The global recession is pinching pretty much everyone, scaling us all back. Even dyed-in-the-wool overshoppers are curtailing their purchases, dragged into prudence by economic anxiety. For some, however, Sim Sites—online virtual communities such as Second Life, There, or Moove—are an increasingly attractive alternative. In these worlds, your avatar (the character that represents you) can shop ‘til he or she drops, choosing from an almost limitless selection of whatever you’re passionate about—shoes, handbags, watches, cars, airplanes, islands—without overdrawing your checking account. As in the real world, the virtual products you buy are designed and sold by other community members. As in the real world, you can make (and spend) virtual currency in all sorts of ways. But the scale is different: about $40 in real money will get you 70,000 Therebucks (the currency at There.com) or 10,000 Lindens (the currency at SecondLife.com).
In a recent piece about these sites, “No Budget, No Boundaries: It’s the Real You” (The New York Times, October 21, 2009), Ruth La Ferla introduces us to Virginia nurse Mandy Cocke. “When times were flush,” she tells us, “Ms. Cocke … parted with as much as $1,000 a month on designer shoes and clothing.” Lately, “pretty much every possible expense makes [her prudently] ask, ‘Do I really need this?’” Vixie Rayna, however, Ms. Cocke’s avatar in Second Life, brooks no such caution. “Not a month goes by in which she isn’t spending as much as 50,000 [Lindens] on housing, furniture, or her special weakness: multistrap platform sandals, tricked out in feathers and beads.”
Mandy Cocke is no anomaly; virtual world purchases are way up. La Ferla quotes Jonty Glaser, a partner in Stiletto Moody, a Second Life shoe brand: “as fewer people travel or spend on entertainment, we have seen them focus online…[on]small-ticket purchases.” These “microtransactions” have made Second Life what Glaser calls “a recession-tolerant economy.” Recession-tolerant and then some! Second Life reported a 94 percent surge in its overall economy in this year’s second quarter over the same period a year ago.
In the worst economic year most of us can remember, purchases in the virtual world have skyrocketed. What are we to make of this? What does it mean that overshoppers have flocked and are flocking to Sim Sites, where they can meet their needs and still keep hold of their purse strings? I think it underlines the extent to which fantasy rather than need drives compulsive shopping, whether in the real world or its virtual lookalikes. Overshoppers are trying to buy a feeling, not a thing. They want to be more confident, or sexier, or smarter, and they’ve bought into the carefully formulated hype that products can get them there. So whether their purchases deplete a bank account and take up household space or (in a Sim world) come far cheaper and require only disk storage, they’re getting the same rush—and, in the Sim world, without the negative long-term consequences. On the Sim Sites, there’s no equivalent of “a minute on the lips, forever on the hips!”