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Rhodri Marsden: Are we wasting our money when we buy virtual goods?


It's my friend Penny's birthday today. I've not bought her anything, but Facebook offers me a selection of last-minute virtual gifts: a tiara she can't wear, a whoopee cushion she'll never be able to sit on, or some champagne that she'll never guzzle while sitting on the kitchen floor and weeping bitter tears at the passing of her youth.

These are available for the knockdown price of $1 each, the idea probably being that a price tag somehow makes the giving of a 130-pixel image seem more meaningful. But bunging someone a virtual gift says little more than "I vaguely remember who you are" – after all, Facebook reminded me of the birthday, and Facebook created all the cutesy images and set up the payment system that enables me to buy them. All I have to do is press a button marked "Give gift", and as far as displays of affection go, that must rank somewhere alongside reusing the birthday card she gave me last year by crossing my name out and writing hers instead.

But these non-existent items pull in a lot of cash. For many online ventures, flogging things that merely have on-screen representation is the only meaningful source of revenue, and it's a spending pattern that's fast spreading beyond the Far East, where it first caught on. The global population is due to spend some $5bn worldwide this year on virtual gifts, clothes for virtual characters, 3D representations of objects for our phones or virtual real estate – which does beg the question: are we collectively losing our minds, here?

But thinking about it, humans do have a long and extraordinary history of shelling out for all kinds of bizarre things, from pet rocks to aura cleansing sessions, and while you might pour scorn on someone deriving pleasure from paying £30 to equip their World Of Warcraft character with a Scabbard of Hope, it's still money whooshing around the economy. Indeed, while disbelief and laughter met the news last week that someone has spent an eye-watering $333,000 on buying the Crystal Palace Space Station in the virtual world Entropia, it may be a more savvy business decision than spending the same sum on a flat in Crystal Palace itself.

Thousands of people will, incredibly, pay good money to dock their imaginary spacecraft there. And, unlike the flat, you can be 100 per cent certain that the roof of said space station won't leak or its plumbing go awry. In fact, as travel destinations go, it looks pretty enticing. I'll see if Penny fancies a birthday excursion.

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