Leveling the playing field for economic growth

A lot of people have wondered and speculated about how to achieve more economic equality, about how to level the playing field so that the 1% don’t continue to dominate the economy. While this is not a comprehensive solution, Blizzard Entertainment may have given us part of the solution.

For those who don’t play World of Warcraft, there’s an in-game market called the Auction House, or AH. People can buy and sell their fictional, pixelated wares to each other with very few constraints. It’s a free, open market in which people can attempt to create monopolies, control trade, work out pricing deals, everything you’d expect from a nearly rule-free capitalist marketplace. As in real life, there are those folks with access to better resources, better tools, better information, and more time who dominate the market, the 1% of the Warcraft economy. They have squeezed out much of the marketplace for the casual buyer or seller, offering their goods at low prices and using superior techniques and tools to always be the #1 sellers in their industries.

For consumers, this is a great deal. They can get their goods at the absolute lowest prices that the market can bear, because the moment a casual seller posts something for a lower price, the tools of the 1% immediately repost an item at a lower price. The consumer wins.

For the casual seller, this is not such a great deal. If you hope to make any gold in the game, you need to learn the various systems and tools to even be marginally competitive, and you still may not even keep up because you don’t devote hours a day playing the markets in the game.

On June 22nd, Blizzard’s Auction House APIs were being hacked. Some clever hackers figured out how to rob people, so as a precaution, Blizzard turned off many of the APIs for their Auction House. This didn’t affect in-game play at all – people could still buy or sell items without restriction. However, the API shutdown broke many of the tools that the 1% use on a regular basis:

US Earthen Ring Alliance - The Undermine Journal

This had an immediate impact on the markets in-game. The 1% weren’t relisting their auctions the moment they were undercut by a casual seller. They weren’t able to scan for abnormally low priced deals to buy out and relist at higher prices. They weren’t able to do anything that the casual seller couldn’t do in the in-game market. What happened?

For the casual seller, profits soared. For the casual seller, sales increased drastically. Margins increased. Being undercut decreased significantly. In my own listings, my profitability and sales volumes immediately increased by 400% overnight. The number of items I was undercut on in a 24 hour period dropped 60%.

What’s more important is that Blizzard’s API shutdown didn’t change the equality of outcome – no income was redistributed. No profits were confiscated. What the shutdown did was change the equality of opportunity, letting more sellers into the market and shutting down a technological and financial advantage that the 1% had over the 99% of the player base. When the APIs come back up, of course, the 1% will regain their advantages, but the short term market movements from leveling the playing field are undisputable.

Could something like that be done in real life? Inquiring minds want to know.


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  • dankraus

    Hey Chris. I think you draw a great analogy to the electronic trading that goes on, on wall street and all the other exchanges out there. Profits for firms that traded on their own accounts soared for years until the advantage disappeared when others caught up. There are still profits there, but much smaller. And they all go to the 1% that invested in the technology. If electronic trading were banned or severely curtailed, you would probably see the same thing happen in the real markets where trades could more easily be profitable to the little guy, as you did in WOW.