What is the value of a digital, virtual, collectible? Is something really rare and valuable if it can be digitally cloned with no difference whatsoever between the original and the clone?
Take, for example, the entertainment web site Neopets. Neopets is a site that allows you to create and own virtual pets, all of which are of fictitious species, and to own and store a trove of items – food, clothing, toys, souvenirs – which have absolutely no presence outside of the world of the web site. Every year, beginning on December 1st and ending on December 31st, users can go to an advent calender and get a couple of free items that are specific to that day – there is no other day to get that item for free.
I have been a user of the site for nearly seven years and so I have quite a few years worth of items that are no longer available except for sale by other users on the site – and here is where it gets interesting. People can charge whatever they want in the virtual currency – but what makes one virtual item worth more than another virtual item if all the programmers have to do is change one digit in a database to make hundreds more?
Similarly, let us look at the online roleplaying game World of Warcraft. In the game you build up a character – warrior, priest, etc – and increase their user level by toiling through the game. Quest after quest, adventure after adventure, everything you do virtually in the game is yours – unless you decide to sell all of that invested time, so to speak, to the highest bidder.
Check on Craig’s List – search the sale area for the term “wow” and you will find people selling their accounts. Hours of playing time can be yours for only a few hundred dollars. Why spend time finding materials in the game when you can go to a web site and send someone real money for it? Does this make the virtual items in the game worth something?
Finally, the thing that prompted me to write this article – the Inauguration issue of the New York Times. My good friend Elizabeth asked me if I was planning on buying that very special issue that was published on the day of President Obama’s inauguration. I said that I would certainly try to buy a copy if I could find one.
I ended up not finding a copy and that made me a little bit blue. The next day, I got an e-mail from Amazon.com informing me that they were giving away the inauguration issue of the New York Times on the Kindle – of course, I immediately turned on my Kindle and got it.
So now I have that NYTimes Inauguration Special Issue – so what? It is just like every single other copy of the Kindle edition. With real (non-virtual) items, as time goes by fewer people have a pristine item. A lot more people had a mint condition copy of the first edition printing of A Tale of Two Cities the year it was published than do now – if any still exist. Will my virtual copy of the Inauguration issue of the New York Times ever be “worth” more?
When I went up to writer John Hodgman and asked him to autograph a printed copy of his book The Areas of My Expertise, it fundamentally changed the value of the book. Will it ever be possible to digitally alter virtual items this way to distinguish them from similar digital virtual items?