Why Eve Online's economist thinks bitcoin could be a scam

Dr. Eyjolfur Gudmundsson is the in-house economist at CCP Games, and part of his job is keeping Eve Online and its multiple currencies running smoothly. Eve Online and Dust 514 incorporate a series of virtual currencies, such as ISK, Auram and Plex, that are all interconnected and in some cases can be purchased, or sold for, actual currency

The value of PLEX, which is redeemed for one month of game time in Eve Online, is relatively stable. CCP has experimented with allowing players to purchase video cards with PLEX.

At Fanfest this year players could even purchase things around the convention center by converting their PLEX into "ISK Coins," plastic chips with CCP's logo on them that worked like real currency at certain vendors around the show.

In many ways PLEX has become a working currency, and CCP has tried some experiments using that currency outside of the game. The line between the game's economy and the "real" economy can sometimes grow blurry, and that's by design.

I sat down with Dr. Gudmundsson to discuss the currency and to talk a bit about bitcoin, the much-hyped "crypto currency" that has seen such volatility in the last few years. PLEX has stayed relatively stable and, although it can’t be used as payment in many places, it’s relatively easy to move "real" currency into, and in some cases out of, PLEX.

"I find it very interesting that people that are behind the cryptocurrencies, they seem to distrust governments. So they create a system that is supposed to be closed, just a fixed amount of money, and nobody can create fiat monies, no bankers will benefit from it. And yet, they don’t tell you who is behind it, and they’re telling you the code is secure," he told Polygon.

"I look at them say, ‘Don’t trust the governments,’ but they expect us to trust something because it’s code somebody wrote I don’t know who is. And there’s a notion of people who did this originally, who are sitting on millions and millions of bitcoins and will cash out at some point," Dr. Gudmundsson continued.

This is why bitcoin is so interesting when viewed through the lens of Eve Online: this is the cycle of all the classic in-game scams. A system is set up, value is promised, trust is gained and you may not know exactly who is behind any of it… and then the endgame comes when the masterminds cash out and everyone else loses everything.

Once the trust is there, they break the trust and profit from it

"And all of these stories could all come from Eve," Dr. Gudmundsson said. "People trying to figure out a scamming system that they will actually build some value, make people trust it, and once the trust is there, they break the trust and profit from it."

"I openly talk to people about that and specifically with people that are very enthusiastic about this being the next big wave, and I just ask, can you prove to me that this is not a scam? And they say yeah because the code is safe," he said.

"And I say, OK are you absolutely sure that this code can’t be changed, because I don’t know the code and I don’t know the technology behind the code, but I have to trust it to use it so how are they going to convince people all over the world that this is trustworthy if there is no government behind it?"

In the case of PLEX, the "government" behind the currency is CCP Games itself. Since the value of PLEX is one month of game time, and that one month has a set value, that unit of PLEX will always be tied that particular value. As long as people want to play the game PLEX will have value to them, so a strong game will lead to a strong value for PLEX.

"That’s the trust. They know if they buy a PLEX, the PLEX will be redeemable for ISK in the future," Dr. Gudmundsson explained. "They would rather keep a Plex on their account than too much ISK because ISK fluctuates in value as well. We have inflation in Eve, and that can change over time. So we can definitely say that the trust that we have from the players is a big part of the success."

CCP Games has a selfish desire to keep PLEX stable; as the value of PLEX is an indicator in interest in the game and the amount of people who want to play it. Governments also have a desire to keep the economy stable and to provide certain protections against things such as money laundering, fraud and tax evasion.

The people who designed bitcoin? That’s an open question, and if you look at bitcoin through the same lens of virtual currencies in Eve Online, bitcoin is in the stage that takes place right before the scammers cash out. This is, of course, operating under the assumption that the real world will mirror the in-game economy of a title about online space ships.

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