Anyone who performs MapleStory–an online multiplayer Maplestory2 Mesos game created by South Korean programmer Wizet–soon learns to despise what gamers call “looting.” These monsters, after vanquished, leave behind in-game money and all sorts of valuable or key items–that the player that is successful is then obliged to roam over and click a button to collect, or “loot.” Countless hours might be frittered away in this insistent pursuit. Looting, for the dogged MapleStory player, becomes a maddening chore.
But MapleStory also features what it calls a Cash Shop. There, excited players can exchange real money cash for quite a few in-game items–including, indispensably, an electronic pet that offers companionship while at the same time taking care of the looting, usually available for approximately $5 every 90 days. “The pet follows you around as you play, and items close to the pet jump off the ground and into your stock,” explains Uzo Olisemeka, a longtime lover of MapleStory who insists paying not to need to loot a thing hundreds of times every hour will be “a sneak.” MapleStory is officially free to play, and nobody must spend money in the Cash Shop. At least in concept. “The game is practically not possible to enjoy at greater levels without a pet looting for you,” Olisemeka points outside.
But what exactly does a participant of MapleStory own when they invest money in their digital pet? The question is becoming more and more important at a time when more and more of our property exists in the digital world: digitally downloaded films, television programs, Kindle books, MP3s. We understand perfectly well when we exchange money for bodily goods–for a TV or a fridge or a set of jeans–that a concrete transaction was conducted. Significantly, we understand that, having given money to another party and having obtained goods in return, the goods in question now belong to us at a definite and legally protected way.
If a person steals our TV or our refrigerator or our jeans, then we firmly assume a crime was committed. What happens when it’s stolen, or if a glitch in the program causes it to simply vanish? Did this item ever really belong to us in the first location? The situation isn’t hypothetical. In-game valuables are stolen all of the time: They’re the items of cons and swindles, often sought by swindlers and grifters–like a temporarily notorious heist from the favorite MMO EVE Online, where thieves made off with Cheap Maplestory2 Mesos in-game merchandise worth over $16,000 offline. Game economies that demand bartering can even make individuals vulnerable–in the real world–to malicious ruses and unfair trades.
In fact, these questions are amazingly complex, and for the most part the answers are alarming–not only for players like Olisemeka, but for everyone who spends money in exchange for something subjective. Buy a copy of Call of Duty in the PlayStation Store, or the brand new Lorde record on iTunes, or even Lolita to your Barnes & Noble Nook? There are a million things you can, in a sense, “personal” in the digital sphere–and still more and more to come. The problem is, you might not have the promise to them you think you’re doing.