Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Living the Virtual Life, buying Virtual Goods

Help me here. What is it about "virtual goods"--imaginary own-ables in online community or commercial fake-world games--that leads Americans to shell out a projected $1.6 billion this year in our jobless economy?

The "I don't care about money" stance of Mark Zuckerberg as portrayed in the film Social Network has long ago been swept aside as Facebook hosts and profits from the virtual barnyard antics of FarmVille (75 million monthly active users) and a raft of other digital cosmos in which players pay real dollars for non-existent items that can get them ahead in play.  The lucrative commerce flourishing in the background behind FB profiles and friending has caused the crafty website to invent and promote its own monetary substitute, called Credits.  Facebook skims 30% off all transactions that use this virtual currency.

I read this in a NY Times blog reprinted in the actual, physical newspaper, cover price $2.00. I used scissors in my flesh-and-blood hand to cut out the article.  Just call me Stegosaurus.

One of the most popular virtual world games through Facebook is Sorority Life, explained in a post on eHow, "How to Play Facebook Sorority Life."  I could hear the syrupy everything's-a-question intonation of my newly-graduated daughter's cohort as I read the steps to success--picking your "glam" wardrobe to trot and have critiqued on the catwalk, throwing parties, shopping and picking catfights:

"Need money fast? Challenge a sister to a 'fight' and see if your skill levels are high enough to take her down. Winning a fight uses up your Stamina points, but gives you money and an increase in your Influence points, which works to make your fights and your socializing more successful."

Zynga's Mafia Wars has players forming groups of criminals who do "jobs" to get ahead, rob each other, and in one of several cities (Bangkok) can escalate (with enough energy, cash, health and stamina) to the highest level, Assassin. Actually, players can put a hit on others anyway...I was sucked into watching a half-dozen YouTube videos purporting to teach players sneaky means to increase their levels, some with 23,000 views and long threads of comments.  One blog that described Zynga's attempts to stop users from exploiting free points found even the techy author surprised at the amount of passion evoked by the glitch: " does help me understand that the science and psychology behind these games is very real. They are addictive money extraction machines."

Which brings me back to reality: Aren't we in a big recession?  The 9.6% unemployment rate should theoretically mean less cash to spend on tangible necessities, much less made-up stuff like fertilizer for friends' FarmVille crops. 

Virtual goods certainly make sense from game-makers' and sponsoring corporations' point of views--they get real money in trade for game advancement which costs them nothing.  This spring, 7-Eleven stores offered Farmville, YoVille and Mafia Wars points with certain fast-food purchases like Slurpees and iced coffee, points that would have cost players about $3 as virtual goods.  In June, Green Giant gave away FarmVille Farm Cash with purchases of its fresh produce.  Business-wise, it's a win-win.

But not such a boon for the players who, once addicted, are exploited.  Lured by ever-greater rewards for playing longer and, pyramid scheme-like, involving more players, victims of game addiction can become so embroiled in their virtual identities that they lose their jobs, marriages, and may even take their lives. A Korean case where parents' gaming caused them to neglect their 3-month-old baby, leading to the infant's death by starvation, received international attention.  Even Oprah-spinoff Dr. Phil has plenty on his website about game addiction, and offers a quiz to help viewers decide if they've got it.  Of course, real addicts won't be watching Dr. Phil.

Game addiction has escalated such that residential treatment facilities are cropping up, the first here in the Great Northwest.  A Nova Scotia psychologist has set up a website (with workbooks for sale) with resources for parents and adult addicts.

I'm biased on this topic. While compulsion to keep playing these games may have a physiological basis (providing dopamine highs), I have little sympathy for wasting the limited, precious moments we have on earth to embrace and appreciate the real world.  People harvesting from cartoon farms or evoking gun-barrel drawings by clicking mafia options are losing their souls to something ultimately worthless.  Even watching TV with family, while not directly engaging each other, at least involves some shared presence, some common experience.  Devoting attention--any at all!--to a virtual world simply pulls the individual away from life, from people who quickly understand they're second-priority.  Gamers know this, and like other true addicts, dismiss or rationalize it because they are compelled by the game.

Maybe it's not a physiological addiction. Maybe it's just a competitive drive gone wild.  But aggression and the need to compete are considered male characteristics, and women equal men in their devotion to online virtual-world games; one report says women spend even more time at them (averaging 29 hours per week, to men's 25).

Perhaps each gender is receiving differing types of fulfillment from its involvement, but in any case, the real and important things in life suffer.  I contend that even moderate time at  computer games could be better spent in reality-based pursuits.  Support for my view is that every self-test for game addiction I've seen includes a question about guilt over time spent online.

But when you combine lost time with lost money, you get a real problem. Virtual goods may bolster game-makers' profits, but what do they do for the purchaser, who has nothing to show for it beside a higher score?  You may say it's an investment in pleasure; we spend lots of money on vacations and concert tickets and fine wines and Disneyland, and when they're gone, they're gone, too.  But each of those experiences is real.

When your tombstone is laid, the vacations and concerts and dinners with delicious wine may add up to "he was a great family man."  But the hours spent in FarmVille or as El Cacique only compile to narcissism, mental and emotional masturbation, usually at the expense of those who long for you.

Maybe I just don't get it; if not, enlighten me. Otherwise, I'd rather pursue a virtuous life than a virtual one.

1 comment:

  1. I think the addictions are tied to people's need to connect and have control in their lives. One of the books that I read recently is called "Controlling People" by Patricia Evans, which is about why people become verbal (and at times physical) abusers and how to break the controlling cycle. I wonder if the same techniques would apply to helping people truly connect with themselves and others instead of virtual worlds...