tisdag 12 oktober 2010

Money and economy in and around online games

The computer game industry is still growing fast. One of the major successes of the last decade has been the so-called massively multiplayer online (MMO) games, of which the most well-know game is World of Warcraft (WoW) which passed 12 million players as of October 2010.

There are however many other games with hundreds of thousands of players each, and several games in Asia with millions of players (for example: EverQuest, Guild Wars, The Lord of the Rings Online, Warhammer Online, Star Trek Online, Star Wars Galaxies, EVE Online, Age of Conan, Project Entropia, Ragnarok II, ROSE, Final Fantasy XI, Rohan, Atlantica Online, MapleStory, RuneScape, Tibia, Habbo Hotel, Second Life and so on).
- Here is a list of 200 Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPG).
- Here is another list of "free" MMO games (no up-front costs to play).

Many of the games listed above charge subscribers a fee of around 100 SEK/month (€10/$15), but other games explore a variety of other payment models, including playing for free but paying for purchasing in-game content etc.

In these games, thousands of players can be connected to a virtual world at the same time and spend hours there ever day fighting, exploring, trading, socializing, loving, dancing, conversing, conspiring, cooperating, grinding, hating or killing each other. See this text for an example of how immersive these games can be (and note that it was written almost ten years ago, in 2001). These games are technically complex and the social interaction can easily become even more complex. They raise may questions of which some of them have to do with money and economy. There are three types of economies in and around these games:

- The game industry economy (here is an example of an (old) text analyzing the MMO game industry economy). There are many games, many developers, many publishers, many players and a lot of money in the MMO business. But there is also a lot of competition and many costly, failed projects.
- The in-game economy. How do you design an economy for an online game that doesn't have runaway inflation or other "internal" economic problems? Some game companies have hired economists to help them design good, robust economies that help create vibrant (tamper-proof) environments. There has also been several in-game scams and economy-threatening bugs that players have used, threatening the integrity, the economy and the fun of other players.
- The economy spanning the world inside and outside the game. This is the difficult-to-grasp world where money and "virtual assets" flow between the game world and the real world. This is the gray area where:
  • someone can break into your account and "steal" the virtual objects your game character has amassed.
  • a Swedish student can have as a summer job to "play" an online game and end the summer by selling off the assets he has developed.
  • gamers in third-world sweatshops have as a job to create virtual assets and sell them off to Americans or Europeans that have more money than time.
  • the same low-paid gamers provide the service of "leveling up" the character of someone living on the other side of the Earth.
  • a game company can sell a virtual space station at an auction where the winning bid was 330 000 US$ (yes, it's true).
All of the three economies above are interesting (i.e. possible to write a thesis about), but the most mind-bending and thought-provoking aspects of these games clearly happen when the real and the virtual world meet (collide?).

In a "classic" (2001) report, "Virtual worlds: A first-hand account of market and society on the cyberian frotier", economist Edward Castronova concluded that if Norrath (the mythical virtual "country" you are in when you play EverQuest) had been a real country, it would have been the 77:th richest country on Earth in terms of gross national production per capita (2226 US$/person and year). This would have placed Norrath right after Russia.

As of today (Oct 11, 2010) there are over 60 characters/accounts for sale at a price of 2500 SEK or more on the premier Swedish auction site Blocket.se - and that's just for World of Warcraft accounts.

There is a wealth of articles and texts available on this topic and I might post some of them here at a later point in time (although I haven't kept up with recent research in the area). Anyone interest in this topic, can for a start search for and read texts by Edward Castronova, Vili Lehdonvirta, Dan Hunter, Greg Lastowka and Julian Dibbell. Another excellent resource is Lehdonvirta's Virtual Economy Research Network (especially check out "Bibliography" and "Research links"). Also please check out the blog Terra Nova (where all of these authors and many other virtual worlds researchers hang out). If you read Swedish, please also check out some of the master's theses already written on the topic that I have supervised.

Your task is to, within the framework of your thesis, explore an issue having to do with money and economy in and around online games. Since the area is wide, further discussions must be held to further delineate and specify a suitable research question of your thesis.

Possible research methods could for example include one or a combination of the following methods: literature study, read/analyze interaction on discussion fora or auction/commerce websites, interview people or do a survey, play an online game (methodically), some lighter (script) programming etc.

söndag 10 oktober 2010

ICT use in the post-modern city

Most of us take for granted that the future will be like the present, only "upgraded"; with better, faster, more technically advanced etc. Most assume that iPhone or Android smartphones, together with their games and apps, will continue to become more widespread, more advanced and more useful together with the rollout of next-generation infrastructure and mobile phone services; that 3G networks (2001) will be followed by 4G networks (2011-2013), then by 5G networks (≈ 2020) and later by 6G and 7G networks. All in all, Information and Communications Technologies (ICT) is progressing towards a golden age in the coming decades.

But a growing number of scientists and activists however point at the triple crisis (economy, ecology, energy), and imagine a radically different future based on stagnant growth or even de-growth/decline (because of a negative spiral between factors such as climate change, overpopulation, water scarcity, food production, peak oil, recession without end, social instability etc.).

If we posit a scenario where economic growth is slow to return (or absent, or negative), and unemployment will continue to be high, the future use of computing will for a gradually larger segment of the population consist of inexpensive portable computing equipment (laptop/notebook computers, smart or not-so-smart cell phones) and wireless internet access. So what if that future of ubiquitous computing and ubiquitous information services can be found in a city that has already experienced major challenges and slow decline for decades? What if the future is already here and its name is... Detroit? Detroit - the center of the American auto industry - stood at its zenith in 1950 and was at the time the 4th largest city in the U.S. Detroit has fallen on hard times since then and has lost fully half (!) of its population in the 60 years since then. Furthermore:

- The U.S. government had to bail out two the three Detroit-based American carmakers in 2009 (General Motors and Chrysler).
- One in five houses (40 000!) are empty or abandoned, and property prices have fallen 80% during the last three years.
- In the end of 2009, the official unemployment number was 27%, but Detroit's mayor admitted that the real unemployment rate was closer to 50%.
- One third of the adults, and half the children in Detroit live below the poverty line.
- Poor people in the city (some who don't have cars) even have problems buying food, as major supermarkets chains have closed many of their stores in the city.
- Almost half of all adults in Detroit are functionally illiterate.
- Detroit has a legacy of drugs, crime and violence.

At the same time, people have banded together and started to grow their own food in the city, on abandoned plots. Detroit's 875 "food gardens" and the grassroots movement around them have made the city into the capital of "post-modern" urban agriculture.

If, as some fear, we are entering a long period without significant economic growth, or with de-growth/recession (by some called "The long descent" or "The long emergency"), could Detroit in fact be a precursor of a fate that awaits more cities, and a pioneer in how to rebuild a city? Taking into account all the challenges Detroit faces above, the question for this proposed thesis becomes:

What can be learned from Detroit that might give us hints about computing conditions and practices in the "city of the future"?"

More specifically, what are the computing needs and the computing uses among people who live in Detroit's low-income areas?

Some sub-questions that follow from these two questions are for example:
- What kind of technical infrastructure exists in Detroit?
- How do people use ICT (and for what)? How do they learn to use it? How do they afford it?
- What services are available, and what services are popular in a city like Detroit?
- Do people use social media? For what? To reach out to others, to learn and to improve their situation? Or "only" for entertainment purposes?
- How important is ICT to people in Detroit?

Computers and smartphones are not expensive compared to houses or cars. It might be the case that some people who live in low-income areas will have a relatively high disposable income, but that their needs will look very different compared to the needs of the "ordinary consumers". What innovative products and services can fill the (unmet) needs of an urban underemployed underclass - a group that might perhaps even grow in size in the future:

"Laptops with wireless Internet access has made it possible for a homeless person to run an Internet business or a software company, manage an investment portfolio, or contribute to an international scientific collaboration. Any of these things can now be done from an Internet cafe or a public library, or, in fine weather, even a bench in a city park or a tent at a campground. Cell phones make it possible to give radio interviews and participate in teleconferences from just about anywhere" (Orlov, 2010).

Method: This kind of study has to be planned extensively beforehand (including mailing and setting up meetings), and then executed "on the ground", in a particular city. That city does not have to be Detroit, but it should be a city that has faced (some) of the same challenges that Detroit has (although perhaps to a lesser degree). A possible choice could for example be a city in decline in another part of the U.S, in England, Ireland, former East Germany or elsewhere (with high unemployment). Some suggestions are for example:
  • Charleroi in the French-speaking part of Belgium. As a steel- and mining town, the city is now characterized by unemployment, poverty and dependency on social welfare systems ("bidragsberoende"). The city has been called "the ugliest city in the world" and urban safaris are organized to watch the decay. Also infamous home of the kidnapper, paedophile and serial killer Marc Dutroux. Especially suitable for the French-speaking student.
  • The recently built ghost town Seseña, or some other city or city district/neigborhood in Spain. Seseña was portrayed in DN on Oct 23 (in Swedish) and i specially suitable for the Spanish-speaking student.
  • Kemijärvi in Finland with extreme unemployment after paper and woods industries have shut down.
  • Listen to part of NPR Planet Money's podcast (#309 September 27, 2011) on "A shrinking city knocks down neighborhoods" on how a city in decline tries to solve its problems.

Money for travel, accommodation etc. is unfortunately not included in this thesis topic suggestion, but can hopefully be applied for from a scholarship of some kind (I can help some with the application).


A must-read:
- Orlov, D. (2010). "Products and services for the permanently unemployed consumer". Cluborlov (blog).

On poverty in Detroit/the U.S, see:
- Temple, J. (2010). "Detroit: The last days". The Guardian, March 10.
- The article on Detroit's unemployment numbers, "Nearly 50% of Detroit's workers are unemployed" is not online any longer but can still be found (syndicated) inside this (long) blog post.
- Reuters (2010). "Food stamp tally nears 40 million, sets record". Reuters, May 7.
- Deparle, J. and Gebeloff, R. (2010). "Living on nothing but food stamps". The New York Times, January 2.

On urban gardening in Detroit, see:
- Runk, D. (2010). "Detroit leads the way in urban farming". The Christian Science Monitor, April 28.

More general on the 2008-2009 economic crisis and its effects in the U.S.:
- Cortright, J. (2008). "Driven to the brink: How the gas price spike popped the housing bubble and devalued the suburbs" (.pdf). CEOs for cities.

This thesis topic has also been published at the national website Exjobbspoolen [The Thesis pool].

Contact person:
- Daniel Pargman, pargman(a)kth.se

fredag 1 oktober 2010

The 99 - Islamic transmedia comics/stortelling


"Transmedia storytelling" creates large fictive "worlds", or fictional universes, where fans can spend time both with the TV series, the movies, the comics, the books, the computer games etc.

Henry Jenkins has describe the phenomenon in his book "Convergence culture", where he uses "The Matrix" as an example, and as the topic of one of the book chapters. The Matrix started out as a movie (1999), and later expanded into comic books, video games and animation. The staunchest of fans consume all of these media forms as well as spend time online discussing it, and perhaps even creating fan fiction that extends the stories further (although it is a contested practice).

This thesis topic proposes a study of "The 99", a comic book featuring a team of superheroes based on Islamic culture and religion. These comics are the brainchild of Dr. Naif Al-Mutawa, a Kuwaiti, US-based clinical psychologist. From Wikipedia:

"The 99 are ordinary teenagers and adults from across the globe, who come into possession of one of the 99 magical Noor Stones [...] and find themselves empowered in a specific manner. [...] The 99 series aims to promote values such as cooperation and unity throughout the Islamic world."

Based on Jenkins and others' work on transmedia storytelling, how can The 99 be understood and analyzed in a world that holds such a wide diversity of contested and conflicting views about Islam and muslims? What does the emerging media empire of The 99 look like (there is for example already a The 99 amusement park!)? Where is The 99 published, where is it popular, who reads it, and has it had any measurable real-world impact?

Further questions, as well as further discussions about the research question will be discussed between advisor (me) and the student in question (you). I expect the student who wishes to write a thesis on this topic to be muslim (or, very knowledgeable about Islam).


- An article from The Atlantic (May 2010), "Super muslims", is a good introduction to The 99 as well as The Atlantic's "Comic belief: When Islam inspires superheroes" (April 2010).
- An article from the Israeli newspaper Haaretz (Februar 2009), "Muslim comics superheroes battle radical islam".
- Read the Wikipedia page and then follow up and check out the Notes, References, External links and In the news.
- Naif Al-Mutawa gave an 18 minutes long TED talk on July 2010 that also gives some background to his own motivation for creating The 99.

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