Real Currency in Virtual Worlds

By The American Numismatic Society

Atari_Pong_arcade_game_cabinetCoins and video games were connected for the first time  with the arrival of Computer Space (1971) and Pong (1972), the first coin-operated arcade cabinets. Players began to collect coins within games with the advent of Nintendo’s Mario Bros. (1982), and soon thereafter currency collected within the game could be spent by players to purchase anything from extra  ‘lives’ to upgrades for weapons, armor, and more.

In the mid- to late 1990s with the arrival of the Internet at schools and at home, Massively Multiplayer Online games (MMOs) appeared, creating large virtual worlds that could be shared by hundreds of thousands of players simultaneously. With MMOs such as Ultima Online (1997) and EverQuest (1999), in-game economies began to appear, allowing players to exchange currency and to purchase items from others in the game.

WoW_Box_Art1World of Warcraft (2004) became the king of MMOs with over 10 million players worldwide. It saw the emergence of in-game personal banking, as well as shared accounts in the form of ‘Guild banks’ for teams of players. WoW also featured auction houses in each of its capital cities, where players could auction ‘loot’ found in the game to other players in exchange for gold, silver, and copper that were used as a shared currency throughout the open virtual world.

As MMOs such as World of Warcraft matured, players new to the game became frustrated by the amount of time needed to gain enough experience for their characters to  get to the most challenging and rewarding content. Experienced players became upset with ‘grinding,’ which refers to having to complete repetitive quests or searches in order to earn money and resources to improve their characters’ abilities. This frustration led to a demand by players for both gold and artifacts, which a new class of players — gold famers — were able to provide.  Gold farmers devoted their time in the game to finding valuable resources to sell to players for an exchange of real cash. Impatient players would also pay real money to others who would ‘level’ or advance their characters in order for them to reach the ‘cap’ or highest level.

To combat the gold farmers,  on March 15, 2015, World of Warcraft debuted a “WoW Token” that players can buy from the game’s parent company, Blizzard Entertainment, for US$20. WOW TokenThis can be used in the game to sell at auction for gold or it can be exchanged for 30 days of “free” playing time. Most MMOs are subscribe-to-play services with players incurring a monthly charge, so acquiring extra time with a token can theoretically save a player money over the long term. The WoW Token is virtual currency paid for with real money, and has no physical manifestation. Its behavior is similar to that of Bitcoin, although while sold at a fixed price in the real world, its market value fluctuates in the virtual one. As with Bitcoin, the WoW Token is depicted as flat and round, and in the case of World of Warcraft, it  is decorated simply with the game’s characteristic colors and logo.

WoW is not the only shared world game that now allows players to finance their in-game activities with real-world currency. Assassin’s Creed: Unity sells “Helix Credits” for up to US$99 (for 20,000 of these credits) that can then be used to purchase exclusive gear for a player’s character, i.e., gear that is either unique or that must be earned through multiple hours, days, and weeks of actual gameplay. In the popular FIFA 15 soccer game, players can opt to buy Fifa Coins (aka FUT coins) for up to US$90 (for 1,000,000 coins), which allow for the purchase of elite soccer players to round out a team.

The intersection of real and virtual currency is a relatively new phenomenon, and one sponsored in large part by game-development juggernauts such as Electronic Arts. What used to be an imitation of life where players earned or found cash within a game to spend within that game, has reached out into the real world. Mechanisms are now in place that allow players to spend actual money outside of the game for intangibles inside of it. One wonders about the ethics of this intersection of real and virtual currencies, and if perhaps the spirit of fair play is violated. But then again, this habit is nothing new to the world of sports and of collecting of all types. If you have the coin, you can buy your way to the top to have the very best.


For more on numismatics and video games, see my article in the new digital edition of the ANS Magazine here.

Andrew Reinhard