Thursday, August 8, 2013

World of Craft ~ On Greed Systems

World of Warcraft ("WoW"), the greatest of the early 21st century massively multiplayer online games ("MMOs"), was like the early anti-gender Israeli kibbutzim in the great amount of intellectual fodder it provided for analyzing power relations. Much has been written about WoW, but almost nothing has considered it from a political-economy perspective. Here, we'll see that this particular video game essentially duplicated the international banking system, postwar foreign affairs, and state surveillance. By looking at the way WoW's servers are run, you can chart in microcosm the history of the post-colonial west. The most interesting implications, though, are found in considering the behavior of individuals and groups within WoW--the psychology and sociology of the game, if you will. It is there that we find such keen similarities in real- and virtual-world behavior that we may have something to learn that goes beyond what we can glean from looking at the "real" realm alone.

A Quick Summary of The Game Itself

If you haven't suffered through the game itself, or the South Park episode satirizing it, here's a quick summary: in WoW, you play as a character you selected from a limited set of character templates, then run around a sometimes-medieval, sometimes-futuristic world battling monsters and gathering treasure. If you do well enough, your reward is to run around the same world with a different color template loaded, battling slightly-different monsters and gathering slightly-different treasures. Which is to say, it's not much different than life in a post-industrial society, e.g., it could fairly be considered hell except that you sometimes have some fun which may or may not have transcendent value.

And now, onto the things we can learn from it, about banking, war, the security state, and mass response.

Economic Control

To keep users playing the game, the company that controls WoW ("Blizzard") created a viable virtual economy. Many human games are designed to have intrinsic value in that they are played because they are "fun to play," that you learn something by playing them, or that you get a reward, such as discovering a mystery or finishing a story by winning the game. WoW is different because, like all MMOs, it is subscription-based. Instead of being purchased once, it is purchased month-by-month, so Blizzard's motivation is to keep players playing every month.

In order to keep people playing the same game over and over, Blizzard faces a great challenge: it needs to convince people to continue paying money to do what they have already done for dozens, hundreds, or (no joke) millions of hours. Blizzard accomplishes this in many ways, one of which is by creating a virtual economy in which the pretend-gold is worth something.

How can pretend gold be worth something? Status. By selling high-priced luxury goods to players' characters--goods which exist only inside the game--Blizzard has made its virtual currency worthwhile. In that, Blizzard is like any government or private institution that issues currency: its survival depends upon people believing that the currency has actual value, rather than serving only as a means of exchange. The behavior Blizzard engages in, and the behavior with which players respond, is chillingly like the Federal Reserve/peon relationship. (On a side note, Blizzard calls many of the laborer drones in its virtual world "peons" or "peasants.")

Planned Obsolescence

To keep players playing, Blizzard uses its control over the external variables of the virtual world--the weather; the geography; the physical technology players are permitted to use--to constantly devalue previous purchases, and incentivize later purchases, ergo the accumulation of virtual "gold." Year by year, or month by month, players--many of whom have been playing since 2004--discover that the "car" their character has been driving in the virtual world is no longer a cool car. (It's usually something like a horse or a griffon, but hey, they have motorcycles, too.) Their mythical horse, which was the incredibly totally coolest thing ever a couple months ago, now looks outdated.

This wouldn't be a problem, right, if the horse still worked for transportation? In fact, it turns out to be a real (in the virtual sense) problem. If your horse, sword, or medieval helmet are no longer cutting-edge, then you find your number of virtual friends dwindling. No one wants to help you slay a dragon, anymore, because you've become a liability with your slow horse or last-year's-edition Excalibur.

Blizzard, then, uses this masterfully. They heavily advertise their own new virtual products, building a demand for a super-cool winged purple horse or a Blazing Heavenly +12 Sword (far better than the Blazing Heavenly +11 Sword). They create these products with the stroke of a pen, relying on graphic designers to make tiny alterations to pre-existing 3D models (e.g., merely changing the color of a sword to make it vastly desirable) before releasing the new models to players. Because new items are always being released, players who are interested in "succeeding" in the game constantly have the bar moved: they must follow Blizzard's advertising material, stay fresh on what's happening in the game, and rabidly pursue new products as soon as they're released.

Price Fixing and Currency Manipulation

To control economies, elites need to control not only the products and services that people can buy and utilize, but also the means of trading. In WoW, Blizzard does this just like the Federal Reserve: it creates pretend money by fiat, using its tentacles in the in-game banking system to add "gold" to their balance sheets simply by saying so.

If too many players begin to save too much gold as a hedge against future needs ("needs"--haha), Blizzard enacts policies of quantitative easing by increasing the amount of gold that weak monsters provide to players upon being defeated. This increases the gold supply, produces inflation, and devalues the savings of players who wanted to be one step ahead on buying next year's Excalibur. Since 2004, Blizzard has done this so many times, and at such a fast rate, that it's like watching the Fed work ten times faster. When players are feeling down and start dropping out of the game, Blizzard rushes to release bonus goods, lowers prices on necessary in-game goods, and increases the respawn rate of in-game resources. When things have normalized, Blizzard returns prices to their usual positions.

(The Fed, remember, was created in December of 1913, as part of the financial infrastructure that worldwide elites needed to run cover for the coming World Wars, and the perpetual war that has followed "World War I." "World of Warcraft" could not be a better name for a game that so closely models the real world.)

Social Control

The response by players to Blizzard's manipulations is the most striking part of all this, because WoW players react to Blizzard just the way normal citizens react to their own states and bankers: with widespread support and slavish devotion.

It seems like a silly thing to consider, right? In the real world, you might want a cool car because, in addition to the status it can provide you, it also has tangible value: it can burn gasoline and provide transportation. It can be sold and exchanged for real food, water, or shelter. Blizzard's virtual products do not offer that, but they elicit the same sort of behavior from individuals and groups as do real cars. WoW players will (again quite literally) skip real-world work and lose real-world jobs in order to pursue in-game rewards. Many east Asian nations have passed laws limiting the amount of time that their citizens may play online games, even going so far as to specify the kinds of in-game "experience points" or "gold" that can be earned in a day, in order to forcibly prevent people from abandoning their physical bodies and communities in favor of those offered by WoW. In this brief selection from the above-referenced episode, South Park provides a visual representation of the change a player may undergo. (And please, do not take this one's linking of anything related to said show as anything approaching the slightest level of support for said show.)

If you're inclined to more cuteness, dig this:
[A] man in China became so exasperated by the amount of time that his unemployed son was spending playing World of Warcraft that he decided to do something about it. It seems that the lad had quit a software development job after just three months, and was doing nothing to find another one...Mr Feng hoped that killing the 23-year-old's character off repeatedly would put him off playing altogether - and hired virtual assassins to do just that...According to the Sanqing Daily, he managed to find killers who were at a much higher level than his son - despite all his hours of game play...Unsurprisingly, even repeated deaths didn't put Xiao Feng off. They did, though, make him realize something was up, and one of the assassins eventually admitted that his father had taken out the virtual contract.

Back to citizens and bankers: players in WoW, despite the lack of any and all real-world benefits, and indeed, despite the heavy loss of real-world benefits to their own physical success, largely supported Blizzard. Many of them would not allow themselves to perceive that they were being manipulated by new product releases, and indeed, would treat the changed color on a "new" horse or a "new" sword as though it were greatly meaningful. Successful players would mock and shun unsuccessful ones, refusing to associate with or assist them.

On their own, with only a little structural guidance from Blizzard--and without any real-world benefits--players would create formal "guilds" with exclusive membership. Like real-world trade guilds (20th-21st century: "corporations"), guilds would compete with one another on the surface, while inside the guilds, guild members would pretend to cooperate while, in fact, competing even more fiercely with one another for status within the organization. The top officials within guilds would foster the competition among their underlings, providing social perks to some and leading in the shunning of others.

At the same time, the leaders of guilds would maintain secret friendships with the leaders of other guilds: while pretending to be "pro-guild," the leader of a guild would use her or his authority over guild members to coordinate multi-guild activities in a way that provided cover for pooling resources from the lower members of many guilds, and directing them to the guild leaders, while lower-ranked members would assume that the missing resources must've gone to "the other guild." This fostered distrust and animosity between lower-ranked guild members, who would believe that the other guild had gotten the better of the deal. Then, a few months later, one guild would dissolve, and its top officers would "transfer" away to join their friends at another guild, leaving the rest of the membership homeless.

Here Be Dragons

Why would all this crap work? Because, in order to slay a really tough dragon, players needed help from other players. Very early on, players relied on their personal relationships with other players to overcome this: players would join together with their friends in order to slay a monster, thereby strengthening old relationships, and building new ones. Blizzard quickly introduced a "guild" system into the virtual societies of its earliest servers in order to create artificial divisions that would break up personal relationships and force players to rely on guilds for success over monsters.

Blizzard accomplished this in a number of seemingly arbitrary, but actually brilliant, ways. It began providing special perks to guild members (first visual costumes and dedicated chat channels, then bonuses to physical prowess) in return for giving guild leaders and officers total power over guilds. Disparaging the "free rider" problem--in the virtual case, players who would perform poorly while battling monsters--Blizzard and old players (many, very many, of whom were actually Blizzard employees; see later) cast widespread social doubt on "guildless" players. People who had not joined a guild were assumed to be untrustworthy, rather like illegal immigrants or the stateless. Being in a guild, though, meant that the guild leaders could revoke your citizenship at any time, ostracizing you from all your former associations. Ergo to fight any monsters, players had to not only pay Blizzard subscription fees, but also to devote substantial time and energy to providing benefits to their guild superiors to prove their loyalty.

Guilds encouraged guild loyalty with both the stick and the carrot; they would entice new players to become members by offering the benefits of previous years' playing, which could be easily and almost-costlessly shared with someone so new and weak that they were dazzled by baubles. Once the new player had signed on, s/he was encouraged to socialize and play only within the guild in order to obtain future rewards. That player then became so invested in the guild that to be cast out would mean losing everything the player had put into the game. Afraid of being shunned, players sought membership in the "best" guilds, obeyed guild leaders, and joined in shunning those who did not adhere to "guild policies."

Remember--this was all without any real-world benefit. No food, shelter, or reproduction was at stake, here. No actual human contact was, either: it was all virtual. And unlike the real world, people could log off, at any time, and go do anything else they wanted, even just fall asleep on the couch beneath an open bag of chips.

Yet, even in that consequence-free environment, players behaved just as they do in the real world. Players developed extreme patriotism toward their guilds, and toward Blizzard, while mocking and insulting those who questioned the system as "losers." Trapped in the fearful competition of their own guild- and server-* politics, players would go so far as to make real-world threats to others. They would encourage "everyone" to verbally abuse and avoid playing with those who tried to resist the guild system. Blizzard encouraged this by creating moderated internet forums where guild players could insult guildless players (Blizzard's moderators would, naturally, censor or delete posts which were critical of Blizzard policies).

Players would regularly complain about Blizzard, in much the same way that Americans will complain about politicians. Yet, despite all their generalized complaining, whenever Blizzard's policies were questioned in un-moderated venues, players would leap to Blizzard's defense with a truly staggering ferocity. Like with Americans in late 2001, asking the question "Could Blizzard do this better?" is met with the response, "IF U DONT LIKE IT Y DONT U GO LIVE IN A CAVE IN AFGHANSTAN!!?!" (sic)

Even when the mildest criticism of Blizzard was for the "general good"--such as, "all players should get a new sparkling pony" or "all players should get 100 gold free!"--WoW players would violently defend whatever action the company would take.

This isn't like Americans with health care, remember? This is a virtual world. Blizzard could give all players sparkling ponies and a billion gold with a few clicks of the mouse. No one would have to pay taxes, work extra hard, or do anything else in order to give those ponies away to everyone. The reaction remained the same.

(* Because WoW has so many players, players are divided into individual servers, where one version of the game's world would be maintained, with a population cap of several thousand players. Players select a server, and can then only log into that server to play their character, unless they pay Blizzard a fee in real-world money in order to transfer that character to another server. Players developed "server" loyalties, also, though not as strongly as those to guilds or to the company Blizzard.)

Standard Enforcement

What we learn from WoW, and the greed system it created, was that the behavior of people within greed systems is not based on the need for resources. The modern science of economics has justified itself, since its inception, as studying how people manage scarce resources, yet in the real world--and in the virtual worlds of WoW and the many others like them--resource scarcities are artificial things, created in order to keep people frightened, belligerent, and running.

Similarly, in the "real" world, the scarcities that governments and their economists use to justify social divisions are artificial. The behavior of WoW players mimics that of real-world economics players as closely as does the behavior of Blizzard and those who manage the economies and resources of the real world. The release of new consumer goods; the subtle systematic encouragement of outsourced loyalties through formal and informal associations; the carefully timed provision of resources and technologies: all these things, and the public reaction to them, can be seen on a much faster scale in WoW.

We're looking at this particular dumb video game not because we want to decry how stupid and mean elites are, or even to chronicle some of the details of how they manipulate financial systems, "nations," and other groupings of resources and people. Those things are worthwhile to consider, but more interesting by far--particularly if you've already figured out the worldwide blood and money ruse--is the way in which people react to it. When WoW players, under zero real-world pressure whatsoever, and even contrary to their real-world success, completely of their own volition adore Blizzard and reinforce its policies, it gives us a vast, seemingly-non-intuitive insight into why they do pretty much the same thing in the real world--and why the elites do the same.

Continued in Part 2, Esteem-based Transactions.


  1. Very perceptive post. My son played WOW for a long time before switching to DODA then a relative of DODA. Your post covers all the complaints he expressed to me and others that are new. Thank you for your effort and insight.

    1. The entire MMO market will feel pressures to do things similar to what Blizzard has done, because it is cheaper to keep monthly subscriptions by producing dazzling items than it is to invest heavily (and redesign server worlds and NPC interactions) in plot.

      As in the early days of newsprint, we're seeing an effect on mass-online video game creation where the industry's self-limiting technology encourages hollowness of design.

  2. This is... well... just wrong. I get a strong impression you played maybe... 10-20 levels of the game, grew bored, then surveyed a bunch of people very superficially to draw preformed conclusions.

    I'd honestly dissect you point by point, but the comment would nearly rival some of the verbosity of your blog post. Simply put, you don't understand the game whatsoever, attribute far too much malice to an entity that has none, and ignore (willfully or otherwise) any and all reasoning behind most player motivations.

    To you its just a "dumb video game" that gives you a snazzy title.

    1. I would enjoy it if you responded point by point! If you can't fit it all into a "reply," you're welcome to e-mail the text, and I'll give it its own post later.

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