Believe it or not, virtual items can become real money when it comes to games. A new economy of buying cosmetic items in-game soon turned into a gray market of sorts, where real, actual money was traded for the real, actual labor that went into getting the items. Grinding, the process of repeating tasks over and over (and over and over and over and…) to gain experience and in-game currencies isn’t exactly fun. Not as fun as completing quests and such, anyway. It’s also not usually possible to run a script to do it, if the grinding is something like hunting down enemies, or fighting other players. Look away and the AI might do something unexpected and kill your character!
As a result, people would rather pay money to have the fun parts of the game made easier and more fun with the advantage of other people’s labor. Plus, allowing users to trade or sell skins makes them less reluctant to buy them in the first place – if you discover a skin doesn’t work with your preferred weapon, the time and effort you spent getting it can still be converted to money, so it’s not all bad.
World of Warcraft
The game allows in-game trading, but real time is often worth real money. Side-trades and in-game negotiations to make in-game items worth real money have been a factor of MMORPGs ever since their early days. In some cases, trying to get rare or ultra-rare items without other players helping you was a nightmare, but real money could persuade other players to trade their loot where virtual items couldn’t.
As a funny side note, WoW players are not always the most ethical when getting items from other players. ‘Duplication glitches’, leading someone to a PvP area because ‘it would make trading easier’ and then killing them in-game, the list goes on. Really, the in-game trading makes things a little less brutal!
However, you’re not allowed to trade things with real money – you have to buy gold and then exchange that for items, and then if you get the gold, that you can exchange for real money after the transaction has been completed. In a way, it’s sort of like cryptocurrency, as an unregulated currency that has real worth due to people converting it in and out of US currency to buy things they can’t with traceable money.
The gray market economy for WoW has fallen a little as other MMORPGs (and other game styles in general) have become more popular, but it’s far from collapsed – as long as the game lives, the market lives too.
The skins market in CS:GO is honestly kind of incredible. You get skins worth thousands of dollars just by virtue of being hard (or impossible) to earn. It’s sort of like NFTs but if NFTs weren’t being endlessly generated, thus making each exactly as unique as it is common. You get your skins primarily from loot boxes while playing the game, and you can buy skins off of Steam MarketPlace, but actually finding someone who has what you want is tough. So you go elsewhere, where browsing by category, rarity, etc. may be easier.
The skins market is split across a number of websites, and each website promises different things. ‘We’re the oldest skins website’, claims one. ‘We have over 160,000 skins’, claims another. ‘We’re trustworthy’, and ‘safe skin trades’ says a couple of others, which wasn’t something I’d worried about until I saw those taglines. That’s about the time you note that these outside websites aren’t officially endorsed by CS:GO, meaning that game support can’t help you if something goes wrong with your trade – only the website can enforce penalties. While WoW trading has some problems, the ability to chat and barter in-game makes it harder to get scammed out of stuff because support can see those logs.
CS:GO, just like WoW, allows you to grind in-game to get the stuff you want. You can fuse skins in-game to get a rarer skin, but the process of doing so is tedious and doesn’t promise any one skin at the end of it. As a result, offsite trading is generally people’s second choice to get a skin they want, after however long they’d spent in-game trying to get it. It also doesn’t force you to convert real money to gold, but whether that’s a plus or not is up for debate every time the WoW gold market hits highs. Plus, the currency not being in-game makes actually proving something fraudulent happened more difficult.
Roblox, an open gaming platform made up of official and user-generated minigames, uses Robux to function, an in-game currency worth roughly a tenth of a US cent. Like the games before, it also has skins, trading, chat, etc. but by virtue of its size, it’s got more gray-marketry going on than many games like WoW and CS:GO, even games that are older. By virtue of its young-leaning audience, it’s also got a ton of scams, everything from impersonal clickable ads advertising free Robux to personal attempts to mislead kids via ‘duplication glitches’ like the WoW ones listed above.
Roblox as a site can’t do much to combat this except copyright-strike ads using the term Robux and warn kids that trading off-site for stuff with Robux can be dangerous – unfortunately, for very determined youngsters with limited adult supervision, that doesn’t always ward them off of sites that will steal their account and/or Robux.
The real shame about gray markets is that they offer services that users demand, but their efficacy is based entirely on how the community and game itself respond. CS:GO players, for example, will warn people off of certain sites in the subreddits or just in general, if asked, unless they’re part of a scam. Reputation matters, and people want to be able to buy stuff without gambling for it. CS:GO and WoW understand that, even if they wish their players wouldn’t. Most of the people on those games are old enough to understand the risks associated with trading offsite.
And then you have Roblox, which paints itself as kid-friendly and ends up flying under the radar by doing so. Scamming someone in Roblox feels like scamming them in Mario Maker, it just seems like it shouldn’t be possible. Having an in-game currency that can be bought with real money, combined with a platform that allows players to trade, means it’s not only possible – it might be inevitable. Any game with these two conditions is capable of supporting complex scams beyond the ‘click here for free gold’ ones.
Currency, the community, and the visibility staff has of trading all come into play for gray market culture. When in doubt – search up forums and see what their opinion of a site is. It won’t be completely foolproof, but it will help you separate the eBay analogs from the AliExpress ones.