If we go by Polygon's word, the Steam black market is not only a real thing, but operates like a city in the old wild west, lawless and with horse thieves around every corner. Active con artists lurking in the dark to take advantage of neophyte Team Fortress 2 players utilizing highly advanced tools to detect who is and isn't a scrub as they work to gank rare items to make huge profits. If we go by their word, this is a secret, only known to a few, and their exposé is bringing to light the heinous moral crimes of these elite few who know how to play their community by the strings.
Of course, I don't disagree that there are those on the Internet with less than stellar track records, but the idea that you can lose everything and be scammed is an entirely plausible thing, so plausible that it's common place starting the most basic web browser game all the way to the giants like World of Warcraft.
The article, which reads like a 20/20 investigative report on the underbelly of Steam trading, starts of fairly simple. It brings up the spike in Earbud trading awhile back, essentially where someone bought an item in TF2 for way more than it's worth and the entire community trying to figure out why. An ominous quote rests below a picture of some earbuds, referencing how someone lost their items and were unable to get them back. It sets the mood for some of the tone going forward.
Like any good exposé, the article moves to the man behind the screen, an anonymous benefactor of information who describes sharking. Sharking is the process of exploiting ignorance, finding new players who got super lucky and buying items for way less than they're worth. Which, hilariously enough - is such common practice I don't see how this is a Steam exclusive thing. I lost an insanely rare item in Neopets because all of the items were listed for 100,000 Neogolds or whatever, and I lowered it by one to undercut them. Interestingly enough, items at 100,000 were unable to be purchased and more or less museum items. I lost 2 million fake Internet moon cash in Neopets and had my inbox full of people asking me if I had any other items I'd like to sell, simply because I was a kid on the Internet and had little clue what I was doing.
This happens in WoW, this happens in Lineage, this happened in Ragnarok Online. The Christmas event happened at the very start of the game, when few players were playing. Christmas hats were insanely rare, but newbies who had obtained them would willingly give them up for almost no Zeni. So saying that people use morally dubious claims to an items wealth is essentially how a free market works.
Some other examples is every single minute in EVE Online, an entire game based on this sort of Libertarian paradise where the free market reigns and CCP provides almost zero regulation. The thing that actually set EVE Online on the map was a story posted on Something Awful about how someone had scammed some spaceships which started the first great goon rush into the game, which would later organize itself and become the Goon Squad.
Back to the article, it takes a turn for the d'aww as we find out about a kid who flew to The International, a DotA 2 tournament, and purchased $10,000 worth of merchandise, flipping it for $40,000 on the Steam market. It's a very cute story to me, because someone went through that effort and profited in a generally positive way. Valve and associates offloaded a ton of swag for a profit and the kid made himself a nice pocket full of change. Nice!
Then we move on to "The Middle Man." A story of how someone traded $1,000 in hats to a friend on Steam who had duped the profile of the broker he was originally going to trade with. A story that, like the others, is well known in the Steam community and one full of lessons every MMO player learns in a trial by fire.
The second you log into an MMO, you're basically hanging out with raw personas. The very essence of who people really are, deep down inside, without any worry or focus about the perception of society. Think of society as this giant Eye of Sauron glaring down at you. When you leave the house, the eye of society glares at you and forces you to be normal and complacent. Any mistake is punished and you only live once, so you have to be careful because society remembers.
However, online we are who we want to be and like any Human, we want to be ourselves. We take off the filters and the blinders, the iron'd clothes and the perception of status, and we move into a world like no other - a fantasy world where consequence doesn't obey the laws of reality. For every action, there is an equal, opposite, or random action and you can press reset at any time. Upset a community and get labeled as a ner'do'well? Change your name, congratulations, you're now reborn. Try again.
As such, scams and other nefarious actions are all too common place. The steam trades and the steam trade scams go so much further than those listed in the article. For instance, keys from key traders. Did 'ya known that the person who has the original physical copy of something is essentially the de facto owner in Valve's eyes? Did 'ya know that really cheap key you bought from a shady website can be recalled at any given time and resold? Did 'ya know this is a common occurrence?
How about Russian game keys, where games are much cheaper in Russia, so they sell the Russian region locked CD-keys to players for a discount (comparative to their region) while still making a profit? How about scams where people offer to sell hats at a severely reduced price only to take the PayPal and ride off into the sunset.
How about the trading scams in Diablo II where every single trade with another player was probably you losing everything and also getting hacked. How about the rust storm, how you'd earn a bunch of items, make some amazing trades, and get hit by the rust storm and find out that all of the items you received were dupes while the items you earned remain untouched.
There is the EVE Online banking scandal, where a player ran a bank holding more than 790 billion ISK and then just walked away with it one day, having more than $150,000 USD worth of virtual currency. Then there are the WoW gambling shops where you would /roll between 1 and 100, if you got above 50 you got double your money, below 50 you lost, until you handed the guy a large sum of money after you gained he gained your trust and then he simply logs off.
What I'm trying to say is that while it's novel that a few people got scammed on Steam, it's not this giant exposé of a hidden subculture. It's business as usual on the Internet. For every person who had a Steam hat scammed by some overly complex scam using a friends list and duplicate names, about a bazillion other people are being scammed in games everywhere else, often times with a lot less setup.
What I think we should take from this is that we, as a gaming community, need to start applying more pressure on game developers to make scams less of a thing. The RMT (real money trading) industry has taken some major blows throughout the last five years as game companies realize that there is a demand for using real money to purchase items in a video game and that they have to supply that demand in a very controlled way, while preventing the nefarious RMT industry from utilizing exploits, bots, gold farmers, and scam artists from acquiring merchandise to sell.
We can make it harder for players to be scammed, we can make it harder for sharking to happen, and we can make trading more secure and game developers need to continue to iterate on this process to make trades a healthy organic fluid system, but also idiot proof. For instance, do you think sharking would happen as much if items dropped in TF2 included the current going rate in the Steam marketplace in their tool-tip? MMOs need to take this lesson to heart as well - more games need to adapt the average going price in the tool-tip in order to make the players aware of the current going rate.
There is a lot more we could discuss on ways to prevent scamming, but each and every game is its own unique snowflake and game developers should work harder to make sure even neophytes in their games know the value of an item. I mean, they don't have to, and there is that certain charm to the wild west feel some games have (like EVE Online), but at the same time we need to cultivate a positive experience in a game and the majority of the time it's not having your stuff scammed away into the nether.
Game developers have to understand that players are customers and a positive experience makes them repeat customers. Refining game systems to help avoid exploits and scams makes it easier for them to enjoy the game starting out because it prevents that bitter realization that you had one of the rarest items in the game, but lost it because someone's definition of what is and isn't moral is drastically different than your own.
We have to cultivate these happy moments and build on the idea that loot is rare and awesome and a total gamble. Without that, one of the key components of the magic of MMOs is lost. You know, tutorials spend a lot of time on the true basics, like WSAD or how to press your mouse button to shoot, but how often does a tutorial talk about loot rarity? Like orange is super insanely rare and grey is scrub loot? Sometimes it'll talk about "magic items" having better properties, but there is no educational material on oh, you should covet this item. That's stuff you have to learn from external resources, trial and error, or from the community.
Actually you know what, thinking on it, it's really stressful in a lot of games not to know what is and isn't good. Some games, like Diablo III rely on that stress to create the fun of the game. You get loot, you don't know what it is, and you have to research it and ask questions and train to become a true lootmaster. In other games though, it's hard to be meticulous about what is and isn't a good item and what is and isn't worth something.
In summary, I would like to say that as game journalists, we can't portray a secret world where these "high-level" scams are going on and act as if it's some kind of secret we're showing the world. That's the slippery slope to becoming the Internet's 60 Minutes. Tick tock, tick tock, right? We have to expose the greater issues. Like the ability for sharking to happen because the game mechanics don't facilitate educating players on the proper worth of items - or even the fact items have a worth. We have to make everyone aware that these issues don't plague a small hat crazed niche, but our entire industry as a whole.
Good journalism is bringing issues to light. Great journalism is taking those issues and working to make them issues no more. Depicting these things as some shadow organization working to exploit the system and take your hard earned hats is cool and entertaining, but exposing the fact that this is such a common place practice is even better.
I don't know - maybe I'm too good at heart. Maybe there is too much faith for Humanity resting in my soul. Maybe I think of things too positively. However, at the end of the day, I want gaming to remain a great experience for everyone and for everyone to have fun. That's what we're here for, right?