In Excess

Gambling, Gaming and Extreme Behavior

Getting Into Character

Can the buying of virtual assets in gaming 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 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 as you can see from the graphic on the left). 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).

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Last year, 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.

References and urther 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. (2014). Child and adolescent social gaming: What are the issues of concern? Education and Health, 32, 9-12.

Griffiths, M.D., Kuss, D.J. & King, D.L. (2012). Video game addiction: Past, present and future. Current Psychiatry Reviews, 8, 308-318. 

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

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-addicti...

Dr. Mark Griffiths is a Chartered Psychologist and Director of the International Gaming Research Unit in the Psychology Division at Nottingham Trent University (UK).

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