Each month, I pay US$15 for ongoing access to online multiplayer game World of Warcraft. Some people might be surprised by my willingness to pay a subscription to this video game on top of the initial, one-time cost of the game itself and each of its expansion packs (the base game is $20; its current expansion, Warlords of Draenor, is an additional $50). However, as I’ve detailed before on Killings, WoW is more than just an entertaining way to whittle away a few hours online: I consider it a crucial means of keeping in close contact with friends and family scattered worldwide.
My WoW subscription is no different to other entertainment or software services I subscribed to, such as Netflix, Spotify, or even the Microsoft Office suite. The price I’ve paid for the game over the years has, I feel, fairly reflected my use of the product. But last month, WoW changed up its subscription game in a way none of those other services would ever dream of doing.
Developer/publisher Blizzard Entertainment has introduced the WoW Token, something it describes as an ‘in-game item that allows players to simply and securely exchange gold and game time between each other’. This new item lets players purchase a month of WoW playing time for the real-life price of $20, which they can then sell to other players in-game in exchange for an amount of WoW’s virtual currency, ‘gold’. In other words, it’s an exchange of real money for a virtual currency that has in-game value but none in the physical, ‘real’ world.
This sort of thing has been around for as long as online games themselves, but the WoW Token is an example of a major game decriminalising the practice; in the past, players would have received bans for exchanging currencies like this. ‘Gold sellers’ are still much derided in the gaming community for the perceived advantages they offer to players with money: by laying down a credit card, a player can buy various in-game achievements and accomplishments that might take other players months to earn.
How interesting it is, then, that Blizzard now condones this once-scorned practice.
It’s telling that Blizzard stresses the secureness of the WoW Token method of currency exchange: players wanting to buy or sell gold in the past risked having their accounts closed down, or their credit card details exposed to scammers. Now players are protected from both threats when making transactions within this officially sanctioned new channel.
But however safe this new feature is for gamers, and however much money I could save on my subscription costs with the gold I’ve stocked up over my years playing the game, the WoW Token makes me incredibly uneasy.
I’ve engaged with online-to-real-life currency exchange before – a decade ago, in a Malaysian-based MMO called Ragnarok Online. Such exchanges were banned on Ragnarok’s servers too, but there was a substantial black market for game time and sought-after in-game equipment. Having amassed more in-game currency than I knew what to do with, I found that I no longer needed to pay Ragnarok’s monthly subscription fee; instead, I could simply trade a few million of Ragnarok’s currency, zeny, to another player in exchange for a code that would grant my account a month of game time.
During these exchanges, I would feel incredibly guilty that someone had paid real-life money – real-life pocket money, probably, as it’s likely I was buying from another teenager like myself – so that I could continue playing a subscription-service video game for free. This same guilt returns now as I log into World of Warcraft, surveying my stockpiled gold and wondering if it’s time to replace my monthly subscription fee with an exchange of virtual currency – at someone else’s expense.
If you’ve got the real-life cash to spare and you want to make things easier for yourself in a video game, then why not buy gold? That’s a personal decision for each player to make – and it’s where I begin to question Blizzard’s motivations for implementing the feature.
Sure, it might be a less risky method of accumulating in-game wealth, but the WoW Token’s potential for manipulating addictive behaviour is concerning. Players purchasing WoW Tokens will always pay the fixed, Blizzard-dictated rate of $20. The gold equivalent, however, fluctuates; in the few days that the feature has been live, I’ve seen the gold price drop from 30,906 to 25,357. In other words, if trends continue, players laying down their credit cards will be receiving less gold with every transaction – but Blizzard still pockets an even $20 of their money each time.
Meanwhile, those with the in-game gold to spend are able to keep playing, free, for increasing periods of time. Though I believe video game addiction is less a problem in itself than a symptom of a person’s other problems, Blizzard does the gaming world no favours on this topic. The company essentially rewards frequent players with free game time to play even more, encouraging further investment in WoW’s virtual world. Games are fun, sure, but the WoW Token perpetuates worrying imbalances – both amongst players’ finances as well as within players’ social lives. That’s a potentially heavy price to pay for a game whose in-game currency is, outside of WoW token transactions, worth nothing in the real world.