Centre for Internet & Society

This post examines attention economy as a brief prelude to a paper and monograph to be published on it. It examines the current theses on attention economy and a few approaches to reading attention economy in gaming besides foregrounding the attention economy and its functions and influence in MMORPGs.

What is attention economy?

Attention economy was made prominent through the writings of Thomas Davenport1and Micheal Goldhaber2, who examine 'attention' as a scarce commodity in an information rich environment and divulge into examining exchanges and investments of attention and their results. Not particularly a new concept, attention economy focuses on the examination of attention as a scarce commodity in the information-rich societies influenced by the Internet and new digital technologies. The concept was first noted and written about by the political scientist Herbert Simon (1971), who notes “What information consumes is rather obvious: it consumes the attention of its recipients… [and thus arises] the need to allocate that attention efficiently among the over-abundance of information sources that might consume it.” In the abundance of information and access to information, the consumption or the ‘prosumption’ of information relies on the investment of attention, which becomes a scarce commodity – expended in the act of consumption. For the expended resource is no longer information or its scarcity in terms of availability – which has been the classical concerns in the industrialized market economy – but the amount of attention that is expended on the consumption of information. Economics is governed by what is scarce and the abundance of information is not a measurable function, rather what is expended in its consumption, namely human attention. From a cognitive science perspective, attention can be read as the investment of focused cognitive faculties in a particular ‘prioritized’ activity. In this way attention becomes an essential factor in capital production activities, in that the investment of attention generates capital through the direction of work (labour) and time in any particular activity. Derek Lomas (2008) and Peter Hughes3 treat media objects as artificial organisms that need attention for sustenance and energy for reproduction, somewhat in the nature of a Darwinian struggle where the most ‘able’ and ‘fit’ organism survives. All media organisms need one crucial element to survival, sustenance and reproduction – ‘attention’. In viral spreads and reproduction of a media organism the possibility of its procreation and viral distribution is realized through the investment of attention – the amount which enables survival and reproduction. By extension, virtual products are essentially media (artificial) organisms, and by extrapolation virtual goods and (possibly) even identities are organisms that thrive on the attention it receives for survival and reproduction.

The Economy and the Currency

Goldhaber (1997) notes that attention economy does not indeed have a market and operates unlike post-industrial markets. Although there is considerable material influence in terms of the investments of labour, time, and real money, often there is no direct means to measure it. Concepts of property, dichotomies of production, work, leisure and play require reformulation in light of this economy thriving on attention and its monetization. Davenport and Beck (2001) reinforces a measure of Goldhaber's arguments by stating that telecommunications bandwidth is not a problem but human bandwidth is. Goldhaber proceeds to say that a transfer of information must always be accompanied by a transfer of attention – measurable by the amount of time that is invested in the process. Even though both Goldhaber and Davenport seem to agree that examining time investment is a poor measure of the attention that is expended.

Attention economics in earlier discourses and theses are connected with examining the failures and shortcomings of ‘the design’ of informational systems that locate, falsely, informational scarcity as the root of the problem leading to a deficit in attention, whereas the problem lies in the flow of attention itself and not information. The theories on ‘attention’ deal with a multitude of perspectives – from examining the psychological aspects, on the one hand, to economics, politics and sociology (including a measure of anthropology) of online networks on the other. A recent research on attention economy has largely been towards attention:

a) as a scarce resource that was incentivized [providing an incentive to invest]4 in some manner and thus the attention currency – which is one reading of the attention currency; and

b) as non-material capital, termed most appropriately as attentional capital and as measurable as wealth is to income, assuming that income can be measured and wealth and holdings are diverse and often immeasurable. Other studies focus on incorporating attention into design such that it captures user’s attention and rewards the time spent on the consumption of that information – so that the prioritization is the gambit of the  providers of information and the subsequent hierarchies (such as Google and Yahoo) rather than the users. Prioritization of avatar information is also prominent in the representations in the achievement hierarchy – a system common to how search engines prioritize information – only in gaming this system systematically categorizes information pertaining to the avatar and its achievements and growth. This is both internal to the game world in question as well as external in that external tools outside of the game gather and prioritize avatar information. Such practices have been termed as metagaming.5

Defining metagaming becomes problematic in that it is not a concept peripheral to the absent centre of gaming rather – metagaming or activities and processes associated with metagaming become multiple centres by itself. Applying this to the secondary/goldfarming market may lead to interesting readings but here I digress. Attention and the flows of attention are connected to the ways in which information is structured into hierarchies and channelled, such that ranking systems and the achievement hierarchy moderates attention flows and shifts – players and gamers who grow in short spans of time through strategic and organizational excellence get more visibility in these hierarchies.

Attention economies are largely read and identified in online economies and ecosystems. Davenport and Beck (2001) switch this dichotomy around and attempt a reading of organizational systems and how the offline attention economy affects organization and concepts of productivity and production. However, for the purposes of this study – online gaming economies take a central focus and a generic reading of multiple MMORPG economies is attempted.

Before Castronova (2003), Castronova et al (2007), and much later Consalvo (2009) engaged with questions on Virtual Economies and Gaming Worlds (for the sake of argument –  Castronova’s term, Synthetic Worlds is used interchangeably with Virtual Worlds), Goldhaber and his contemporaries engaged with questions of production of informational goods – those that would in a primitive fashion address virtual production, consumption and exchange of digital informational goods and the relevance of attention expended within these economies. A colloquial reading of attention is that it is always translated as the investment of labour and time in different measures. Furthermore, the investment of time and labour on the consumption of any particular information6 is is incentivized and thus prioritized based on its position in the hierarchy. The higher its visibility, lower its incentives and vice versa. The writers on gaming cultures and economies do not directly engage with questions of attention flows and shifts but by using their concepts on the investment of time, activities of production, cultural, avatarial, and gaming capital, as well as virtual currencies – I engage with the concept of attention as a currency necessary to survival in virtual worlds particularly in MMORPGs, where there are elements of progress, exploration, conquest, warfare and constant struggle.

Reciprocal Attention and Survival

An investment in attention always ‘seeks’ a reciprocity in attention, such that an investment ensures a positive net gain either directly or indirectly owing to a growth in the attention repositories or collection of attention capital. This need not be manifest in the service–provider–user relationship but the user–user relationship. This enables reading the production of attention and the systematic means by which attention is channelled through a complex system of hierarchies in society as well as in the Virtual Gaming Worlds7 more accessible.

Attention can also be approached as the necessity for survival in human society in much the same manner as human society is dependent on the flows of attention for the development of the individual or group in a society or community. It can be argued that attention inevitably forms a basic necessity that indirectly influences survival, sustenance, and reproduction. Production of attention, production of virtual goods, and the production of attentional capital8 are dependent on the minimal and pre-requisite investment in attention. The focus of this paper is to pitch attention as a currency, a currency that can be examined as one only when certain thresholds of attention have been achieved and relevant to the survival in MMORPG gaming worlds— worlds that are capable of viable social and economic interaction.

Questions on the attention economy is inevitably connected to questions of production and consumption and more recently prod-usage and pro-sumption (hyphenated for emphasis) in digital technology mediated environments, whether graphically represented complex virtual worlds or text based MUDs.

Although irrelevant to this trajectory, attention economy has also been approached from a systems and organizational perspective, which is what Davenport and Beck (2001) focus on. Similar studies revolve around examining attention flows in Social Network Systems (SNS) – Lomas (2008) and maximizing user value – Huberman and Wu (2008).

  1. Davenport has explored the implication so of the attention economy from an organizational perspective and the impact on human life – so to speak – particularly in Davenport and Beck 2001 – 'The Attention Economy', the primitive precursor of which was Davenport 1997 – 'Information Ecology'.

  2. Micheal Goldhaber has written and spoken in considerable detail on The Attention Economy – most prominent and seminal of which is 'The Attention Economy – The Natural Economy of the Net' 1997 in the Journal First Monday.

  3. I quote directly from Peter Hughes who posits: “Artificial organisms might live on attention--they 'sleep' when no one is looking at them and gain energy (cycles) when someone is. Since energy could be used to reproduce, the most attention-grabbing forms would be selected.” - Italics imposed for Emphasis.

  4. Some discourses focus on the means by which attention can be converted into currency – one of those means would be to provide incentives to invest attention in a particular action, this incentive then moves its priority higher in the informational hierarchy and in a limited focus, reading the achievement hierarchy.

  5. I believe the term to be conceptually unanchored and nearly meaningless in its vast array of usages and applications – but to locate some of these practices using metagaming might provide an interesting insight into the very nature of these practices and the way in which they are encapsulated and epitomized in other terms.

  6. Informational goods and virtual goods are read side by side and are not differentiated in this article, for the purposes of this argument – 'informational goods' as a term is a larger concept of which virtual goods may form a subset.

  7. Termed the Achievement Hierarchy – The Achievement Hierarchy represents the complex internal and metaverse rankings in an online game. This includes the game’s internal achievement ranking system that categorises players’ and gamers on different growth patterns and achievements as well as external tools not part of the game which assists in a detailed ranking system. Often players themselves subscribe to external ranking mechanisms, to keep track of others and their own progress. Wowprogress is one such external achievement hierarchy that ranks players in multiple realms. Travian World Analyzer, Traviandope and many other external resources support gameplay but are not in essence a part of intended gameplay. Metagaming can prove to be a usable and relevant term to define these practices. I have intentionally avoided linking them as some of these sites employ hostile scripts.

  8. I consistently use attentional capital as an extended concept which includes avatarial capital – avatar capital is a term proposed by Castronova (2005) and cited by Consalvo (2007).


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