earners in the market. A lot of the data he reports is not what you'd expect, much of it owing to the boom of Korean MMOs, which operate under the principle of Free-to-play-but-I-guess-you-can-pay-for-some-stuff-like-maybe-a-shirt?-why-don't you-go-get-your-mom's-credit-card-and-we'll-figure-it-out gaming. To be fair, it was a really nice shirt.

Fashionably black is the new black.

Things complicate, however, when you begin analyzing the internal economies of these games, and the ways in which virtual economies meet and affect real ones. Lines become blurry, and definitions become softer. Where some MMOs are designed with commerce in mind - Second Life operates through the continuous investiture and circulation of Lindenbucks, And EVE Online is based upon the very premise of a functioning in-game economy - not all MMOs are devoted to such a maintained system. Most operate under a “dealer” principle, which controls how money flows from, and back to the game. Consider the act of “grinding,” where monsters are killed repeatedly. Upon their bodies, gold or valuables are found.

This is pure van Helmont stuff happening here: The valuables didn’t ‘come’ from anywhere, so much as sprung into existence from the aether. This can approximate a rough time-to-money system well enough, but things get squirrely when trade between players in introduced.

Look at the difference: A player pays another player hundreds of gold for a valuable or rare item, and that money stays in circulation, and can be further invested. But if a player purchases an item from a non-player character vendor, that money vanishes - sometimes to the tune of thousands of gold for the most expensive articles.

Enter the goldsink: the various sites introduced to any functional MMO operating in this system, in which hundreds of thousands of virtual moolah vanish every day. In this way can the value of in-game currency be controlled, even manipulated towards inflation and deflation. People’s purses a little too light, and you can introduce new quest lines that provide players with faster ways to accrue goodies than ever before. If there’s too much money clogging down the system, the introduction of a few new vanity items can suck all that troublesome cash out of the system in a matter of weeks.

Pictured above: Troublesome Cash

This needn’t be done to simply manage the economy - it can also be done to maintain a play environment. As a case in point, consider Blizzard’s management of World of Warcraft in the months preceding their second expansion. Knowing that players of their game would have to be given new ways to occupy themselves in the doldrums between their first expansion and the next, a new location was introduced: One that contained, in addition to a new 5-player dungeon “instance” and a new 25-player “raid” dungeon, a plethora of daily quests that provided gobs of easy cash to players - far easier, in fact, than previous environments had allowed.

In addition to these additions, if players spent enough time grinding “reputation” with a factions associated with these new quests, they could invest their hard-earned virtual cash on.. a title. For one thousand gold, a player can be “NAME of the Shattered Sun.

To be fair, that is pretty impressive-sounding. I wouldn’t even know how to begin to go about shattering suns.

So: To keep real customers from spending their real time elsewhere and thus stop forking over real money, Blizzard introduced a new virtual place where they could spend their virtual time, amassing virtual wealth to currying virtual favour with some virtual people, to the point that one is given the elite privilege of spending all that virtual money on something that has purely aesthetic value to impress other (real) folks in a virtual space.

Compare that to a virtual mount, which at least helps you cover virtual terrain, or virtual gear, which has direct applicability in interfacing with a virtual environment (read here: pwning). One thousand gold gets you a bunch of virtual letters, stapled to your virtual face, approximating Ozymandias-level posturing. “Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”

Not this guy. But, close enough.

This may be the central difference between economies like those found in traditional MMOs and virtual trade experiments like Second Life and EVE. In the case of the former, at the end of the day, any changes applied to the system in place are may not be to facilitate commerce, but to keep people on the teat.

- Rook