How Virtual is Your Holiday Season?

I’m clearly a hopeless old fart. In my youth, the hot joke gift was a Pet Rock. No kidding, it sold millions and made someone very rich. But then Pet Rock 2.0 was Tamagouchi, the electronic pet that responded to how much care you gave it. Distressingly like a real pet, it would die of neglect.

A new version of joke gift is the non-gift, or more accurately, empty box that looks like it contains a joke gift. I’m sure Derrida would have had a field day with this. From Gizmodo (hat tip reader Cocomaan):


The Pet Petter is for poor sad pets who no longer get any cuddles. It goes at a speed of 85ppm (pets per minute)….or it would, if it were a real product. Because you see, these gift boxes are completely empty, with the idea being you put the real gift inside and trick the recipient. You better not put a real alarm clock or pet grooming tool in these boxes, or you may just get throttled.

To show you readers how much time I spend trolling the Web for pet stories, 85 pets per minute is way too fast. I recall reading a study that determined that optimal pet stroking (as determined by physiological reactions in pets, I forget which type, but I assume the usual mammal suspects) is 1-3 seconds per stroke.

But you can go one level of abstraction higher than that. shows some of the options open to what was the Second Life cohort and has now broadened out considerably:

You certainly don’t want your pet penguin to be the only one without a cool derby hat this winter, right? And your barbarian warrior just isn’t complete without a sword that also fires laser beams….

Online networking games such as FarmVille, in which players try to stock and maintain an electronic farm in real time, are growing in popularity. And as these games, which include such online worlds as Club Penguin and MafiaVille, attract more players, an entire industry has sprung up to sell weapons, vehicles, clothing and gifts for the avatars that populate these games.

That’s right: There are companies out there selling make-believe products to people playing make-believe games with make-believe characters…

Don’t be fooled, though, into think that the sale of virtual goods is kid stuf….. the market for virtual goods in the United States is expected to soar to $2.1 billion in 2011. That’s up from $1.6 billion in 2010…

The biggest beneficiary of this virtual economy so far is a company called Zynga. Started four years ago by tech-guru Mark Pincus, the company owns the most popular online social networking games out there, including the incredibly busy FarmVille….The game boasts more than 52.6 million players…

Here’s the most surprising fact about the virtual economy and online social networking games: They’re becoming more popular than traditional shoot-em-up or adventure video games.

Look at Zynga. The company’s value recently surpassed the stock value of Electronic Arts, the nation’s largest maker of traditional video games…That’s a seismic shift. Zynga is now worth $5.51 billion, according to research firm SharesPost, Inc. Meanwhile, Electronic Arts has been valued at $5.16 billion on the Nasdaq Stock Market.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email


  1. Swedish Lex

    The cat on the box looks like Jabba the Hutt. Clearly in need of exercise.

    Has LVMH already cornered the luxury end of the virtual goods market? A virtual Louis Vuitton bag for my wife for christmas, perhaps….

  2. bystander

    The Sims seem to have gone downhill a bit.

    Who plays Eve Online? Is it all bankers getting some practice?

  3. Walker

    If you have been to any major gaming conference in the past several years, monetization and virtual goods have been the major topic of discussion.

    Essentially, the purpose of this is to replace subscription fees. It used to be that you would pay a flat rate per month to pay a game like World of Warcraft. However, this only works with the most hard core players. Suppose you want to just try out a game, or you quit playing a game and just want to come back for a few days.

    Virtual goods are a form of paying as you go. All games involve resources (weapon ammo, magic energy, health, etc.) that ebb and flow, so it is relatively easy to use these resources as a form of usage metering. For example, FreeRealms allows you to have World of Warcraft style combats for free. But if your character is hurt, we will gladly accept your credit card for healing potions. Light players usually end up paying less than with subscriptions, but heavy, committed players pay more.

  4. ZachPruckowski


    While EVE Online has an insanely complex economy for a video game, its financial instruments are really simple, and straight investments into player-run enterprises like shipbuilding, rentable lab/factory station construction, manufacturing, or exploration are much more common than complex financial instruments like derivatives or something. This is because it’s hard to get people to invest in banks since they can keep unlimited money safely and the bank employees keep embezzling and stealing all the deposits, as well as the fact that beyond basic buy/sell/transport contracts, there’s no real support for complex instruments. There is some commodity trading and futures speculation, however.

  5. Mike

    I had a friend who was an avid WoW player. I’ve never played WoW, but at its basic level you’re creating a character and improving that character’s abilities by playing the game and gaining experience. He told me that you could pay people in China to build up new characters for you so you could avoid the grind of building them up yourself.

    Which means there are people who pay for the game, as well as a monthly fee for the game, then pay other people to play the game for them. I can’t decide if that’s more like buying food and paying someone to cook your meals for you, or more like paying for a gym membership and paying someone to exercise for you.

  6. Random Blowhard

    EVE Online will make a fascinating case study of Darwinian Capitalism in a few more years time especially if “Wall Street” level financial instruments were included into the mix.

Comments are closed.