Characteristics of the Virtual Economy (after ‘State of Play VI’ Conference , 2009)

Julian Dibbel


The discussion takes place under what Dibbell would see as a ‘plateau stage’ in terms of in-world economies. He argues that perhaps the most profound innovation in terms of economic life within virtual worlds was Linden Lab’s decision to grant intellectual property rights to users who created content in its world, Second Life. This was in direct opposition to the traditional, proprietary MMO model in which publishing companies not only owned everything their users created, but also forbade any player-to-player transaction ( with only limited success). The radical move is today being adopted as a contemporary model, with many MMOs creating monetary systems which allow of the trade of virtual goods. Increasingly, and somewhat ironically, these goods and trade are the very elements that make virtual worlds viable.

Dibbell traces the progress of intellectual property and virtual goods. He makes the often misunderstood distinction between two, explaining that the latter has rivalrous properties, and that it is this feature which is shifting developers’ attitudes in relation to user micro-transactions and revenue models. He makes the point that platform creators exercise tight control over their in-world market – including, as the litigation case Bragg Vs Linden demonstrated, the makers’ of Second Life.

 In the second half of the interview, Dibbell muses on the similarity between ‘artificial’ and ‘real’ economies. He surmises people attach the same fidelity to ‘toy’ economies as they do to airline mileage points, and that they persist because economic engagement within a game develops imagination and dreams.

The Internet is designed as an open architecture; Virtual Worlds are much more in control. This interesting property makes the virtual economy not that much different to real economy.

Recorded June 2009.


virtual worlds; economy


The full website for the Journal of Virtual Worlds Research can be found at