When Will People Understand Virtual Goods Are Real?

Look, I know virtual goods sounded kind of exotic–four or five years ago. But when it’s a multibillion global business today, it’s past time to dispense with the notion that crops on Farmville and flowers on Facebook aren’t really real. While I’ve been guilty of describing virtual goods as imaginary at times, what set me off most recently was a story in the New York Times that couldn’t seem to hammer enough on the idea that they don’t actually exist in any meaningful way.

Consider the language in just the headline and first two paragraphs: “Fanciful items.” “Things that do not exist.” “Pretend merchandise,” in contrast to “actual goods.” “Make-believe items.” Later, the article asserts that “virtual merchandise is in its infancy.” Perhaps that’s true compared to what it can become, and it is relatively new as a sizable business in the U.S. But estimates of the value of virtual goods sold worldwide range from $2 billion to as much as $6 billion a year. That seems well beyond infancy.

The thing is, what we call virtual goods are really no different in the pleasure or utility they offer people from other virtual things we consider “real”: Digitized photos. MP3 files. Videos uploaded to YouTube. And of course, online newspaper articles. So why the continual amazement that people will pay for virtual goods?

Partly it’s because the very term “virtual goods” connotes an air of unreality. But I think it’s also partly because, even 15 years after the World Wide Web took off, many people still haven’t quite realized how much of our lives have moved online. You can argue we’ve gone too far, of course. Hey, I’ll choose a walk in the woods with my family over leveling up in Farmville every single time. But it’s time to get over the idea that virtual things aren’t real.