By Jon Matonis
Tuesday, March 6, 2012
According to Google's Eric Schmidt at the recent Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, the company once considered issuing its own digital currency for use and circulation across its expanding global platform. After reviewing various proposals for the proposed Google Bucks, the company decided not to proceed, citing 'legal concerns' which most likely implies the strict licensure and compliance regulations for quasi-financial institutions.
They probably realized that Google Bucks could end up like Facebook Credits and become a virtual currency roach motel where your money checks in, but it doesn't check out. Facebook does not provide two-way convertibility and person-to-person payments due to the potential for fraud and the emergence of a secondary market beyond Facebook's control. For the moment, that is good news for Facebook shareholders but it could quickly lose appeal for users and game developers that are locked into the self-serving paradigm. Although with money transmitter licenses in at least 15 states now, Facebook Credits is further along than previously thought in competing more directly with banks.
Google probably also realized that they could not improve upon the elegance and resiliency of bitcoin, a three-year-old decentralized P2P digital currency with an independent floating exchange rate of about $5.00 per bitcoin. In March 2011, Mike Hearn, a Google engineer, released an open source java client for bitcoin called BitcoinJ so obviously the protocol did not go unnoticed at Team Google. A true, and ideal, virtual currency will have the attributes of two-way convertibility, an independent floating exchange rate, and a nonpolitical unit of account. Consequently, it is those core features that stoke direct competition against national currencies and bitcoin possesses all three.
Renowned gamer and welfare economist Edward Castronova rejects bitcoin as the ideal virtual world gaming currency because, according to him, good game currencies should be based on controlled 'productive work', promote mild inflation, and rely upon a strong central authority for enforcement and repudiation. The freedom-loving, Libertarian gaming world of World of Warcraft and Eve Online was aghast. How could a PhD in economics think that a Keynesian currency system that has failed so badly in the real world be the desired path for currencies like WoW Gold and EVE Online ISK in the virtual world? Is the range-bound Linden Dollar of Second Life the future model of virtual currency and virtual monetary policy? Not only was Castronova rejecting bitcoin as a gaming currency, he was condemning the unregulated virtual world to a gray, inflationary future of State-sanctioned centrally-managed currency roach motels.
Castronova misses the point here and misses it badly. Bitcoin is the perfect virtual game currency precisely because it is not controlled by any State authority or virtual world company. It also facilitates the many other currency features that are so important to users, but not to governments, such as unrestricted person-to-person payments, user-defined anonymity and untraceability, near-immediate bearer settlement, transaction irreversibility, reliable store of value, multi-grid capable, and decentralized processing. You can think of bitcoin as the distributed digital representation of a real world physical casino chip also making it extremely suitable for online casinos and social betting. We are fast approaching a time when currencies will be serious differentiators and competitive wedges for companies simply because customers demand a particular payment type. The virtual gaming environments will be forced to adapt in order to survive.
Gamers and virtual world avatars don't want the corporations controlling their money anymore than they want central banks debasing the value of their real world money. Certainly, the regulations will be there for the digital currency exchanges that provide the conversion into and out of bitcoin; however, once the bitcoin is in the gaming and virtual world environment, it can function as gold coins and paper cash to stimulate and drive economic activity. No other virtual currency will even come close to that kind of vibrant liquidity and building walls to ring fence a virtual environment will turn out to be a counter-productive strategy. The bearer nature of these digital instruments like the cryptocurrency bitcoin will keep transaction costs low by eliminating third-party processors and counter-party risk. Electronic commerce will flourish.
Contrary to utopian social planning, free-market virtual economies will emerge spontaneously rather than through design and the ultimate victorious currency will be a market-based competitor that can move seamlessly across multiple grids. The virtual world is the perfect crucible for launching unrestricted currency competition and that competition will enable further opportunities for transporting virtual world earnings to real world value. This bridging of the two worlds could be the sought-after "killer app" for open-loop digital cash. Now, there will be three different mega-places for income and wealth generation -- the traditional taxable economy, the informal shadow economy, and the virtual world economy. However, with the virtual world bitcoin wealth being selectively anonymous and practically untaxable, it may just decide to stay there.
Note: The Virtual Policy Network has a podcast to accompany this article.