Julian Dibbell. (Photography by Jason Smith)

Culture of play

Tech writer and law student Julian Dibbell tackles the problem of virtual property.

In 2004 Julian Dibbell reported to the IRS that his primary source of income came from the sale of imaginary goods. A first-year law student who has written for Wired, the Village Voice, and the New York Times Magazine, Dibbell quit writing and attempted to earn a year’s living buying and selling virtual commodities within the world of Ultima Online, one of the earliest multiplayer online games. Slaying worgs and lizardmen by day and selling the monsters’ virtual loot on eBay by night, Dibbell set out on a quest to test the boundary between work and play—and made some serious real-world cash. “I tried to expand into other games, but [eBay] brought the hammer down,” banning the sale of virtual weapons, characters, and currency in 2007.

In nearly two decades covering Internet technology and digital media, Dibbell has written about online communities, the open-source movement in Brazil, and Chinese gold farmers, who play games as a job to acquire virtual currency to sell to other players. His subjects exist somewhere between virtual reality and real life; he writes that “meaning lies always in that gap.”

Last fall Dibbell embarked on a new quest, enrolling at the Law School. After stopping by D’Angelo Law Library to return a couple books from winter quarter, he spoke with the Magazine about property rights in the virtual world.


What interested you about games?

I got to it more through the Internet. I started writing about hackers and bulletin-board culture. These bulletin boards where these geniuses of, like, thrash metal were holding forth about what was their favorite stuff.

What was it like to watch the Internet become commercial?

It was suddenly this idea that everyone has a printing press. Before, freedom of the press was for anyone who could afford a printing press, and then suddenly anyone could. So I tore off in that direction, writing about hackers, free software, and particularly online communities, these virtual places that bordered on games. And they were completely text based, and that was great too, because as a writer you’re like, “Wow, this is awesome.” To be able to build incredibly rich, complex worlds out of words and code, it was great.

What did you see when you went to investigate gold farms in China?

There is a big production base in China now where people play games like World of Warcraft in basically factory settings, big warehouses full of Internet-connected computers, and these guys are working 12-hour shifts, literally punching a clock to go play World of Warcraft every day to acquire items that their bosses then resell to players in the West. It’s a huge industry. Millions and millions of young Chinese men, mostly, working for 30 cents an hour playing games.

How does law come into play?

People invest time and energy into these games, and they acquire things that are virtual, that reside on these gaming servers, but that are treated within the game as their property and actually, from a Lockean property-theory perspective, they have earned with the sweat of their brow. The game companies create this world, but then it’s an arena in which gamers themselves acquire and create wealth. I had a blog post a few years ago that asked, “Who owns my virtual sword?” That’s sort of the nut that needs cracking.

What will you do after you graduate?

I would like to be doing something not too far from what I’ve been thinking and writing about. One of the frustrating things I find, though, and what I would like to be working on fixing, is the assumption that Internet and technology law is all about intellectual property, which it’s not. … The thing about the virtual sword is that it’s not intellectual property as we’ve come to understand it. … Of course, it’s shot through with intellectual property—it’s made of intellectual property—but once it’s there, how do you deal with that? People who try to understand it in the ways that they’ve tried to understand movies and music online don’t really get it.

Do you still find time to play games?

Officially, I still am in a World of Warcraft guild that had a lot of really major researchers in the game-studies world. It was really a guild, and one of the rules is that we’re not allowed to research each other. So you were there to play; you’re not there to do research. But I don’t have much time for games these days, sadly.


Julien Dibbell at TEDxUIllinois in 2010.