1 Introduction to Digital virtual
A decade ago we were leading a seminar on interactive media strategies with a group of undergraduate marketing students. The setting for observation was the then very new Habbo Hotel. We spent much of our time observing the pixilated avatars that were congregated in a series of chaotic rooms, moving about, nervously reacting to other guests’ attempts to make contact with them. Nothing new there. Our students quickly grew tired of what seemed to be repetitive and cumbersome exchanges between Habbo users, until one our students made the discovery that the poorly pixilated furniture was actually for sale, and not only this, that they were desirable commodities. Even today, with some incredulity we digest news that virtual world residents have paid £216,187 for Planet Calipso virtual Space Station or that more than half the US population plays some sort of videogames.
Why, we can ask, would somebody buy a chair they cannot physically sit on or a planet they cannot physically visit? Why do some grown men and women spend so much of their leisure time consuming videogames or participating in online communities? What meaning do consumers make of their time engaging in such activities? What characterizes this kind of consumption and how might it be different from other types of consumption (and indeed how might it be similar)?
The collection of chapters in this book deals with such preoccupations. The defining theme is consumption, both in terms of the consumption of digital virtual spaces like videogames, the online stock market, Woot and Second Life, as well as the consumption of objects within and about those spaces. However, this is not a book about online shopping. To us, consumption invites an analysis of how market resources—consumer goods, services, and technologies are just that , resources—both symbolic and material, through which all sorts of broader projects are negotiated by individuals and communities in view of substantiating a moral under-taking—to be a particular kind of person, to organize, and to support a particular type of community. Simply put, the essential capacity of consumption is both to make sense of who we are and the groups we belong to and to actualize socially agreed ideals or provide a space to subvert socially convened scripts.
This may sound counter-intuitive; after all, the study of consumption has been wedded to an analysis of material culture and the all too physical processes involved in acquiring and appropriating goods. that impetus to acquire and use, however, is often the result of seeking a material actualization of what is first imagined, of what Shields (2003) has called ‘the virtual,’ the ‘almost there.’ virtual is understood here, as Shields (2003) does, as both real and ideal and entwined with our perception of reality. It is what we imagine, it is what ‘is almost there’ but isn’t yet. Key to this analysis is Shields’s insistence that the virtual (what we imagine) is real, but ideal compared to the material that is real and actual. Rather than place the ideal and the actual as opposites (unreal versus real), they may more usefully be compared to what is ideally possible and what is actually probable. It is important to note that this book is not about virtual consumption, not even about celebrating ‘consumption light’ or de-material consumption of the kind that has a supposed ever so light environmental footprint. While other texts may celebrate the potential of wasteless consumption promised by digital consumption as in the consumption of code, this book reminds us of the ever-present material. The title of the book is purposefully not digital consumption, or virtual consumption, although both of these terms are also commonly used to describe what we mean by digital virtual consumption (DVC). For us, virtual consumption is located in the consumer imagination at large and has a long history, whereas digital consumption better describes specific technical and socio-cultural arrangements that define a user’s experience in a specific computer mediated environment, be it eBay
, Second Life, or iTunes. that analysis to us, which is limited to what happens on the screen and surgically removes consumers from their everyday life, is misconstrued and perpetuates, unwittingly, a problematic severance between our digital and offline selves and lives. It fails to acknowledge that the consumer subject arrives, already with a particular moral code or subjectivity, a particular intentionality or way of seeing, which is not solely a product of DVC, but rather their being in a particular socio-his-toric milieu and embedded in complex webs of relationships on and of the screen. It also downplays the necessity of material stuf and processes in supporting emerging consumption practices.
To understand DVC we draw on Rob Shields’s (2000, 2003) theorization of the digital virtual as liminoid space—somewhere between the imagination and the material, and under the control of the individual’s desire to engage with them. As Shields (2000, 2003) puts it, the ontological stature of the digital virtual as an ‘in-between’ place allows experimentation beyond normal consumer subject positions dictated by material resources and properties, and the physical makeup of the individual. DVC differs from virtual or imaginary consumption—daydreaming or fantasizing in other words, where a reality is summoned in the mind of the individual—inasmuch as
the object of consumption is experienced as owned and used within the parameters of digital virtual spaces created from servers, networks, and digital processors (owned, run, and maintained at a cost and usually for a profit by commercial organization), and audiovisual equipment (bought or leased by consumers). However, these materialities of apparently non-material spaces are not what are experienced in use; rather they are manifestly absent (see Law, 2004). In DVC the object of consumption seems to lack material substance so cannot be used in material reality, but is also free from the limitations of what is probable such that the ideally possible is made present and can be experienced. For example, a digital virtual car cannot drive its owner to work or the shops but also needs no fossil fuel, finance agreement, or warranty plan in order to be experienced; a digital virtual home will not keep its owner warm and dry or allow food to be prepared, but it may defy space or planning limitations as it is built and furnished; and a digital virtual magic sword cannot cut material flesh, but it may render its owner’s avatar invincible in battle in a digital virtual space (see Chapter 2, this volume).
In these digital virtual spaces the normal rules of materially real quotidian life are suspended, providing a performative matrix for experimenting with different modes of practice. In fact the potential for individual change is such for Shields (2000, 2003) that it supercharges the potential for transformation present in the liminal—not as a space to manage societal change through the rites of passage that once characterized transitions in life (starting school, starting work, getting married, having children, retiring, etc.) but smaller, individual, liminoid change through personal and often private experimentation. In DVC the possibility of experimentation and transformation remains largely wired into commodities and consumer experiences, themselves already liminoid, but also germinates the possibility that the more transgressive modes of practice, which are blocked in the materially real because they are too difficult to actualize or because they are taboo, can be enacted in the digital virtual.
In this sense DVC opens up another theatre on which consumption, with both its potential for further alienation and positive transformation, can be enacted. This potential to actualize all sorts of imaginings makes it a fertile terrain to document just how collectively and individually, what on digital virtual spaces becomes significant to consumers (see Chapter 2, this volume). It is therefore not surprising to find that much of the time our contributors are dealing with communities (Kozinets, Ross, Jacobs, Martin), personal relationships (Venkatesh and Behairy; Denegri-Knott, Watkins, and Wood; Vicdan and Ulusoy), individual desires and fantasies (Myers, Molesworth), individual self-realization (Zwick), means of sustaining and supporting digital virtual communities in games (Ross, Óskarsson), virtual worlds (Martin), consumption centred communities (Kozinets), and auction houses (Jacobs).
MAKING SENSE OF AND MAKING SENSE WITH
One of the reasons that DVC may be compelling is its steady supply of novelty and difference. The domain of material consumption as contributors to this volume have intimated has become a bit too known, too desperately the same to incite interest. The promise of novelty, in terms of goods, experiences, and social arrangements, seems infinite. With novelty and newness comes the requirement to make sense of these experiences and objects, to assess their use value, their significance, the in-game structures regulating MMOR, the socio-cultural conventions that operate in digital virtual worlds and games, and the kinds of shared knowledges and conventions that dictate behavior even in forum based communities and online auction houses. This book sheds lights on these sense making efforts.
Conceptually, too, we are yet to understand the kinds of systems of signification or meaning that allow us to make sense of digital virtual goods. To begin with Vili Lehdonvirta (Chapter 2) offers us a history of the digitization of consumption where he explores the sources of value for digital virtual goods. He argues that digital virtual goods like materially real objects fulfill the same symbolic and functional needs, with the added advantage that they are a bit more honest, relying less on the symbolic value of branded symbolic goods.
In Chapter 4, David Myers puts forward an eloquent argument for understanding digital virtual goods within games as impermanent things or infi -nite durables that can never be used up. Like other consumer goods, they must always have a minimum of functionality, but unlike other consumer goods digital virtual goods within games are of seemingly infinite duration, so we consume without ever using up the object of consumption. However, the games through which these digital virtual goods are consumed, at least our desire to play them, is corroded over time because repeated play reduces the initial novelty its semiotic system first aroused. We must move onto the next game. This kind of logic is also present in Mike Molesworth’s discussion of videogames as shopping, Melinda Jacobs’s study of Woot-offs, where consumers are anxiously waiting for future items to be listed, and Vicdan and Ulusoy’s analysis of the constant re-creation of avatars on Second Life. Here too we see an always future oriented consumption, where novelty is the number one value to be consumed.
Not only do digital virtual goods need to be worked out, but also the very social arrangements, rules, shared understanding, and knowledges that structure specific digital virtual consumption destinations. Part of this stems from the liminoid, potentially transformational nature of DVC that works something like a sandbox for working out new socio-cultural arrangements. Rob Kozinets’s (Chapter 7) candid reflection on his 1999 paper on virtual communities of consumption reconsiders this potential for transformation arising from consumers’ multimodal relationships as helping produce some kind of long standing social gain. Curiously, even the
most commodity-centered discussion over time can transform into a more meaningful, personal, and community centered engagement.
most commodity-centered discussion over time can transform into a more meaningful, personal, and community centered engagement.
Other transformations of course abound. On the one side there seems to be gamefication of consumption, but also a transformation of games into commodity consumption as well as collectivization of consumption. Melinda Jacobs (Chapter 11) shows us how a coming together of games structures and consumer culture produces a distinct form of consumerism or consuming as gameplay on the American wholesale outlet Woot and its Woot- offs. During a Woot-off items once sold are removed and others put up for sale. Jacobs suggests this obstacle has created a consumerist disposition where there is a desire to establish what is being sold next; this too has created a community that works together in order to accelerate the unveiling of the next good put up for sale. Sandy Ross’s (Chapter 10) six-year engagement with Final Fantasy XI (FFXI) reveals the emergence of collective forms of consumption, where collective rather than individual wealth is encouraged and where a new type of market morality is performed in constructing a quasi-utopian project. By looking at how collective wealth is accumulated by linkshells (guilds) she examines how guild members collectively impose limits to individual desires and create a collective sense of what should be desired and who has a rightful claim to consumption. These limits to consumption are important because they produce stability that enables game play and individual consumption dreams and the affective or emotional requirement to maintain networks of fictive kinship and social ties of linkshell alive.
The emphasis on a communal or collective interest can also be found in Jennifer Martin’s chapter on Second Life’s gift economy and role of freebies (Chapter 13). As she writes, it is not uncommon for Second Life residents to encounter all sorts of free digital virtual goods, from trinkets to fully furnished homes, which fulfill all sorts of objectives, from expressing generosity, enticing recipients to become future paying customers to socializing newbies into the Second Life economy.
So clearly, consumers need to work out what such objects mean and become socialized into proper consumption as we see in the Woot, Second Life, and FFXI cases; these experiences, too, fulfill another related: to consider DVC in light of their materially real everyday life. Some chapters in this collection offer glimpses of those moments of reflection, when individuals reconsider their consumerist proclivities and the nature of their desires. Others narrate the ways in which consumers re-enact well known consumer scripts, but perhaps in ways that are perceived to be more successful than in the materially real. Handan Vicdan and Ebru Ulusoy (Chapter 12) explore how consumer creativity is deployed to construct multiple virtual selves not so much to impress fellow Second Life inhabitants but rather to experience being ‘someone different.’ They see this as a continuous process of re-construction, which goes beyond the purely symbolic to include an immersive, embodied, highly sensual experience where consumers are
constantly asking themselves about the way they are and how they behave. So, although playful and recreational, DVC offers opportunities for meaningful reflection. This reflective capacity seeps through assessments of what is to be deemed personally valuable digital virtual possessions, as Janice Denegri-Knott, writing with Rebecca Watkins and Joe Wood (Chapter 6), discover through their interviews with owners of digital virtual goods. In the absence of a solid material object, transforming digital goods into meaningful possessions is more obviously centered on the purposeful contemplation of what has been invested in the process of adapting, changing, storing, and re-materializing digital virtual possessions. These kinds of reflections, as we will see in the following chapters, emanate from the inevitable tension between individual and collective imaginations and the constraints of material reality.
Throughout this volume we are constantly reminded of the conceptual pitfalls of reproducing a duality between what is physical or material consumption and what is digital virtual. Such analyses would have us believing that somehow DVC is a domain of its own, where bodies and their limitations are abandoned and where the mind can run free, and reality is de-materialized. In his chapter Magaudda (Chapter 8) re-asserts the weight of materiality in our analysis of DVC by focusing on the intimate relationship between DVC and material objects in how consumers consume digital music. Drawing on practice theory, he makes a case for re-asserting the role of the material in shaping consumers’ experiences. As he puts it, within the context of DVC materiality still matters, and a lot. It is necessary then not to forget about the weight of the material in shaping and making sense of an emerging consumer culture.
Whereas DVC represents a liminoid space between what is imagined and what is actually real, this liminality implies not only that the material and the symbolic are strictly interwoven, but also that it is impossible to think of DVC without making reference to the changing forms of materiality in social life and to how this materiality contributes to shaping possibilities and constraints of DVC (Magaudda, Chapter 8). For instance, Vicdan and Ulusoy tell us in their chapter how present the corporeal body is in consumers as they craft their digital virtual selves in Second Life, even when it seems absent. The body is there when consumers want to overcome their bodies by feeling their body through their avatars like embarrassment for being a newbie or for standing too close to others. We find consumers reflecting on the need to find somewhere desolate to carry out their transformations, feeling embarrassed by their avatars’ nakedness and attempting to make their avatars more like themselves and themselves more like their avatars. Similarly, Denegri-Knott, Watkins, and Wood in their
chapter on how digital virtual goods are transformed into meaningful possessions (Chapter 6) document how consumers find more stable and visible instantiations for what they perceive to be ephemeral and fragile digital virtual possessions.
The material is also very present in the analysis of macro considerations, or the socio-historic conditions that prefigure a certain attitude or the social imagination of users who find themselves using computers, videogames, and smart phones to achieve all sorts of socially convened goals. that is, the discourses that structure our field of action as we move about in the materially real are present too in DVC, even when they are subverted. Looking at the broader political and historic context is important because it prefigures a certain predisposition to become a certain kind of person, who will be immersed in DVC in a particular way. Drawing on Foucault’s critique of liberalism and neoliberal forms of government, Zwick (Chapter 9) argues that online investing has become a key site for the production of an entrepreneurial subjectivity, a certain type of individual or consumer self based on insecurity, competitiveness, individualization, and inequality. In that analysis, although DVC made it possible for consumers to act out as self-enterprising online investors, the online investor was more of an outcome of a distinct neoliberal form of government.
The immediate context of DVC is important too. The backdrop to DVC, the necessary work carried out before the consumer is able to engage in DVC, is often overlooked. So not only do we have to be attendant to the material, technological artifacts that ma...