Sending nonsensical emails to your boss isn’t the worst thing kids can do when they play with your smartphone. According to the AP, the Federal Trade Commission has been pummeled by irate parents stuck with more than $32 million in in-app purchases their children made without their consent. To settle a federal case, Apple will reportedly refund their money and change billing practices so it’s not as easy for little Susie to blow $2,600 on virtual treats for the virtual animals kicking it at her virtual pet hotel.
But grown-ups have blown much more on commodities that don’t exist outside the digital realm, from a space station ($330,000) to a planet ($6 million). Sure, these are extreme examples, but more and more average users are willing to drop a few bucks spicing up FarmVille. Apps might be free-to-play, but upgrades within them add up fast. Take Clash of Clans, touted as the top-grossing iPad game in 122 countries. You can build your stronghold and defeat foes by “grinding” through challenges and earning gems, or you can use your debit card to fund army camps, worker huts and weapons like Giant Bombs and Wizard Towers.
“It was so easy; you just go on your phone and click: $20, $40, $60, $100. So it started off being $20, $20, $20. ... Long story short, I think I’m up to $7,000 I’ve spent on that game,” says Jerid “DJ Five” Choensookasem. Traveling between gigs at local clubs like XS and Tao to others in Chicago and San Francisco, Mexico and Canada, he says games break up the boredom. Clash of Clans was one that a friend recommended in a group chat, and he got sucked in to the challenge of building a village and an arsenal for the clan he started with DJ Scratchy, "Shabu Wockeez."
Asked if the clan is successful, Choensookasem laughs and says he doesn't really know. It's a diversion, not an obsession. Yet the money he's spent on it in a year makes other people's eyes bug out. "When I tell people how much I’ve spent, they’re like, ‘Damn, that’s crazy.’ With 7-grand I could have bought a used car or a motorcycle. ... I’m not as bad, though. I’ve heard of people spending like $100,000 on FarmVille."
Choensookasem makes "pretty good money," enough to weather the cost of his habit. Plus, he figures if he were a serious video-game nerd, he could spend that much on games and gear over the same amount of time. If you’re entertained, what’s the difference? When we pay to see movies at a theater or go to the Super Bowl, we leave with nothing tangible. We can't really possess an experience. Maybe that's why at least a quarter of the U.S. population is comfortable spending billions on virtual goods, with numbers climbing fast.
It begs the question of how much more pervasive our online existence might get. Choensookasem leads such an active professional life that he often finds himself attracted to Wii Golf over an afternoon on an actual green. He's not afraid of the real blurring more with the virtual, pointing out that you can make money in that world, too. “I have friends who’ll spend $10,000 and build this crazy village, and they’ll sell it on eBay for like $20,000.”
Humanity hasn’t worked out how to use that crazy village to back up a home loan—is it personal property, intellectual property or neither? We’re okay having relationships entirely online, yet we’re struggling to embrace digital currency. Most of us still want to feel the value of something in our hands. But if we can go on dates and play poker and get college degrees on a screen, shouldn't it follow that we spend money and show off our purchases there? At least a virtual Porsche can’t get keyed.