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The pleasures and practices of virtualised consumption in digital spaces

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A desire amongst individuals to engage in playful, consumption-like activities can now readily be observed in many digital games, but also other virtual spaces. In this paper we explore the emergence of games of virtual consumption. We identify a range of playful, virtual consumption experiences that are now available to individuals and consider possible reasons why individuals might find these attractive by comparing contemporary theory on consumption with conceptualisations of play. Many digital games allow individuals to ‘buy’ imaginary things. For example, players of Everquest can visit a virtual marketplace and spend money acquired in the game on virtual commodities. However, players may also bid real money for skilled avatars and rare artefacts on eBay; purchase virtual chairs while visiting an online hotel (visit, and pamper virtual pets with virtual products (visit Companies even gift consumers with virtual commodities – ‘experiential freeware’, to borrow from Falk & Campbell’s (1997) description of shop windows– to play with. Marketers allow consumers to display working virtual copies of luxury goods (see; customise virtual cars (see; and put aside virtual copies of desirable goods in a personalised virtual space (see Other consumers simply find imaginative ways to play with online representations of goods. They browse at length online catalogues, brand sites, travel sites, or the pages of eBay’s auctions, imagining what it would be like to purchase. All these virtual goods that are enjoyed, occasionally used, and sometimes even bought but not owned in a physical sense appear to have an evocative power, similar to that of tangible commodities. Online browsing also appears to possess an ability to provide pleasures similar to real window shopping – itself a largely playful activity. And even games without direct reference to shopping, may allow for pleasures similar to those experienced by the real-life tourist-shopper (for example the flâneur exploring the exotic city in Grand Theft Auto). Consumer desire for virtual things is such that Castranova (2001) calculates that the area of eBay where people buy and sell virtual items traded $6,400,668 worth of virtual items and avatars. The attractions of virtual goods, makes Everquest’s Norrath, equivalent to the 77th richest nation in the ‘real’ world (Castranova, 2001). In concretising a desire for sought after skills, rare artefacts, or mundane objects to embellish their avatars, consumers have been said to spend from $5.00 on virtual designer outfits (Yoon, 2002) to $2,000 on powerful characters (Morris, 2002). Castranova (2001) argues that virtual worlds may be seen as fully fledged market economies. In order for virtual worlds to produce real economies we must also accept that the basis for these economies is an as yet little understood concept of virtual consumption. And this concept may be observed more widely than the confines of commercial video games. In contrast to those who eagerly spend money on ‘virtual goods’, other consumers are blamed for not buying real goods. They browse aimlessly, dreaming about what is presented on the screen. They eagerly fill shopping baskets with desired goodies only to then abandon them. Since the opening of one of the web’s first virtual mall, Shopping 2000, idlers, voyeurs, window-shoppers galore have done more loitering than purchasing. In 1996, Cyr (1996:1), noticing that substantial numbers of onlookers ventured into Shopping 2000, wrote "but so far, all those numbers represent a lot of window shipping; actual sales have proven elusive." Despite increased number of sales having been reported, the trend to window-shop remains. Over 60 percent of online shoppers abandon their shopping baskets before completing a transaction (Maravilla, 1999; Thumler, 2000; Bizrate, 1999), escalating to a 90 percent consumer etherisation after objects are viewed (Thumler, 2000). It has also been observed that rates of abandonment have increased with the value of the virtual booty; DoubleClick (2004) has reported that while the average shopping order is around $180, the abandoned cart was $352. As an antidote to consumers’ antipathy towards completing their orders, e-marketers have set out to continually improve design, security and customer service issues in an effort to address the ‘problem’. But this seems to be a contradiction. At the same time as there is increasing evidence for consumer demand for virtual consumption in digital games, online retailers convince themselves that behaviour that remains only focussed on the pleasures of virtual goods when visiting online stores is somehow a failure in the online experience. We therefore need to account for the various forms of virtualised consumption, highlighting the pleasures they may bring consumers and their separation from the world of material goods. We attempt this by considering historical developments in consumption practices, suggesting, like Kline, Dyer-Witheford & de Peuter (2003), that virtualised consumption may represent the latest stage in an ongoing, subtle transformation of consumption practices from a Fordist focus on utility to a post-Fordist focus on emotional value, sign value and playful, aesthetic experience. Here we consider the work of Baudrillard (1970), Campbell (1987), Featherstone, (1992) and Lee (1993), drawing parallels between conceptualisations of consumption as a symbolic, aesthetic, imaginary experience and play itself through the work of Caillios (1958), Turner (1982) and Sutton-Smith (1997). Viewed in this way, virtualised consumption no longer constitutes a failure on the part of consumers to continue to fill their lives with material possessions, but rather the ability of the market to stimulate consumers imaginations in new and exciting ways: to provide the individual with a range of compelling digital consumption games. We illustrate these games by considering further examples of playful, virtual consumption from online shopping behaviour to behaviour in commercial digital games. We conclude by speculating on the implications of these playful forms of consumption for individuals and for a consumer society, highlighting the potential for these various liminoid spaces to transform the meaning of consumption for these players and therefore for the broader acceptance of the importance of material versus virtual goods. We suggest that an understanding of virtual consumption is therefore of interest to both marketers in their search for effective communication through ‘adver-games’ and other interactive functions and also for game designs who incorporate elements of consumption in their games. References Baudrillard, J. ([1970] 1998) The Consumer Society, Myths & Structures, UK: London (2000) BizRate Press Release, 23 October 2000, [Path:] (accessed 1 May 2002) Caillois, R. (1958). Les jeux et les homes. Paris: Gallimard. Campbell, C. (1987) The Romantic Ethic and the Spirit of Modern Consumerism, UK: IDEAS Castravona, E. (2001). Virtual Worlds: A First-Hand Account of Market and Society on the Cyberian Frontier, California State University at Fullerton - Department of Economics. 2002. Cyr, D. (1996) Marketing on the information superhighway: growing pains, American Demographics, Jan/Feb, 46 Falk, P. & Campbell, C. (1997) Introduction, In: The Shopping Experience, Falk.P. & Campbell, C. (editors), UK: London Featherstone, M. (1991) Consumer culture & postmodernism, UK: Sage Publications Kline, S. ,Dyer-Witheford, N. & de Peuter, G. (2003) Digital Play, The Interaction of Technology, Culture, and Marketing, Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press Lee. M.J. (1993) Consumer Culture Reborn, London: Routledge Maravilla, N. M. (1999) The case of the abandoned shopping carts,, [Path:] Morris, C. (2002) Imaginary worlds. Real Cash, publishers aren’t the only ones profiting from online games, CNNMONEY, January, 16 [Path:] Sutton-Smith (1997) The Ambiguity of Play, Cambridge: Harvard University Press Thumlert, K. (2000) Abandoned Shopping Carts: Enigma or Sloppy E-Commerce?,, June 27, 2001, [Path:] DoubleClick (2004) DoubleClick Q2 2004 E-Commerce Site Trend Report, [Path:] Turner (1982) From Ritual to Theatre, New York: PAJ Publications Yoon, S. (2002) Does my avatar look fat in this? The Age, June 14th#, [Path:] (accessed June, 15 2003)
Contact: Mike Molesworth, The Media School, Bournemouth University,
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