Virtual Economy Research Network website open

I am happy to announce that the Virtual Economy Research Network website is now ready for action. Welcome!

The purpose of the website is to act as a platform for communication and knowledge dissemination regarding real-money trade of virtual property and related phenomena. In practice, the website has two main features: 1) a bibliography and 2) a blog. In addition, VERN also has an email discussion list.

The purpose of the blog is to relay virtual property related news, announcements and research results from all over the world. This includes material that would not otherwise be available in the English language. Contributors are currently me from Finland/Japan and Jun-Sok Huhh from Korea. We welcome researchers from other countries to join us; please send email to vern (ät) virtual-economy.org if you are interested.

A few words about the bibliography: In September 2004, I put up a web page with an annotated bibliography of materials related to virtual property. It was the only online bibliography on the topic so quite a few people found it useful, but I lacked the time to keep it up-to-date. Now, there’s a new and updated bibliography on the VERN website. What’s different about it is that everyone can add their own annotations (that is, comments) to the entries. You can even add new entries to the bibliography if you register as a member. Try it out!

Why research virtual property?

This is a good moment to briefly discuss the scientific agenda behind VERN. As the tagline says, this site is concerned with things related to real-money trade of virtual property. If you are not familiar with the concept, I suggest you read the Introduction first.

The so-called real-money trade phenomenon is an important research topic for many reasons. From a sociological point of view, the phenomenon teaches us not only about online society, but about the symbolic nature of our consumer economy in general. From a legal and ethical point of view, it presents unsolved issues and conflicts of norms. From a business perspective, the interest is obvious: virtual property attracts real value.

So far, the central concept in research on these issues has been the virtual world: a simulated geometrical space, presented in (3D) graphics, where users interact by controlling an avatar. Indeed, most of the entries in this site’s bibliography are concerned with virtual worlds. Virtual property has attracted attention especially in the form of characters, items and currencies that exist inside massively-multiplayer online games and are traded on online auction sites.

However, virtual property is also found in contexts other than virtual worlds. Community services such as Cyworld have built their revenue models on selling virtual items. Some services, such as China’s leading instant messaging system Tencent QQ, seem to have attracted whole ecosystems of business around their internal economy. As Richard Bartle (2003) reminds us, immersion is not all about graphics. People attach meaning to symbols that exist in a variety of contexts.

Many previous works define virtual property by referring to virtual worlds (including my own work). If this is not sufficient for our purposes, how do we define virtual property then? Fairfield’s (2005) definition looks very promising. He defines virtual property as rivalrous, persistent and interconnected online resources (“code”). These legally relevant characteristics seem to capture the whole range of virtual item trade as outlined above, while excluding information goods like music and movies. I will discuss Fairfield’s definition in more detail in a later posting.

In summary, while recognising the importance and popularity of virtual worlds, we should select virtual property itself as the central concept when researching the real-money trade phenomenon. This approach allows us to appreciate the whole gamut of contexts where people attach meaning to virtual things.

I would be happy to hear your thoughts on this line of thinking.

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