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Last Updated: Thursday, 21 February 2008, 05:26 GMT
Virtual and real blur in Eve Online
By Darren Waters
Technology editor, BBC News website, San Francisco

Eve Online

Virtual worlds are becoming increasingly rich and diverse environments with complex social and economic eco-systems. Science fiction trading game Eve Online is one of the most dynamic worlds, with its own economists helping players get to grips with the intricacies.

More than 220,000 people pay a subscription to play Eve Online, a game set in a vast universe of more than 5,000 solar systems distributed over 66 regions.

Players battle to win territories through forming corporations and creating, buying and selling products - it is a virtual microcosm of the economic world at large.

Dr Eyjo Gudmundsson is the lead economist, a virtual Alan Greenspan, who works to make sense of all the data.

He said: "Within the game I supply players with economic information so they can make decisions about their own production, what they are going to produce and how they are going to produce it.

"It's basically the same economic questions as in real life. It's about strategy and an important part about strategic decisions is logistics and having access to the resources you need to win your war.

Eve Online
Corporate espionage is a very big part of the game
Dr Eyjo Gudmundsson

"It's like a real war in the sense you have to plan ahead. It's about long-term planning and long-term strategy."

Every quarter Dr Gudmundsson and his team produce an economic newsletter analysing trends inside the game.

"We are looking at markets, at production and long-term trends that show the movements of the players.

"We publish basic information on price levels and production values and interesting demographic information so players can rank themselves. Just like in a real economy, you want to have a benchmark."

The newsletter goes into great detail on the trade of virtual minerals in the game and where players are travelling in the universe.

With such depth and complexity, it is hardly surprising that Eve Online attracts a good number of senior executives and business professionals.

Dr Gudmundsson said: "It's the challenge of being able to be the best at planning ahead, the one who controls a large territory, showing your skills in running a corporation that has up to 1,000 members."

He added: "It's gamers who want something other than the First Person Shooter. They are using their skills, and learning skills about business, production and management, and having fun in a very competitive environment."

The complexity of the world of Eve is also leading to collaboration between the game and real world academic institutions.

"I work with research institutes who are interested in learning from our experiences," said the economist.

Eve online
Eve's players battle across the universe

"We have one project with the Helsinki Institute of Research Technology where we are looking into how to evaluate virtual economies and comparing that to other virtual worlds and moving that experience over to the real world.

"Eve is a game based on trade and there have been a couple of cases of price bubbles and it would be interesting to do a comparative study, comparing these bubbles to the real world and seeing how expectations are controlling the market at any given time."

One way that the virtual world reflects the real is in the realm of crime and fraud.

"Eve is a very competitive game and is happening in a super-capitalistic environment - corporate espionage is a very big part of the game.

"Everybody assumes there must be one spy in the ranks. There have been examples of corporate thefts, where people have earned the trust of others for months before attacking that corporation."

But the game's architects are not automatically moving to stamp out such practices.

"We are discussing this with players. To what extent should we provide protection for players."

With such emotional, temporal and financial investment in the game, Eve's players are beginning to have a larger say in its future.

A number of players will help form a Council of Stellar Management which will discuss the game's mechanics with Eve's creators.

And in keeping with the game, players will have to be elected to the group, creating a complex series of elections within the virtual world.

Dr Gudmundsson will be working with academic bodies in Iceland to look at how the voting process works. For example, does it follow rules established in the real world?

So what has he learned about how the economy of Eve works?

"I have been quite surprised by how effective the markets are. The biggest markets for the most basic products, such as minerals, are showing a very high degree of efficiency.

"Eve is a great place to learn business skills, or to sharpen business skills. Players have written to us to say that they have gone on to establish successful businesses after playing Eve."

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