originally posted at https://canmom.tumblr.com/post/186605...
the tf2 economy crash thing is fascinating because as far as i can tell the value of an ‘unusual’ is entirely conspicuous consumption, in having something that other people don’t have? like, it’s not like having those things lets you play the game differently or anything, it just has a particle effect on it that other people will see.
but in general it’s so weird to me that we create these fictional spaces where we can duplicate in-game items as freely as we want, and we actively introduce scarcity into them. like we can’t imagine a way of structuring time spent in a game except for like, working to accumulate things.
i guess in some ways games are a pretty ideal space for like, capitalist property relations, because you don’t need cops and the threat of violence, you can encode ‘ownership’ of an in-game item as the way the game works. in real life, if i wanted to, say, eat some food from the local supermarket without going through the ritual of assigning them some money at the till, I’d be at much greater risk of getting beaten or imprisoned by the state. but there’s nothing physically preventing it, just the social threat of violence.
in a game by contrast… in Warframe, i cannot use another player’s warframe no matter how prepared i might be to receive state violence (well, not without out-of-game activities like hacking or blackmail or something lol). all the code to operate that warframe is theoretically on my hard drive - the 3D models, the input system, etc. - but without having a dev account, the only way to get my own version of that warframe is to spend money or do the appropriate grind in game.
so it’s like… on one level, it seems like games should be foreign to capitalism, there’s no need for scarcity because you can mutate the game’s data any way you please, if you wanted a representation of a game state where you ‘have’ a particular thing, it’s just a slightly different set of data on memory. but on another level, computer games allow social relations like ‘property’ to be encoded at a far more fundamental and unavoidable level. that’s interesting.
and like the vast majority of games have some degree of this artificial scarcity - people seem to find like, unlocking stuff on an upgrade tree compelling in some way, it’s a selling point of games. and it gets me too…
I’m suddenly remembering how, when I learned how to use the dev commands in Minecraft (this was before they added ‘creative mode’) to instantly transform huge blocks of the game world, add any item to my inventory, etc., I no longer had any patience for actually mining the items. if I wanted to make a thing, why would I want to spend hours clicking on rocks and exploring caves when I could just type a console command and get it immediately? but then, the other limitations came out, and I started wondering - if I wanted to make 3D models and environments, why would I use such a clunky first-person editor instead of a actually decent 3D editor, like Blender? so I stopped playing Minecraft, but I never really made the kinds of things I was making in Minecraft in Blender. removing the scarcity somehow ended up actually killing the game for me!
another example… while I was at college and uni, I used to play Bethesda RPGs, and especially Obsidian’s Fallout: New Vegas which used the same engine. but I used to spend about as much time playing around with mods as actually playing the games! I never made more than the most basic mods of my own, but I contributed to the infrastructure by writing install scripts for other peoples’ mods, and otherwise learned the ins and outs of load orders, editing and cleaning records, resolving mod conflicts etc. (which in retrospect seems really weird… like “time to have fun on the computer by debugging a database!”)
but anyway, with the mod editor and the console, it’s trivial to give you basically any in-game item. if you want the endgame weapons and armour right at the start of the game, you can do it very easily. however, most players don’t want to do that. I tended to mod the game to make things harder: items would be rarer, my character would have to eat and sleep, etc. it didn’t really change the overall arc of the RPG that much, I still got overlevelled and had all the in-game cash I wanted, but still: apparently back then I wanted more scarcity - I wanted there to be things I could want but not easily get. (but also not impossible to get, like expensive things in real life…)
people talk about ‘intrinsic’ and ‘extrinsic’ ‘rewards’ for in-game activities - whether you do it because it’s satisfying in itself, or because it unlocks something else you want. often things are both I guess - you do a raid in an MMO because it’s fun to do the mechanics, but also because you want the next tier of gear (which is only useful because it will let you do a harder raid) or rare cosmetic item.
I remember back when I used to play Star Wars: The Old Republic, when something that was locked behind a difficult raid (a certain mount, if I remember right) became available by other means, a player who managed to get it the original hard way posted on the forums about how he was upset and betrayed that his ‘reward’ for doing this hard raid was now available to the broader player population. like for him, apparently, doing the difficult raid wasn’t satisfying in itself so much as having a thing that other people don’t, something which demonstrates that he did it.
Final Fantasy XIV is a huge game with a ton of shit in it, and like, for me it’s mostly like a single player RPG storyline, interspersed with dungeons and raids which I run with 3-7 other people, ideally people I know outside the game. the progression is mostly balanced enough that I don’t really have to grind, I can go from story segment to story segment and even when I have to level, it’s by running dungeons which is pretty fun. so the game is mostly pretty ‘intrinsically’ rewarding. I haven’t reached the point where you have to grind for gear, so that is mostly an annoyance, like every so often i need to clear my inventory of accumulated shit.
however, the game also has a whole side aspect which I bounced off, involving the crafting system. it’s not a completely vacuous system: people put a lot of effort into like, working out the nuances of the different abilities and synergies to make an optimal crafting rotation. but once you have done that, the ‘gameplay’ is just repeatedly pressing the button to run your crafting macro! it’s so empty that the guides talk about just having it in the background while you watch a TV show or something. in this case the gameplay is just… nothing, just pressing a button repeatedly until you have something to sell on the market. it’s just a way to make things take time to create, to make this part of the game into an economic activity where there’s a concept of ‘socially necessary labour time’, to get players to act like nice little petit-bourgeois investors looking for the most profitable item to build.
but I guess it’s capitalist production without a proletariat. within the game, the players both do the work to make the items, and take them to market. outside of cases like gold-farming, where people do in-game ‘work’ for real-world money, there’s not really a separation of the workers from the means of production. you don’t work for someone, there’s nobody ‘doubly free’ (from ownership of means of production, and to choose who they work for) in Marx’s sarcastic terms.
maybe this is because: you don’t really have to work to reproduce labour-power in the game. that’s not entirely true in FFXIV: gear degrades with use, and you occasionally have to spend a trivial amount of money to repair it. but in general, you’re pretty much always advancing money to get commodities to turn, through in-game labour, into more valuable commodities. without the threat of withholding the money needed to stay alive, there’s no way anyone can push someone else to work for them.
so maybe if there were ‘costs of living’ in an MMO, there would be a division between in-game capitalists and in-game proletariat?
anyway, I want to make games, and to break away from this model somehow. to make games that aren’t about accumulation and ‘having’ stuff. games where whatever you’re doing is satisfying in itself, and there’s no conspicuous consumption, no idealised reflection of the capitalist world we live in where everyone is equal-before-the-game-code, property-owning capitalist subjects.
I guess a question to ask is, what’s the real-world motivation for games about accumulation? the games themselves are of course commodities, taking immense amounts of labour to create. the capital advanced by the game company to create a game needs to be valorised by bringing in more money.
one big reason is probaly padding. often games are designed to occupy players’ time for as long as possible, whether because there’s a subscription fee, or so that we are more likely to pay for microtransactions, or because claiming a large number of ‘hours of entertainment’ is a selling point even in a single-player game. I believe Yoko Taro once commented, maybe in a gdc talk, that like, the length of a game is one of the walls that game devs unconsciously know they can’t really cross: they could never pour all their budget and developer time into making an absolutely sublime ten minute game, no matter how incredible that ten minutes were.
so, an accumulation system offers a lot of ‘game time’ for relatively little developer work. by contrast, something like a cutscene requires a ton of careful animation/mocap work, unique models, voice acting - all of which are likely only to be used once in the course of the game! the benefits of an accumulation system can be compounded with, for example, RNG: it takes a certain number of hours to code the RNG, and then only seconds to set a drop chance, and people will do the same thing over and over for many hours and over in the hopes of eventually getting an item.
the tricky part is making the moment-to-moment gameplay loop satisfying enough that players don’t get bored and give up, something a game like Warframe has down to an art, but honestly people will put up with a lot to see a number get bigger. (there’s a whole niche subgenre of ‘clicker games’, about nothing more than making a single number get bigger at an exponentially increasing rate. it originally started as a joke/parody and then… idk, it became serious somehow! it even came back around to like, producing Serious games like that paperclip AI one…)
and the frustrating thing is… it works, very very well. I can be very conscious that like, the Orb fights at the end of the Fortuna standing grind in Warframe are almost certainly not going to be worth the effort it takes to get there, compared to other things I might spend that time on (e.g. kissing someone, writing, learning to draw, doing actual paid work that I can use to live!!) but I’ve still… done it. and besides me, many many people do as well. the drip drip drip of small completed goals, the ever-present ‘and then I can…’, it is all brutally effective at getting us to sit in front of a screen for hours and pour vast amounts of electricity into tiny bits of silicon.
so why do we do it?
one answer is that it like, gets us through the general miseries of living in this world. i think for a lot of people I know, games are a distraction: we’re isolated, or overwhelmed with something stressful and depressing, or exhausted after Real Work. that was certainly the case for me when I played the most games.
another reason is… it gives a kind of like, mediating factor in being with another person. I’ve recently been getting a great deal out of local co-op games like Overcooked and more recently Helldivers. this is with people I love a lot and care a great deal about, and we also spend time together in other ways, like just talking, or roleplaying, but having a game… it gives ‘something to talk about’ I guess, much like going to a museum with someone? the point is being with the other person, but you need some kind of support for that.
idk. maybe that says something about how utterly fucked we have been by capitalism, that we need such things. but i’ll take it… playing an MMO or co-op game with someone you care about is a very different, and much better experience than going at it alone, or with random strangers. the point isn’t the virtual mine, it’s the pleasure of sharing a thing…
I often think about games that I’d like to make, if only I had the capability. one would be an elaboration of MMO roleplaying: a flexible way to set up animations with other players to create a story, instead of awkwardly trying to line up/repurpose emotes and typing in chat in a game that’s not really designed for it. essentially a multiplayer real-time machinima editor? I wouldn’t want to gate any animations behind a progression grind, but rather give everyone the fully flexible system to add assets, blend animations (like in a character action game), move the camera, etc.
but I wonder… maybe that wouldn’t fulfil the same things I actually get out of MMOs. maybe the jankiness is actually a benefit, because it requires relatively little concentration… or like a kind of concentration that lets people chat and joke and be together in other ways while our hands are making the little chefs run around…