Evolutionary psychology suggests that we humans are all about conspicuous consumption. Displaying expensive or hard to find items raises our status and may suggest a higher degree of “fitness” as a mate (i.e., health and resources). This drive extends even to the virtual world, according to a study conducted by Spent author Geoffrey Miller.
Miller and his colleague Zack Mendenhall analyzed conspicuous consumption in World of Warcraft (WoW), a massively multiplayer online game (MMOG). With 9 million players globally, WoW is a society of its own and, perhaps unsurprisingly, players behave like humans even in this virtual world.
Miller and Mendenhall studied weapons that could be auctioned to other players, hence setting a price for each weapon determined by supply and demand. Each weapon had a “vendor price” determined by its potency in the game. This vendor price is objectively determined, and reflects its ability to wreak havoc on other players.
What the found was that RARITY accounted for a huge amount of the differences in auction prices between weapons. That is, the high auction prices paid for “purple-rarity” weapons could not be justified by their performance, but could be explained by their small numbers.
Miller found WoW weapon pricing to be an excellent demonstration of conspicuous consumption. Miller notes that people may justify paying a premium price for a BMW based on its quality of manufacture (even though they covet the status it conveys), but no such differences exist among the virtual weapons. Performance differences are clearly measurable, and price differences for similarly performing weapons can be explained only by their rarity. Being seen with a rare and expensive weapon conveys status in the virtual world of WOW just as pulling up to the valet station in a Maserati would in real life. In essence, these weapons are luxury items, albeit in a virtual environment.
People act like people, even in virtual worlds. Perhaps we can look forward to virtual neuromarketing studies that isolate specific variables by letting the researchers control extraneous variables.