Thursday, February 9, 2023

Virtual Status!

Why bother selling fancy cars, clothes, sneakers, or yachts, when you can sell virtual status for real money - that costs nothing to make!

A reader writes in response to my comments about status.  Status is a weird thing, and I chased it, unknowingly (at a conscious level) most of my life.  We all do.   Young men salivate at fancy cars, thinking about "how cool" they will look driving that new Camaro - not realizing that every other idiot with a W2 and a payment book looks just as cool - or idiotic.

We trade security - financial security - for status, plain and simple.  We want to distinguish ourselves from the crowd, even if we are distinguishing ourselves in the exact same way as everyone else.  You read a rant from a young person about how their rent is too high, their $25,000 in student loans will never be paid off, and that their shitty job doesn't pay enough.  Time to overthrow the system!

But when you scratch the surface, a lot (but not all, of course) of these complainers are not really broke, they just spend a lot of money on status things, like tattoos and piercings, a fancy car (or stupid and unnecessary accessories for said same) or delivery meals or cable television or a gaming console or whatever.  I know this as I was this way at age 23, spending more than I made and bitching about how unfair it was!  Some things never change.

Our society is moving away from personal social interaction to an online world.  Maybe the pandemic accelerated this.  Maybe all those YouTube and "Tick-Tock" videos of people behaving badly on airplanes or in restaurants is adding to the trend.  I see these sort of videos and it fills me with dread of ever going on an airplane or even going to the store - lest I interact with a "Karen" who wants to start a fight or just stage a "Tick-Tock Prank" for Imaginary Internet Points.

I kid you not about this.  The latest "trend" on "Tick-Tock" is for a certain type of girl (the kind that makes me glad I am gay) goes to the gym and then accuses any man who even looks in their direction even once or is waiting to use a piece of exercise equipment of "sexual harassment."   I'm not saying it never happens, but these "Tick-Tock" videos are getting tiresome with all their staged bullshit and "pranks" which aren't funny (stealing luggage at an airport?  Not funny at all).

We have turned into awful people, thanks to social media, and in response, it seems a lot of people are retreating to an online world - staring at their phones almost every hour of the day.  I fought the cell phone for as long as possible - now Mark and I have turned into "those people" who can't not look at the little box for even a minute.  It is a weird addiction.

In the online world, however, you can sell status, and as it turns out, it is a brilliant maneuver.   Selling cars and shoes and clothes and yachts requires you actually make and sell a physical thing - and that costs money to make.  But virtual status?   The incremental cost is zero, and selling virtual bling is pure profit.

A few years ago, an online game called "Among Us" came out and went viral.  It was a pretty stupid game - I tried it once and lost interest.  You have to get a group of friends together to play it, apparently, as a party game.  Each person picks what color player they are to be.  Each is an astronaut on a space station or space ship or whatever and one of the people is an "impostor" who goes around murdering everyone else (which to me, was the fun part).  After each murder, the group gets together and tries to determine who is the guilty party - and that person is sent out the airlock.

It was a pretty silly game, but the interaction with other people is what made it interesting.  As the "impostor" you might try to convince others that some innocent person is to blame and trick your friends into blaming them.  Some fun!

But what was weird, to me, was a few months after the game came out, they offered "flair" for your character.  Rather then merely choosing a color, you could customize your character with various accessories.   One of the first offerings was a "hat" and one of the popular accessories was a "leaf hat" as shown above.  What that has to do with a spacesuit, I do not know, but it took off, and today you can add all sorts of flair to your costume - at  a cost, of course!

Here, players can customize their character’s skin, hat, and pet. Players can use their purchased items or the free options, or they can purchase any of the add-on accessories. PC players will have access to most of the skins because they will have paid for the game. On mobile, the app is free to download and play, but skins cost extra. These items usually cost between $0.99 and $2.99. There are also bundles so players can get more options for their money. Both PC users and mobile users will need to pay for pets, which will follow the player character around the spaceship while the player completes tasks.
Now, 99 cents (not a dollar!) or $2.99 (not three dollars!) might not seem like a lot of money, but is is a lot of money to pay for nothing.  It does not affect how the game is played or give you any strategic advantage in playing the game, it merely decorates your character. And yet, it took off, with people paying real money for imaginary decorations on an imaginary chacter.

Why?  Well, status.  If you are playing the game with a group of others and you have no "flair" on your character, it will appear you are new to the game or can't afford to bling out your space suit.  So, social pressure pushes you to be "one of the group" and plunk down 99 cents on a hat.

Of course, this is nothing new - I am using "Among Us" only as a more ridiculous example of the trend.  When "Second Life" came out, people were paying real money for virtual avatars or virtual real estate.  IBM famously "bought" an island in Second Life and of course, IBM went bankrupt after making stupid decisions like that.

Other video games are way ahead of this trend - but at least they are often selling something of "value" to the gamer.  You can buy additional "armor" or "weapons" or "powers" or "potions" in these online "worlds" or just pay money to advance to another level.  The "poor" person never gets beyond the opening "lounge" screen - without enhancements, he is annihilated right away.  But even in these online games, bling is also sold, to enhance your costume or armor with useless bric-a-brac.  And people buy it - and pay lots of money for something that costs the supplier nothing.

A lot of people - including myself - thought Zuckerberg lost his mind when he blew those billions of dollars on "Meta" - virtually abandoning (sorry!) Facebook and its siblings, by betting the company on Virtual Reality.   Maybe he is wrong or maybe he is smarter than we think.   If Virtual Reality takes off, we will retreat further and further into a virtual world, never leaving home, other than on rare occasions, and our lives will exist in a virtual world only.

Imagine 350-lb tubs-o-lard with pasty white skin, sitting in "gamer" chairs with VR headsets, adult diapers and of course, a catheter.  A steady diet of Taco Bell (delivered, of course) and no exercise whatsoever, insures that these modern-day Jabba-the-Hutts keep their spheroid physique.  Disgusting.  Nasty.   Abhorrent.  People like this already exist today.

But in the virtual world!  They paid top dollar for a "buff" attractive avatar who has a nice "crib" and accessories - a virtual car, virtual yacht, and maybe a virtual airplane.  Hell, this is virtual reality - why "buy" a virtual airplane when you can just flap your arms and fly?

Think of all the status items and "products" you can "sell" in a virtual world, that, once coded, have little or no real incremental cost.  Every sale is pure profit - and no messy inventory to deal with!

Of course, in this Virtual Nightmare, the only "real" people will be those minimum-wage slobs who are delivering the pizzas and taking out the trash - until those jobs, too, are automated.  Personal contact will diminish, until it is seen as almost obscene.  A few more pandemics should insure that.

Over 100 years ago, E.M. Forster (yes, that E.M. Forster) wrote a science-fiction story predicting our future Virtual World.  In that world, people would live in underground lairs, spending all day in easy chairs, misinforming one another with bullshit, transmitted live over computer screens.  No one would ever leave home or visit people (viewed as disgusting) and machines would serve the needs of all the people.  Well not machines, but a machine.

And the title of the story was The Machine Stops.  Because when the machine breaks down, the people end up helpless and of course, die off in droves.  What is interesting about the story is that Forster predicted this in an era where technology was in its infancy.  But oddly enough, he was not too far off the mark.

Maybe this won't happen.   Maybe we will pull back from the brink, and people will return to a "society" where strolling down the sidewalk wasn't a life-threatening task, but something you did on a daily basis.  Maybe people will return to the library and check out books - and libraries will be more than homeless shelters.  Maybe, but I doubt it. The technology is so cheap and so pervasive that "going back" to the "good old days" - even if they were "good" - isn't possible.  We aren't about to give up the conveniences of modern living to return to a more difficult past.

On the other hand, this doesn't mean we have to give up and retreat into our own virtual worlds.  Because in the end, it is not healthy physically or mentally, to spend all day cooped up and looking at screens.  Moreover, it is not healthy financially for a person to become so addicted and dependent on technology they don't understand or can't maintain by themselves.   When you go down that road, you end up dependent on the guy controlling the technology.

And he sets the price - and you have to pay it.

That's the fundamental flaw in the "Metaverse" that all the bling in the world can't fix.