Virtual Goods and the Loss of Authenticity

Can virtual goods become family heirlooms? Or will they always just be bits on a screen?

This article originally appeared on

World War II newspaper
A print newspaper from 1945 heralding the end of World War II. (Source: Etsy)

Picasso’s beret. Mark Twain’s notebook. John Lennon’s glasses. If you’ve ever gazed at a relic once owned by a notable historical figure, you know the feeling that follows: a sense of peering into history, the sum total of your knowledge of that person hitting you at once, made real by the remarkable plainness of the artifact.

In his alternate history novel The Man in the High Castle, famed author Philip K. Dick posited the idea of wu – the sense of historicity embedded in an object that elevates Twain’s notebook from a common pad, or Lennon’s glasses from a similar pair bought on the street corner.

Physical objects of extraordinary significance like these are obviously unique. But on the flip side, what does this mean for virtual goods? Would Picasso’s favorite TF2 hat be capable of exuding the same borderline mystical properties? Or does the recent shift towards virtual goods indicate a loss of authentic historicity in our objects, and summarily, our world?Or does the recent shift towards virtual goods indicate a loss of authentic historicity in our objects, and summarily, our world?

“Don’t you feel it?” He kidded her. “The historicity?”
She said, “What is ‘historicity’?”
“When a thing has history in it. Listen. One of these two Zippo lighters was in Franklin D. Roosevelt’s pocket when he was assassinated. And one wasn’t. One has historicity, a hell of a lot of it. As much as any object ever had. And one has nothing. Can you feel it?”
–From The Man in the High Castle by Philip K. Dick

The above excerpt from Dick’s book is deceptive – the character goes on to refute the very concept of historicity he introduces, saying that the perceived authentic quality (or wu) of important objects relies on certificates of authenticity, and therefore, exists only in the mind of the observer. Yet the introduction of virtual goods into modern digital games complicates this idea.

Take the superb example of the baseball card. In its heyday, kids would save up to buy packs of collectible cards in the hopes of finding a rare card, or finding their favorite player. They could collect the entire set, trade them with friends, and otherwise bond over their common interest in the sport.

Deckdaq Garfield
Deckdaq's collectible cards are 100% virtual.

Now, the virtual counterpart would be Deckdaq’s virtual collectible card system. The basic mechanics remain the same – you buy a pack of cards in the hopes of finding rare or desired cards; trade them with other collectors; or endeavor to collect an entire set. Yet because these cards are all virtual, there’s no artifact to carefully place into albums, or bring with you on the bus to school, or pass on to your children when they’ve reached the age you were when you first tore open the wrapper. With virtual goods, the concept of the heirloom is diminished, if not destroyed.

When your grandmother wills you her engagement ring, or your grandfather passes on a watch that’s been in the family for generations, the object carries the weight of all the history that precedes it. When you take it in your hand, your awareness of its history floods out all at once – picturing your grandmother as a young woman, her hand clasped to her cheek in shock as your kneeling grandfather gently slips it on her finger. You are surrounded and enveloped in this aura of history exuded by the object.

Can we create this same sense of historical significance with virtual items? Can a cherished rare armor drop, passed through guild members for years, incite in a player the same sense of importance? Or do we need the tactile quality to fully bridge us to a perceived historical importance, leading to a moment of transcendent awareness?

The Complex Relationship with Computers

One detractor could be the concept of the middleman. With virtual goods, you simply cannot experience the object without the computer as a go-between. Physical objects have no such gatekeeper – when you take the watch, you are directly feeling what your grandfather felt. There is no system to parse the experience, no layer of interpretation necessary.

This is not to say that virtual items and experiences are invalid. How many of us who grew up playing games have years of memories from worlds that never truly existed? Yet so many of us share the same experiences of battling monsters in Hyrule, or frantically positioning falling tetrominos, even without a tactile component to ground them.

Darwin's notebook
Charles Darwin's notebook. (Source: The Art of Manliness)

So if there is indeed merit in both virtual and physical experiences, and there is a specific kind of historical wu prevalent in physical objects, is there a counterpart for virtual objects? Can imaginary constructs impart their own brand of heirloom-quality authenticity?

It’s certainly possible, but it would require intentional effort to get there. Here are some ideas:

Conversing with ancient ones. Imagine we have the capability to create fully-realized AI constructs. Now imagine hundreds of years have passed. Being able to converse with a fully-cognizant AI from 100 years ago would surely impart users with a sense of unique history, as the AI (if unchanged from its original form) would reflect the state of humanity during the time of its creation. We can do this now with early chatbots like A.L.I.C.E. and Eliza, but once technology allows us to accurately model personalities and brain functions, this will get much more interesting quickly.

Exploring the (virtual) past. Imagine a new classic CG film of the future. What if you were able to enter that world as an avatar and explore at your discretion? What would your favorite scene look like from a totally different angle? Or, imagine a thrilling tournament match from the popular competitive games of the day. What would it be like to enter a replay of that championship game, running on the battlefield alongside the winning team? Re-experiencing memorable virtual moments firsthand would be on par with historical reenactments, and the more meaningful the original event, the more powerful it would be to relive it on your own terms.

Visual flashbacks. Imagine an MMO that you’ve been playing for years. Now imagine winning a celebrated one-of-a-kind weapon in a raid or battle – and then having the option to watch gameplay clips of every player who has ever wielded that weapon, bridging the gap between its legacy and your current ownership. When the clips end, you would never look at the item in your inventory the same way again.

The Hidden Truth

Did you figure out the answer? Sure, physical objects can be experienced in a unique tactile way, and virtual items may have their own advantages one day, but the difference is negligible. The real source of historicity, of wu, lies with us in the very act of experiencing – made possible by the human mind and the relationships it enables us to create.

As long as this aspect remains the focus – significance translated into reality, by connecting history to the present and re-imagining what once went before – we will always be able to craft meaningful experiences and objects, both in the physical world and the ones we make ourselves.

Ben Serviss is a freelance game designer working in commercial, social, educational and indie games. Follow him on Twitter at @benserviss.


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