Is it cheating if you spend real money to purchase virtual gear for computer games? Is cheating still cheating if it's part of the game?

If you don't play games, you may not understand those questions. In online games, especially massive multiplayer online games like the Fool favorite, Vivendi's (NYSE:V) World of Warcraft (WoW), or Sony's (NYSE:SNE) Everquest series, everyone is looking for an edge. Virtual items bestow virtual powers, meaning you can kill your virtual enemies -- who are sometimes controlled by real-life people -- that much more quickly. That's why there's always been a thriving black market for virtual gear. Need a Sword of Ultimate Head Choppage but don't feel like killing that dragon 100,000 times to get it? Why not just head over to eBay (NASDAQ:EBAY) and buy one for $5?

Because that's cheating? Unfortunately, there's often little honor among gamers, so cries of unfairness don't really address the problem. That's why this is actually a very tricky issue for game designers, especially when they're charging customers a monthly fee to keep the competitive ecosystem running smoothly and fairly. As we've seen, one attempt to control the imbalance issues is WoW's eBay of the elves.

Mr. Softy may be taking another tack. The next-generation Xbox may just sidestep the issue completely by creating the black market itself. Earlier this month, in a San Francisco Xbox preview, J. Allard, a Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) vice president, noted that the new game platform will offer an online store that will sell virtual gear, from characters to car parts.

From a gamers' standpoint, I find the concept troubling. Where's the challenge? Where's the in-game reward? Why should I shell out more money to get extra stuff? Why should some snotty rich kid with a big allowance score an advantage over the downtrodden bootblack who could barely scrape enough together for the console and cartridge?

From an investors' standpoint, I say "genius." After all, the black market itself is proof enough that gamers are more than happy to spend real money on virtual add-ons. Moreover, more and more gamers are 40-something adults with money to burn, not squeaky-voiced teens with their parents' charge cards. If Microsoft and its content partners such as Electronic Arts (NASDAQ:ERTS) and Activision (NASDAQ:ATVI) can capture -- or better yet, nurture -- this multimillion-dollar market, shareholders should see some real rewards.

For related Foolishness:

Seth Jayson finds computer games horribly addictive. At the time of publication, he had a level 50 Night Elf hunter, but no position in any firm mentioned. View his stock holdings and Fool profile here. Fool rules are here.