Snarly swamps or happy hunting grounds? Our relationship with money in Second Life – Part 1

As is the case with many conversations about common things, I soon found we weren’t talking about money at all. But rather, deeper feelings that we hold that influence what money means, how we feel about spending it, and the differences in what money means to women and men.

The entanglements of inner conflicts

“I try to not spend money in Second Life at all, but I never succeed.” said Cleo. “I would say I spend maybe L$1000-2000 a month, but that is on rent too.”

Noting that Cleo was careful to mention that her expenses covered something as legitimately-sounding as the rental of virtual land, I couldn’t help but be struck by the inner conflict in her statement.

“(It) depends on how much I am online.” She continued, “I would say that my relationship with money is too casual, as it is in real life.”

Too casual, implying that it she should concern herself with it more than she already did? I asked her why she felt that way, and she replied:

“Because it seems silly in a way when it is spend on something you can’t touch, but then again I spend money on something I feel instead.”

I’m sure we’ve all felt this at one point or another, yet we clearly have overcome such doubts to the tune of 3.2 Billion USD.

Do virtual goods have value? In the end, everyone agreed they did, in terms of the feelings that we get from buying and owning them. Still, this distinction is at best abstractly intellectual, and remains bound by the need in some of us to justify our choice to spend real money in a virtual world, in what many people consider only a game.

Caitlin felt justified in spending money to get these feelings met: “it is hobby and a hobby/leisure that makes you feel good, other people buy gold in WoW? Or…have a Real Life material hobby. Anyway, I feel good on spending this budget in a virtual world to virtual things, as it is….my hobby. Like other women of my age spend it on knitting wool or whatever.”

While this justification might work for ourselves, I noticed it doesn’t always serve to convince others in regards to spending money in Second Life – especially to those that don’t live in it.

The perceived need to justify our choices

“I think I mostly have to ‘justify’ my spending in Second Life to people who never been here…” continued Caity.

“Have you had to do that Caity?” I asked

“Yes.” She replied. “SL residents, spenders or not, know how it works.”

Others, wondered why there was a need to justify it at all?

“For some reason, it always feels you need to extra justify expenses in a virtual world, compared to real stuff?” She said, “If I buy a nice gown in SL so I think and feel all pretty as Caity while dancing a night with Don and I log off , being all happy. Was it worth the euro? For me it was.”

“I often get the feeling, and this topic is all about it, we need to justify our spending online/in a virtual world, while nobody ever questions me on how much I spend on knitting wool in winter… My neighbour collects frogs… as in junk-frogs and arty frogs, she spends more on those then I do in SL, yet… it’s normal, because…real life?”

Clearly and understandably, calculations had been made. I’ve done the same. My favourite go-to examples of real-life money wasted (in comparison to what I spend in Second Life) are cigarettes and booze, and I drew on these later in the discussion.

The shiny rod of judgement

Why do we justify? Are we defending ourselves from being judged? And do we all feel this judgement and the related need to justify ourselves?

“Maybe I am a snob. So be it.” concluded Cait. “I know I spend… but I know how much and why.”

I asked her why she used the word “snob”.

“I’ve been called that for spending real life money on avatar looks and stuff. While you can either get things for free or make it yourself.” She replied.

“So people judge you for it: as in ‘you’re wasting your money’,” I confirmed.

“Well, yes” she replied, “isn’t it what the fashion blogs promote? Buy this, buy that, you need this hair, you have to have these shoes?”

Mona asked: “Then what should we say about car tuning geeks who waste money on making their tin boxes look ridiculous and sound horrible?”

It’s true. Just as in real life, our second lives are inundated with advertising messages from every direction. These messages aim to compel us to spend more and more and more, by stoking the fire behind our most innate desires to be accepted and respected. “Buy me, have me, experience me… you’re worth it!”

At the same time, there is no shortage of those who will judge us for spending our money on what they consider frivolous: “You spent that much on that useless junk? Do you have more money than brains?”

Anton added: “I wonder if this issue of guilt or judgement… spark(ed) something that spending may not have. Our politics or opinions all fall along a spectrum….with no clear dividing line as to right or wrong. Is 5000 too much for example? If not, what is. Same with spending here in SL: Is it relative to your means? (It’s) difficult to stay away from judgement.”

Ella asked: “Why Anton? Why is that difficult?”

Don answered first: “People inherently judge because they measure everything against their own, personal, standards.”

Anton replied: “I think it’s a human trait that at some point we make judgements at some threshold because we perceive some standard being broached. Tolerance is one of the most important virtues in my eyes, but at some point, we all judge.”

Gavin agreed: I believe we as humans tend to in all retrospect give our judgement on such things. We develop our own tolerance to such things, and go about our own way and do the things we do because its who we are.”

I found it interesting at this point, that while many of the women in the room were either frustrated by feeling judged, tired of justifying their choices, or questioning whether they were legitimate, the men in the room were providing succinct explanations for why it happened.

Snarly swamp meet happy hunting grounds…

In fact, researchers have discovered that not only do women feel the emotion of guilt more intensely, but that men feel ‘too little’ guilt when they behave badly. This follows a larger paradigm that women tend to feel more other-focused emotions (e.g. compassion, anxiety about others) while men tend to feel more ego-focused emotions (e.g. pride, self-worth). I have to wonder though, might this absence of spending-related guilt be a healthier approach to this issue?

Other-focused versus ego-focused emotions in action

Back in the swampland, Cleo wondered: “Maybe it is human nature to feel guilty about spoiling yourself?”

Human nature, or female nature? Again, I saw the gender differences begin to play out like black and white pieces on an emotional chess board.

“I’m as lazy as hell in SL,” said Mercury, “I never earned a single coin here. I’m not a waster either, I don’t spend much – I’m still wearing my very first skin, and my inventory is very limited. But if I want something here because I’m obsessed with an idea, I don’t see how much it costs, I get it.”

Could it be that simple? If so, this direct approach to resolving a problem sounded very appealing. Have a need? Buy something to fix it. Free of doubt or anxious questioning about what others may think, the conversation shifted as the men shared their views.

“I suck at budgeting,” admitted Don, “and spend money when I feel like spending it. Years ago, when I first saw an ad for World of Warcraft I thought… ‘who would be stupid enough to pay a subscription to play a game when there are tons out there that once you bought them you can play forever?’ I have been a wow player for over 9 years now. And then it came SL…. the spending went uphill. At the end of the day, if I spend an evening in SL and that costs me 3k it really means less then $15 USD… as much as it would cost me have a beer in the pub next block.”

Like hunters stalking a herd on the open grasslands, the men appeared to see money as simply a tool marked ‘use me to get what you want, and then don’t worry about it.’ Again, the practical nature of the hunt seemed obvious, and curiously free of the need to justify anything to anyone.

Gavin agreed: “SL is sort of a relaxing thing for me and even though I do spend money here, it’s for things that I feel will benefit me in the long run, not just an on the spur of the moment thing.”

Mercury added: “I notice a tendency, in Gavin’s opinions, that I discovered also in myself lately, that I no longer need reasons anymore why I spend money on virtual objects, on the contrary, I begin to become ready to accept, that it’s useless to spend on RL entertainments, when virtual ones are much more worthy.”

One of the few exceptions to the rule, Mona colourfully shared why she didn’t experience the guilt that so many of us experience when it comes to spending real money in virtual worlds:

“How much do I spend? Depends – it can go from 120 euros/month and all the way up to 250. Do I feel guilt about it? No. Why should I? Does a car tuning geek that bought the latest and biggest turbo for his car feel any guilt, even though it could put him in debt for years? Or a football nerd feel any guilt for the annual tickets he bought? Or for the money he spent for a jacket for his dog that has the colour and logo of his favourite team? Or does a gun nut feel any guilt for buying a new, shiny, and high-calibre penile substitute? If all these people feel no guilt for their expenses, why should I?”

As always, thought-provoking, and colourfully phrased. And she wasn’t the only one, as we were about to see…

I’ll continue the conversation in Part 2 – please add your comments about what you’ve read so far below… it was proving to be a very interesting discussion indeed!

Photo Credit: Caitlin Tobias.

6 thoughts on “Snarly swamps or happy hunting grounds? Our relationship with money in Second Life – Part 1

  1. consumerism is just as bad in SL as it is in RL!! We are an instant gratification society!! To me SL was just an extension of real life socially- and so there is vanity too! I too am guilty! Unlike the interviewee who says she feels no guilt about what she spends I actually did! I had an attack of conscience and self reflection and thought about how I could donate to a lunch program to feed hungry kids or something similar and I also thought on a selfish vein that some of that money spent might go to my airfare to Dublin or Darjeeling to let another kind of adventure begin!! I am far from rich in reality. But most of all I don’t want to spend too much money on things that don’t engage all my senses, that I can’t enjoy in all worlds.


    1. It’s interesting that a criteria for spending is that you feel more comfortable buying something you can enjoy something in all worlds, and I’m trying hard to imagine what kinds of things or experiences might fall into that category. I think it’s quite common to feel guilty around spending money, whether its in SL or not. And the “virtuality” of the experience certainly helps to make it a common response to spending money in SL. I don’t think it always has to be that way, however, and I explore that further in our next post on this subject:


      1. Thank you for your reply!! Yes, that wasn’t very clear, I suppose I mean if I spent more time in SL I might be inclined to spend there to enhance my virtual life as I did spend a fair bit when I was more involved ( 2008 -10). I left my inventory like a hoarder’s closet – totally disorganized in 2011. I don’t even dare open that door -too scary even though I popped back ro visit in 2013. Now I’ve become again a tourist ( backpacker type !!) no cash- just a hike through some wonderful virtual landscapes and galleries. This last while I uploaded some of my art to a friend’s shop. Maybe I will make some money! :D. Pop by my blog to see some things I uploaded if ever you have time!!


  2. I’m not surprised that the topic of guilt came up. I’ll admit, that’s the main reason I didn’t prioritize your wonderful salon high enough to be able to make it this week: too many of my feelings about money in any world revolve around guilt. In both worlds, I ache about the money I spend because I’m not currently earning anything. (There are good reasons for me to not have a full-time job now. However, I grew up poor and not earning money of my own makes me feel dependent and vulnerable… which, to abandon eloquence, sucks rotten eggs.) So, I am frugal in RL and try not to bring more “stuff” into my life. In SL where inventory is boundless and the prices are lower even if the products are ephemeral, I indulge a bit. Perhaps 80% of my SL budget pays for land, then there’s a bit left for tips/donations/fees and personal items. Some spending is “unnecessary”, but I can justify my 30th SL hairstyle easily when it looks perfect, can be changed in seconds, makes me feel good, and costs less than 2% of a RL haircut at a cheap salon.


    1. That’s a tough situation. I can appreciate that the baggage we carry around from our childhood experiences is a heavy burden affecting how we respond to the present. Also, not earning anything while only seeing outflows can feel like we’re slipping into a swampy hole. Wouldn’t it be nice if you didn’t feel the need to justify it at all? Not even to yourself?


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