Devastating price crash in the Diablo III hamburger-dagger market

The market for a virtual hamburger which can be used in as a dagger in a popular video-game plummeted over the last week

Keeping on the hamburger theme, here's a sentence which will make sense to about two of you: the economy of Diablo III has fallen through the floor after a glut of Horadric Hamburgers (a burger which is also a dagger) for sale on the game's real-money auction house pushed the average price from around £90 to just £7.50.

The Horadric Hamburger is a "legendary" item in Diablo III. It's hard to get, and can only be found in a secret level, "Whimsyshire". And yes, it's a Hamburger which is also a dagger. The game provides only the cryptic description:

The Horadrim wandered far and wide to gather the finest ingredients for their feast. Only the lone traveler sent to the Moo Moo farm failed to return. Diablo had laid a trap for the Horadrim, the Hell Bovine, who struck the traveler down before he could gather the final ingredient: cheese.

The problem with the Horadric Hamburger is that although it's classified as an extremely rare item by the game, it's actually a bit rubbish. The game models stabbing someone with a hamburger relatively faithfully. That is to say, it doesn't hurt very much. As a result, no player who is practiced enough to find the damn thing is actually going to use it. It's a bit like a solid gold tennis-racket.

So the natural reaction of all the players was to take this immensely rare, precious, thing which they didn't actually want and use a new feature of the game which debuted last Friday: the real money auction house. There, they could sell their valuable trinket for cash money, and use it to buy real hamburgers which they can eat, rather than stab NPCs with.

Unfortunately, it seems everyone else had the same idea. As PC Games Network reported, three hours after the auction house opened, the burgers were listed at an average price of £87.91, with 12 chancers going for the maximum price of £200. By Tuesday, it appeared that they had realised their folly. Although it's impossible to tell how many sold, the average price had plummeted to just £7.50.

Virtual economies are increasingly interesting to economists, because of the sheer wealth of data they can produce. Valve, the makers of the Half Life and Portal series, recently hired Yanis Varoufakis, who rose to fame analysing the eurocrisis, as their "economist-in-residence". The President of Valve, Gabe Newell, laid out his pitch to Varoufakis:

I have been following your blog for a while… Here at my company we were discussing an issue of linking economies in two virtual environments (creating a shared currency), and wrestling with some of the thornier problems of balance of payments, when it occurred to me "this is Germany and Greece", a thought that wouldn’t have occurred to me without having followed your blog. Rather than continuing to run an emulator of you in my head, I thought I’d check to see if we couldn’t get the real you interested in what we are doing.

The Diablo economy is far simpler than the one that Valve appears to be setting up, but there's still no shortage of teachable lessons. The key one from this story is the fallacy of the idea that goods have some "intrinsic" value. Produce - even a legendary hamburger-dagger - is worth what people are prepared to pay for it. No more, no less. In this case, the labeling of the item gave faulty signals, which convinced sellers that there would be more demand than their actually was. As time went on and none sold, they were forced to cut prices to a more realistic level.

The auction house has now settled down a bit. If it goes the same direction as the auction house in Blizzard's previous game, World of Warcraft, expect to see some very interesting case studies indeed.

A hamburger. Not a virtual hamburger. Certainly not a virtual hamburger-dagger. Photograph: Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

How Jim Murphy's mistake cost Labour - and helped make Ruth Davidson

Scottish Labour's former leader's great mistake was to run away from Labour's Scottish referendum, not on it.

The strange revival of Conservative Scotland? Another poll from north of the border, this time from the Times and YouGov, shows the Tories experiencing a revival in Scotland, up to 28 per cent of the vote, enough to net seven extra seats from the SNP.

Adding to the Nationalists’ misery, according to the same poll, they would lose East Dunbartonshire to the Liberal Democrats, reducing their strength in the Commons to a still-formidable 47 seats.

It could be worse than the polls suggest, however. In the elections to the Scottish Parliament last year, parties which backed a No vote in the referendum did better in the first-past-the-post seats than the polls would have suggested – thanks to tactical voting by No voters, who backed whichever party had the best chance of beating the SNP.

The strategic insight of Ruth Davidson, the Conservative leader in Scotland, was to to recast her party as the loudest defender of the Union between Scotland and the rest of the United Kingdom. She has absorbed large chunks of that vote from the Liberal Democrats and Labour, but, paradoxically, at the Holyrood elections at least, the “Unionist coalition” she assembled helped those parties even though it cost the vote share.

The big thing to watch is not just where the parties of the Union make gains, but where they successfully form strong second-places against whoever the strongest pro-Union party is.

Davidson’s popularity and eye for a good photo opportunity – which came first is an interesting question – mean that the natural benefactor in most places will likely be the Tories.

But it could have been very different. The first politician to hit successfully upon the “last defender of the Union” routine was Ian Murray, the last Labour MP in Scotland, who squeezed both the  Liberal Democrat and Conservative vote in his seat of Edinburgh South.

His then-leader in Scotland, Jim Murphy, had a different idea. He fought the election in 2015 to the SNP’s left, with the slogan of “Whether you’re Yes, or No, the Tories have got to go”.  There were a couple of problems with that approach, as one  former staffer put it: “Firstly, the SNP weren’t going to put the Tories in, and everyone knew it. Secondly, no-one but us wanted to move on [from the referendum]”.

Then again under different leadership, this time under Kezia Dugdale, Scottish Labour once again fought a campaign explicitly to the left of the SNP, promising to increase taxation to blunt cuts devolved from Westminster, and an agnostic position on the referendum. Dugdale said she’d be open to voting to leave the United Kingdom if Britain left the European Union. Senior Scottish Labour figures flirted with the idea that the party might be neutral in a forthcoming election. Once again, the party tried to move on – but no-one else wanted to move on.

How different things might be if instead of running away from their referendum campaign, Jim Murphy had run towards it in 2015. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.

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