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An Irrational Black Market? Boundary work perspective on the stigma of in-game asset transaction

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Author: Lee, Yu-Hao
Eastern Asia's online gaming market has undergone spectacular growth over the past seven years, this has been due to the mass broadband internet distribution in South Korea and Taiwan. According to a survey conducted by the Taiwan Network Information Center(TWNIC 2004), Taiwan has over 9.36million broadband internet users, and within these users,18.11% stress out that their most frequent online activity is playing online games, this number implies that there are at least 1.96million online gamers in Taiwan alone. Along with the growth of online gamer populations, is the bursting growth of secondary markets for in-game assets, in these markets players trade in-game assets or currency with real cash. In the past these transactions take place between individual players, but with the fast growing demand for large amounts of in-game currency, many internet cafes and workshops transformed their business into specialized "production" and selling of in-game currency. By hiring low-waged workers known as "currency farmers" to play around the clock in "producing" in-game currencies, these "in-game asset companies" are able to keep an abundant supply, without violating most game companies’ strict policies to hunt down "macros" and "treasure cloning." Despite the prosperous growth of these secondary markets for in-game assets, the general public and the media still sees these transactions with a negative perspective, often portraying them as black markets filled with fraud and violence, 217 out of 242 (89.67%) reports of in-game asset trade found on the United Daily News(one of Taiwan’s most popular newspapers) used descriptions like "black market" "dangerous" or "strange." This kind of news agenda-setting matches the society’s moral panic towards gaming and cyberspace, consolidating the general stereotype of in-game asset buyers as irrational, heavy game addicts, and the sellers as frauds gaining unearned income. But are the participants in these markets really irrational? Are the sellers really gaining unearned income? Past studies on these secondary markets for in-game asset were mainly based on economic perspective, focusing on the possible effects of in-game markets on the real world economic markets, or descriptions of the mechanisms of in-game economy. Economics define rationality as "efficiency" and "consistency," efficiency means that the individual will choose the comparative advantageous choice after comparing the costs and benefits of every available choice. Consistency is an assumption made for economic-modal analysis, meaning that every individual has a specific set of preference that will not change over time. From the economics view, the most often heard buyer’s explanation: "Why shouldn’t I buy these in-game assets? I don’t have time to slowly progress in the game, just a small amount of my salary can make the game more fun for me. And besides, the time I saved can be used to be with my friends and family, or even used to earn more real money." Is a perfect example of economic rationality, the individual allocates his/her limited resources in the most efficient way according to his/her preference. The sellers on the other hand, must carefully calculate the amount of time or labor cost deployed into the production of in-game assets, and afterwards the seller must spend more search cost or even more labor cost of hiring "delivering person" to eliminate transactional risks in order to finish the transaction, again a wonderful performance of economic rationality, if at some point the costs exceeds the benefit, the seller will surely quit immediately. The economic perspective explained the cause of these markets and the individual incentives for participating in these transactions, but the economist missed out on the society’s impact in forming these markets. In other words, the economic explanations does not explain why these markets came to be seen as dangerous black markets, if it is the "virtual" nature of the goods involved in these transactions, then why isn’t the digital music industry viewed as a social problem? Obviously there are hierarchical differences in how different markets are viewed, and the economic explanations disregarded the cause of these differences. The supply and demand explanations offered by economists also ignored the actual interpretation of the participants’ behavior from their own view, and the hierarchical differences within gamer communities in facing "sellers", "buyers" or "currency farmers". The common image of the buyer as "rich working adults" and the sellers as "teenagers with too much time to spare" may just be an indication of the more delicate forms of segregation among gamer communities. In my research I will gather information on the process of these transactions and the participant interpretations of their action through participant observation and in-depth interview. Then try to explain the cause of the societal black market view, and the participent’s strategies to fight back, cover, or pass(Goffman, 1979)from a "boundary work" perspective, which is a more flexible analysis of how groups are created, formed, and maintained through social interaction to distinguish "we" and "others"(Lamont, 1992; Zerubavel, 1991). And finally I will try to combining the society’s impact and the participants’ action, to explain the formation of these markets, and various interaction mechanisms within them. References Goffman, E. (1979). Stigma: Notes on the management of spoiled identity. New York, Penguin Books. Lamont, M. (1992). Money, morals, and manners: The culture of the French and American upper-middle class. Chicago, The University of Chicago Press. TWNIC (2004). Zerubavel, E. (1991). The fine line: Making distinction in everyday life. New York, The Free Press.
Contact: Yu-Hao Lee, NTU Graduate Institute of Journalism,
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