Points Mean Prizes

If console currencies aren't designed to mislead, what are they for?

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Almost all of you, I'm sure, will have experienced the odd disconnection from currency that comes in your first few days abroad. The money in your hand doesn't feel real, its value impossible to quantify on a meaningful level - mathematically, you know that your home currency converts into the local paper at a relatively fixed ratio, but handing over 10 dollars for something just doesn't carry the same mental significance as paying seven pounds back home.

This psychological problem is exacerbated further when you start trading in a currency that's not just different by a few percentage points (realistically, a US Dollar, a Euro and a Sterling Pound are all of roughly similar value, generally not worth more than 50 per cent more or less than the other), but is actually different by an order of magnitude.

Asian currencies such as the Yen, the Yuan and the Won are incredibly tough for an American or European to get an intuitive sense of - you know, of course, how many places to move the decimal and roughly how much to divide or multiply by, but the simple act of handing over currency feels more like a trade in a childhood game of Monopoly than an actual financial transaction.

This isn't new information, or a revelation. Our close attachment to currency has been understood for many years - it's exploited by unscrupulous traders at airports, for example, who know that they can charge more because visitors won't grasp how much they're paying. It was a strong public argument for the introduction of the Euro across much of Europe early in the past decade; ironically, the same deep attachment to currency has also been used by the unified currency's detractors to keep it away from Britain.

So I think it's fair to say that this is a line of thinking which would, at the very least, have been familiar to Microsoft when it decided that content purchases on Xbox Live would not carry price tags in local currencies - instead effectively creating its own currency, the Microsoft Point, to which you must convert your cash before you can buy anything.

It's worth bearing that in mind when reading this week's rather defensive comments to G4TV from US Xbox executive Aaron Greenberg regarding Points, which start out by stating bluntly that "we never intended to mislead people".

Corporate PR is a funny business, and I often wonder to what extent people like Greenberg grit their teeth as they're forced to paint solid, well-considered (albeit not terribly consumer friendly) business strategies as unfortunate accidents, depicting their undoubtedly thoughtful and well-informed decision-makers as hapless slapstick bunglers, accidentally knocking over fragile jars and then grinning sheepishly when mountains of cash pour out of them.

While a corporate PR man would undoubtedly suck at his teeth with displeasure and say something along the lines of "well, I think mislead is a very strong word..." at this juncture, the reality is that - unless they really are a load of hapless buffoons, in which case the success of the Xbox 360 is a miracle not unlike actually persuading a room full of monkeys to type out Hamlet - the Microsoft Point's raison d'etre is exactly that. It exists to obfuscate pricing, achieving exactly what foreign currencies do for tourists - items in the shop are easily comparable with one another, but the psychological link with what things cost and the value of money back home is snapped.

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