If you’re a fan of Facebook (which seems these days to be just about all of us), chances are you’ve probably noticed the numerous games you can access via your profile. Even if you don’t play Farmville, Mafia Wars, or any of the available games, you’ve probably gotten messages from friends who do, encouraging you to join and spread the news yourself. (Most likely because most games offer rewards for bringing in new players.) Like many games and activities online, it can be surprisingly addictive; heck, there was even a South Park episode about Facebook just last month, a major theme of which is just how Facebook can suck you in (literally, in the South Park episode).
As you might guess, I’ve been drawn into these Facebook games, by my fiancee Sondra. She is a particular fan of a game called Restaurant City, where, as you might guess, your goal is to build and grow your own restaurant. She’s been eager to decorate her restaurant with some of the ‘rare’ items that are available, and I’m tempted to help her out. There’s a bit of a catch, though: the items she wants can only be purchased with ‘Playfish Cash’, which can only be obtained by spending real, actual dollars.
The Virtual Economy and Its Down Sides
There’s a name for buying virtual goods with real money (well, it might get you called multiple names, but that’s a different story): a virtual economy. Virtual goods are bought (and in some case, sold) in order to improve the experience in game. Depending on the particular game, these goods could be everything from super powerful weapons to Easter bunnies (no really; that’s one possible item in the Country Story game, also on Facebook).
The advantages of this arrangement for the companies is pretty obvious; once you’ve done the coding to create the virtual good, you can sell an infinite number, at least in theory. (You’ll likely run out of willing customers at some point, and in certain types of games, you risk messing up the difficulty curve.) Even if you are only charging a small amount for each item, you could generate quite a bit of income through volume; it costs you no more money to sell one thousand items than it does to sell one.
(It should be noted that not all methods of getting virtual goods for real currency are approved by the makers of the virtual goods. Many game producers don’t approve of in-game items being sold for real money, feeling that it distorts the intended method of progress in the game. Gold farming is one way of generating artificial goods or currency to sell, one that is both strictly forbidden by many game administrators, and apparently carried out by nearly 400,000 people world-wide, generating $1 billion in revenue. So, not only can you buy imaginary goods with real money, but you can buy imaginary, illegal goods. God help us all.)
What benefits the purchasers obtain are more of a mystery. You can’t touch the items you’re buying, are usually highly limited in how you can sell or trade them, and if you no longer are playing the online game, they effectively disappear. It’s hardly the sort of thing you’d think would be worth real money.
Why I’m Still Going to Do It
In spite of that, I’m still planning to purchase some virtual goods for my Sondra (or rather, to convert some of my real money into virtual money for her to purchase what she wants; as is the case in the real world, I don’t trust myself to buy what she will want and need). There are a few reasons for this, even with the aforementioned problems.
First, the problem with many gifts is that no matter how much you may enjoy the particular gift, you’ll eventually get tired of it. You then have a few choices, including selling it for much less than was initially paid or keeping it forever and needing to find a place to keep it. A virtual gift, on the other hand, is nothing but ones and zeroes, which are notoriously easy to store.
Second, it’s not really that much different than other ways of paying for online content. You could spend money to buy an e-book, for one example, or pay a regular monthly fee to access content online. Either method also means trading real money for goods that are little more than collections of ones and zeros. Selling fictional goods is just one more method of providing money for the content’s creators.
Third, and more importantly, it’s what she want. If it makes her happy, why not? Besides, it’s both less expensive, and much less likely to get lost compared to, say, jewelry. So…there’s that.