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Attachment to Digital Virtual Possessions in Videogames



Purpose: To extend our understanding of consumers' relationships with their growing collections of digital virtual goods by exploring adult videogamers' attachments to their digital virtual possessions within videogames. Methodology: Phenomenological interviews with 35 adult videogamers, primarily conducted in participants' homes and lasting on average two hours. Findings: Our participants were able to possess and form emotional attachments to 'irreplaceable' digital virtual goods within videogames despite the goods' immaterial nature and their own lack of legal ownership. The processes via which these attachments developed mirror our existing understanding of material possession attachment; however, technical and legal restrictions were found to hinder attachment formation. Our participants also expressed concerns, rooted not in the immateriality of the goods, but in their lack of control over the safety of their digital virtual possessions and societal perceptions surrounding such emotional involvement in 'childish' videogame play. Originality/value: This study illustrates that consumers desire to, and find ways to, form meaningful attachments to possessions, regardless of their materiality, whilst highlighting the tension between the desire to possess and make meaning from digital virtual goods and recognition of their lack of legal ownership and control, and the goods' status as frivolous.
Attachment to Digital Virtual Possessions in Videogames
Rebecca Watkins and Mike Molesworth
Watkins, R.D. and M. Molesworth. 2012. “Attachment to Digital Virtual Possessions in Videogames.”
Research in Consumer Behavior Volume 14, edited by Søren Askegaard, Russell W. Belk and Linda Scott,
153-171. Bingley: Emerald Group Publishing
Purpose: To extend our understanding of consumers’ relationships with their growing collections of
digital virtual goods by exploring adult videogamers’ attachments to their digital virtual possessions
within videogames.
Methodology: Phenomenological interviews with 35 adult videogamers, primarily conducted in
participants’ homes and lasting on average two hours.
Findings: Our participants were able to possess and form emotional attachments to ‘irreplaceable’
digital virtual goods within videogames despite the goods’ immaterial nature and their own lack of legal
ownership. The processes via which these attachments developed mirror our existing understanding of
material possession attachment; however, technical and legal restrictions were found to hinder
attachment formation. Our participants also expressed concerns, rooted not in the immateriality of the
goods, but in their lack of control over the safety of their digital virtual possessions and societal
perceptions surrounding such emotional involvement in ‘childish’ videogame play.
Originality/value: This study illustrates that consumers desire to, and find ways to, form meaningful
attachments to possessions, regardless of their materiality, whilst highlighting the tension between the
desire to possess and make meaning from digital virtual goods and recognition of their lack of legal
ownership and control, and the goods’ status as frivolous.
Research implications: We see potential for future research to look beyond the immaterial nature of
digital virtual goods to study the complex networks of forces influencing digital virtual consumption,
whilst the ambiguous ownership of in-game possessions presents possibilities for further research into
the problematic nature of possessing, but not owning, such goods.
Keywords: Digital virtual possessions; digital virtual consumption; possession attachment; video
Attachment to Digital Virtual Possessions in Videogames
Rebecca Watkins and Mike Molesworth
Digital virtual possessions are playing an increasingly significant role in consumers’ day-to-day lives,
not only replacing material equivalents (e.g. eBooks, digital music) but also presenting new forms of
possession (e.g. social networking profiles, virtual possessions within videogames), and influencing
material consumption practices (see Magaudda, 2011). For example, only 11% of consumers print
photographs (Mintel, 2009), preferring to store and share them digitally. Similarly sales of digital music
are forecast to overtake sales of physical music formats in 2015 (Mintel, 2011a), and whilst sales of
material books are in decline eBook sales rose 164% in 2010 (Mintel, 2011b). Digital virtual goods
within videogames are no exception, with the global market forecast to grow from $66 billion in 2010
to $81 billion by 2016 (Takahashi, 2011). Digital virtual possessions are a key element within many
videogames including guns within firstperson shooters, cars within driving simulators, and a wide array
of consumer goods within role-playing games such as The Sims and World of Warcraft (Denegri-Knott
& Molesworth, 2010). Whilst recent research has indicated that consumers may form emotional
attachments to their digital virtual possessions, the questions of whether and how consumers become
attached to digital virtual possessions within videogames, and how this may differ from attachment to
material possessions, remain largely unexplored.
Just as we become attached to people, places and past experiences, we may also become attached to our
material possessions (Kleine & Baker, 2004; Kleine, Kleine, & Kernan, 1995). Indeed, within consumer
research there has been much reference to ‘favourite possessions’ (Schultz, Kleine, & Kernan, 1989;
Wallendorf & Arnould, 1988), ‘cherished possessions’ (Tobin, 1996), ‘loved possessions’ (Ahuvia,
2005; Lastovicka & Sirianni, 2011), ‘special possessions’ (Myers, 1985; Price, Arnould, & Curasi,
2000) and ‘sacred possessions’ (Belk, Wallendorf, & Sherry, 1989). Discourse here focuses on
attachment to specific material possessions, rather than product classes or brands, and attachment is
seen to be distinct from merely ‘liking’ a possession (Kleine & Baker, 2004). There is a tendency to
resist replacing attachment possessions ‘even when an exact replica is offered, because the consumer
feels that the replica cannot sustain the same meaning as the original’ (Grayson & Shulman, 2000, p.
17). Such strong attachment possessions are felt to be irreplaceable, often kept long after their
instrumental value has been lost (Kleine & Baker, 2004; Schultz et al., 1989). However, meaning is not
fixed and even ‘irreplaceable’ possessions may eventually be willingly and even eagerly divested. They
may lose their sacred status over time (Belk et al., 1989), develop negative associations with unwanted
past selves (Lastovicka & Fernandez, 2005) or simply become displaced from the network by other
forces such as spatial limitations or competing objects (Epp & Price, 2010).
Attachment possessions need not be expensive or luxurious. Indeed they are often ordinary objects that
develop personal significance over time (Kleine & Baker, 2004). Neither must they be the individual’s
legal property, however they must come to be perceived by the individual as ‘mine’ (Belk, 1992), a
process known as psychological appropriation (Kleine & Baker, 2004). Psychological appropriation
may occur when personal history develops between individual and possession, transforming a
commodity into an indexical object associated with experiences, places, important others and past
selves (Grayson & Shulman, 2000). Alternatively individuals may actively engage in possession rituals
(McCracken, 1990) in order to actively ‘appropriate standardized or mass-produced commodities to
their own individual world of meaning’ (Campbell, 2005, p. 29). For example, contemporary possession
rituals include holding a housewarming party to mark ownership of a new home (Campbell, 2005;
McCracken, 1990), or customising a new mobile phone with a personal wallpaper or ringtone. Such
possession rituals have the power to singularise mass-produced commodities, transforming them into
singular possessions with personal significance (Kopytoff, 1986).
Such is the strength of such attachments that loss of attachment possessions may be painful and
detrimental to the self, potentially causing individuals to reduce the importance placed upon remaining
possessions in an attempt to protect themselves from the distress of possible future possession loss
(Ferraro, Escalas, & Bettman, 2007). Thus we might speculate that attachment to possessions would be
avoided. However, it has been argued that such attachments can be beneficial to self-definition (Ahuvia,
2005) and to consumer wellbeing (Belk, 1992; Lastovicka & Sirriani, 2011), helping us to make sense
of the world and of others. Maintaining stable attachments to material possessions may provide
individuals with a sense of permanence in the world, maintaining the continuity of the self through time
(Belk, 1988; Kleine et al., 1995; Schultz et al., 1989; Tobin, 1996). In contrast, changes in relationships
with special possessions can aid self-change by assisting ‘self-cultivation’ (Csikszentmihalyi &
Rochberg- Halton, 1981; Kleine et al., 1995; Schultz et al., 1989). For example, detaching oneself from
a possession associated with a ‘no longer desired’ past self allows us to disconnect from this past self,
whilst forming an attachment to a possession that reflects a desired future self can aid the process of
becoming the person we would like to be (Kleine et al., 1995). Thus, despite the potential distress of
losing strong attachment possessions, they may play an important role in both maintaining and
developing an individual’s sense of self.
A question then, is whether digital virtual goods are possessed in similar ways to material things. Might
we become attached to our growing collections of intangible digital virtual possessions? Digital virtual
consumption (DVC) is distinct from the consumption of material possessions, as digital virtual goods
cannot be used in material reality to fulfil physical needs (Denegri-Knott & Molesworth, 2010).
However, whilst intangible these possessions are ‘real’ within the ‘digital virtual’, a liminal space that
exists between the imagination and the material (Denigri-Knott & Molesworth, 2010; Shields, 2003).
Whilst the existence of digital virtual goods within this liminal space results in a lack of material utility,
unlike material goods they are not constrained by materiality. Yet digital virtual goods are more real
than imagined goods and lack the autonomy of the imagination, bound by the limits of code rather than
the limits of one’s fantasies. So digital virtual goods are neither imaginary nor material but potentially
contain aspects of both, and the significant differences in the nature of material and digital virtual goods
leads us to question the applicability of our existing understanding of material possession attachment to
digital virtual goods. For example, whilst consumers believe a replacement would not possess the
meanings of a treasured material possession (Grayson & Shulman, 2000), digital virtual goods are
repeatedly generated from strings of code and thus could be perceived as being a ‘new’ good each time
they are used. Furthermore, a common strategy for ensuring the safety of important digital virtual goods
is ‘backing up’ by creating multiple copies, and we might question whether these copies possess the
same personal meanings as the original. Since these digital virtual goods do not experience wear and
tear or develop the patina of treasured material possessions, the copies are in essence entirely identical.
Here we see how the concept of an irreplaceable, ‘singular’ possession becomes problematised as we
enter the digital realm.
Given the questionable applicability of material attachment literature, we believe attachment to digital
virtual goods presents a worthy area for further study. However, whilst research on digital virtual goods
has explored consumer motivations for acquiring such items (Lehdonvirta, 2009; Lehdonvirta, Wilska,
& Johnson, 2009), their ability to stimulate and actualise consumer daydreams and fantasies (Denegri-
Knott & Molesworth, 2010), and to some extent the management and archiving of our ever-expanding
collections of digital goods (Hyunmo, Bederson, & Suh, 2007; Sinn, Syn, & Kim, 2011), little research
has explored attachment to digital virtual possessions. Siddiqui and Turley (2006) propose that
consumers value virtual possessions for functional benefits (low cost and ease-of-use) rather than for
emotional reasons. However, more recent research has found that alongside athletics trophies and
collages, teenagers identified blog entries, SMS messages, digital music collections and self-made
digital artworks as ‘special possessions’ (Odom, Zimmerman, & Forlizzi, 2011). Furthermore, whilst
eBooks will not become musty or dog-eared and digital photographs do not yellow with age, Odom et
al. (2011) propose that digital virtual possessions gather ‘digital patina’ in the form of metadata. For
example, digital photographs uploaded to social networking website Facebook were found to amass
meaningful clusters of comments and ‘tags’, whilst one participant described customising a digital
music playlist for his girlfriend by replacing album art with personal photographs. Here we see how
customisation via metadata has emerged as a new means of appropriating digital virtual things,
suggesting an underlying desire to make belongings personally meaningful.
Whilst Odom et al. (2011) provide some insight into consumers’ relationships with digital virtual goods,
they do so via a Human Computer Interaction (HCI) approach in order to consider design implications.
We feel there is value in further exploring attachment to digital virtual goods from a consumer research
perspective. Furthermore, within Odom et al.’s (2011) research there is little mention of digital virtual
possessions within videogames, however such goods present an interesting category of virtual
possession. Within videogames the digital virtual goods that players obtain often remain the legal
property of the game’s publishers and videogamers remain bound to abide by ‘Terms of Use’ (Wankel
& Malleck, 2010). Despite this lack of ownership, many videogamers find ways to trade digital virtual
goods for both in-game and real world capital (Lehdonvirta et al., 2009), something uncommon within
other categories of digital virtual goods. Such complex worlds and the goods within them may present
new opportunities and challenges for attachment. In contrast to the more common focus on videogames’
relationship with aggressive behaviour (Anderson, 2004), addiction (King, Delfabbro, & Griffiths,
2010) and isolation (Provenzo, 1992), the meanings of digital virtual possessions within videogames
remains an area for a more ‘generous’ analysis of players’ relationship with digital media. The symbolic
meanings of digital virtual possessions within virtual worlds have been explored, particularly with
regards to the communication of wealth and status (Hirsch & Bloch, 2009; Lehdonvirta et al., 2009).
However, appreciation of digital virtual possessions for their symbolic meanings does not equate to
emotional attachment. Wang, Zhao, and Bamossy’s, (2009) netnographic study of Chinese gamers
provides more direct evidence for attachment to digital virtual goods. Players became strongly attached
to the first avatar they mastered and were reluctant to part with them, even when they no longer played
the game (Wang et al., 2009). However, such attachment may be regarded as unhealthy, perceived as
similar to attachment to imaginary people, or fictional characters from books and films (Wolfendale,
2007). Here the ‘childishness’ of something perceived as play seems to undermine the potential for
meaningfulness (see Sutton-Smith’s, rhetoric of play as frivolousness, 1997). In summary, we observe
the need for a more in-depth exploration of the nature of videogamers’ relationships with their growing
collections of in-game possessions.
We draw from two data sets. The first was a study of 24 adults from the south of England collected in
2006. This study dealt broadly with the experiences of adult videogamers and within the narratives
generated issues of ownership of digital virtual possessions emerged as one theme amongst many. The
second study in 2011 used a separate sample of 11 adult videogamers from the south of England and
South Wales and dealt specifically with experiences of attachment to digital virtual goods within
videogames. The intention was to provide experiences from a range of videogames and playing
contexts. Thus the two datasets represent participants from a range of backgrounds, ages (the range was
18_57), genders, occupations, lifestyles, and gaming habits (from ‘hardcore’, achievement-focused
gamers to infrequent, ‘social’ gamers). Pseudonyms are used to ensure anonymity.
Both data sets adopted a phenomenological approach, aiming to understand lived experiences relative
to the ‘lifeworlds’ from which they emerge (Pollio, Henley & Thompson, 1997; Thompson, Locander,
& Pollio, 1989). Our emphasis is on the exploration of the individual’s thoughts, feelings and
interpretations from their own perspective through the stories they tell about possessing digital virtual
things within video games. Both researchers undertook background research, playing a range of
videogames and browsing online forums to familiarise themselves with gaming terminology, customs
and etiquette, with the intention of reducing the participant’s fear of negative evaluation and building
rapport through shared understanding. Interviews mostly took place in participants’ homes (others took
place on campus or in participants’ workplaces) and approximately 70 hours of interview data was
collected and analysed. Our participants told stories of ‘special’ and ‘irreplaceable’ digital possessions
within the videogames they played, and we now discuss the processes through which these attachments
developed, and concerns that may hinder attachment formation.
Participants were not provided with a definition of ‘possession’ in either dataset, however it emerged
that alongside digital virtual representations of material possessions (e.g. weapons, cars) participants
perceived avatars, high scores, in-game achievements and other saved data as ‘possessions’ and we
consider this broader, user-defined category here. Participants easily identified ‘special’ and
‘irreplaceable’ possessions within the videogames they played and expressed clear emotional
attachment to them, illustrated by concerns over potential loss and elaborate measures taken to protect
them. Parallels emerged between participants’ stories of forming attachments to digital virtual
possessions and our existing understanding of material possessions attachment. We now explore three
aspects of this process: gamers’ attempts to possess via possession rituals, association with important
others, and the significance of personal histories with digital virtual goods.
Making it Mine
Whilst participants were generally aware that the digital virtual goods they obtained within many video
games were simply ‘leased’ and thus not their legal property, they were nevertheless able to
psychologically appropriate them and desired to mark them as their own. Participants’ attempts to
‘make it mine’ drew parallels with ‘possession rituals’ (McCracken, 1990). However, the range of
possession rituals in which our participants engaged was primarily limited to customisation due to
technical and legal restrictions on how these goods may be used. Furthermore, participants were not
free to customise goods as they please but were restricted to the customisation options pre-determined
by the game’s designers. Thus we see how customisation may be constrained by the available code, and
where ‘customisation’ involved simply choosing from a small menu of pre-determined options
attachment was rarely formed. However, where extensive customisation was possible, such as designing
a custom paint job for a car within Forza or creating a home within The Sims, there remained a sense
of creating something ‘unique’. For example, Anne, a 47-year-old housewife from South Wales
recounts her experience of ‘moving house’ within The Sims.
I was in the Politics career, pretty near the top, and my Sim was going to work in a suit. I remember
thinking ‘She looks so out of place in that suit in our tiny house’. So I moved the family into this
mansion . . . Don’t get me wrong, it was lovely. The attention to detail was amazing! But it just felt
like someone else had made it . . . like I was living in someone else’s house. It’s like when I moved
into my first flat, in the real world mind, and there were marks on the door where they [the previous
owners] had marked their children’s heights in biro. As long as those marks were there it just felt
like it wasn’t my house, so I painted over them. So, on The Sims I thought, right, I need to make it
the way I like it. All wooden floors and nice pale walls, modern furniture, got rid of those horrible
candelabras. My Sim did some paintings and I hung them on the wall. When I finished it was like .
. . it really felt like it was my house. I’ve made it my own.
Thus Anne developed a sense of possessing the digital virtual house through this elaborate act of
‘making it mine’. Thus, whilst customisation within videogames is often more easily achieved than in
the material world (re-decorating your material home, for example, would require considerably more
time, money and effort), this ease sometimes made singularisation more difficult to achieve as
participants found it harder to invest a substantial amount of time and effort in cultivating these
possessions. However, enabling extensive customisation facilitated psychological appropriation, and it
tended to be in those cases where participants had made a significant commitment to the extensive
customisation of digital virtual goods that they came to view them as ‘special’ and ‘irreplaceable’.
It Reminds Me of Them
Treasured digital virtual possessions were frequently those that players associated with important
others, such as gifts, goods created or customised by others, or simply those associated with time spent
with others, both online and offline. An example is provided by Catrin, a 23-year-old University student
and avid World of Warcraft player who belongs to a close-knit social guild.
My guild leader always does ‘Santa’, she does it every year. She created a character called ‘Santa
Clause’ specially. Every year she goes on this character and she sends everybody in the guild a gift.
. . . It’s really special to know that she’s gone to that effort. It’s nice to be included in that circle of
people who are receiving that gift as well. She actually logs onto WoW on Christmas day to send
them, and they come wrapped in wrapping paper so there is that excitement. Last year I got
something very specific to me, a piece of equipment for my class [character type in the game]. It
was that bit more special because it was individually tailored to me . . . Most things I wouldn’t be
that upset if I lost because I could just buy them again. But with the gifts, it would never be quite
the same because she wouldn’t have bought it, and I would know that.
For Catrin these gifts represent both her relationship with her guild leader and a sense of belonging to
her guild and it was this association with interpersonal relationships that made these items
‘irreplaceable’. Similarly Dafydd, a 29-year-old minibus driver, describes his attachment to an
‘irreplaceable’ car within Forza:
That’s a car Rachel’s made, a purple Chevrolet and she’s put like flowers, grass, butterflies, she’s
even written her name on it, look. It’s weird, it’s on my Xbox but it feels kind of like it’s hers as
well because she sat down and made it with me. We sat down and I customized it to make it as fast
as it can be and she made it look pretty. When I see it, it does make smile ’cause it reminds me of
her. I think I’d be most upset to lose that one, because I can’t replace it. I could try, but I would
know that it was me that made it so it wouldn’t be the same. It wouldn’t be ours, it would be mine,
and it wouldn’t have, like, all the memories. That’s what would upset me.
Again, we see how customisable aspects of digital virtual goods within videogames make possession
and attachment possible, but in this case the digital virtual car was important to Dafydd because he
associated it with Rachel. Participants generally tended to describe possessions strongly associated with
other people as ‘irreplaceable’ as although these possessions could easily be replaced with an identical
copy, the absence of a sense of history - the knowledge of the creation of the item - meant copies would
not hold the same meanings for the individual. However, behaviours such as gift giving and sharing are
often restricted or entirely prohibited within videogames and again we see how the restrictions enforced
by videogame publishers may make it more difficult to develop meaningful relationships with in-game
It’s Got a Lot of Memories
Alongside interpersonal associations, the creation of biographic value over time through the
development of personal history between the videogamer and their digital virtual possessions also
resulted in emotional attachments. Although the possessions did not exist physically, the participants
felt that they were more stable and durable than the memories themselves and therefore served to make
memories more enduring. Catrin, for example, discusses her attachment to her first World of Warcraft
avatar, a troll priest named Bikido:
She’s my baby . . . She was my first level 70, back in the day, and for a very long time she was my
only high level character . . . It is, kind of . . . she has a lot of memories, you know? There are a lot
of memories in the character. Sort of, good times, relationships, friendships, and things that I’ve
done with her. And I guess it is partly because she was my little gay character. I came out online
through Bikido before I came out in real life, so I’ll always remember that . . . I have a really close
friend who also plays a troll priest, and one night we both got exceptionally drunk and we were both
dressed up as pirates. That’s probably my most fond memory . . . It is stupid because I know I could
go and I could make another priest. I could make it look exactly the same and I could level it. But it
just wouldn’t feel like the same character . . . It just wouldn’t be her . . . It’s to do with the memories
and the stuff that I’ve done with her. If I tried to make her again she wouldn’t have any of that.
Thus, over time Bikido develops biographical qualities, becoming associated with important events in
Catrin’s life, such as personal achievements (reaching level 70), significant personal experiences
(‘coming out’ online) and times spent with others. As a result, Catrin feels that Bikido cannot be
replaced as any replacement would not possess the associated memories that made Bikido special. Thus,
despite their intangibility these digital goods become ‘holders’ of memories, perceived as more stable
and durable than the memories themselves. Alan illustrates the value of these memories. He is a 26-
year-old computer technician and lives alone in a small flat which he had to save hard for. He explains
that he played Eve Online every day for two years and despite giving up the game three times he has
kept his account. He is aware that his in-game resources could be sold for a considerable profit, although
this is discouraged by the game developers; however, he cannot bring himself to part with them.
I’d play for five or six hours every night, every week, every month. And that would be for two years
. . . It sucked up all your free time . . . It was in the stage of my life when I needed to save a lot of
money and I was only going out when I really wanted to go out . . . and I’m getting hours and hours
of entertainment . . . Actually it is still profitable to play it. If I was to sell what I’ve got it’s about
four hundred quids worth of real money. I was going to sell last year, but I’ve quit the game twice
and gone back to the game twice . . . ’cause they made some changes. It tends to be the winter
months when I’m bored. But I just keep my account because one day I might want to go back
in and have a blast.
Alan is grappling with divestment of the data and recognises its financial worth, but explains that he
will probably never sell the account because it has too many memories of what he has achieved within
the game and the time he spent playing it. That these memories are worth more than the £400 profit
they could potentially generate, demonstrates their significant biographical value.
Whilst we have described stories that suggest an ease to forming attachments to digital virtual
possessions, it became evident that some participants held concerns that hindered the formation of such
What If I Lose It?
Participants expressed concerns that digital virtual possessions within videogames were vulnerable to
loss, particularly those who had lost possessions within video games in the past via technical
malfunction or hacking. For example, Dafydd discussed the experience of losing his Xbox360 data:
My brother tried to transfer his profile off my one [Xbox360] to his, but by doing that he deleted all
of my saves. Every game I had. Gone. Like, on the racing game I was pretty much the highest level
you could get, I had pretty much had every car I wanted, I’d customized them, spent hours. All gone.
Everything gone . . . I couldn’t believe it when I found out. I don’t think I’ve ever been more annoyed
with him in my entire life . . . When I found out I lost them I realized how much they meant to me.
Now I don’t get as attached to them. What if it happens again?
Our participants described protecting their digital virtual possessions from loss via elaborate safety
measures such as backing up data to portable disc drives and memory sticks that were then stored in
safe locations. Elsewhere participants showed us ‘collections’ of backed up data, including data from
obsolete consoles that were no longer used, amassing archives of game data that themselves became
important possessions. Thus, unlike material goods, digital virtual goods can be ‘backed up’, producing
new practices of archiving and saving precious data. However, many online games such as World of
Warcraft, Xbox Live or Eve Online do not enable players to back up their data, and in many cases
participants’ fear of loss was rooted not in the intangibility of digital virtual goods, but in their inability
to protect them, instead being forced to entrust their safety to a faceless corporation. Participants’ lack
of legal ownership was also a cause for concern, as publishers of online games such as World of
Warcraft withhold the right to terminate individual accounts, or the entire service, without notice and
thus it is not surprising that participants were wary of developing attachments to digital virtual goods
that might at any moment be taken from their grasp. However, risk of loss due to service termination
appears to be a difficult issue for consumers to resolve and our participants explained that by the time
they became aware of this risk they had ‘invested too much in the game to turn back’. Some participants
regained a level of control by taking alternative measures to prevent loss. For example, Taylor, a 22-
year-old student and avid player of MMORPG Final Fantasy XI, has invested money in protecting his
digital virtual possessions.
If [the loss] was due to hacking I have the option to ‘roll back’ my account . . . I’m not worried about
that though, because I have a . . . you know how with some banks they give you little tokens and
they generate one-time codes? Well, I have something very similar for the game so that when I log
in I have to have a one-time code to log in. So it’s very difficult for anyone but me to get into my
account. So fortunately I don’t have to worry about that. I don’t worry because it won’t happen. I’m
more likely to win the lottery.
Taylor felt that his token was worth the extra expense and complexity for the peace of mind it offered
him by enabling him to regain some level of control over the safety of his treasured digital virtual
It’s Not Real So It’s Weird
Participants did not question whether their digital virtual goods were real, indeed they perceived them
as more stable and durable than the memories with which they became associated. Rather, it was their
existence within the fantasy world of the videogame that caused some participants to avoid emotional
attachment, reminding themselves that ‘it’s just a game’. Even those participants that described
attachment to these possessions suggested some unease, with qualifications such as ‘I know this is
weird’, or ‘I can’t believe I’m telling you this’. Rhiannon, a 20-year-old student and casual gamer,
describes actively detaching herself from her digital virtual possessions within The Sims.
I think in my mind I know that it’s not real life, so I get into the game, or I get into what characters
I’ve got at the moment, but because I know it’s not real I detach myself in my mind. It would be
weird if you were attached to like your Sims as you are to stuff in real life, wouldn’t it? When
someone says something nice about my house I do feel proud but, it’s not how you’d feel proud in
real life, like if someone said ‘oh, your room looks really nice’ in real life. You wouldn’t be as proud
as that . . . because it’s actually not mine, it’s just in the Sims world . . .
Despite the many stories of attachment then, there exists a tension between the desire to possess and
make meaning from digital virtual goods and recognition of the ambiguous status of such possessions
in terms of both their lack of legal ownership and control, and the goods’ status as frivolous.
Our participants told stories of ‘special’, ‘treasured’ and ‘irreplaceable’ digital virtual possessions
within the videogames they played. These digital virtual possessions tended to be perceived as ‘mine’,
and we highlight our participants’ ability to possess where legal ownership is denied. Similarities
between our participants’ stories of attachment to digital virtual goods and existing literature on material
possession attachment can be seen in the processes via which attachments were formed. Participants’
methods of actively psychologically appropriating digital virtual goods drew parallels with the
possession rituals described by McCracken (1990), transforming digital virtual commodities into
possessions with personal significance (also c.f. Kopytoff, 1986). However, technical and legal
restrictions limited the range and extent of possible possession rituals, and customisation emerged as
participants’ primary method of ‘making it mine’. Whilst the ease of customisation within many
videogames hindered attachment formation, as the investment of time and effort was precisely what
made these possessions meaningful, enabling extensive customisation appeared to facilitate the
formation of attachments. Similarly to material possessions, attachments also formed over time as
personal history developed between our participants and their digital virtual goods, and it was often the
indexical properties of digital virtual possessions that made them ‘irreplaceable’. Participants’ stories
of important digital virtual possessions within video games included both autonomy-seeking
possessions such as Alan’s achievement within EveOnline, and affiliation-seeking items such as
Catrin’s gifts within World of Warcraft. Thus, similarly to material possessions digital virtual goods
within videogames come to represent both our distinct identity, and our interpersonal bonds. Whilst
exact replicas could easily be found, participants explained that they would not have the same history.
Unlike material goods, the singularity of digital virtual possessions cannot be found in the goods
themselves, as they do not develop patina or personal wear and tear to distinguish them from
replacements. Instead, memories of when a good was acquired, crafted or used differentiate their digital
virtual possessions from an exact digital duplicate. Our participants’ stories of ‘my very first avatar’,
‘the armour my friend gave to me last Christmas’ or ‘the car I created with my girlfriend’ illustrate how
the process of associating memories with particular digital virtual possessions enables them to be
experienced as singular and irreplaceable.
Despite stories steeped in meaning, for some participants the sense in which videogames are ultimately
‘just games’ and therefore trivial presents a compelling reason to avoid attachment. There remains, at
least for the time being, normative pressures against making digital virtual things within video games
meaningful. To do so is to deny a narrative of ‘frivolousness’ that may be associated with videogames
and here we see a particular role for affiliation with other players. However, material possession
attachment was once perceived in a similarly negative light, with childhood attachments to ‘special
possessions’ such as comfort blankets once described as ‘infantile fetishes’ (Wulff, 1946 cited Myers,
1985, p. 560) whilst adult attachment to possessions was perceived as pathological and fetishistic
(Myers, 1985). As attachment to material possessions has come to be accepted as ‘normal’, even
expected, we speculate that over time a similar process of normalisation may occur with attachment to
digital virtual goods. Experiencing attachment to digital virtual things often required the consent of
others, and here we see a role for affiliation with other players in the process of normalising the
sacralisation of digital virtual possessions. This may be a significant barrier for more casual or isolated
players, but with the growing popularity of online gaming we may see this barrier reduced.
A further concern for our participants was the potential for loss, rooted in their lack of control over the
safety of their digital goods, and whilst some participants responded to these concerns by actively
detaching themselves from these possessions others attempted to regain control by taking measures to
protect their digital virtual possessions, often involving the purchase of mundane material items such
as additional memory cards, or Taylor’s ‘token’. It appears that despite the apparent immaterial nature
of DVC, physical commodities inevitably enter the process of attachment as sacred data positively
contaminates physical silicon and plastic. The denial of legal ownership in favour of an on-going
subscription model means that cherished possessions within videogames are no more than leased from
commercial organisations. The publishers of MMORPGs often retain the right to terminate the service
without notice, and in doing so eradicate consumers’ achievements, progress and collections of digital
virtual goods without a trace, whilst videogamers may be required to abide by ‘Terms of Use’ and
therefore are not free to use these goods as they wish. Here we see how the denial of legal ownership
by the market impacts our relationship with our digital virtual goods far beyond the point of acquisition.
It is important that the long-term implications of this arrangement are considered. For example, several
of our participants continued paying monthly subscription fees for videogames they no longer played
to avoid losing their hard-earned possessions, whilst various hardware and software needed be
purchased in order to access these cherished digital virtual belongings. It seems the ambiguity of such
possessions requires an ongoing engagement with the market such that although they may be readily
possessed, they are seldom finally owned.
We have illustrated consumers’ underlying desire for possession attachment regardless of the
materiality of the good, and demonstrated that the intangible, vaporous nature of digital virtual goods
is by no means the only factor in which disparity between DVC and material consumption practices is
rooted. Whilst the processes via which our participants formed meaningful relationships with their
digital virtual possessions mirrored material practices of meaning making and singularisation, we see
how other forces may complicate this process. The inevitable technical limitations resulting from the
boundaries of the code, market forces such as the denial of legal ownership in favour of on-going
subscription models alongside the resulting restrictions on the ways in which goods may be used, and
social factors such as society’s perception of videogaming as a frivolous pastime also influenced our
participants’ relationships with their digital virtual goods. Thus the concerns raised were rooted not
necessarily in the immaterial nature of digital virtual goods themselves but in the forces that surround
them, and here we see potential for future research to look beyond the intangible nature of digital virtual
goods and to study the complex networks of forces influencing DVC. Furthermore, there remains an
ambiguity of ownership of digital virtual possessions within videogames which we believe presents
possibilities for further research into the ongoing and potentially costly and/or problematic nature of
possessing, but not owning, such goods.
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... The earlier studies about emotion in the Consumer Behavior field were mainly focused on advertisements, and it has been applied to other subjects in the ensuing (Richins, 2013). Literature about consumer consumption experience has explored the role of emotion in many different subjects such as products (Kim et al., 2016;Mehrabian & Russell, 1974;Mehrabian & Wixen, 1986), services, possessions (Watkins & Molesworth, 2012), and different consumption situations (de Hooge, 2014; Sabiote Ortiz et al., 2017). These studies found that emotion plays an important role in influencing consumer consumption behavior. ...
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This article proposes that social scientists should explicitly recognize the existence of consumers who engage in ‘craft consumption’ and, hence, of an additional image of the consumer to set alongside those of ‘the dupe’,‘the rational hero’ and the ‘postmodern identity-seeker’. The term ‘craft’ is used to refer to consumption activity in which the ‘product’ concerned is essentially both ‘made and designed by the same person’ and to which the consumer typically brings skill, knowledge, judgement and passion while being motivated by a desire for self-expression. Such genuine craft consumption is then distinguished from such closely associated practices as ‘personalization’ and ‘customization’ and identified as typically encountered in such fields as interior decorating, gardening, cooking and the selection of clothing ‘outfits’. Finally, after noting that craft consumers are more likely to be people with both wealth and cultural capital, Kopytoff’s suggestion that progressive commodification might prompt a ‘decommodifying reaction’ is taken as a starting point for some speculations concerning the reasons for the recent rise of craft consumption.