When I first started playing Diablo 2 around the time of its release in 2000, I didn’t much care for playing online. I remember connecting to Diablo 2’s battle.net servers, clicking on the first available campaign, and being confronted in chat with lists of jumbled acronyms and numeric equations. “2 SOJs 4 LVL 60 Plate Armor” and other phrases poured across my screen a torrential pace, with players running back and forth, jumping in and out of the server. While I was attempting to smite Mephisto and progress along the central storyline, others were rapidly flooding the chat with various commands and garbled phrases that eventually took over my peripheral vision. After returning back from my quests to resupply at a town, I jumped into chat and asked “What’s going on here?” Quickly several anonymous voices chatted back: “Trade.”
Trading within Diablo 2 involves exchanging in-game items for other virtual goods including gold and equipment. As a built-in feature, trading incentivizes players to create market economies and other forms of emergent exchange that go beyond interacting with non-playable-character (NPC) vendors. For game designers, this process builds community which further enhances a player’s investment into the longevity of a game's success. To that end, a direct correlation can be drawn between the strength of a game’s virtual marketplace—be it sanctioned or not—and its lasting impact on that industry.
Although I poured hours into the hack-and-slash, dungeon crawling, and looting experience of taking my sorceress into the depths of hell, I never participated in trade, which quickly became a dominant aspect of playing Diablo 2. Some of my reservations about trading might have stemmed from a general discomfort with handling rare items; I was often uncertain about the exact in-game value of my loot. More striking and off-putting, however, was how aggressive it all was: the barking commands, the attempt to turn quick profits, the way the discourse emulated high frequency trading markets. It felt antithetical to the community building and social collectivity I appreciated in online play.
Trading menu within Diablo 2: Lord of Destruction from the DjuntasGaming YouTube channel.
While many game developers and studios have implemented online marketplaces, in-game trading recently came under scrutiny when Valve—a large game company that created the popular game distribution platform Steam—sent a number of cease-and-desist orders to online gambling websites. These third-party platforms use Steam’s marketplace of in-game items—specifically cosmetic, purely visual and not performance-enhancing, modifications of in-game items called “skins”—as collateral for traditional gambling. Skins are put up on sites like csgolounge.com and used as “chips” or other valuable currency to gamble in various low-skill to no-skill gambling games. What results is an external economy of virtual objects that can result in real-world payoffs. Where Steam prevents players from “cashing out” unused or unnecessary items, these third-party sites allow for players to use virtual items as away-from-keyboard currency.