Virtual Reality Makes Real-World Cash, Boosts Self-Esteem

Farmville, Barn Buddy Attract 100 Million People

"It's all opt-in. It's complete freedom of choice," says Social Suitcase co-founder Joshua Backer. "No one is going to choose to have a telemarketer call them. But you will choose to interact with a brand, if you want to get ahead of a game."

An estimated 100 million people are believed to plant, grow and harvest virtual crops as well as raise livestock on games such as Farmville and Barn Buddy.

In the game "Barn Buddy" you can buy virtual credits with real money, and you can use those virtual credits to buy virtual products sponsored by real companies. The goal is to use these products to improve your virtual farm, while exposing you to the real products and how they work. Are you following?

What's in it for the advertisers? Instead of spending millions of dollars on a Super Bowl commercial, billboard or newspaper ad, integrated campaigns in the social media world are able to target ideal consumer demographics and track precisely how their ad money translates into actual purchases.

Why Spend Real Money in a Pretend Place?

"The idea of spending money on virtual items seems strange at first," said Castronova. "But when you think of it [money] is virtual too. I see a competition emerging from virtual life and real life. Virtual life will remain attractive. But I think real life will start to incorporate some of the things that virtual life is discovering about how to make people happy."

Others fear the problem this may pose is already evident. Some people are already spending more time in virtual places than they are in real life. Sal9000 once said that his avatar wife is better than any human relationship, because she doesn't get angry and that he didn't have to talk about his feelings with her.

This disengagement from reality is causing researchers from Leeds University in England to become concerned. In a recent study, they found respondents with high levels of Internet dependence showed much higher rates of depression.

"What we found is a correlated relationship, which means the two are definitely associated," said Catriona Morrison of Leeds University.

But the key question -- which the Leeds Study fails to determine -- is whether depressed people are drawn to the Internet or does excessive use of the Internet cause one to become depressed?

"Most of us spend an awful lot of time online," says Dr. Morrison. "So for most of us, it's an adaptive activity. The interesting thing is that we do find that people who have an unhealthy relationship with the Internet tend to use it for online gaming, sexually gratifying Web sites, and online communities."

But for some, the fantasy world offers something reality does not. Games like Farmville can keep family and friends connected by allowing family members who live too far away from one another play games with each other remotely and online. In other cases, it helps boost self esteem.

"If you're living in a small town, and you're a girl and you don't have the right body type, you get ostracized. You get marginalized, said Castronova. "I'm not ready to blame that person for trying to have a society that involves an environment where she can actually be accepted."

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