written by Flocci
A mother returns home after a long day of errands, laden with bags from the grocery store and the local shopping mall, where she bought some new clothes for her teenage son and toys for her young daughter. Setting down her bags, she climbs the stairs to her son’s room, where she finds him glued to a screen, playing a new video game. “Another game?” she asks with a hint of disapproval. “Yeah, I bought it this morning with some of my savings,” he replies. “I don’t understand how you can blow so much money on those video games. Why not spend it on something real?”
The legitimacy of digital purchases has been a subject of debate for several years now. It may seem counterintuitive to pay real money for goods or services that are entirely virtual, with no tangible aspect. In addition to the video games themselves, virtual transactions, also known as in-game purchases, include loot boxes, keys, cosmetics, and DLC (downloadable content). We will explore each of these in more detail later, but for now, let’s focus on the nature of the transactions themselves.
As Techopedia.com puts it:
“In-game purchases refer to items or points that a player can buy for use within a virtual world to improve a character or enhance the playing experience. The virtual goods that the player receives in exchange for real-world money are non-physical and are generally created by the game’s producers. In-game purchases are the primary means by which free-to-play games produce revenue for their makers.”
The main issue that people seem to take with virtual transactions is their intangible nature. There is no physical result from paying game companies for online products, which may make the purchase seem illegitimate or financially wasteful. However, we make many other purchases to a similar end which are viewed as perfectly normal. These days, it is very common to have an account with video streaming services such as Netflix, Amazon Prime, and Hulu. These subscriptions do not provide any physical rewards, but rather the ability to watch certain movies or TV shows at will. Some people pay for music services such as Spotify, Apple Music, or Napster, which again provide the luxury of music streaming – an intangible product.
Another common complaint about in-game purchases is that they are pointless and unnecessary. Like the mother in the example, many people believe that online commodities are not worth the money that people spend on them because they serve no purpose in the “real world.” However, this point of view fails to take into account the reason for these purchases. The vast majority of in-game purchases are for entertainment purposes, to either enhance their gameplay or enrich their gaming experience. It could be said that we make other purchases of a similar nature in our day-to-day lives. We buy toys for our amusement, desserts as a delicious treat, extravagant clothes and accessories to indulge our senses of style. None of these purchases are necessary – we buy these things because they make us feel good.
What makes online purchases different from these? To put it simply: the medium through which they are enjoyed. With tangible products, we can physically play with our toys; we can taste our dessert; we can wear our clothes. Intangible products may seem less “real” because of their digital nature, but the end result is the same as any physical luxury we may buy. In the end, we buy these things to entertain ourselves, and if a digital object can give someone a sense of entertainment, who’s to say it isn’t a legitimate purchase?
There are many types of digital commodities, and numerous avenues have developed to purchase them. Many game companies have dedicated websites for their games, many of which have “online stores” – pages where players can browse and purchase digital products. In addition, certain sites host public markets where players can buy, sell, or trade with each other for virtual objects. The Steam community market is one example of this; it has grown to develop its own economy, with prices changing based on supply and demand.
We’ve established why people make in-game purchases, but what exactly are they spending their money on? Here are some of the most common virtual commodities:
DLC: Downloadable content is typically an addition to an existing game. It may provide new characters, areas, abilities, or items that can be used in addition to the base content. DLC is not required to play a game, but rather expands it, providing players with more content to enjoy.
Loot boxes: Loot boxes are essentially virtual packages which players can open to get items for their game. These have been the source of some recent controversy – people argue that purchasing loot boxes is a form of gambling, since there is no guarantee that players will get anything new or useful to them. However, they are a common source of income for game developers, and a popular way for gamers to spend their money.
Keys: Some loot boxes require keys to open. These are digital codes that unlock the box so that the player can get the contents. Loot boxes and keys are often sold separately, and there is a large market for buying and trading them online.
Cosmetics: As the name suggests, cosmetics are a purely aesthetic form of game content. It typically includes character skins, which are essentially different outfits or appearances, and accessories. For instance, the popular game Team Fortress 2 advertises cosmetic hats as a main feature of their game – players enjoy customizing their characters to be unique or interesting.
In addition to in-game content, players also buy games themselves. Previously, video games came in the form of cartridges or discs, but as our gaming devices have improved, it became much more common for people to buy games online, without possessing a physical copy. Furthermore, some games require a paid membership to access all of the content, resulting in people paying a certain amount every month to continue playing.
Not all purchases that we make are wise decisions, and digital items are no exception. There are times when people spend money on things that they don’t really need, things that they hardly use, things that simply aren’t worth the money used to buy them. Nevertheless, the digital economy is a real and growing entity, and a large source of revenue for producers and players alike. As our world evolves, so do our concepts of possession and value; regardless of the tangibility of the things we own, they are real enough to us, and that is what truly matters.
Now that we’ve established what video games are and glimpsed how the culture works, it’s time to turn to the nature of the games themselves. We will begin to explore this next time, in Part 5: What Are You Playing?