I’ve spent the last few days flirting with the Christmas orgy of consumption and along the way introduced a few more people to virtual worlds. All of them express the usual there is no spoon amazement when they find out that people are paying lots of real money for virtual goods. However, it’s less incredible when you consider that even in the real world the goods people are buying aren’t as real as they seem.
Real world products aren’t marketed just as objects, but as objects that enable a lifestyle in which you have more friends, more fun and are more attractive. When it’s the promised lifestyle that people are buying, the goods themselves may as well just be bit patterns encoded on a magnetic disc halfway around the world.
In fact, virtual goods may be more honest than their real world counterparts. The real world pizza promises friends, fun and personal improvement, but just delivers a pile of calories. The virtual sword promises increased power and glory within the world and delivers it. It’s a status symbol that delivers more than just status.
Maybe one reason virtual worlds with scarcity are so compelling is that they provide the aspiration and wish fulfilment of real world consumption without the nagging feeling of disappointment which often follows real world acquisition. The realisation that the glamorous bauble is just a glamorous bauble.
When its time for the player to go to a better place, virtual goods have another advantage: they can be cashed in and converted in to goods in the next world. The real world bauble looks like an even worse buy when you consider that, ultimately, you can’t take it with you.