I am torn on a recent article from CNN on virtual gift giving. While I am a strong advocate of virtual worlds, I am not so sure that the rampant commercialization of holidays should be spread to the virtual worlds:
I will start off by saying that two years ago one of my teenage sons asked for gold for his World of Warcraft avatar. He had just reached a level where he could purchase a mount (a large tiger to ride around on and get from place to place faster), but he did not have anywhere near enough gold to purchase this prized means of transportation. I ended up spending a week prior to Christmas accumulating enough gold to transfer to his avatar for Christmas morning (I think I was up well past midnight the night before getting the last few coins together). He actually helped me to raise some of this gold as we played WOW together (not knowing what I was saving up for).
He was very happy to receive the present in his mailbox Christmas morning in-world, and he knew that it had taken some effort to pull it off. In our family, we play board, card games and computer games together as a family. On the weekends, my boys and I play online games (currently Tabula Rasa) together. So this is as much a social and bonding thing as a means of entertainment. And this gift cost me nothing out of pocket, it was 100% virtual effort (and a monthly membership I was already playing).
The article from CNN allocates most of the ink to low cost virtual items that are sold and displayed on FaceBook pages and other virtual services. It states that these objects are replacing virtual greeting cards (which replaced real greeting cards) and email greetings (which replaced phone calls and face to face meetings). The only thing that makes these items special is that they are sometimes ‘limited editions’. These are not much more than icons that are displayed in a gifts window on your FaceBook page.
“They are nothing more than cutesy icons posted in a “gifts” section on a person’s profile page, the smiley faces of the 21st century. And like that 1970s icon, they have mass appeal.”
People no longer pay much attention to the number of people on a ‘friends list’, so I guess these social networking services needed to find another way to rank popularity among their users. Amazingly enough they found a way to do it while charging for these tokens of friendship.
“The novelty is driving the market for virtual gifts and goods. So is the frenzy to gain status on social networking and virtual world sites, says Robbie Blinkoff, an anthropologist who studies online trends.”
I liken this trend to the ring tone market that is over half a billion dollars a year. Millions and millions of dollars spent on . . .. music sound clips for your ringing cell phone. Many of the articles on ringtone sales state that people want unique ringtones and want to personalize their phones. Why is it then that you mostly hear the top 10 ringtones blasting in your local stores and restaurants?
There should be some meaning to a gift. There should be something of the person that is passed with a gift. The saying that “it’s the thought that counts” grew out of this tradition. Every facet of our lives has been commercialized. The clothes people wear, the cars they drive, where they live, the MP3 player they carry, the type of coffee they drink, the TV’s they watch, and on and on into infinity (or bankruptcy) it goes. Almost no value is assigned to thoughts and feelings today, only in material and now virtual objects.
In a society full of real societal needs, it is sad where we as a society now place value. I’ve been involved in several charitable events these past few years where I’ve seen donations plummet, I’ve watched people blow past the bell ringers at the local malls with a $7 cup of coffee in their hand, and so many others turn away from charitable events only to spend ever increasing money on meaningless things. In the past the term “throw-away society” referred to the waste produced by a society driven by consumerism. I fear that we have now revised that term to mean a society that throws away our money in the name of consumerism.
Virtual worlds have the power to connect people who might never have met in real life. They also have the power to bind families, be it on family gaming night or in giving a student away at college a way to still go out and play with siblings and parents while catching up on life. As several charities in Second Life have shown, virtual worlds are a vehicle for raising money on a much larger scale for worthwhile causes. Let’s hope that these worlds are not polluted early in their evolution with meaningless and empty consumer items.
This holiday season, if you are so possessed to send anything virtual, make sure you back it up with a phone call or a note that expresses the feeling behind it, and not just some empty collection of bits to clutter up a webpage or inbox. Don’t be a Scrooge (unless you use ScroogeYourself this season from Office Depot).