Ludo-capitalism and metanomics

Julian Dibbell gave a talk last month in Second Life on the subject of ludo-capitalism. It’s a concept that arose in this last book, Play Money, a memoir on Dibbell’s experiences in making a living selling virtual goods (like gold pieces in online video games). (See his recent NY Times article on this subject.) Apparently, it is also the focus of his upcoming book. It’s an interesting subject and one that would give many of my old grad student colleagues conniptions.

Essentially, the idea of ludo-capitalism explores the relationship between playing games, having fun/feeling pleasure, and creating value (in an economic sense). Of course playing a game isn’t always fun or result in pleasure. Setting aside the experience of losing a game, there’s also many work-like activities involved. When I was a kid and into Dungeons & Dragons (yes, I know), my mom would look at me pouring over charts, shake her head, and make some comment that it looked like I was doing my taxes or something. Contemporary online role-playing games aren’t much different, the "grind" of acquiring gold and experience (much like in real life) remains. And yet millions choose to do this work/play; indeed they pay for the privilege.

As I write this blog, am I playing or working? I’m not required as part of my job to do this of course, but I think of it as a kind of professional activity. Sometimes finishing these blogs feels like work. Sometimes I feel an obligation to post (like right now, it feels like it’s been a while since I really posted, so maybe I should). However I also certainly think of it as play. I play around with ideas and so on. There’s a game-like quality to this activity. My blog doesn’t have many readers, and I don’t write with the idea of really building readership, but I do keep tabs on visitors and such. So I guess I’m keeping score. I can’t say that writing a blog is really "orgasmic," but I do take pleasure in it.

A little while back, I had some posts on crowdsourcing, which I think relates to this issue of ludo-capitalism. If people are willing to perform some activity, which they view as play and from which they derive enough pleasure to keep doing, and another person or entity can create value from that activity, then you are entering the space of ludo-capitalism. The role of the network in this process is that it allows for the coordination of enough of this activity to produce a reasonable amount of value. The example Dibbell gives in his talk is of a game at Google where players work in pairs to label images (every time they come up with a common tag, they get a point).

My blog on its own creates virtually no commercial value, but as part of the blogosphere it creates value for Technorati or Google Blog search and so on. It’s the issue of scale here that I think is hard to grasp.

I’m not sure what this will mean for the future of work. Clearly, for at least some portions of our society, the nature of work has shifted quite a bit in the last 15 years. The temporal and spatial boundaries of work have disappeared for many. Now perhaps we will see some erasure of the boundary between work and play, between consumption and production.

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