Brian Green wrote on his Psychochild blog an interesting post about how MMO games are a means to understanding Socialism. First of all, its an interesting post to just think about games in terms of political economics. Second of all, I think Brian makes a typical mistake of associating positive qualities with something he favors, known as the Halo Effect.
Games as Socialism…
I’ve run into an interesting situation with some people in FFXIV. Many times people have needed items which I have gladly been able to provide (or acquire easily), but people feel bad taking the items from me. They insist on paying for the items somehow, or they want to trade. One friend said she felt bad always asking me for stuff, even if I offer on a regular basis.
I wanted to take a look at this, and look at why it really didn’t bother me to offer these items or services to others. Why I’m a big-hearted socialist in MMOs.
Okay, I used “the scary S-word” in the title. Intentionally. 😉 Since many Americans have a terrible understanding of what socialism is, let me give a basic definition here. This delves into some economic theory, but you are smart people. Also keep in mind that there is a lot of depth to each economic system, but I’m defining the parts that are relevant to this discussion.
At the core, socialism is about social ownership. Instead of individuals owning things like factories and using them to enrich themselves, means of production and goods are owned collectively by the workers. Large-scale enterprise is seen as a collective effort, and the rewards should be distributed between people participating. In socialism, a factory that has a highly profitable year rewards everyone who works at the factory. Note that most families are usually socialist organizations; money made by family members goes to benefit the family as a whole.
This is different than capitalism which puts more of a premium on those supplying the capital than those supplying the labor. In capitalism, a factory that has a highly profitable year rewards individuals who has an ownership state or a contract that rewards bonuses based on profitability. Since capital is seen as a premium, most of the rewards to go the owners of the factories, who generally have little motivation to reward laborers who could be replaced easily enough.
I commented that he made a mistake in his conclusion.
“I think you may be confusing generosity with economics. As Bart has said, sharing or freely giving away stuff you own is not socialistic. It’s acting out of kindness and beneficence.
If games you played were truly socialist, then you would not own anything. You would need to negotiate with your collective if you can borrow the +8 vorpal blade and dragon scale armour for your quest. Your socialist collective would not be impressed if you generously gave those items away, or gave away other items you acquired by virtue of the items the collective lent you. After all, if the collective helped you, it’s expected you help the collective in return.
Which is why it’s important to not overstate the competitive aspects of capitalism. Capitalism succeeds as well as it does because cooperation, agreements, and sharing are critical characteristics to if.”
One of my annoyances is how intellectuals have a hate-on for capitalism. I’m not saying that Brian falls into this category, but his mistake is exactly what I see being repeated by various thinkers I have read or met. There is a wrong assumption that capitalism means competition and oppression. The fact is all economics involve competition and oppression in addition to cooperation. What capitalism does much better than socialism is allow people to make their own decisions on how to approach their economic decisions. Because the means of production rest in private hands, the decisions are decentralized and thus dynamic. Socialism only works when economics are static by necessity (subsistence economics) or design (price controls). It is the dynamism of Capitalism that allows for people to be generous with their wealth.
On the game design aspect, it would be interesting to see a game that actually practices socialistic economics. Could you imagine a RPG where you needed to be in queue to borrow a really powerful weapon to take with you on your quest? You had to return said weapon back to the collective by so many days or you have consequences like being unable to borrow more weapons. I’m not sure it would be fun, but it would be something to try. I think that for there to be fun in such an arrangement, the player needs to see how returning the power weapon benefits others in the collective. With the right design, perhaps the socialist model with its inherent limitations could be tolerable.