It's the holiday season once again, and many people around the world are in the throes of a culturally mandated gift giving frenzy. Stuff! Things! Sales! Stampedes! The senseless abuse of beleaguered retail employees! Of course this year, more people than ever will forgo all of that insanity and choose to shop online instead, preferring instead to make their selections quietly in their underwear at 4am, endlessly surfing from site to site on an eggnog fueled bender trying to find the best deal possible (that will also deliver on time).
However this year, it seems as though we're headed toward a tipping point with a third kind of shopping option. Not in person, not online shopping for real world goods- but online shopping for virtual goods. With an estimated market worth of 10 billion dollars for 2011, it seems that we're rapidly approaching a place where Virtual Holidays are, in the shopping sense, just like the real thing. Only with fewer stampedes, but possibly more eggnog. I'll call that a bonus (except I don't like eggnog).
An Overnight Success of Almost 15 Years.
While it may seem like the virtual goods market has popped up out of nowhere, there's no such thing as an overnight success. This is no exception. Though it's only been in recent years with advances in virtual world technology that this type of market and shopping experience has really snowballed, The truth is this has been a long time coming. Really, where we are now started almost 15 years ago when the first virtual postcard site was set up. Then, just like now, people either loved e-cards or they hated them. On the one hand, they were convenient to send, you could control delivery times and recipients with much less hassle, they could be gotten easily for free, and they cut down on paper waste. On the other hand, some people felt that they were impersonal and lazy, lacked charm and were 'inappropriate' and lacking in class. (Then there's a third group that doesn't like either one, but that doesn't give me a whole lot to babble about).
But greeting cards evolved into virtual meals and virtual vacations- essentially the same thing as an e-card but with a photo of a vacation destination or a fantastic food item instead. While kind of ridiculous and cringeworthy to think about now, at the time, it was a cute and novel thing and people cheerfully sent these things by the hundreds of thousands. They were only still photos, lacking in interactivity, but as your parents always taught you, it's the thought that counts. Right?
The Parade of Animals
Technology marches on, though, and eventually we were seeing different kinds of real life things ported into a digital format, like pets. From the Petz franchise of games to Tamagotchi, to Pokemon, these small, pixelated creations became a sensation capturing a generation who grew up with them as a part of their lives. Virtual pets succeeded, not because they were visually advanced, but because they were interactive. In fact, they were often nothing more than a few pixels with some eyes stuck on, but it was the fact that they created an interactive connection between the virtual pet and the owner that made the whole thing go. It was the virtual world mimicking the real world, but with fewer limitations and far less cost. People became emotionally attached to these virtual animals and many of them would spend countless hours caring for and playing with them. You might not want to take on the responsibility of a puppy, but you felt reasonably okay taking care of a Neopet or virtual puppy.
The More Things Change, the More Things Stay the Same
Now here at is, the holiday shopping season of 2010, and while some things have drastically changed, others have stayed the same. It's this very combination that is the recipe for success in this market.
For example, let's talk about virtual meals. Previously, you would get a photograph of an awesome dinner. But let's face it. everyone with a camera and a flickr account can take a decent photo of a great meal once in a while and send it to someone with a note. What's missing from the equation (aside from taste and smell, which sad to say we still haven't started porting over the internet), is the interactivity of sharing a meal. Eating is oftentimes a social convention as much as it's for nutritional value. So all the photos in the world won't give you a sense of sharing. People miss the sense of interconnectedness that they get when they eat together.
But what if you could sit with someone and share in that experience. You get a cup of tea and your avatar drinks it. You get a crystal punch glass at a party and your avatar gets to share it with others. You sit down with your loved ones at a table and have some cheese and fruit, or a turkey dinner. That's the difference between now and then. Now, those things are entirely possible.
Though the images are rendered differently, it's the interactivity that makes a difference. It's the communal act of sharing, even though some aspects are missing from a real life meal that certainly an upgrade from getting a photo in your email box. It's just like with the pets (though you can certainly get plenty of those in a virtual world also.)
Vacation While You Staycation
Let's face it, the economy isn't stellar and many people can't afford to take a vacation. At best, they're staycationing- staying home and finding things to do that are local (In my day, that was called not going anywhere, but you know these kids, with their new words..) In that case, a photo of a wonderful cabin in the snow almost seems cruel. A taunt, of something you can't have - but look how awesome it would be if you could! Well, virtual worlds help solve that problem also. You may be sitting in your living room in the middle of the night but at the same time, you're snuggling in front of a warm fire, watching the snow fall outside. Also, you're not freezing. Or wet. Or have to drive in that mess.
All of these things can be done at a fraction of the cost. This is really important when it comes to holiday gift giving. Although many people feel culturally obligated to purchase gifts at this time of year, they very often also wind up feeling negative things as well- shame, frustration and disappointment because they simply can't afford to buy all the things they'd like for all the people they love, and they may not have the talent or time to create things they would find suitable themselves. There's also the experience of shopping near the end of the year. Whether you do it in person or online, it's something deeply ingrained in the culture of billions of people, and as such it's hard to shake.
Just like in real life, creators of virtual goods in Second Life often have sales this time of year, and many merchants are even doing dedicated shopping tours, such as Twisted Krissmuss, where a group (in this case 216) of merchants get together and create a special item for sale at a special low price, with permissions suitable to allow for the items to be given to someone else as a gift. Many others are doing 24 hour sales with deep discounts (like 50% off) or giving out free gifts to everyone who is in their advertising groups.
For people who may not be able to give (or receive) much in the real world, the interactivity of the gift giving experience is still there. This is one of the main reasons virtual worlds continue to grown and thrive- they allow for the interactive, social experience to continue (albeit in a more controllable way than in the real world). The cultural mandate of gift giving, for example can still be achieved in a way that won't break the bank, but the emotional punch can still be there.
The Spirit of Giving
Virtual worlds also provide another opportunity to give to charity. In fact, the use of Second Life as a fundraising tool has been very successful over the years, providing hundreds of thousands of dollars to various charities. Since it's the holiday season, Toys for Tots is the big one, collecting money in the virtual world to spend on kids in the real world. Again, the interactivity is still the same. You still are giving money to help someone else out. But because of the exchange rate, it often feels much more manageable- and every drop in a bucket helps fill it up.
Looking Ahead to 2011
Because of the luck of the calendar, I'm off for the next two weeks, it would seem. That being the case I want to thank everyone who has come down, read, said hi, agreed, disagreed, tweeted, facebooked, liked, stumbled upon and otherwise babbled about my little column. I want to thank everyone who's helped me with photos, screencaps, proofreading and answering random and bizarre questions. Finally, I'd like to thank my editor for trusting that I will *always* make my deadline (even if it's only at the very last minute).<3
See you in 2011, folks. Have a Gorgeous Gothmas.