From Synthetic Inequality to Real World Equality?

First Monday has a quite extraordinary special issue focusing mostly of what we would call Peer Governance, but also has a focus on the governance of gaming worlds.

One article that catches my attention is Edward Castronova’s take on Synthetic Inequality in virtual or what he calls ‘synthetic worlds’. According to him, the dominant mentality of gamers is neoliberal, because they accept inequality of outcome, as long as the opportunities are equal as well.

First he describes the situation:

In almost all multi-user environments on the Internet, ordinary users already create much of the entertainment that is consumed. There is a continuum of designs, each jumpstarting the user creation process to a greater or lesser degree. In most worlds, users are compensated for their efforts in some way: prestige, influence, power, self-respect, gear, virtual money, real money, and so on. If we focus on purely material compensations, the distribution of gains is almost always very unequal, in two distinct ways.

First, the total wealth held by users is dramatically, almost breathtakingly unequal. Some users have millions and millions of gold pieces and gear that shines like chrome. Other users have no money at all and gear made of old rags.

Second, the users rate of wealth increment per hour or unit of effort is also unequal, though less dramatically so.

l’ll refer to the former as “wealth inequality” and the latter as “wage inequality”. Both have played an important and distinct role in discussions of social justice in the West over the past 400 years. The greatest social tensions, in the period 1789-1945, occurred when immense wealth was held by a few, and zero wealth was held by many millions. At the same time, wages (interpreted here as increment of wealth per hour of effort, not as wage-labor) were quite high for a few, and quite low for virtually everyone else. Moreover, the distribution of wealth and wages was only roughly tied to personal characteristics that could be characterized as “virtuous”? Indeed, much of the debate about systems revolved around questions of whether the wealthy and high paid deserved their wealth and remuneration. Social and economic policy reform attempted to move the economy more toward a perceived meritocracy; “windfall gains” of various kinds became especially taxable; the “working poor” were granted subsidies; to protect against the accident of old age (an accident?), workers were compelled to join pension systems billed as insurance. Meanwhile, as the economy itself began to reward skill more and more, widely available education allowed more people than ever before to claim that they were doing well because they had earned it, though self development. Meanwhile, great fortunes were broken up and wealth inheritance became a less powerful predictor of life course. In words, and arguably in fact, the way wealth and income was earned in the real world did become more closely aligned with traditional notions of dessert during this period.

Against this cultural political background, users attitudes toward wealth and wage inequality in contemporary synthetic economies are illuminating. The breathtaking wealth inequality in these places passes without comment. The rich are happy, the poor are happy everyone’s happy! One hears nary a complaint about it. Thus, an econo-political dynamic that once toppled kings and emperors has absolutely zero political force in contemporary synthetic worlds. Strange.

Wage inequality, however, is among the most heated subjects. A day does not go by without someone complaining that her in-world occupation, be it wizard or welder, is horrifically and unfairly compensated relative to every other occupation. Discussion boards erupt in flames with every minor change to anyone’s ability to earn. In extreme cases, protests move into the online space. Angry warriors mass at the Gates of Ironforge and, through their network-overloading behavior, send the server “the entire world!” into oblivion. Jedi Knights assemble near town hall on the planet Corelia and attempt the same, but Lo! Agents of the Kaiser whoops, I mean the developers arrive and begin shooting at the crowd whoops, I mean teleporting avatars into deep space. To no avail! The People continue to surge forward until the world collapses! Revolution! Revolution!

All this over a tiny percentage change in the ability of certain users to kill some monster and get its loot.

The voice of gamers is therefore undoubtedly neo-liberal:

The People in synthetic worlds have a voice, and they use it to express opinions about inequality and economic policy.

And, as mentioned, this voice declaims violently about wage inequality but says nothing about wealth inequality. What’s going on? How does this square with the history of the Social Question?

I think the explanation is fairly simple: these attitudes are consistent with a neo-liberal theory of deservedness, and perhaps that is the most widely shared rubric of social justice as we begin the twenty-first century. Roughly, I would describe the neo-liberal theory as follows: if everyone is given the same opportunity to do things, and is subjected to only shallow, manageable risks, the fact that some people end up with great wealth and others do not is OK. People are assumed to be reliable agents of their own well-being and therefore any differences in accumulation having been chosen by them under just circumstance are not worthy of comment. Whether or not people are happy with the results, they have no claim against the State.”

However, what is of interest is this, given that gamers have voice and therefore power, they do unrelentingly insist for equality of opportunity, something they are unable to do in our flawed real-world democracies.

This is an interesting avenue for emancipatory politics, we may conclude.

Edward Castronova:

In synthetic economies, all people care about are balanced opportunities. Any subsequent inequality of outcomes, which are substantial in practice in almost all games, don’t seem to raise any ire whatsoever. However, the slightest imbalance in starting lines for a race becomes immediately the subject of dramatic and heated debate. The implications are that either humans, in general, don’t care about outcomes so long as they know opportunities are fairly allocated, or, the people who play these games, alone, have that set of political preferences.”

1 Comment From Synthetic Inequality to Real World Equality?

  1. Pingback: Emancipatory Politics and Neo-Liberalism « Chief Outhouse Correspondent

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