But the stakes are much higher with a game like Diablo III, which involves virtual goods traded with real-world currency. Just last year, for instance, Bigpoint Games made two million euros in four days through sales of one €1000 item in its game DarkOrbit. That was in a free-to-play, browser-based game made by a relatively obscure developer. Now imagine the amount of money potentially trafficked through the fastest-selling PC game ever, made by a company that creates videogames so popular, some players get addicted to them.
Because of those higher stakes, companies like Blizzard will have to take their role as guardians and mediators of real-world currency more seriously. As Castronova put it, "This notion that you would rise in protest of something shows that games are really more like governments than they are like Hollywood." Then online spaces like Facebook, Twitter, and community forums aren't just offering undigested nerd-rage, but legitimate, as Castronova calls it, "policy commentary."
But posting on Twitter or Forums is nothing like voting, Castronova admits, nor are publishers being "democratic." And I'm left wondering if a game developer with the ability to develop a more coherent internal economy than ever seen before in a videogame couldn't just as easily build an internal platform for users to engage with one another not simply "socially," but as a genuine civil society.
It's impossible to say exactly what this would look like—citing the work of Joshua Fairfield, Castronova likens the current system in games and social media to a Hobbesian primeval state: "Imagine a village where one guy was the mayor, and anyone who came in had to sign a one-on-one contract with him." Instead, he concludes, "We need to evolve a new kind of contract that allows a covenant to emerge."
Even the most radical libertarian would probably agree that a government must perform two essential functions: keep you alive, and protect your property. Blizzard, then, failed in both tasks once users began losing control of their virtual selves or the goods they had earned. To its credit, the company has already gone to great lengths to repair this. But a more pressing issue is how gamers themselves process these concerns. Maybe the arbitrary cultural taxonomy "gamer" itself is defunct. Instead, a new notion of citizenship is needed as people enter into these increasingly elaborate digital universes. As Castronova reasoned in his seminal essay "On Virtual Economies":
To anyone versed in political history, it should be no surprise that the game companies have made themselves vulnerable by approaching these matters as customer service issues rather than governance. In their own minds, the players are not customers, but citizens, with corresponding rights.
Given the muddled reactions and petitions brought against everything ranging from the artistic direction of Diablo III or the ending of Mass Effect, I'm less convinced that gamers have a full sense of themselves as citizens. "It became incorrect and bad manners to use this," Walker admitted of the protest over the Mass Effect 3 ending, "but it was an entitled reaction, which is why it's so peculiar that people are willingly allowing every last scrap of a notion of ownership of gaming to be taken from them." Gamers should approach these platforms with the same wariness users have when entering a digital space like, say, Facebook or Google. But it remains the imperative of developers to offer spaces where this kind of negotiation can happen between players forced to rely on forums and tweets alone.