Why spend money to look good … in a game?
(Jul 31, 2012) People are willing to spend money on virtual accessories in online games, such as clothing items and decorations. Their reasons for doing so vary, but they usually have to do with the social context of the online event, the need to express oneself, even in the virtual world, by means of beautiful and exclusive objects, and to progress through the game more quickly.
These are the major conclusions of the study into the consumption habits of social gamers, conducted by Maarten Van Calster, communication sciences student at Ghent University.
Social games are popular
In recent years, games that can be played free-of-charge on social network sites such as Facebook have become exceedingly popular. As an example, Zynga – the developer of Farmville, Cityville and Texas HoldEm Poker – has more than 200 million visitors every month, and a corresponding quarterly turnover of 321 million dollar. These games work on the basis of the so-called ‘freemium’ business model. This means that everyone can start playing them free-of-charge, but that you have to pay for any nice extras you'd like, such as a new outfit for your virtual character, playmates for your virtual pet, or heavier weapons for your ‘Mafia gang’. From the large number of people who are spending money on these ‘free-of-charge’ games, it appears that virtual consumption is becoming quite common. But why is it that people are willing to pay for products that are not more than a collection of pixels: what is it that motivates them?
A first significant reason why people pull out their wallets is the importance that is attached to creative freedom. Social games may not be as competitive or adventurous as ‘core’ games (the type of games you buy in the shop), but they do permit players to shape their virtual world to their own ends. They can make a start with the items that are provided free to ‘dress’ their virtual world or characters, and they then pay money for items that really tickle their imagination, such as a Hawaiian theme for their farm, or designer swim shorts for their sim.
A second reason why players pay money for virtual items is because they hold a certain social value and status. Because these games are often played with people who the players also know in real life, they are more inclined to help them along a little, for example by depositing some virtual money onto their account – virtual money that is bought with real money, of course. In other cases, players spend money because they don’t want to ask for help from their friends. By investing real money in a game, they can purchase the items they want, without having to rely on their friends to send them money or other forms of support for several days. Finally, as in the real world, virtual consumption choices reveal something about the identity of the players. They will try and distinguish themselves from others by purchasing exclusive items that can never be matched by free players.
The third and final important motivator for virtual consumption is impatience. Social games are often designed to ensure that they cannot be finished, and that you can only achieve a number of items per hour or per day. If you buy extra energy or gold, you get ahead much quicker. And this allows players to skip a number of the repetitive activities. Oddly enough, players not only pay to enable them to play more – but also so that they have to play less.
Maarten Van Calster
Master of Communication Sciences, Specialisation New Media and Society
+32 487 42 82 85
Master thesis supervisor: Prof. Jan Van Looy
Department of Communication Sciences
+32 9 264 91 83