I’ve only ever deleted one game from my computer because I was playing it too much, and that’s Diablo 2. It was the early 2000s. I was supposed to be writing a thesis, but instead I found that I was pouring my evenings and then my nights into exploring virtual dungeons in search – and this was the root of its grip – of better and better equipment for my in-game character.
The deeper into the game you got, the more powerful the items became. Each foe you vanquished – and I hacked and slashed my way through tens of thousands – was like a box containing hidden delights. The moment it was dispatched, you got to keep whatever came out: magical armour, weapons, in-game gold, or perhaps a vanishingly rare rune that only one in ten thousand foes carried.
In one sense, all this was utterly absurd. In another, though, playing Diablo 2 was perfect. At a time in my life when many things felt formless, it was like coming home each evening to the perfect job. I knew the rules, I was good at playing, and I got my rewards: better and better items, a grindingly slow but steady progress towards higher and higher levels. Writing a thesis couldn’t compete. Hence the strange joy of playing. Hence the deletion.
Now, a dozen years later, I’m facing a version of the same dilemma all over again. On 15th May, the next game in the Diablo series (called, with marvellous economy, Diablo 3) was finally released after a dozen-year gap. An itchy voice at the back of my head is begging me to buy it – but, among other things, I have a new book to finish writing. So I’ve made a deal with myself: I’ll finish the book, then I’ll buy the game. Then, a few months later, I may well find myself deleting it.
Global video-gaming has grown up considerably since the millennium – and what intrigues me most about Diablo 3 is the decision by Blizzard Entertainment, its creators, to take a bold step beyond the in-game item questing of its previous incarnation. Because you can actually earn real money by playing Diablo 3. In fact, you might even be able to treat it like a job – if you don’t mind your place of work being a demon-stalked purgatory. All you need to do is sign up and start playing.
Specifically, what Diablo 3 has set out to do is to bring inside the official realm of the game one of the shadowiest areas of modern economics: virtual item sales between players. And to understand this, it’s worth looking first at the most famous video game in the world – also, not coincidentally, created by Blizzard Entertainment – World of Warcraft.
Almost eight years after its launch, World of Warcraft still boasts around ten million paying players across the world. And over their playing careers, a good number of these players will have indulged in something that’s against the game’s terms and conditions, but that has proved extremely hard to stamp out: they will have paid other people real-world money in exchange for in-game assets, like virtual gold or weapons.
The logic is simple enough. As a relatively affluent European gamer, I may have little spare time, but be very keen to own a powerful in-game character. This creates a market niche for someone else – probably in a less affluent country – to invest some serious effort in playing the game, and then selling the fruits of their labour to me. Indeed, given the sheer number of players and the level of enthusiasm Warcraft attracts, it has even made economic sense for some people to organize full-time “gold-farming” – where dozens of workers in a kind of digital sweatshop log hundreds of hours at company computers in order to earn virtual assets and then sell these on the global “grey” market.