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Money for nothing (and your clicks for free?): Why do gamers buy ‘virtual assets’?


Video gaming has evolved from a single-player platform to a multi-player realm where interaction with other players is often a necessity. In order to enter the game, players must first create an avatar, a representation of their self in the game that is used to explore and interact with the virtual environment. When creating an avatar, players can also buy virtual assets to augment and/or enhance their online character. Virtual assets are items or customisations for video game avatars, bases, and characters that are purchased with real money.

In a previous blog, I looked at some of the anecdotal evidence that claimed a few individuals had become ‘addicted’ to buying virtual assets. At the time I wrote that article, there was almost nothing published academically on the psychology of virtual assets and why people bought virtual assets. A few months ago, Jack Cleghorn and I published a qualitative paper in the journal Digital Education Review based on our interviews with gamers that regularly bought virtual assets. Today’s blog looks at some of our findings.

For researchers, the buying of virtual assets provides an opportunity to try and understand why people become so immersed in games and what motivates gamers to spend real money on items that some would consider as having no value. In a multi-player environment, it becomes clear that the avatars seen on screen are graphical representations of someone real and may be part of human desires to be noticed, respected, and interacted with. Furthermore the gamer controlling their avatar has motivations, emotions, thoughts, and feelings. Virtual item purchases are therefore likely to impact on a gamer’s psychological wellbeing.

The growing market for virtual items indicates that transactions are becoming commonplace in gaming. The virtual market functions similarly to real markets in that there is demand, fluctuating markets, and profits to be made. The importance of virtual items to some people is illustrated by a divorce claim in a story on Hyped Talk in which a wife made a claim for over half of her husband’s virtual assets. In a different case (outlined in a 2005 issue of The Lawyer), Qiu Chengwei, a middle-aged man killed a fellow gamer over a dispute involving a virtual item. Obviously these cases are extreme but they highlight the fact that virtual items can have both financial and psychological value for gamers.

But why do people buy virtual items? Performance and general quality of an item is seen to be an important motivation whether the item is real or virtual. Online, an appeal to social status may be a better predictor for purchase behaviour than function. However, some claim that appealing to social status has no motivational significance in purchase behaviour. Another unique element of buying virtual items is the potential exclusivity. Exclusive or limited items tend to be unattainable through gameplay and instead must be bought with money. Exclusivity online has been shown to be of importance, and segmentation is a technique used by the games producers that limits certain items to certain classes, levels, or races. This has been shown to stimulate purchase behaviour. The amount of time invested in a game is also key to understanding spending patterns, and gamers will often buy virtual items after a dedicated amount of gameplay has been spent building an avatar.

Naturally, the longer the amounts of time that are spent online and in-game, the more the player emotionally and psychologically invests in the game. The concept of ‘flow’ (formulated by Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in many papers and books) has been applied to gaming and can involve becoming emotionally attached to a character (in fact I published a paper on this with Damien Hull and Glenn Williams in a 2013 issue of the Journal of Behavioral Addictions). Flow is the feeling of complete absorption in an activity and affects consciousness and emotions of the individual experiencing it. A key element of feeling ‘flow’ is the experience and perception of the world of the avatar and has been applied to electronic media. The adaptation of ‘flow’ to the virtual world suggests that just like other leisure activities, an individual investing time in an environment where they feel socially accepted can become emotionally attached to their avatar. Gaming has been shown to affect consciousness and emotions of gamers that are both necessary in experiencing ‘flow’. It could be that purchasing of virtual items is also motivated – at least in part – by the feeling of emotional attachment to an avatar.

Gamers are being drawn in to an environment by the appeal of social interaction, manipulation of objects, exploration, and identification with the avatar. To some gamers, the virtual world can takes on more significance than ‘actual’ life and residency in their preferred games is what they consider their actuality. This suggests that the reward of gaming is great, indicating that those individuals who buy virtual items are doing so because they feel involved in an environment that benefits them personally.

Given the lack of empirical research, the qualitative study I published with Jack Cleghorn was based on in-depth interviews with six gamers who all regularly bought in-game virtual assets. We examined the (i) motivations for purchasing virtual items, (ii) psychological impact of purchasing virtual items on self-esteem and confidence, (iii) social benefits of gaming and virtual asset purchasing, (iv) emotional attachment to an avatar, (v) choice of items and customisation of the avatar as a form of self-expression, (v) impulsivity versus thoughtfulness in purchase intentions of virtual items, and (vii) impact of transaction machinery on the ‘game experience’ from a gamer’s perspective.

Using interpretative phenomenological analysis (IPA), the study was exploratory and aimed to understand the psychology underlying purchase intention of virtual items and assets among online gamers. As a result of interviewing the gamers, seven theses emerged: (i) motivation for purchase, (ii) social aspects of the gaming and purchasing, (iii) emotional attachment to the avatar, (iv) psychological reward and impact, (v) self-expression, (vi) ‘stock market gaming’ and gaming culture, and (vii) research/impulse buying. The use of IPA allowed each gamer to share their unique experience of playing and purchase behaviour.

Despite the negative aspects of online gaming, the gamers in our study emphasised a more positive side to buying virtual items and gaming more generally. Item exclusivity and item function were major motivating factors and contributed to an item’s importance in-game. Another key motivation for purchase behaviour was the appeal to social status. Attainment of items demonstrates to others how powerful the gamer is. Naturally, if an item has benefits for the avatar it is more likely that the gamer will spend money to obtain it. Function linked to progression, purchasing items, and buying in-game currency are all sometimes a necessity to progress. Novelty and collectability were also important motivators for some of our gamers. Despite subjective motivations, purchasing virtual items arose out of gaming as a predominant pastime. All of the gamers in our sample were dedicated gamers who spent relatively large amounts of time online and, as perhaps expected, larger gaming commitment to led to purchase behaviour.

An integral part of multiplayer gaming is the interaction with other gamers. The feeling of ‘social presence’ in an online environment is reliant on an emotional response to social interaction and the gamers in our study felt social satisfaction. The game sometimes enabled social interaction that might not otherwise be present. Previous research has shown how emotional attachment to games affects behaviour. Our study highlighted the role of emotional attachment to an avatar as a predictor for purchase intention. As well as emotional attachment increasing likelihood of spending, the spending of real money on items increases the attachment felt. It could be that purchasing virtual items may be a cyclical behaviour. It is also the case that purchasing affects the cognitions and emotions of gamers – ‘pride’ was a feeling that resonated among our interviewed gamers.

Our study also highlighted how gamers research items before purchasing them. It might be expected that easy-to-use transaction machinery might facilitate spending. However, in reality, the gamers we interviewed were guarded with their spending online and recommendations from friends playing a major role in purchase behaviour. Virtual assets can be then researched and the placing of real monetary value on the virtual items indicates the value they may hold to the gamer. Unlike media coverage focussing on the more negative impact of online gaming, our study highlighted the positive aspects of purchasing virtual assets for the gamer. They are able to feel connected socially, feel confidence in themselves and their success, express their inner and ideal self without constraint or fear, build lasting relationships, impress people, and generally benefit from gaming and buying virtual items.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Behavioural Addiction, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Bowman, N. D., Schultheiss, D., & Schumann, C. (2012). ‘‘I’m attached, and I’m a good guy/gal!’’: How character attachment influences pro- and anti-social motivations to play massively multiplayer online role-playing games. CyberPsychology, Behavior and Social Networking, 15(3), 169-174.

Csikszentmihalyi, M., & Csikszentmihalyi, I. (1992). Optimal experience: Psychological studies of flow in consciousness. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Cole, H. & Griffiths, M. D. (2007). Social interactions in Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing gamers. CyberPsychology and Behavior, 10, 575-583.

Griffiths, M. D. (2010). The role of context in online gaming excess and addiction: Some case study evidence. International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction, 8, 119-125.

Griffiths, M.D., Hussain, Z., Grüsser, S., Thalemann, R., Cole, H. Davies, M.N.O. & Chappell, D. (2013). Social interactions in online gaming. In P. Felicia (Ed.), Developments in Current Game-Based Learning Design and Deployment (pp.74-90). Pennsylvania: IGI Global.

Guo, Y., & Barnes, S. (2011). Purchase behavior in virtual worlds: An empirical investigation in Second Life. Information and Management, 48(7), 303-312.

Hamari, J. & Lehdonvirta, V. (2010). Game design as marketing: How game mechanics create demand for virtual goods. International Journal of Business Science and Applied Management, 5(1), 14-29.

Hassouneh, D., & Brengman, M. (2011). Shopping in virtual worlds: Perceptions, motivations and behaviour. Journal of Electronic Commerce Research, 12(4), 320-335.

Huang, E. (2012). Online experiences and virtual goods purchase intention. Internet Research, 22(3), 252-274.

Hull, D., Williams, G. A. & Griffiths, M. D. (2013). Video game characteristics, happiness and flow as predictors of addiction among video game players: A pilot study. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 2, 145-152.

Hyped Talk (2010). Virtually addicted Chinese woman claims virtual assets in her divorce plea. Available at: http://hypedtalk.blogspot.co.uk/2010/12/virtually-addicted-chinese-women-claims.html [Accessed: 6 March 2013].

Lee, P. (2005). The growth in the computer game market is leading to real legal issues in virtual worlds. The Lawyer, 19 (19), 14.

Lehdonvirta, V. (2009) Virtual item sales as a revenue model: Identifying attributes that drive purchase decisions. Electronic Commerce Research, 9(1-2), 97-113.

Li, Z. (2012). Motivation of virtual goods transactions based on the theory of gaming motivations. Journal of Theoretical and Applied Information Technology, 43(2), 254-260.

Manninen, T. & Kujanpää, T. (2007). The value of virtual assets – the role of game characters in MMOGs. International Journal of Business Science and Applied Management, 2(1), 21-33.

Character building: Can the buying of virtual assets be addictive?

The potentially addicting nature of online gaming has been well documented over the last decade by many researchers (including many papers from my own research unit). One of the unforeseen consequences of the online gaming revolution is the (sometimes seemingly extraordinary) demand for virtual within-game assets (such as the buying of clothing, cosmetic items, and other accessories for online characters). Given the increase of companies whose only products are virtual gaming accessories, there is clear evidence for the growing demand by online gamers for such virtual assets. (In fact, a story published online reviewed the case of a Chinese woman who in her divorce case demanded a share of the couple’s virtual assets from their gaming).

From a personal perspective, I can see the attraction of having a personalized avatar. When I first bought a Wii console for my children, we spent hours creating our in-game characters (mine was quite easy for my kids to create as almost any Wii character with dark hair, beard, moustache, and glasses looks vaguely like me). I prefer playing Wii tennis and other sports with my own avatar. I also know that from my own psychological research into Facebook use, that users on social networking sites will spend real money to buy virtual assets for games like Farmville, as well as using real money to buy virtual currency to play games like poker (for points).

Over the weekend, I was sent an online article published by Priyanka Singh on the MMOBUX website about someone who claimed they were becoming addicted to the buying of virtual assets for the game he was playing online (MapleStory, a 2-D fantasy multiplayer online role playing game where progress in the game is determined by the successful playing of a series of quests). The article provided a first person account written by a female adolescent (presumably in her middle to late teens) about her increasing buying behaviour at a virtual ‘Item Mall’. According to the anonymous person who wrote the account provided by Singh:

“An Item Mall is a dangerous place for players who demand more from the game. Instead of focusing their efforts on the task at hand, players usually turn to the Item Mall to spend real world money in it. It is a trend which continues to happen now, across every MMO which can be labeled an obsession. [An Item Mall] is a place that host items which cannot be purchased directly through vendors. So much so…[that] purchasing cosmetic items in the Item Mall using real world money [can] transform into a deadly, yet uncontrollable obsession”

In 2006 the young woman in question started to play MapleStory. It was while playing the game that she started to notice the bespoke outfits worn by other characters playing the game. She then discovered that MapleStory had its own Item Mall where players could buy (among other things) character outfits, pets, pet accessories, weapons, etc. It was at the Item Mall that the player first bought a $30 (Canadian) game card (that was converted into 20,000 Nexon points) that can only be spent on virtual items for use in the MapleStory online game. She only bought a few of the available items but all of the Nexon points were spent. It was over a fairly short period of time that the gamer noticed she was spending more time in the Item Mall than playing the game itself. As she noted:

“I’d be entering the Item Mall more often to look at the new cosmetic items posted for purchase. Eventually I caved in and bought more items which included a staff, a cat and accessories. Needless to say the idea of buying virtual items was appealing to me. Through my purchases, I was constantly reminded these items lasted only 60 days until they expire. Regardless of the reminders, I continued to purchase more items until the point it became a direct obsession and a habit which couldn’t be mended easily”.

She browsed in the Item Mall for longer and longer periods and would mix and match clothing and accessories for her avatar. Spending $100 (Canadian) was not uncommon, and the buying of the virtual assets “became second nature” to the point where she spent more time in the Item Mall than playing and going on quests in MapleStory. The spending of money on virtual assets at the item Mall (that he couldn’t afford) went on for half a year, and led to a number of negative consequences:

“My grades dropped [and] I was placed on probation for the semester. Of course, in addition to failing my subjects, the tension at home intensified. I was banned from the laptop. Taking matters into my own hands, I stopped myself from playing MapleStory for a week but it was unbearable. Once I gained access back into the game, I immediately headed for the Item Mall and purchased new items. After a month or so, I began to realize what I was becoming – an Item Mall addict. By that point I realized this got a little too out of hand and I uninstalled the game before the damage was permanent”.

Such consequences certainly look like the negative detrimental effects that I have encountered in other behavioural addictions such as gambling addiction. The excessive behaviour (or simply spending much more than could be afforded) led to a negative impact on her education. When he tried to stop, it became “unbearable” (presumably because of the withdrawal effects of mot being able to log into the Item Mall). After a week she relapsed and logged on and bought more virtual assets for her online gaming character. By her own admission, she realized he might be becoming an ‘Item Mall addict’. She also provided a more reflective outlook on her past behaviour when in the Item Mall:

“Now when I look back at my behavior, it was unacceptable. Although I can understand and sympathize why buying virtual items was addicting; [my] character was dressed up in the most fashionable threads or holding a bad-ass weapons others couldn’t afford. It gives you a sense of ‘uniqueness’ if it can be called that. I’m glad I quit the game before it couldn’t be controlled. It was money wasted when placed into perspective. Though I was lucky (in a way) I had own my own credit card and I didn’t use my parents’ card for the purchases. In conclusion, buying virtual items is a waste of money and time. Most of if not all virtual items contain an expiry date after which the item disappears from your inventory…I was lucky I wasn’t a complete addict but I was close to being one”.

My own take on this is that because the virtual items are (in effect) ‘rented’ (as the items bought ‘expire’ after six months), it is almost a licence to print money for the company selling the virtual assets. I have no idea if the gamer that wrote the account of her Item Mall behaviour was a genuine obsession or addiction, but it was certainly a behaviour that was problematic and impacted negatively on her life. Spending hundreds and hundreds of dollars on virtual assets is not sustainable for most adolescents and is likely to lead to problems (irrespective of whether the behaviour can be defined as genuinely ‘addictive”). This is certainly an area where empirical research is needed as the buying of virtual assets is – for some gamers – likely to become a major part of how they spend their disposable income. This anecdotal case study also raises questions of whether the excessive spending of money on virtual assets for game characters is more of a female (than male) behaviour.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Online video gaming: What should educational psychologists know? Educational Psychology in Practice, 26(1), 35-40.

Griffiths, M.D. (2010). Gaming in social networking sites: A growing concern? World Online Gambling Law Report, 9(5), 12-13.

Griffiths, M.D., Kuss, D.J. & King, D.L. (2012). Video game addiction: Past, present and future. Current Psychiatry Reviews, in press.

Hyped Talk (2010). Virtually addicted Chinese woman claims virtual assets in her divorce plea. http://hypedtalk.blogspot.co.uk/2010/12/virtually-addicted-chinese-women-claims.html

King, D.L., Delfabbro, P.H. & Griffiths, M.D. (2010). The convergence of gambling and digital media: Implications for gambling in young people. Journal of Gambling Studies, 26, 175-187.

King, D.L., Delfabbro, P.H., Griffiths, M.D. & Gradisar, M. (2012). Cognitive-behavioural approaches to outpatient treatment of Internet addiction in children and adolescents. Journal of Clinical Psychology: In Session, 68, 1185-1195.

Kuss, D.J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Online social networking and addiction: A literature review of empirical research. International Journal of Environmental and Public Health, 8, 3528-3552.

Kuss, D.J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2011). Excessive online social networking: Can adolescents become addicted to Facebook? Education and Health, 29. 63-66.

Kuss, D.J. & Griffiths, M.D. (2012). Online gaming addiction in adolescence: A literature review of empirical research. Journal of Behavioral Addictions, 1, 3-22.

Singh, P. (2012). Maple Story Item Mall Addiction (A Virtual Asset Case Study). MMOBUX, October 12. Located at: http://www.mmobux.com/articles/3870/maple-story-item-mall-addiction-a-virtual-asset-case-study