Final Fantasy XIV recently relaunched. This was big video game news because (1) Final Fantasy, (2) a big budget mmo, and (3) the original launch/version was a disaster.
The summer before the initial release I followed updates about the game fairly closely (I was not able to actually play any games during that period so this was the next best thing). In the section describing various jobs you could play, they tell a story about economic production and exchange. You’ll not be surprised I found the following striking:
The biggest incongruity between FFXIV’s capitalism and our’s is not that it takes place in Eorzea, or that you can transport almost instantly from location to location via a network of crystals. Leaving aside the differences between avatars who heal with potions and spells and humans who do so with medicine and rest, the relationships you have in FFXIV’s idealized capitalism are quite different than historical Earth-bound capitalism.
FFXIV’s capitalism is Marx’s ancient/independent class structure and some friendly one-to-one exchange – simple commodity production. Adam Smith would recognize the “trucking and bartering,” but wouldn’t be too impressed with relatively undeveloped division of labor we see. Independent craftspeople? Get them into mechanized factories. The extent of the market is that local fisherman you pass on your morning hike? Learn to Wealth of Nations.
It is not that interesting to see a shallow understanding of capitalism in a video game promotion. It is interesting, if not surprising, how the misunderstanding plays out. Capitalism is awesome because we think of it with decidedly non-capitalist metaphors. Would you like to be your own boss? Great, cuz I’ve got a system for you in which almost nobody is their own boss. Enjoy!
The FFXIV A Realm Reborn relaunch was a lesson in some of the more complex and less romantic dimensions of actually existing capitalism. Unable to perfectly forecast demand, and not wanting to overinvest after having the first version fail in embarrassing fashion, there was not enough room for all the people who wanted to play. This was the flip side of the latest Star Wars MMO (The Old Republic) in which fundamental uncertainty alongside overconfident animal spirits lead to excess capacity, leaving many places that were supposed to be thriving Republic hubs according to lore dismal ghost towns.
The relationship between actually existing capitalist firms and consumers is already complicated. As there are no perfect markets (particularly when IP is driving a large part of the product in question), the price mechanism is a minor, as opposed to sole, mediator between the two parties. The MMO market is exit, voice, and loyalty on lots of steroids – ragequit, troll, and fanboy. For the many players who were locked out of the game they wanted, banging away on the ’0′ key repeatedly for hours trying to sneak in, Square Enix was not doing what a firm “is supposed to do.” The consumer is sovereign. Let us effing play.While some exited many more just threatened. In a free market economy you can’t do this because we’ll just buy from someone else. Except the law prevents anyone else from producing a FFXIV. Except MMOs are dependent on network externalities.
Square Enix apologized, apologized, apologized, and the producer broke down in tears. They gave away free days. For the most part people who want to play can now. There are issues of friends who want to play together being stuck on different servers. This is not the end of the world, or capitalism, but isn’t the sort of dynamics that show up in the market for apples in a principles course.
On some servers, our human decency was on full display. Someone discovered that if people voluntarily waited in line complete certain tasks, the game would crash less and more people could play. This was difficult to enforce because given technological constraints and some discretionary game design decisions, there is no collision. You can just walk through any other player or non-player character. Nonetheless, in some places people coordinated. Many of these doves also limited their playtime, logging off often to allow others to play. Hawks had different ideas. If they logged off ever, they might not be able to get back on. So they would stay logged on for days. Although P never got to 1, as the evolutionary dynamics would suggest, servers became more and more full of AFK’ing Hawks. Doves logged off frequently and therefore often could not get back on the server to cooperate (death) or decided it was better to screw than get screwed and became Hawks (evolution).
Both the Hawkish and Dovish behavior was understandable, but the difference between defectors and cooperators in gameplay turned into fierce debates on internet forums. People questioned each other. Were the AFK’ing Hawks as bad as Hitler, or just almost as bad? Were the qq’ing Doves really so dumb that they couldn’t understand the iron law of survival of the fittest, or were they merely too weak and pathetic to recognize it?
Most people can actually get onto a server now, so the biggest remaining problem is the RMT spam. Here is different representation of the triumph of capitalism in a fictional fantasy context (see chat window on left).
The big difference here is the embarrassing contamination of the fantasy by actual capitalism. Real Money Trade (RMT), where in game money, goods, or services are sold for “real” (out of game) money, has long been a concern in MMOs. FFXIV’s current problem is not only the existence of RMT, but the incredible frequency of spamming. The log on the left of the screen is one of the key social tools of the game. You use that window to chat with friends, shout messages to the entire region, discuss tactics as a tight-knit group of adventurers advancing on a giant venomous lobster thing, or coordinate long term strategy with your “free company.” Or, you can’t do any of that shit because someone named “Ssdkjlklaso Bhisonaa” is spamming RMT advertisements so quickly you can’t read a single message.
Someday in the future, I imagine, you could just right-click on good old “Ssdkjlklaso Bhisonaa” and choose an ignore or blacklist option. In a social game, it is sad to have to blacklist people, but “Ssdkjlklaso Bhisonaa” is not really playing the game. She is in the game, but as a wage worker (or maybe he was receiving a wage until getting replaced a computer program). It is their job. Many of them actually love video games. It is how they connected to others (either over internet connections or side-by-side). It is how they made their mark in the world. Now, it largely sucks. An internet cafe is a nice place to get together with friends and socialize playing video games. Alternatively – hey a bunch of people in one place with machines who happen to be producing things of value (swords, potions, helms, etc. that are only available after an expenditure of time and are use-values for many Western players) – lets turn it into Adam Smith’s fucking pin factory. You will be dexterous in accumulation of virtual currency but “mentally mutated.” At this point the academic in me/you/someone wonders how this novel and exotic behavior could be couched into some narrative – “articulated” even, because in the 21st century we need to hold fast to the hegemony of the Roman Empire – about an utterly new logic of capitalism. Unfortunately, for purposes of publication and promotion, the once playful producer of potent polearms who now plugs away at the keyboard as a prole will discover themselves much more immediately in the early Marx than anything that would help us get tenure. By the way, this is not Zombie Marxism; it is something called academic honesty.
So, long story short, don’t feel bad blacklisting someone. You were alienated before you had a chance to be friends [for a more optimistic take read Doctorow's For The Win]. Oh, but good luck blacklisting them. You can’t simply right-click and ignore. Instead, you type in the command: “/blist add “Ssdkjlklaso Bhisonaa.” Personally, I don’t think this is hard but many people are not good typers and the chatlog is scrolling fast as hell. Good luck making out the difference between “Ssdkjlklaso Bhisonaa” and “Ssdkjlkiaso Bhisonaa.”
The good news is that as of late some of the names have become easier to read. I saw one with the surname Smith – not Adam which would have been awesome. Someone spotted a William Shakespeare. Nice to see the spammers using intelligible names. Unfortunately, there is a not-so-silver lining to this week’s “Cloud Strife” replacing “Ssdkjlklaso Bhisonaa.” You know that RMT that people dislike because it dirties the fantasy world with actual capitalism? The one that is even more annoying because they advertise their services in an almost antagonistic fashion (It is like super loud commercials – except the commercials never stop)? Well sometimes they are not even really selling anything (physical or virtual). You want some gold? Ok, just give us some credit card information please. You want us to help level your character so you won’t be bullied in middle school for having a wimpy level 7 archer with ragged clothes? Just give us your account information. The invisible ink print says that your account is going to be stolen to just spam more to get more accounts and more financial information, and even if you call the company and get your account back you will find yourself on everyone’s blacklist. It says all that in leetspeak so it is even more annoying.
Often the unfortunate and alienating consequences of these class dynamics (with serious consequences for the poor and minor inconveniences for the globally wealthy) create other problems. For a variety of reasons (it is not just unit labor costs), many of the RMT players are from China, so the often understandable dislike of spamming and botting turns into jingoism, xenophobia, and racism. Noobs who can’t be bothered to strategize scapegoat the “Chinese” for breaking the economy.
So capitalism is not always fun. The historical existence of capitalism played a significant role in the existence a game like this. It also plays a significant role in preventing it from reaching its potential.
The game, however, is quite fun in my opinion. It even runs on the PS3. I figure the lack of a keyboard and mouse puts a lower absolute ceiling on performance, but it also has a higher floor than the PC. A drunk sloth with a PS3 controller will always be more competitive than a sober human “clicker” (http://www.mmorpg.com/discussion2.cfm/post/3283473#3283473). While FFXIV’s notion of capitalism is not very accurate, it can be fun. You can be a skilled craftperson who becomes more skilled over time. Presumably players would riot if Square Enix deskilled them through Taylorist game systems. (Hopefully some of this resistance could happen IRL too – the desire for a better world in play and in the “world” need not be substitutes. I know a Chomsky-style leftist might retort that people do not engage in real activism because they are too busy tracking fantasy football stats to know poverty stats or protesting a nerf on Paladins to march on an actual street. I don’t think so. Rather, the type of institutions that allow people to mobilize are more prevalent in games than in today’s social world.) So, the supposed, but not really accurate, capitalism in game is quite fun. On the other hand, the not-so-fun actual capitalism of RMT that has plagued the early post-release days through crass commercialism, alienation, spam, and fraud is something Square Enix promises to abolish in the near future – friggin commies!