Psychochild's Blog

A developer's musings on game development and writing.

8 December, 2016

Socialism in MMOs
Filed under: — Psychochild @ 12:44 PM

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.

Defining Socialism

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.

Socialism is also different from communism. In communism, everything is owned by the collective, so in theory everyone benefits equally. Under communism, a factor that has a highly profitable/productive year theoretically benefits everyone in the society. The workers may see some benefit, but they could also see the same benefit if the factory had an average year and some other factory was highly profitable. In communist theory, socialism is seen as an “in-between” step between raw capitalism and pure communism. (But, socialism doesn’t necessarily imply an eventual transition over to communism.)

Of course, none of these systems can be found unadulterated in the wild. We have many policies that are considered socialist in the U.S., which is theoretically the most capitalist-minded first-world nation. Reality indicates that a blend of ideologies is the best solution.

Why MMOs are/should be socialist

I wrote previously about how games could be considered socialist in contrast to an article that claimed they were conservative/capitalist propaganda. I wrote:

  1. In many games, the player(s) is(are) the only one(s) capable of performing the task required. In DOOM, your character was the only one tough enough not to get slaughtered by the demonic forces and it falls to you to clean them up. In RPGs, one everyone relies on you as the most capable to go defeat the big bad. “From each according to ability…”
  2. You usually acquire resources at about the rate you require them. In a FPS game, health packs are ideally placed in a level at about the location where you will need it. Before a big fight, you’ll often find a big supply of ammo. In MMOs, they are designed so that you will earn about as much money to pay for a big expense like training skills, etc, when you need it. “…to each according to need.”
  3. Most of your basic necessities are taken care of for your character. There is often no intrinsic need to eat or take shelter in games. Buying a house in MMOs, for example, tends to be a luxury item, but priced in such a way that nearly everyone can afford one.
  4. Acquiring excessive wealth tends to be relatively meaningless. In most RPGs, eventually money becomes useless and while shops still charge you, most other NPCs seem unconcerned about acquiring more wealth. In fact, if you need money in an MMO there are usually subsidized tasks (daily quests) that you can perform for a set amount of cash. There is no formal system of interest and there are increasingly few regular expenses that correspond to rent or free market wages.
  5. Many MMOs have economies that are monitored and controlled by the developers. The developers set the prices NPCs will buy and sell at, and they adjust the economy to ensure that everyone has a fair chance. This central control is similar in structure to the planned economies that form the basis of many socialist concepts.

So, let me expand on this a bit. One of the problems with MMO economies as capitalism is that capital (i.e. money) does very little. I may have the equivalent of millions of dollars in a game, but rarely can I invest that in anything that will appreciate in value. If anything, most games only offer drains for my money. And, in many games, eventually you stop being able to buy gear that increases performance and start having to rely on drops or items crafted from drops.

Most games also lack the infrastructure to support capitalist endeavors. I might use in-game cash to fund myself to get high level crafting ability, but I can’t hire on crafters as labor with my money to form a factory. In fact, in many games crafting is the best way to accumulate currency, so there is little incentive for the crafters to take a wage that would be less than they could earn from selling on the auction house! But, few games have any sort of ways to create or enforce a contract, making most capitalist pursuits difficult if not impossible. The big exception is, of course, EVE Online.

In capitalism, you measure economic healthy by the velocity of money; how fast it moves from one person to the next. In MMOs, there is very little velocity, primarily because there is very low overhead for things like storage of goods. There may be limited inventory or bank space, but I can keep a stack of materials in there for virtually nothing in most games. (Interestingly enough, Meridian 59 did have some costs associated with storing items.) So, I might have a stack of goods that could be turned into great crafting gear, but with little reason to make it that sits idle in my storage. This would be a big problem in a capitalist economy, and therefore we often have taxes to encourage more movement of goods in addition to natural spoilage that encourages people to use items before they lose value.

And yet, the default assumption is that game economies are heavily capitalist. NPCs stand around, offering to sell items that nobody will buy because they aren’t competitive. People accumulate cash because that’s just what you do in capitalist economies. But, the economic system falls apart once you really look at it.

Bartle types as economic types

So, games have an odd economy. And part of how people treat the economy can be found in looking at the Bartle player types.

Achievers like to see numbers go up. Oh, hey, currency on hand is a number! So, achievers who like economic gameplay will use the money earned as score. But, again, this isn’t really a capitalist pursuit because that currency remains a number and can’t be used to increase production or productivity by investing the capital. Currency can also be useful for acquiring goods used in other parts of the game, such as potions or materials for potions in end-game content.

Explorers see currency as a game system. Maybe they’ll tinker with the system to see how best to make money, should they need it, but will probably get bored before long if they just seek to farm cash for the sake of getting cash. Some explorers might figure out ways to manipulate prices on the auction house to increase profits. But, again, a loss here is not all that terrible, as they probably know a few ways to get money back.

Socalizers care about money in so far as it helps them with their social goals. One common saying in Final Fantasy XIV is that glamour is the real end game”. As with any sort of fashion, rare items are desirable for their ability to draw attention. Supply and demand still holds sway on the market board, so having a lot of cash helps to acquire the newest and most coveted items, which in turn translates to social attention.

Killers are probably the least affected by currency. They like taking money from others, obviously, as that gives them more control. They also want sufficient funds to control others, but this tends to be very modest in modern games. Naked zerging is a thing in PvP games if you don’t want to muster the money for a proper outfit.

Most players in modern MMOs are Achievers, so that influences design; currency as score helps appeal to these achievers. Of course, not every achiever cares about economic performance; some may happily spend every coin they becoming a world-first raid victor. For most players, currency is what you use to accomplish goals, not always a goal in and of itself.

Where I fit in

So, my typical Bartle profile is SEK. However, I don’t really invest much in glamours. I have a few glamours that draw attention that were relatively cheap in terms of currency to acquire. I’ve probably spent the most money on acquiring minions (non-combat pets), but I tend to just use a few favorites. And, as an Explorer, I know how to accumulate currency, but I don’t do it to the exclusion of other stuff. Not being much of an Achiever, I don’t care all that much about currency as a “score”.

I don’t have to pay for food, particularly because I don’t do cutting edge content. I don’t have to pay for housing, although I did drop half a million on a private room in the free company (FFXIV’s term for guild) house. I might drop more money on a new apartment, but I haven’t pulled the trigger on that yet. My private room is mostly decorated with items brought back from retainer ventures, or stuff I got my friend to craft on the cheap. I’m a socializer, but I haven’t poured a lot of money into typical Socializer pursuits.

So, I have a fair amount of money. And I have a fair amount of resources saved up. I have my crafting professions to maximum, so I can craft lots of stuff for people.

The logical result? I am happy to pull out some of the resources I saved up and make stuff for friends. And since it was just sitting in storage anyway, I don’t see the need to recoup the cost of the materials. And, I don’t need in-game currency to compensate me for my time. If I wanted that, I’d find an offline job to fill the time I play games and make offline cash which is much more spendable!

More than this, I am happy to help out friends. It feels awful to expect to be paid for my friendship! And it costs me little to nothing to help others. So, I think “why not?”

Socialist game design

So, turning this topic to game design a bit, how does this socialist perspective fit in? I wrote earlier this year about designing away the economy by replacing currency with a stat. I think this would further the socialist bent of MMO economies, where someone with a high wealth stat could more easily help a newbie without great cost to themselves. The person with a high wealth stat could help acquire items for the newbie that they couldn’t hope to acquire themselves.

I think this type of system would make more sense in your typical fantasy game. The person who goes off to slay primal monsters who threaten the very existence of the land shouldn’t be expected to cough up spare change for food and drink at the local street vendor. Or, the soldier who needs equipment to head to the front lines of a war for survival shouldn’t be limited by how much money he managed to farm previously.

It would also eliminate the obligation that some people feel toward “paying back” items. If I can easily acquire a Sword +1 from the vendor by virtue of my wealth stat, then I can give it to a friend who might not quite be able to afford it (but still able to use it). There’s no way to “pay back”, so people might feel more at ease. The best thing to do would be to pay the kindness forward, which helps the social fabric of the game.

The trick would be to give people collective goals. Letting people group together to invest time and wealth to accomplish a goal and all see a return from it, as with the socialist examples above. But, this is uncharted territory for games and would need a lot more design work.

So, what do you think? Do you take a socialist view of currency in games? Do you see game systems getting in the way of your generosity? Or are you happy taking money from friends in order to increase your score?

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  1. I haven’t played MMOs in a while.

    I’m usually SEKA or SEAK, personally. The Explorer part is closest to my motivations for play, I want to see everything. That means currency is often a limiting factor in the beginning, one that seriously annoys me. Grinding the same thing over and over to gain the currency enabling me to go elsewhere? Ugh.

    After a while, currency becomes meaningless. Except, of course, that’s when there’s usually a new, parallel currency, and the cycle begins anew.

    No, I don’t like that at all.

    Comment by unwesen — 8 December, 2016 @ 1:00 PM

  2. I endorse this as an idea to explore. What would such an MMOG look like?

    That said, I also will not feel bad in the slightest if it never catches on. :)

    I won’t do a point-by-point response; that would be (more) boring. But I do want to hit some important points of difference.

    1. “Socialism doesn’t necessarily imply an eventual transition over to communism.” That may have been accurate in a real-world sense so far, but it’s pretty much the exact opposite of what Marx/Engels/Lenin said would happen and wanted to happen. So I’m not quite ready to entirely dismiss the possibility of a large-scale socialist conversion being a waypoint on the slippery slope to communist totalitarianism, and, if it were me, I wouldn’t reject responsibly stated concerns about it.

    2. “Games are actually socialist.” I would say your points hold true to some extent for most single-player games, to the extent that those games have anything resembling a simulation of an economy.

    But for MMOGs, and especially MMORPGs — Western ones, at any rate — I think a far stronger case can be made that the more elements of a real economy they simulate, the more of both the benefits and problems of capitalistic economies emerge.

    A fantastic discussion of this comes from, unsurprisingly, Raph Koster. His “Astromech Stats” article on the economy of Star Wars Galaxies shows very clearly how a MMORPG that advantages crafting over looting as a source of wealth creation (as the U.S. economy still mostly does) both generates enormous in-game wealth and distributes that wealth extremely unevenly (the Pareto distribution).

    And this occurred despite the many ways that SWG still didn’t model important components of a real-world economy, as I described several years ago:

    From this, and from observation of other games, I conclude that yep, most of them do produce capitalistic outcomes due to the combination in them of two things: a market-based trade economy, and participation in that in-game economic system by a lot of humans who think effort should be proportionately rewarded.

    In other words: a) the world is mostly Achievers, and b) unless forcibly prevented from doing so, Achievers will implement capitalism — that is, an economic system that expands a culture by rewarding the individuals who deliver efficient capital formation.

    And in the game.

    Finally, given this (what I think is natural) trend in MMOGs, I would politely suggest that when you commits acts of benevolence in them, you’re actually not being a socialist — what you really are is a philanthropist.

    To “be a socialist” implies participating in a predominantly socialist economic system… which is a thing, I’d say, that online games aren’t. Socialism is a multiplayer social agreement; if a society is mostly not organized to punish individual ownership of the means of production, then individuals (like Bernie) may be a Socialist, but not a socialist, if you get my distinction. You can only be a socialist — or a capitalist — if most everybody else is, too. The system itself (on a large scale) offers few to no opportunities for you to behave otherwise.

    So if you want to see what you consider to be socialistic behaviors from the individual players of a game, I think you’ll have to take pretty drastic measures to refuse to reward effort proportionately in that game’s design. The “laws of physics” of the game itself will have to privilege community ownership of wealth over private ownership, with all of the predictable consequences (starting with the tragedy of the commons) of that economic reward structure on the incentivization of wealth creation. Only then can a majority of the players of a game actually “be socialists” in that gameworld.

    And most of them, I can just about guarantee, will not be Achievers. ;)

    Comment by Bart Stewart — 8 December, 2016 @ 5:08 PM

  3. What are everyone’s thoughts on A Tale in the Desert? Socialism-promoting or no?

    The means of production and goods can be owned by each player – essentially a worker.

    Sometimes people pool this into collective social groups via guild halls for efficiency, no need to reinvent the wheel for costly production buildings – the risks you run are potential theft and/or loss of privileges to use said equipment if either party deviates from the unspoken shared agreement to benefit themselves disproportionately.

    (Yet the more captitalist aspects would be the guild hall leaders having somewhat more disproportionate rights and privileges, eg. to set rights/privileges for others and membership of said guild.)

    Unlocking technologies is a very socialist endeavor. Once unlocked, anyone can benefit from visiting the location for the technology. But it is a group contribution effort to get it unlocked, and often, it is the more hardcore achiever types that contribute many more goods than casually playing others, sometimes for reasons of benefiting themselves also or for beating other regions to it. Yet the reward does not reward them disproportionately for their effort, very much the reverse.

    Comment by Jeromai — 9 December, 2016 @ 12:28 AM

  4. While I’ve been aware of ATITD for years, I haven’t played it myself. But with that caveat, my impression is that it’s never had a huge number of players.

    That’s not a criticism of value. I note it because it’s relevant to how socialism (generally understood) scales up.

    I don’t think there’s much, if any, serious disagreement that socialistic organization can work for a while in small numbers. The kibbutzim are commonly the go-to example here. And the U.S. has seen several similar communities, of which the Amish might be the best-known example.

    But those groups have several features in common: 1) they’re relatively small, local communities; 2) they live simply; and 3) they don’t try to grow by producing more than what they need to survive.

    Which is why *pure* socialism fails when it’s scaled up. A large, complex, producing society requires a certain minimum rate of creativity. So the organizing principle of that society needs to be good at incentivizing creative effort.

    Which is precisely what socialism is less good at than capitalism. In a small community, where everybody knows everybody, norms of behavior promoting the good of the group over the individual can be sustained. (Though even that is hard, of which the New Harmony experiment is just one example). But that bottom-up control over the natural human impulse to want individual effort to be rewarded individually doesn’t scale to “massively” numbers. It’s not possible to personally know even a tiny sliver of a fraction of the people in a functionally large and complex society. And so, without those constant personal-level controls to keep pushing people to set aside their individualistic desires to be compensated proportionately to their effort, some top-level power structure must be imposed to enforce the requirement to work without proportionate compensation (to benefit the “community”).

    And that’s how socialism fails. Either the distant top-level coordinators win in a transition to communism, or the society manages to hang on a while longer by adopting (even if temporarily) capitalistic behaviors such as less confiscatory tax rates. Pure socialism at a large scale is an inherently unstable structure.

    The obvious counter-example to this analysis is the apparent success of the so-called socialist nations of northern Europe. To that, my rebuttal is: 1) they’re not that productive, and 2) to the extent that they are productive enough to survive, it’s due to their capitalistic elements — these nations manage to endure not because of their socialist leanings (e.g., state-imposed redistributionist economic policy) but despite them.

    So what does this mean for online games? If for some reason I wanted to create an overtly socialist game of a self-sustaining size, I’d start with my central point about how to incentivize creative effort, and how to continue to promote that behavior as the population and socioeconomic complexity increase.

    I might look at MUDs versus modern MMORPGs. I might consider Dunbar’s Number, and how a large, complex, functional society might survive when the “laws of physics” favor the natural emergence of uncoordinated-yet-somehow-still-functional interconnections among small communities whose own physics favors an orientation toward the group rather than the individual.

    I still don’t think this game would attract many Achievers. But A Tale In The Desert is mostly Explorers and Socializers, isn’t it?

    As a game, is ATITD financially self-sustaining? That’s not the only measure of success for a MMOG. But it’s an important one.

    Comment by Bart Stewart — 9 December, 2016 @ 10:44 AM

  5. Oh good lord. A number of European governments have been socialist since the 1930s and I can absolutely assure you that neither France nor the UK (to name but two) have descended into Communist totalitatianism. Quite the opposite, in fact.

    The carefully-inculcated American suspicion of anything to the left of Genghis Khan really needs to be revised in light of facts and actual history.

    As for the article – you know I agree with you. I’m a socialist in real life and I’m no different in games. If I have it and don’t need it and you do, why should I *not* give it to you? The idea that everything of value has to be earned with painful sacrifice is a legacy of Puritanism that is about as relevant today as thinking dancing or laughing are a sin.

    I shall now move on and foment political dissent somewhere else.

    Comment by Ysharros — 9 December, 2016 @ 1:23 PM

  6. (I won’t comment on ATITD because once it became obvious to me that were were not much more than fodder for the designer’s higher-level social experiments — and not willing, cooperative fodder at that — I decided I literally didn’t want to play that game anymore. As a game, however, it had some very good ideas.)

    Comment by Ysharros — 9 December, 2016 @ 1:24 PM

  7. I’d say we don’t have any “socialist” nations in Northern (or Southern) Europe. We have a number that are way more “social democratic” than the USA, and tend towards a more redistributive taxation/welfare system, but wholesale nationalization of industry went out of favour a long time ago. Even the more dirigiste nations such as France tend more toward ‘national champions’ in industries that they tilt the playing field in favour of through government intervention but are still recognizably capitalist corporations, not worker-owned collectives. The big difference is probably health care, which is often treated as a state-provided service (in the same manner as policing, or military defence) rather than a for-profit economic endeavour.

    Now, if you want a good example of socialism in MMOs, look at loot distribution in most raiding guilds. DKP systems tended to be designed to reward participation in the common effort, and also to place items where they do most good. Now consider so-called “gold DKP” PuG raids that auction the loot off (some of which share the proceeds amongst the raiders and some that keep at least some proceeds for the raid leaders), and also ask whether changes such as Blizzard’s move to personal raid loot in WoW affect the social(ist) dynamic of raids…

    Comment by Tremayne — 10 December, 2016 @ 12:27 PM

  8. 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.

    Comment by Chris Billows — 17 December, 2016 @ 4:37 AM

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