Blurring of realities in virtual gift-giving

Fairfax Digital
The Age

Thursday January 1, 2009

Mandy Salomon

THE yuletide overflow of wrapping paper and astrology books prompted me to think about the giving and trading of virtual objects.

Trade in digital objects took off when gamers began buying and swapping swords and other symbols to increase their playing power. eBay became the trading post for such items, though it was illegal to take game content outside of the game itself. The practice was banned in 2007, yet this did little to quell the practice, said to be worth $US2billion ($A3 billion) annually.

Developers of social network sites recognised that virtual goods were a way to add value, with many taking a percentage for brokering the arrangement. Most now supply graphical items such as flowers or hearts which friends give to one another. Last time I looked, Facebook charged $US1 for this indulgence.

In the 3-D web world, objects become more complex. Users are given tools to create their own and embed them with scripts that change that object. Byron Reeves, a Stanford University researcher whose work on psychological responses to computers spans more than 20years, says “the human brain is not specialised to differentiate virtual or real. The same neurons fire when an avatar smiles at you as fire when a real person smiles.” He says “virtual money changes real behaviour”, citing a study in which people more eagerly opened emails with virtual goods attached than those without.

Gaia, a social online environment with a teenage demographic, claims that 100,000 objects are traded daily via its auction system. At a recent conference, Gaia’s CEO, Chris Sherman, told of a boy who visited his stand at a trade expo. The boy was delighted to see a hat just like the digital one he wanted, but which his mother, suspicious of virtual trading, had forbidden him to buy. The virtual one cost $2.50. The real one was $25. His mother let him buy it. Sherman said that the boy then said, “Well, if I can’t have the real thing, I can have the fake.”

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