There’s a long line of avatars waiting to use the automatic-teller machines for Ginko Financial, a virtual bank in the online game Second Life. For more than a week, account holders have been demanding their money back in what some folks are calling a bank run.
Set off by high interest rates and a recent ban on in-game gambling, the bank run could ultimately have a major effect on the game’s economy. The theft of approximately $12,000 from the Second Life World Stock Exchange doesn’t help matters either.
Second Life, which was created by Linden Labs of San Francisco, is an online world where players can buy and sell all kinds of goods and services. The game’s economy is based on fictional currency, called Linden dollars. But those dollars do have real-world value: players can buy or sell Linden dollars at a rate of about L$270 to $1 on the Lindex market. Second Life’s website even boasts that “thousands of residents are making part or all of their real life income from their Second Life businesses.”
Now the entire Second Life economy–which could affect more than 8.5 million players–is in trouble.
Although financial institutions in Second Life are careful to define themselves as games, some Second Life banks offer more than 100 percent annual interest–a tempting rate when combined with the possibility of turning Lindens into U.S. dollars via the Lindex. Right along with the promise of turning virtual currency into real-life riches are problems with how some Second Life financial institutions are run, says Robert Bloomfield, an economist at Cornell University who makes a serious hobby of studying Second Life’s economy.
“The average person who goes to a [real-world] bank isn’t aware that there’s a large regulatory body keeping track of the reserves the bank has,” he says. But banks in Second Life, which Bloomfield compares with the Wild West, are mysterious and unregulated. Ginko Financial’s CEO, Andre Sanchez, of Sao Paolo, Brazil, has refused to release records of Ginko’s investments or financial history, and he has not revealed a clear plan for returning people’s money.
“Most of these problems have been building for a while,” says Benjamin Duranske, an intellectual-property lawyer who has been watching the Second Life banking industry. Although he and Bloomfield agree that the ban on gambling probably set off the run, Duranske says that problems were inevitable considering Ginko’s high interest rates. Even with the run going on, the bank still promises depositors daily interest of 0.10 percent, which is approximately 44 percent interest per year. Duranske says that some 20 to 30 Second Life banks offer comparably improbable rates.
“It’s not as if these people have discovered something that hedge-fund and mutual-fund managers don’t know,” he says.