There’s a strange law that governs digital television which dictates that, as you flick further on through the stations, the content presented to you becomes steadily more strange. The early channels are conventional enough – the BBC, ITV and Channel 4 with their soaps and property programmes – but then, as you pass through the barrier reef of E4+1, the laws of logic begin to break down. Here lurk the Turkish music stations and channels devoted to gambling, the obscure channels about religion, dating and Japanese flower arranging.
Best of all, though, you’ll find the shopping channels, and it was there, on a quiet Monday evening, that I beheld the single most gorgeous, crappy object I’d ever seen. It was a globe, standing two feet high on a faux gold pedestal, inlaid with mother of pearl and sparkling things. The place names were set in Zapf Chancery, one of the top ten most awful typefaces in the world. It rotated and glowed. It was £200.
As much as I’d have loved one of these gloriously dreadful abominations, there was no way I would actually buy one, and I assumed at first that nobody else would either. But incredibly, I’d underestimated the public mood. The consignment of forty or fifty globes sold out within a few minutes.
On a somewhat related topic, I learned this week that a twelve-year-old boy had spent around £900 – much of which had been purloined from his parents’ credit card – on Farmville, the browser-based management game hosted by Facebook. This story, along with the light-up self-propelling globe, was a timely reminder of how true the old adage about a fool and his money really is.
Yet, as ridiculous as spending almost a grand on a virtual farm may sound (and I shudder to think what my mother would have done if I’d done the same thing as a youth), this pales into insignificance next to recent sales in the free-to-play MMO Planet Calypso.
Funded by micro-transactions, the game has become chiefly notable for the increasingly outlandish prices some of its items fetch in online auctions. In February, David “Deathifier” Storey handed over the equivalent of £45,300 for a non-existent egg. The most bizarre thing about this? Storey doesn’t even know what, if anything, the egg holds.
The whole idea of games based on micro-transactions seems alien to me in any case. I’m too steeped in the old-school method of buying games, where money is handed over and the game is yours to play. The notion of having to pop into a virtual shop every few days to buy more bullets or whatever seems insane. This probably comes down to the fact that I can be quite miserly over how much I’m willing to spend on videogames. I’m constantly hunting around for the cheapest deal, or buying ancient Mega Drive cartridges second-hand from eBay.
Nevertheless, the buying and selling of virtual goods represents a potentially lucrative money making opportunity for those brave enough to invest their money. The original owner of the Planet Calypso five figure egg, John “Neverdie” Jacobs, originally bought the item for around £6,500 in 2006. In 2005, Jacobs purchased an asteroid from another Planet Calypso player for almost £65,000. And while remortgaging your house to pay for a gigantic in-game rock sounds like financial suicide, his gamble appears to have paid off once again. After building a nightclub on it, Jacobs has reportedly seen the value of his asteroid increase ten-fold.
To somebody as tight as me, it seems inconceivable that something so intangible – a piece of data that could quite easily disappear off a server at any moment – could be valued so highly. It seems more like (virtual) insanity. I’d lie awake at night, terrified that the MMO’s production company might go bust, or that all the in-game data might spontaneously disappear.
On the other hand, is investing large sums of cash in virtual items really any more risky than betting it on stocks and shares? For those with a sound head for business and a strong stomach, the answer is “possibly not”.
And if dozens of people are willing to pay significant sums of money for a hideous spinning globe that will almost certainly end up in a car boot sale in a few years’ time, then maybe investing your disposable income on virtual eggs and asteroids isn’t such a ridiculous proposition after all.