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.

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North Yorkshire has approved the UK’s first fracking tests in five years. What does this mean?

Is fracking the answer to the UK's energy future? Or a serious risk to the environment?

Shale gas operation has been approved in North Yorkshire, the first since a ban introduced after two minor earthquakes in 2011 were shown to be caused by fracking in the area. On Tuesday night, after two days of heated debate, North Yorkshire councillors finally granted an application to frack in the North York Moors National Park.

The vote by the Tory-dominated council was passed by seven votes to four, and sets an important precedent for the scores of other applications still awaiting decision across the country. It also gives a much-needed boost to David Cameron’s 2014 promise to “go all out for shale”. But with regional authorities pitted against local communities, and national government in dispute with global NGOs, what is the wider verdict on the industry?

What is fracking?

Fracking, or “hydraulic fracturing”, is the extraction of shale gas from deep underground. A mixture of water, sand and chemicals is pumped into the earth at such high pressure that it literally fractures the rocks and releases the gas trapped inside.

Opponents claim that the side effects include earthquakes, polluted ground water, and noise and traffic pollution. The image the industry would least like you to associate with the process is this clip of a man setting fire to a running tap, from the 2010 US documentary Gasland

Advocates dispute the above criticisms, and instead argue that shale gas extraction will create jobs, help the UK transition to a carbon-neutral world, reduce reliance on imports and boost tax revenues.

So do these claims stands up? Let’s take each in turn...

Will it create jobs? Yes, but mostly in the short-term.

Industry experts imply that job creation in the UK could reflect that seen in the US, while the medium-sized production company Cuadrilla claims that shale gas production would create 1,700 jobs in Lancashire alone.

But claims about employment may be exaggerated. A US study overseen by Penn State University showed that only one in seven of the jobs projected in an industry forecast actually materialised. In the UK, a Friends of the Earth report contends that the majority of jobs to be created by fracking in Lancashire would only be short-term – with under 200 surviving the initial construction burst.

Environmentalists, in contrast, point to evidence that green energy creates more jobs than similar-sized fossil fuel investments.  And it’s not just climate campaigners who don’t buy the employment promise. Trade union members also have their doubts. Ian Gallagher, Secretary of Blackburn and District Trade Unions Council, told Friends of the Earth that: “Investment in the areas identified by the Million Climate Jobs Campaign [...] is a far more certain way of addressing both climate change and economic growth than drilling for shale gas.”

Will it deliver cleaner energy? Not as completely as renewables would.

America’s “shale revolution” has been credited with reversing the country’s reliance on dirty coal and helping them lead the world in carbon-emissions reduction. Thanks to the relatively low carbon dioxide content of natural gas (emitting half the amount of coal to generate the same amount of electricity), fracking helped the US reduce its annual emissions of carbon dioxide by 556 million metric tons between 2007 and 2014. Banning it, advocates argue, would “immediately increase the use of coal”.

Yet a new report from the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (previously known for its opposition to wind farm applications), has laid out a number of ways that the UK government can meet its target of 80 per cent emissions reduction by 2050 without necessarily introducing fracking and without harming the natural world. Renewable, home-produced, energy, they argue, could in theory cover the UK’s energy needs three times over. They’ve even included some handy maps:


Map of UK land available for renewable technologies. Source: RSPB’s 2050 Energy Vision.

Will it deliver secure energy? Yes, up to a point.

For energy to be “sustainable” it also has to be secure; it has to be available on demand and not threatened by international upheaval. Gas-fired “peaking” plants can be used to even-out input into the electricity grid when the sun doesn’t shine or the wind is not so blowy. The government thus claims that natural gas is an essential part of the UK’s future “energy mix”, which, if produced domestically through fracking, will also free us from reliance on imports tarnished by volatile Russian politics.

But, time is running out. Recent analysis by Carbon Brief suggests that we only have five years left of current CO2 emission levels before we blow the carbon budget and risk breaching the climate’s crucial 1.5°C tipping point. Whichever energy choices we make now need to starting brining down the carbon over-spend immediately.

Will it help stablise the wider economy? Yes, but not forever.

With so many “Yes, buts...” in the above list, you might wonder why the government is still pressing so hard for fracking’s expansion? Part of the answer may lie in their vested interest in supporting the wider industry.

Tax revenues from UK oil and gas generate a large portion of the government’s income. In 2013-14, the revenue from license fees, petroleum revenue tax, corporation tax and the supplementary charge accounted for nearly £5bn of UK exchequer receipts. The Treasury cannot afford to lose these, as evidenced in the last budget when George Osborne further subsidied North Sea oil operations through increased tax breaks.

The more that the Conservatives support the industry, the more they can tax it. In 2012 DECC said it wanted to “guarantee... every last economic drop of oil and gas is produced for the benefit of the UK”. This sentiment was repeated yesterday by energy minister Andrea Leadsom, when she welcomed the North Yorkshire decision and described fracking as a “fantastic opportunity”.

Dependence on finite domestic fuel reserves, however, is not a long-term economic solution. Not least because they will either run out or force us to exceed international emissions treaties: “Pensions already have enough stranded assets as they are,” says Danielle Pafford from 350.org.

Is it worth it? Most European countries have decided it’s not.

There is currently no commercial shale-gas drilling in Europe. Sustained protests against the industry in Romania, combined with poor exploration results, have already caused energy giant Chevron to pull out of the country. Total has also abandonned explorations in Denmark, Poland is being referred to the European Court of Justice for failing to adequately assess fracking’s impact, and, in Germany, brewers have launched special bottle-caps with the slogan “Nein! Zu Fracking” to warn against the threat to their water supply.

Back in the UK, the government's latest survey of public attitudes to fracking found that 44 per cent neither supported nor opposed the practice, but also that opinion is gradually shifting out of favour. If the government doesn't come up with arguments that hold water soon, it seems likely that the UK's fracking future could still be blasted apart.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.