William Poundstone, Photo: Russel Taylor

William Poundstone


Money for Nothing

How much would you pay for something that's not anything?

Posted Nov 11, 2009

The virtual merchants use a trick familiar to every world traveler. Confronted with an unfamiliar currency, we all splurge and tip more freely than we would, blinded by a smokescreen of exchange rates and prices strictly for tourists. To Americans overseas, yen or lira just don't seem like "real money." That's the reason for the virtual currencies. We normally feel a conflict between the desire to spend and the obligation to save. Spending is fun, and saving is what we do because we'll feel guilty otherwise. But once you buy Linden dollars, credits, or other virtual currencies, you're committed to spend. What else are they for? It's difficult to convert virtual currencies back to real money, and nobody feels a pang of guilt about not squirreling Linden dollars away in a 401(k). The exchange rates of virtual currencies are often intentionally confusing. To convert Linden dollars to U.S. dollars, you have to divide by 266. Much of the time, that's just too much bother. Instead, Second Lifers think in Linden Dollars, which is to say, they take cues from the prices they see posted in the virtual world. Your friend buys an island, and you want an island. It's only money - and fake money, at that.