You, too, can be a drug kingpin

The Dope Wars drug-running game strikes a nerve among the "buy low, sell high" crowd.


Damien Cave
February 9, 2000 10:00PM (UTC)

I bought eight G's of heroin last night, eluded the fuzz
in a Bronx alley and jumped a train to Manhattan where I unloaded
my stash for about 15 grand. Cha-ching! Now I'm rollin' in the
Benjamins.

Of course, they're of the virtual variety. My earnings came from
Dope Wars, a graphics-starved tool of procrastination that is
fast becoming as addictive as its subject. I downloaded
the Windows version of the game from Download.com, and so did
about 335,000 others -- making it the site's sixth most-popular
game, rivaling versions of Pac-Man and Quake. And plenty of other
people run drugs on their Palm PDAs, on Linux machines, even,
apparently, the TI-83 calculator.

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Kansas Sen. Sam Brownback and other conservative politicians
denounced the game's drug-toting plot at a December hearing on
violence in the media, according to a report in the London Sunday
Times. But young Wall Streeters who play dealers in their free
time say it's not the virtual drugs that attracts them, but the
cold, fake cash.

"It's like the stock market," says Axel Estable, 26, a French
software engineer with a graduate degree in finance, who works in
Chicago and belongs to a multinational "cartel," or group of
players who compete for the highest score. "If there is a point
besides just having fun, it's buying and selling something. It
could be stocks or flowers, but it's more fun to sell something
that's forbidden."

This is how it works: You start with $2,000 in cash, and $5,500
in debt. In 31 "days" -- trips between neighborhoods -- you make
as much money as you can selling marijuana, ecstasy,
cocaine or almost any other drug you can think of. Prices
increase or decrease randomly each day, and cops intrude as
pop-up windows along the way; they bust other dealers, which
drives prices up, and shoot at you, which drives your "health"
down. Other pop-up windows appear at random, offering guns for
sale or causing bad slip-ups -- like dropping your stash.

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Ultimately, the game is all about buying low and selling high.
That's why legal dealers -- of stocks, bonds and the like -- say
they have picked up the game in droves, e-mailing it to friends
in other firms and in countries as far away as Botswana, Guinea
and France. But it's not only the money crowd that's hooked:
police officers in Perth, Australia, reportedly made a fortune
selling virtual drugs before their superiors erased the program.

"It's kind of like a Minesweeper or Hearts kind of game," says
Ian Wall, a 31-year-old English programmer who wrote the Windows
version from his home in Brooklyn, N.Y. "People may initially think
'Oh, it's a drug-dealing game, that's cool.' But it takes only
three minutes to play and it's random, so that it's easy to
believe you'll do better next time. It's very easy to say, 'I'll
try again.' After a while, most people forget that you're
selling drugs. All they care about is making money."

Wall had played Drug Wars, the DOS-based, '80s original version
of the game, when someone suggested that he update it. There are
plenty of other drug-related games online, such as Happy Weed,
Drug Lord and Ganja Farmer, all of which are listed at Hemp
Games.
But few have captured the popular imagination like
Dope Wars.

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Since March, when Wall released the current version, he has seen
fans download thousands of copies -- and assemble worldwide
scoreboards,
fan sites and
hundreds of cartels. Wall is releasing a new version this spring
and is trying to figure out how to make money off the game --
real money.

Wall insists that Dope Wars is innocent, a "time-waster" that
shouldn't be taken seriously. But that doesn't mean the game is
stigma-free. "When I go home, I tell my girlfriend that I made
$16 million selling drugs today, but she doesn't think it's
funny," says Estable. He says he doesn't do drugs, has no
interest in dealing. But he wouldn't chat about Dope Wars at his
desk; he had to hide in an empty computer room. "I'm at work," he
explains. "I just don't want anyone to get the wrong idea."

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Damien Cave

Damien Cave is an associate editor at Rolling Stone and a contributing writer at Salon.

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