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.