Buy My Rock!

South Florida's Jon Jacobs wants to be a millionaire. His business: virtual real estate.

During the early stages of the game, Jacobs established his avatar, NeverDie, as one of the best-known and most affluent in the game. He had the best weapons, armor, and mining equipment. "I feel like NeverDie is the ultimate name for a gamer, because everybody dies," he explains. "If you play games, you die."

Nearly two years after Entropia's commercial launch, MindArk made a surprising announcement in December 2004. The company would auction off a "newly discovered" (translation: newly added) island. By owning this virtual real estate, a player could levy taxes on all hunting and mining done on the land — collecting a small portion of all proceeds and potentially making money as a land baron. Called Treasure Island, the land also contained a castle. Jacobs hoped to turn the castle into a virtual nightclub and to promote the island as the game's premier hunting ground. He sold off everything he possessed in Entropia, including some of the game's rarest and most valuable items. He claims he raised 200,000 PED, or $20,000, from his items in the game.

Then the bidding started. Jacobs figured he had enough money to hold off any other buyer. But he was wrong. On December 14, 2004, MindArk announced that the Treasure Island auction had been won by another player, an Australian named Zachurm "Deathifier" Emegen, who paid a reported $26,500 for the land, a record price for virtual real estate.

In Entropia Universe, gamers can spend real-world money to buy virtual items at auction.
In Entropia Universe, gamers can spend real-world money to buy virtual items at auction.

Land ownership in Entropia is a prickly subject, because a legal system does not exist to mediate disputes and MindArk retains control of everything, no matter how much money a player invests in the game. What's more, land values can fluctuate more greatly than in the real world. In Entropia, unlike in the real world, land can literally be created by the developers. As more land is created, of course, demand and value can decrease.

Whether disputes over virtual real estate can be settled in real-world courts is still a legal unknown. Only one such case has been filed. In February 2002, BlackSnow Interactive filed a lawsuit against Mythic Entertainment after the developer announced that it would shut down the game Dark Age of Camelot, making virtual items related to the game worthless. BlackSnow ultimately dropped the case.

That lawsuit exemplifies the risk of investing in virtual real estate and items, says Richard A. Bartle, a London-based game developer who studies virtual economies. "If you buy things in a game like Second Life and the company announces that they're going to close the game down," he says, "you're in trouble, because you can't get your money back."

After losing his bid to buy Treasure Island, Jacobs began to see his personal life crumble. His girlfriend Leiu had been suffering from a flu that wouldn't go away. One morning, she couldn't get out of bed. "She was in great shape, but she was lying there in bed complaining about her throat," Jacobs says. "The next thing I know, she says, 'I can't breathe. '"

He rushed her to the hospital. Leiu was diagnosed with myocarditis, an inflammation of the heart. His ill girlfriend found temporary freedom in Entropia. Island Girl was her avatar's name.

"I'd get up in the morning, and she'd be up already, hunting," he says. One time, he noticed her at the computer. Jokingly, Jacobs began to sing: "My girl's a gamer chick, and oh I love her so." For fun, they recorded the song and sent it to MindArk, which included it in Entropia's in-game jukeboxes. The song made NeverDie something of a virtual pop star.

But Leiu wasn't getting better. "I kept noticing weird shit, like hiccups," he says. "She'd get hiccups all the time."

They saw a doctor again in January 2005. She's not going to die, the doctor said. "A month later, she was dead," Jacobs recalls. "Somehow, whatever it did, it got her. She was 39."

Leiu had become a popular player in Entropia. To commemorate her, MindArk created a small piece of land called Memorial Island and erected a shrine for her. When players visit the commemorative, serene music plays. A picture of Island Girl is on one of the walls. A plaque reads: "This shrine is dedicated to the loving memory of Tina Leiu, 'Island Girl,' the ultimate virtual warrioress."

As he visits the shrine on a recent afternoon, Jacobs looks down and touches his chin gently.

"This is the only thing of its kind," he says. "This is really the first-ever virtual gravesite. We played Entropia enough for this to have more meaning to me than if there were a grave."

A few months after Leiu died, Jacobs met Cheri London, a regular performer at the Forge on Miami Beach. He hadn't expected to meet anyone so soon after Leiu's death, but there was something about London. "She was perfect," Jacobs recalls.

At the time, Hey DJ had been shot and was in the editing process. That left plenty of time for Jacobs to play Entropia again. And his timing couldn't have been better. MindArk announced the sale of another large piece of real estate in the game: an entire asteroid with 20 "biodomes" for hunting and mining, a nightclub and disco, a large arena, 1,000 individual apartments, and docking stations.

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