Here's a question many researchers have stumbled over at one point or another in their careers as pioneering virtual world analysts: Why do people pay real money for virtual items?
Pixels and Policy takes a look.
Digital Growth, Real Revenue
The virtual economy is certainly more than an aberration, and with Second Life bringing in nearly $500 million a year in virtual sales alone, the virtual economy may even be doing better than the real economy!
A new report published in the Virtual Economy Research Network argues that Second Life and other virtual worlds have such healthy real-to-virtual economies because of one main factor: social pressure.
Now, researcher Jennifer Martin isn't talking about real-world social pressure, but a quieter, more pervasive form of social pushing.
Second Life encourages us to buy products. Stores of every type run rampant throughout the world, and avatars with outrageous or especially beautiful clothing and accessories quickly grab the attention of other players. Second Life dumps you out at a landing zone wearing jeans and a t-shirt, while all around you are characters in various stages of elaborate dress.
Almost immediately, Martin argues, you begin to feel the pressure of "fitting in."
In Second Life, appearance matters. How your avatar appears to others will be the sole point of judgment until they speak to you for any length of time. Over the past few years, as standards and social mores in Second Life have evolved, clothing has come to symbolize everything from an avatar's profession to her sexuality.
As Martin says in her research:
In a virtual world with approximately one million unique residents
logging in monthly, individuality becomes an important reason for
purchasing virtual goods with which to define the avatar.
Dr. Edward Castronova of Indiana University showed in his book "Synthetic Worlds" that individuality is a personal goal of many virtual worlds users. Second Life simply directs the user to pay a premium that decides just how much the avatar stands out.
Over time, this market directive has become a social directive, with certain islands requiring certain attire, and some avatar groups shying away from association with other avatar groups.
But the deeper meaning is there: To fit into Group X, the user must spend real currency to purchase the skins and outfits that differentiate Group X from Group Y.
Beyond individual appearance, consumption can also be associated with
group membership and belonging.
Through their visibility, items of
virtual clothing, accessories, and full avatar skins serve as marks of
membership within particular groups.
In an effort to expand our image of who we are through virtual worlds, the same consumerism and cliquishness have followed us into the Metaverse.
Perhaps this says more about who we are than the elaborately-dressed Victorian avatar we manipulate through the virtual space.
We spend real money on virtual clothing because, in the end, we can best understand ourselves in terms of what we purchase. Whether this is a positive or a negative continuation of reality depends on the perspective of the user.