In 1997, Indianapolis construction worker Troy Stolle became Britannia blacksmith Nils Hansen. As a character in the immersive fantasy game Ultima Online, Nils soon developed a working relationship with an archer and a mage—both also controlled by the earthbound Stolle. Stolle built a virtual house for his heroic trio, which he sold for 180,000 pieces of virtual gold, with which he bought the deed to a virtual tower. Years later, in the real world, Stolle sold the still intangible building and the rest of his account for 500 U.S. dollars to a former Procter & Gamble chemist, who flipped the tower for $750 to a Wonder Bread delivery man.
All that is solid melts into air in Voice contributor Julian Dibbell’s second book, Play Money, an often surreal bit of participatory journalism in which the border between work and play flickers in and out of our monitor-fried vision. The early chapters are excellent—expertly paced and fortified with irony, as Dibbell profiles the canny cash collectors of this brave new world and offers smart, pithy digressions on Turing machines and Boggs bills.
But then the plot, or at least the marketable subtitle, kicks in: Dibbell challenges himself to make a living the way his interview subjects do, trying to top his all-time best yearly income as a writer (less than $60,000). His quest feels forced, and Play Money loses some steam. Worse, he pads chapters with posts from the popular blog he kept at the time—complete with repetitions, tepidly presented financial data, and the mention of an impending book proposal. Emerging from this mountain of excelsior, Dibbell offers some conclusions, but his voice has become distractingly fuzzy: “So let me hazard, in lieu of an explanation, a guess.” Though Play Money starts off, promisingly, as an inquiry into real and virtual values, it eventually illustrates a different information-age disconnect—that between passable blogosphere reading and a compelling clothbound tale.