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Virtual Material Culture

This is a warning. I wrote this two years ago for my Material Culture Studies Anthropology class. It is long and was written as an academic paper. You can stop reading now if any of the things said previously do not interest you, else, proceed. Also, at the time, there were approximately 4 million subscribers to Warcraft at the time of this paper.

In this day and age of constantly changing technological advancements, it was only a matter of time before the internet and virtual technologies would change the way in which people interact with each other. This study focuses on the emerging virtual worlds created by game designers known as massively multiplayer online games (hereafter called MMO’s) and the types of social interactions, values and growing importance of virtual marketplaces in the real world. This growing field of study has only been around for the last ten years and there is relatively no information regarding the study of virtual material culture and the values that people place on non-tangible data. Further more, this study will examine how players of online games place value on their time and money in search of virtual items. First, a description of the world of MMO’s and insight into the worlds largest growing phenomenon will shed light on the reasons people play games and inform the reader about the specifics of gaming. Secondly, a study of the material culture and the real life values that are placed upon virtual items can provide insight into the gamers psyche. Finally, a study of the social interactions between players in games and the implications of how these interactions are felt in the real world will bring the data sets together.

The Massively Multiplayer Experience

Since their inception in 1996, MMO’s have drawn players from around the world to interact with each other via their computers and internet connections in persistent online worlds. Currently today there are over three hundred online games available for players to purchase or download and join each other. Game developers create software that allows individuals to connect to servers hosted by the game companies. Once logged into a server, a player is able to roam freely around the virtual world and chat or interact with other players and is represented by an avatar. The avatar is a unique character created by the player with certain selected traits, talents and even gender. Based on the player’s preference, they can appear in any form that they choose. This ambiguity is an interesting aspect of online gaming that will be discussed later when dealing with social interactions.

Although there are over three hundred games on the market today, the one game that stands out from the rest and dominates the virtual market is known as World of Warcraft (WoW). Warcraft boasts more than four million players logged in at any given time (Warcraft Census 2006). The United States alone has over 2,291,000 players while Europe and Asia boast 1,800,000 players across the world. This study will focus on the WoW experience and draw from data sets regarding player trends, population and economic interactions. Although there are over four million players of the game worldwide, they do not all interact with each other. Players are broken down into realms, exact replicas of the entire game world hosted on different servers around the world. Players are assigned to realms based on their geographic location and connect to realms in the closest proximity to them. The reasons for this are to ensure stability in game play connection as well as ensure that maintenance times do not conflict with the majority of players.

The basic object of any MMO, WoW included, is to constantly be obtaining better items for your character. The character begins at level one and progresses through levels by completing in game quests or killing virtual monsters (referred to as mobs). As the player progresses through the levels, more items become available that enhances their game play experience. At the same time however, progressing through levels becomes more difficult as you get higher up. This means that the player must play for longer periods of time and kill more mobs to continue to keep up with the rest of the players. The aspect of material culture that arises from this advancement through levels is the existence of items and virtual money called gold. Items and money are gained in the same way that levels are being gained and are therefore connected with each other. Items receive bonuses that enhance the player’s statistics which include health points (life) and strength (amount of damage) along with various other game based statistics.

Unlike the real world, virtual items are not valued for their aesthetic value, but only for their statistical values that enhance player’s abilities in game. This is in contrast with real life where people put value on items based on their appearance and meaning in society. The values of items in virtual economies are defined by their ability to make the game play experience easier. Players then define their characters by their items and not by their appearance making items the most substantial part of the online gaming experience. As with levels, the items become harder to find and require more time to acquire at higher levels to obtain. Also, the game programmers have made certain items rarer than others by controlling the rate at which the items can appear in the game. Items are broken down into four categories in WoW; magical, rare, epic, legendary. Magical is the lower end of the spectrum with legendary representing the most sought after items in the game. By placing a variety of levels of rarity on items, the developers create an inherent economy that is based on items. Players spend the gold they find in game to trade with each other in order to obtain better items. This is an example of a free range capitalist based economy that is driven by supply and demand. Since the supply of legendary items is substantially lower than the demand for magical items, players are more willing to pay more money for them. The emergence of the virtual marketplace is an interesting aspect of online games and is created by the players and regulated by the game developers. For example, there are estimated to be about four legendary items per realm and over one hundred thousand magical items at any given time.

Economic Considerations of Virtual Material Culture

Understanding the way the in game economy works is essential to understanding the values placed on virtual material culture, both in game and out. Although these items have no tangible qualities and are only represented by computer data housed on a server, these items carry real life value to players. In addition to the initial purchase price of the game, players pay monthly fees to continue playing the game that is in excess of $10 a month. Players also invest time into playing the game and obtaining items which means that two major real life considerations are being invested to obtain virtual items. In order to understand why people put real life value on virtual items, it is important to look at the growing demand for virtual items in the real world.

Perhaps the most important tool to analyze value of virtual items is to look at the popular auction website EBay. EBay is an online forum that allows people to post auctions of just about anything in the world and the virtual gaming market has also jumped on board. A search of EBay’s category of all internet games reveals over eleven thousand auctions on a given day. These auctions are for virtual items in a variety of games and represent the real life values that people place on virtual items. Auction prices range from $1 to up to $9000 of U.S. currency for virtual items. These auctions include items, online gold and even entire player accounts. A player account is a compilation consisting of characters, items and gold and make up the higher value end of the auction spectrum. Other sites exist on the internet that allow players to trade real life money for virtual items and virtual gold, but EBay is the largest.

An analysis of EBay auctions for internet gold is perhaps the most interesting aspect of the virtual to real life economic trade. As with other forms of currency, the value of online gold changes from day to day. A standard price for 50 WoW gold sells for $8.84 US or that 1 WoW gold sells for $0.17 US. Comparing this rate with the rates of other forms of real life currency reveals that 1 WoW gold is the economic equivalent to 1 Danish Crone. The value placed on virtual money is a result of the developer’s inclusion of virtual money into the virtual economy. Unlike real world treasuries and mints, the amount of online gold is unlimited and is only affected based on the amount of game play a given player puts in. The existence of an unlimited supply of virtual economic capital has attracted a variety of entrepreneurs, mostly based in China.

The Chinese based company known as The9 is an online game playing company that obtains items and gold and sells them for real currency. Members of The9 are extremely organized and operate as any other legitimate company in the world. They are a publicly traded company known as NCTY on the NASDAQ market with a value of approximately $28 per share (Yahoo Finance 2006). A recent earnings report from The9 shows that their third quarter earnings from 2005 were $22.5 million with profits of $4.7 million. The gaming giant saw an increase in their earnings of 232% and attributes the growth to their expansion to include WoW into their game play list (Glenn 2005).

It is clear that there is money to be made from online gaming and that the existence of real life values are derived from the demand for online items. Players are putting value on obtaining the items and gold immediately rather than through game play hours. Online gamers define themselves by their items and it is clear that the value for these items is extremely high. However, the existence of these items is purely online and completely dependant on the game developers ability to maintain the servers and ensure that the data is not lost. In the event of a massive server crash, wipe, virus or any other disruptive event there is the potential for all the data to be lost and irreplaceable. This is an interesting characteristic that only exists in virtual items and is not seen in the real world. When someone purchases something in real life, they can hold the item and are pretty sure that it will not just disappear one day while they are interacting with it. The only real life equivalent would be something like a house fire, theft or natural disaster that destroys real life objects. In the same sense, players are like real life people in that they are investing money and time into objects that they want to possess now. Players are putting value on the present and leave the future to be completely unknown.

In accordance with this value of the present, players of online games experience a unique set of circumstances when it comes to the sustainability of their virtual items. As with many other forms of technology, newer and better things come along and replace the technology that previously existed. The same is to be said about the online gaming experience in that the life cycle of online gaming is still being determined. Since the inception of online gaming in 1996, many worlds have come and gone. Once a game is shutdown, the items, players and the entire world is inaccessible to the player. Whether this happens after one year or ten years, the change is inevitable. Once again, the value of the items is based on the present and does not look into the future. Players are aware of this fact yet continue to participate in online gaming reaffirming the assessment that value of online material culture is based on the present.
The Social Aspect of Massively Multiplayer Gaming

Considering the value of the present and items in virtual worlds to the player is important to understanding the social constructs that exist between players in online games. In addition to solo play, players are able to use their characters in groups and fight together to obtain better items. With the growing need for a constant supply of friends or players to group with came the inception of guilds. Guilds are groups of players that sign a charter and join together to play the game. These groups are interesting micro chasms of social and political interactions. Guilds are headed by a guild master, your modern day dictator that has the final say in all decisions relating to game play. The guild master is not elected or voted upon, but is put in power based on their status in respect to the game. In this case, the person with the best material culture is the one who leads the guild. Looking at this aspect of material culture as a way of establishing a place in society is not unlike real world examples. People in the guild underneath the guild master are constantly attempting to obtain the items that are either equivalent or better than the guild master. This is an interesting parallel to the idea of class struggle seen throughout history and represented in real life material culture studies. It has been argued that people of lower classes in society will attempt to obtain the material culture of the groups above in order to advance through society (Aronowitz 1992). This parallel with virtual culture represents a connection between virtual items and real life items.

Throughout this discussion, the idea of a character has been mentioned but with limited description as to what defines an individual in a virtual world. As mentioned previously, characters are player created 3D objects with a set of modifiable traits. These traits include but are not limited to hair color, hair style, skin color, gender and race. The races that exist in game are broken down into two major categories, the alliance and the horde. Members of the alliance are able to choose from gnomes, elves, humans and dwarves while the horde chooses from orcs, undead, trolls and large beasts known as tauren. Depending on the side chosen by the player, they are able to interact with members of their own side and are at war with members of the other side. The game developers have set the game up to be a constant war between good (alliance) and evil (horde). Players choose their sides based on their personal preference and have the option of being good or evil. This choice is not seen in contemporary culture in the same way although it is possible for real life people to live their lives in an “evil” manner. The consequences of one’s actions in the game are not anywhere close to as severe as real life however and allow players to experience a life of evil including theft and murder without facing real life jail time.

Looking at this aspect of good and evil is interesting to analyze the characters themselves are objects of material culture. Since players pay for their characters, they too are aspects of virtual material culture through which players can define themselves. An interesting aspect of the character creation process is the ability to choose a gender. This is another example of a choice that does not exist in real life, but exists in the virtual world. Players can choose either male or female with no questions asked. Looking at the virtual demographic of online games, approximately 40% of the characters in game are female (Yee 2005). Looking at the real life demographic of online gamers, only 20% of players are represented by females. Analysis of this statistic means that 50% of the women characters in an online game are being played by males (Yee 2005). Implications of the decisions regarding gender are interesting because they make no difference in the overall game play experience other than that the character is perceived as female in a virtual social system. This outlet for exploration of the female gender is something that is only possible through the use of the virtual character and does not exist in contemporary society. The same is true for women and their ability to be perceived as a man, but statistics are limited in the exact representation of how many women play as men.

The availability of these options to represent oneself in anyway, shape or form one chooses is perhaps the most intriguing concept of virtual material culture. Because of these options, players are given freedom in a virtual world that they cannot obtain in real life. The real life implications of these choices are sometimes extremely damaging to a person as a member of real world society. There are players that choose to shelter themselves from the outside world and would rather interact in a virtual sense. Some players log over 12 hours a day connected to the virtual world in search of virtual items and can lose touch with reality (Everquest or Evercrack? 2002). The idea of addiction to online gaming is closely related to gambling and has similarities in the effects it can have on a players psyche. Negative aspects of virtual material culture include the addictive sense of the game as well as players disconnection with the real world, both very serious issues that can affect their lives.

Considering the economic and social values placed on virtual material culture with respect to the same values placed on items of tangible material culture, it can be argued that the items share similar importance depending on the person under investigation. Players of games consider virtual items as important as real life items based on the economic and social values they attach to them. This idea has never been experienced in society and is sure to be a topic of considerable interest in the years to come. Also, the fact that the real life market exists for virtual material culture is an astonishing development in contemporary society. Values that once were attributed to tangible items are now being applied to virtual material culture. The issues that these values represent are sure to be topics for future study but at this moment not much research exists that study virtual worlds.

Final Thoughts

Virtual material culture is every bit as real as real life material culture to gamers around the world. The future of online gaming is extremely promising for game developers and there is expected to be a large increase in the number of players of the next few years. Estimates of over 60 million Chinese players by the year 2010 are currently being accepted by most major gaming companies and represent the large future market of online gaming (Cadden 2006). The expansion of the online gaming genre and the expansion of the fan base can all be attributed to the existence and invention of virtual material culture by game developers. Archaeological work and even anthropological work may have a future in analyzing past players accounts to learn about specific individuals or cultures, just how this could be done is yet to be seen. The virtual material culture has taken on a variety of new meanings over the last ten years since its inception and will continue to change and is ripe for study. There is already a game in the works that allows players to purchase virtual real estate for real life money and charge people real money to visit the estate in a virtual world. The future for online gaming is beyond the scope of this analysis but it can be ascertained that the importance of virtual material culture to gamers will continue to rival even that of tangible material culture to gamers.


Aronowitz, Stanley. The Politics of Identity: Class Culture and Social Movements. Published in Great Britain: Routledge, 1992
Cadden, Cheryl. 61 Million Chinese Online Gamers by 2010. April 26, 2006. In-Stat Research. Accessed May 6, 2006
Everquest or Evercrack? May 28, 2002. CBS News. Accessed May 2, 2006
Glenn, Elias. The9 Q3 Revenue Jumps 230%. November 11, 2005. Pacific Epoch. Accessed May 5, 2006
NCTY: Summary for The9 Limited. May 2006. Accessed May 6, 2006.
Warcraft Census. May 2006. Accessed May 5, 2006.
Yee, Nick. Gender Archives. December 20, 2005. PlayOn. Accessed May 4, 2006
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About V3r1none of us since 9:09 AM on 08.28.2007

NES: Zelda 1, Zelda 2, SMB3, Castlevania 1-3, California Games, Totally Rad, Excite Bike, Punch Out, Earthbound, Faxanadu, Wizards and Warriors, Jaws, Little Nemo the Dream Master

SNES: Super Mario World, Turtles in Time, Adventures of Link, Secret of Mana, Illusion of Gaia, Final Fantasy: Mystic Quest, Final Fantasy 2(4), Final Fantasy 3(6), F-Zero, Zombies at my Neighbors, Donkey Kong Kountry 1+2, Killer Instinct, Starfox, Mario Kart, Chrono Trigger, Super Star Wars

Sega: Sonic 1-3, Slaughterhouse, Dune: The battle for Arakis, Comic Zone, Aladin (it was awesome ok), Mutant League Football

N64: Mario 64, Bond, Castlevania, Starfox 64, Mario Kart 64, Pokemon Stadium, Smash Brothers, 1080, Zelda: Ocarina of Time

PSOne: Coolboarders 1-4, Final Fantasy 7+9, Twisted Metal, Chrono Cross
PS2: Final Fantasy X+X2+12, Devil May Cry 2+3, Maximo,
Guitar Hero, Ratchet and Clank, GTA Vice City

360: Guitar Hero 2, Gears of War, Crackdown, Shadowrun, Halo 2(b/w compat), Bioshock, Darkness

Wii: Warioware, Paper Mario, Strikers Charged, Tiger Woods 07, DBZ Boudukai, Wii Play+Sports

PC: Dune RTS, Halflife, Halflife 2, Quake, Doom 1+2+3, C&C's, Lords of the Realm 2, Sam and Max, Day of the Tentacle, Indiana Jones and the Lost City of Atlantis, Secret of Monkey Island, Ultima Online, Dark Age of Camelot, Star Wars Galaxies, WoW, Warcraft II+III+xpax, Anarchy Online, Overlord, Worms Armageddon, Counterstrike, Fable: Lost Chapters

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