Not so long ago the idea of buying online was a scary prospect. Then as more and more things became available online and security got better we began to buy more and more things via the internet. Now it's hard not to think of using the internet for our purchases. We're doing our food shopping, clothes shopping and game shopping all online - one could probably manage to never step foot inside a physical store these days if they wanted.
Physical to Digital
Once a month I do my grocery shopping online for all of my food basics. Heck even my fresh veg box I get every other week is ordered online. I never thought I'd be ordering food online, but once the option was available to me I went for it. It saves my sanity and my pocketbook - fewer spontaneous or at random food purchases!
As internet shopping has become more widely available the items we buy have changed drastically too. We've embraced the buying of items that have no physical presence in the world. Things such as music and books are filling our lives with digital files sitting on our computers.Book stores like Borders and Waterstones have taken up selling online too. I still think half the fun of book shopping is being amongst the shelves, but they also sell ebooks. So for all of those people with ereaders, getting their books is a little bit easier. Print isn't dead, but digital books certainly are becoming more available.
Music must be the most common non-physical item bought by people. Places like iTunes and eMusic are success stories that show how much we love our digital music. Some of us have hundreds, maybe even thousands, of MP3s on our hard drives that have never been on a CD.
What Other Digital Things Are We Buying?
In the gaming world there are a lot of digital purchases happening all the time. The easiest one to point out is games purchases on the Xbox 360 and the Playstation Network. In the stores of both of these consoles you can buy full games at a reasonable price and they reside on your console's hard drive. However console stores aren't just for the famous and well established game publishers. Smaller games developers can get I on the game too. The small developers that cannot afford to publish physically are now vying for your hard drive space.
Somewhere between useful applications and games are mobile phone apps. Without going anywhere near a PC or a console you can get small programs for your phone that does almost everything. From games to finding your car in the parking lot. Of course there are useful applications too like maps and chat clients and calculators, but also fun games. Again the small developer can get into this market and vie for your money and hard drive space yet again for more items that you can't really hold in your hands.
One of the more common places people are spending money on digital items is in Facebook games. Both Zynga and Playfish have created very casual time killing games that you can buy credits for and get special items. These type of items are different to the music and games that can be bought and downloaded. These are items that reside only within the games. Massive Multiplayer Games (MMOs) have done this sort of thing for a long time, but the Facebook games opened these type of purchases to the masses. Also Second Life (SL) brings a different type of digital item to the game though. The items you can buy in SL don't necessarily bring you any benefit other than aesthetics. Houses, clothes, hair; they're all just things to make you look good.
Buying things that have no immediate benefit to the player isn't uncommon though. MMOs do this also. Clothes, houses and furniture are common items that can be purchased with real world money for use in the digital world of your choice.
Buying things that don't immediately benefit the player is a common theme as it keeps the playing field level and doesn't give an advantage to those with more spare income to spend on game items.
Sometimes items give game benefits and that is the motivation people need to purchase the item. Marketers have also been known to play around with virtual versions of real world items - bestowing special in-game powers to what might normally be considered mundane and fairly ordinary.
However, in general, the usual type of items games sell 'in-world' are simple things that add to a players experience. The tiny prices make it easy to buy things without really thinking about what you're buying. A pleasant way to shop without breaking the bank. Micro payments have a flip side though. It's also very easy to spend more than you realise.
As we move into the future we're buying more things without seeing them. Online buying has really become an essential part of our lives. With the invention of gadgets that use digital media with no physical item we've begun giving up the need to hold the item in our hands. Items that don't exist in the real world have begun to be real things to us. Really, why shouldn't they be? You've paid for it and it belongs to you. It is no less real or any less yours.
I personally think this move into digital items is good. It does have a learning curve though as people will have to learn to properly back-up those downloadable items like games and music. We spend our hard earned money on entertainment so that we can have some bit of enjoyment. So, arguably, these bits of programming are as real as anything you hold I your hand.