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Recently, a LiveJournal friend of mine whose posts often run to the social scientific posted an excerpt from a conference abstract on "experiential purchases," that is, purchases of "experiences" like vacations, meals, etc. The findings of the study, conducted by San Francisco State University psychologists, suggest that contrary to societal admonitions, money will make you happier if you spend it doing stuff instead of just having stuff:

The study demonstrates that experiential purchases, such as a meal out or theater tickets, result in increased well-being because they satisfy higher order needs, specifically the need for social connectedness and vitality—a feeling of being alive.

"These findings support an extension of basic need theory, where purchases that increase psychological need satisfaction will produce the greatest well-being," said Ryan Howell, assistant professor of psychology at San Francisco State University.[1]

Many commenters argued that it's hard to conceptually separate "things" and "experiences," since most people use the things they have, but it does seem to me that some things lend themselves better to the kind of social experiences the researcher references—books may indeed be an experience to an avid reader,[2] but one needs an extra step to transform them into a social experience. Of course, the prevalence of book clubs demonstrates that many people do. The communities surrounding seemingly solitary pursuits—reading books, watching soap operas, playing PC adventure games—are often ignored by outsiders eager to label participants as sad and lonely nerds/silly women/losers, but for many people they may actually be the primary draw.

This is certainly true for computer and video games of various sorts, but MMOGs are inherently social even in their most basic uses—not that they cannot be played alone, much as I am able to wander the streets of Madison unaccompanied, but one cannot entirely escape the presence of others even in solo mode. As much as I loathe pick-up groups, I wouldn't want to; to whom would I sell rare drops for millions of credits[3] if I were the sole patron of the in-game auction house?

I've recently gotten back into City of Heroes with a vengeance, after about a 6-month hiatus caused mainly by the novelty of my Wii. They had another Double Experience Weekend[4] a couple of weeks ago, and it served its intended purpose quite well, motivating me to jump back in and ultimately quashing some vague ruminations I'd been having on the possibility of canceling my account. I'd been thinking about it because, you know, I wasn't playing as much, and I'm a graduate student, and I'm poor, and Jon Stewart's "Clusterf*ck to the Poorhouse" segment is getting less and less funny as more and more of my fellow job-seeking grad students receive letters from potential employers that boil down to "Uh, sorry, we can't actually hire anybody. It's not you, it's our decimated budget."

So I'd been wondering if maybe I should stop giving NCSoft approximately $70 every six months for something I don't play that much . . . but then I logged so many hours in the two weeks following Double XP Weekend that I'm not even going to hazard an estimate in case my advisor finds this column.

And then I thought about it and realized that even if I played an average of only two hours a week, about the length of a single movie, I'd still only be paying approximately $1.35 an hour, or $2.70 for two hours, which is a hell of a lot cheaper than a movie, plus I can do it in my pajamas while drinking. $70 for six months is barely even two months' worth of cable television, as I understand it—not having had cable since I moved out of the dorms, where I didn't pay for it, I really wouldn't know.

Cable is apparently a cost that a lot of people are cutting in the economic tailspin; a recent CNN article remarked on the online availability of many television programs and movies as a major motivating factor. I certainly watch plenty of TV on hulu.com myself; although I technically receive broadcast channels, my reception is so bad that I don't generally try. I particularly enjoy watching the latest episodes of Bones and The Daily Show while doing Wii Fit activities that require the TV, such as Super Hula Hoop. CNN maintains that "the brutal economy may motivate some consumers [. . .] to switch to Web-based TV, but it won't necessarily hurt the cable or satellite TV business, which has historically been recession-proof," but to the extent that consumers pick one or the other, it seems clear that the Internet is going to win. You can't check Facebook on your TV, after all.

It all makes me wonder about a possible silver lining for MMOGs, which as calculated above are an entertainment steal in terms of per-hour cost, and which also provide exactly the kind of social experiences that SF State researchers found to increase happiness. I would not have been nearly so enthused about Double XP Weekend if not for the opportunity to spend time with my gaming buddy Travis. We chat on GoogleTalk frequently, but we voice chat with Skype when we play CoH, and I'd been missing that level of interaction. Given the approximately 1,700 miles separating Madison from Tucson, we don't really get to go out for drinks or make trips to Super Target or anything. Although we do a lot of general chatting as we play, CoH also provides an antidote to conversational lulls—just recently we were considering the job market idiosyncrasies of a city plagued by the constant rampages of supervillain groups (we assume that the demand for architects must far outstrip the supply of competent trained professionals, which would explain the floor plans of the office buildings we're always getting sent to on missions).

Ironically, commodities trading to amass great in-game wealth remains my favorite non-monster-killing activity. The economy may be going to hell, but I have the satisfaction of picking up a Deific Weapon salvage drop and selling it at auction for 2,000,000 credits, by God. Reports on online games still frequently slam them as "escapist," but hey, they're keeping me from spending all my money in bars, which one suspects might also be close to recession-proof. Pornography sure is.

More seriously, at a time when friends of mine are experiencing serious crises of self-worth because they can't land jobs after literally months of pounding the pavement for them, is it completely terrible if people find a leisure activity that is, however "frivolously," achievement-oriented in various ways? The escapist fear seems to be that people will retreat, troll-like, to their parents' basements in a soma haze of false self-importance, never to emerge again, but what if you're already stuck in the parental basement trying to build up some meager savings, and have few opportunities to go out with friends due to financial and/or geographic concerns? At least they still need you to tank! You have valued skills!

Given the expense of MMOG development, I do wonder how likely we are to see high-quality new offerings in the current economy, but the social value of MMOGs is greater in more established games anyway; they offer a denser network of established acquaintances. The expectation for World of Warcraft,, the current juggernaut, has been that it will have to eventually plateau—it's managed to sustain growth much longer than anything else already—but an infusion of new users might actually bring back old players in the same way that Double XP Weekend got me back into CoH this month.

What the MMOG companies should really be doing right now is running special recession trial offers. Lure in the poor and hungry and bored with promises of entertainment and social interaction at all hours. The traditional model of letting current players grant trials to friends is good; it works the social angle. But they should be playing up how damn cheap they are, too. If you can afford Taco Bell, you can afford vastly more emotionally satisfying online gaming.

[1] http://www.physorg.com/news153300326.html

[2] http://siderea.livejournal.com/676314.html

[3] They actually call it "influence" in CoH, which is a stupid freaking name for a currency. I figure if I say "credits," pretty much everyone with any nerd tendencies at all will be able to work out what I mean.

[4] I think I made 5-7 levels on two characters in the weekend, which for the mid-range levels isn't bad, although certainly I could have done better if I hadn't gone out on Friday.




E. Cabell Hankinson Gathman is a Ph.D. student in sociology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She is interested in social networks and relationships online, particularly how people maintain and develop relationships using a variety of technological channels, including MMOGs.
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