Unreal worlds

Nov 10th, 2009 | By | Category: International

Sometimes there is a feeling of being the last person on Earth to know things: things like the fact that people spend real money on things that don’t actually exist.

Reading Sebastian Faulks’ A Week in December, where one of the characters spends hard earned real income on unreal things in a virtual reality game, there was an assumption that this was a piece of Faulksian parody.  The book has at its heart the unreal world of the international financial markets, where trillions were lost on things that never existed; spending money on things in a virtual world seemed a satirical commentary on the business of the financiers.  It never occurred that people would really enter credit card numbers into a website to buy non-existent items.

The weekend Financial Times was bound for the green bin, when an extract from the book ‘Viral Loop’ got a second reading – it was the Coca Cola and Mentos story, something that appeals to someone who has not matured much beyond undergraduate level.

A box at the foot of the page asks, “What next for the virtual economy?” and says:

Don’t laugh. The market for virtual goods is estimated to be about $1bn in the US. It is spawning entire virtual economies, even being funnelled into charitable causes. Zynga released a special “sweet seed” it sold for the equivalent of $5 each, promising to donate half the proceeds to two non-profits in Haiti. Farmville players generated $640,000, with $320,000 going to charity.

American people spend $1 billion, that’s 1,000,000,000 United States dollars, on things that have no actual existence whatsoever.  Add to that figure the expenditures of other online virtual world participants and the total is hundreds of millions more.  While the economy of the real world is in a tailspin, that of the unreal world seems to be ballooning.

Who buys things in the virtual world?  Even if $2.50 is going to a charity, why would you spend $5 on a seed for a farm that is simply a graphic on a screen? Why not give the $5 straight to the charity?

$1 billion is an astronomical sum of money – according to the International Monetary Fund, the income for the entire nation of Rwanda in 2009 will only be $5 billion. $1 bn is equivalent to one-fifth of Rwanda’s income.

$1 bn could buy astonishing numbers of real things.  I could take you to villages where $15 would buy a child a school uniform and books for a year; where $25 would buy a real goat from a real market that would give real milk to real people.  $100, the price of twenty ‘sweet seeds’ in the virtual world would buy an actual cow for an actual poor family, the first female calf of which would then be passed onto another poor family, and the first female calf of that would be passed on to someone else, and so on.

Somewhere the rich and the poor worlds diverged, the rich to discover the worlds of fantasy, the poor to cope with a world that is a very grinding reality.

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  1. “:Somewhere the rich and the poor worlds diverged, the rich to discover the worlds of fantasy, the poor to cope with a world that is a very grinding reality.”

    You make some good points Ian.

    The real irony is virtual goods are bought with virtual money, which is all that fiat currency is really.
    Especially now with the central bank printing presses running overtime with the bulk going to the banks who caused the financial meltdown.

    However, there are also cases of people connecting or converging the real and virtual, using virtual worlds events for real world fund raising efforts.
    As a musician I have done many over the last few years.

    My personal favorite was earlier this year when I did an event for a fellow artist within the virtual world of Second Life who was raising funds for a Heifer.org project. In a little over an hour we raised ~US$550 towards his project to raise US$10K ,purely from donations in virtual dollars from live music listener supporters. These virtual Linden Dollars are then exchanged for RL US$ like any other currency exchange.

    I gather he has now hit the heifer project us$10K target, all raised in the virtual world of Second Life through events and donations of virtual dollars. https://www.kintera.org/faf/donorReg/donorPledge.asp?ievent=178641&lis=1&kntae178641=A0822ACF4C794893804B972D6285F8A7&supId=190129196&team=0&cj=N

  2. I agree with you about us producing money to fund the institutions who caused the crisis. Here in Ireland the poor are going to pay to bail out the super rich

    Isn’t there a big difference between, as you describe, using the ‘virtual world’ as a platform to raise money for real things in the real world, and using it as a means of extracting real money from people for things that have no existence, that money simply going to corporate profits?

  3. “Isn’t there a big difference between, as you describe, using the ‘virtual world’ as a platform to raise money for real things in the real world, and using it as a means of extracting real money from people for things that have no existence, that money simply going to corporate profits?”

    I’m not so sure.
    Any technology or media can be used for noble or base purposes, and the reality is they are.

    On a meta content level, there is no difference between consuming entertainment media such as a passive movie/ tv show/radio show and experiencing an interactive virtual world environment. They all need a rendering device, but the content is virtual to a certain extent (lets set aside the optional issue of buying a physical DVD or download and just focus on the delivery experience for the moment).

    How it is used, as you point out, is the key.

    Virtual worlds offer many advantages for immersive distributed real time interaction, and the virtual goods market – while it can be as frivolous as RL fashion, for example – is an essential part of the mechanism for populating them with contextual content.

  4. Hi,

    I spent the afternoon visiting housebound – a very non-virtual activity, but a chance to think about the implications of ‘virtual worlds’.

    One of the other areas of concern I would have, aside from the expenditures, is the derogation from personal responsibility and the dangers that can bring. If one can be whatever one wants to be, the choice is likely to be something other than the mundane conventional life most people lead, a choice that can bring all sorts of repercussions in its wake.

  5. Valid points, identity and self expression can weave a twisted web sometimes, especially under the cloak of internet anonyminity.

    You might be interested in talking to http://www.irelandsl.org/ who do a lot for projectchildren.org to get some other perspectives.

  6. There is also a lot of investigative work being done in uses of virtual worlds and serious games for health.
    This can range from giving housebound people a wider range of activities to do, through to mental therapies.

    ex: http://dusanwriter.com/index.php/2009/11/02/virtual-support-space-for-military-amputees/

  7. Thanks for the links. I’ll check them out.

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