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Value in Play: Game Items in Digital Environments Ping-I Ho

BA (Philosophy) National Chung Cheng University

MA (Telecommunications) National Chung Cheng University

Thesis submitted in fulfilment of the requirements for the Degree of Doctor of Philosophy in

Digital Cultures Program, Department of Media and Communications, School of Letters, Art, and Media, Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences, The University of Sydney,

Supervisor: Dr Chris Chesher Associate Supervisor: Dr Kathy Cleland

March 2014


For my beloved family & In memory of my dear mum, Ping


Table of contents Illustrations ...............................................................................................................iv Abstract .................................................................................................................... v Acknowledgements .................................................................................................vii Introduction .............................................................................................................. 1 Background........................................................................................................ 1 Research questions .......................................................................................... 11 How to study game items ................................................................................ 13 Methodologies ................................................................................................ 25 The structure of this thesis .............................................................................. 37 Chapter 1: What valuable game items are .............................................................. 44 1.1

Why game items instead of virtual items? ............................................ 45

1.2

What game items are ........................................................................... 55

1.3

Game items in different types of platforms and environments ............. 67 1.3.1 Game items in platforms ................................................................. 68 1.3.2 Game items in non-digital environments ......................................... 78 1.3.3 Game items in digital environments ................................................ 82

1.4

The value of game items ...................................................................... 97 1.4.1 Different types of value ................................................................... 97 1.4.2 How something is valuable in economics ....................................... 105 1.4.3 Why game items are valuable ........................................................ 107

1.5

Summary............................................................................................ 127

Chapter 2: How game design affects the value of game items.............................. 130 i


2.1 Systems of storage and exchange ............................................................. 133 2.1.1 Systems of Storage ........................................................................ 134 2.1.2 Systems of Exchange ..................................................................... 137 2.2 Functionality and Aesthetics .................................................................... 140 2.2.1 Functionality ................................................................................. 140 2.2.2 Aesthetics...................................................................................... 144 2.3 Artificial scarcity and randomness ............................................................ 148 2.3.1 Artificial Scarcity ............................................................................ 149 2.3.2 Artificial Randomness .................................................................... 152 2.4 Sociality ................................................................................................... 156 2.5 Summary ................................................................................................. 160 Chapter 3: The role of game items in digital performing environments ............... 163 3.1 Performance, avatars, and identities in digital environments ................... 165 3.1.1 Performance in digital environments ............................................. 165 3.1.2 Avatars .......................................................................................... 168 3.1.3 Player identity ............................................................................... 171 3.2 How players perform through avatars and game items............................. 181 3.2.1 Different ways of performing through avatars ............................... 183 3.2.2 Game items as valuable props, costumes, and expressive equipment .............................................................................................................. 191 3.3 Spectacles in digital environments ........................................................... 200 3.4 Summary ................................................................................................. 208 Chapter 4: The influence of player group on game items ..................................... 210 4.1 The power of players ................................................................................ 212 4.2 Players’ collective agreements ................................................................. 216 4.3 The shared information in social worlds ................................................... 223 ii


4.4 Competitive atmosphere among players .................................................. 230 4.5 Collaboration and gifts in social gaming ................................................... 237 4.6 Summary ................................................................................................. 249 Conclusion and discussion .................................................................................... 253 The diverse values of valuable game items in different contexts .................... 253 The hybrid value of valuable game items ....................................................... 259 Research contributions and implications ........................................................ 263 The trends of valuable game items ................................................................ 266 References and Bibliography ................................................................................ 273 Game Appendix .................................................................................................... 307

iii


Illustrations Figures: Figure 1: Circuit of culture ....................................................................................... 27

Tables: Table 1: Applying Erving Goffman’s concept of personal front in digital environments ....................................................................................................... 187

iv


Abstract Game items have become valuable objects that can be traded by both players and game companies. However, valuable game items are typically misunderstood by the public as something unreal or unserious that should not be treated as something valuable. In this thesis, I examine how game items play a significant role as valuable objects in the culturally situated contexts of gameplay and beyond.

In current mainstream discourses, the reasons why game items are so valuable to players can be understood from two main perspectives derived from two traditional approaches: the labour theory of value and the subjective theory of value. On the one hand, followers of the labour theory of value argue that the value of game items is manifest when players make efforts to obtain them. On the other hand, advocators of the subjective theory of value suggest that this value is given by players’ subjective personal preferences.

Although these two perspectives provide useful insights for understanding the value of game items, neither on its own is enough to provide sophisticated explanations for how the value of game items is created and used in different contexts of gameplay that involve much more complexity. This thesis argues that the value of game items is a result of the interplays between different factors involved with both the production and consumption processes in digital gaming.

Drawing on theoretical concepts from different disciplines including media studies, v


economics, game design, performance studies, and sociology, this thesis argues that the value of game items should also be understood in three alternative contexts: game design; players’ in-game social performance; and player groups. The role of game items as valuable objects therefore does not only originate from players’ efforts and personal preferences, but is also created and affected by game mechanics and the strategies of game companies, the way players perform their online identities, and the influence of player groups in digital environments,. This thesis suggests that a multi-perspective and an interdisciplinary approach are appropriate and necessary to provide a more comprehensive picture of how game items have become significantly valuable.

vi


Value in play game items in digital environments (doctoral thesis abstract) (Ho, Ping-I. [Adam])