Beware the Auction House: How Addictive is Buying Virtual Goods?

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Professor of Behavioural Addiction, Mark Griffiths, recently wrote an article for Gamasutra explaining his research into the addiction-related implications of the buying of digital goods in online games by gamers like us. He notes that at the time of his initial forays into the subject, there was little research specifically on spending addiction in gaming. His empirical study sheds a bit of light on the motivations of gamers, but doesn’t seem particularly conclusive in terms of assessing if this addiction actually exists.

The article in some ways seems naive to the realities of gamers and perhaps unaware of the existing body of social science work relating to virtual worlds and those who inhabit them. It takes some pains to explain that virtual things can be valuable or important. To a gamer, this is pretty obvious, and academics within the interdisciplinary field generally known as Science, Technology, and Society (STS) tend to agree that the virtual should be treated as equally important as the physical. Furthermore, we all have experienced spending money on services and digital products with no real world physical representation.

Bonnie A. Nardi, an anthropologist and one of the leading STS scholars on the topic of MMORPG communities, works through the idea of addiction in chapter six of her book My Life as a Night Elf Priest. There she talks about the fact that gaming has been a scapegoat and a useful boogieman for societal fears for quite some time.  That gaming has often been surrounded by a “moral panic” atmosphere in which games and their makers are vilified. She argues that with millions of players, certainly some of them are addicted, but this may be more a quality of the player than of the game. This is where STS often diverges from the media, founding many of their theories in opposition to what they call technological determinism, the attempt to blame a technology for its relationship with the people who interact with it. An STS researcher might be more inclined to look at the ways people become addicted and how they find opportunities for that behavior, than to simply say that games are intrinsically addictive.

To drill down further, we’re not just talking about the addictive qualities of games themselves here. We’re specifically talking about the addiction to spending money on virtual goods within those games. Griffiths’ research shows a wide variety of benefits that the surveyed players seem to get from buying game items, but fails to delve into the kinds of addictive behavior we normally associate with the problem. In Natasha Dow Schüll’s deep look at Las Vegas-style gambling, Addiction by Design, she depicts the kind of addictive behavior gamblers experience as having the goal to lose, not to win. It describes addicted gamblers as unable to leave the casino if they’re up, needing to keep playing and playing until they have nothing left. This is hardly an analogous experience to most kinds of MMO gaming we see, which generally has the goal of moving up, not hitting bottom.

Some of what Griffiths’ work implies sounds incredibly similar to a phenomenon economists call conspicuous consumption, the tendency for certain groups of people to make buying decisions not based on the utility of a product, but based on the perceived social status associated with the item. Research into this kind of behavior is nothing new, the economic theory was published in 1899, and it’s not really the same thing as addiction. It’s all about doing better to seem elite, or at least good enough to be part of the in-crowd. This can mean spending money or spending a lot of time fighting raid bosses to get that important drop.

So let’s maybe not call it quits on gaming just yet. Addiction is a terrible disease and one we should be mindful of, but excitement and pleasure in interacting with our friends online shouldn’t be frowned upon, even if we pony up a little cash now and then to get a stellar mount.

Featured Image Credit: Blizzard Entertainment, Inc.

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