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I’m Just a Wizard Laboring in a Violent and Softcore Consumer Culture: A Historical Look at the Changing Culture of Consumption in Digital Games

With networked gameplay and great downloads came the potential for virtual assets to be bought and sold, along with all of the other content.

by Nate Garrelts

In December 2008 Sony Computer Entertainment released a free beta application for the PlayStation3 named PlayStation Home. As the avatar based social program had been in development for several years, I was eager to try it. After designing my avatar I found myself in a modest yet contemporarily decorated beachside studio apartment. With absolutely nothing to do besides move furniture around, I teleported myself to the Central Plaza where I saw many other avatars and some advertisements. Thinking that I would find some items to physically differentiate my avatar from all the other blue shirted newbies, I went to the Shopping Center. There I found items to not only adorn my body but to also decorate my apartment. To my surprise, the only way to get these items was to use real money from my PlayStation Wallet. Sure, I knew that that the most recent round of game consoles--all of which emphasized networked connections--were closely integrated with digital marketing and shopping; after all, I frequently downloaded game demos, browsed the movie rental section, and purchased games. What I naively didn’t see was that along with the networked gameplay and great downloads came the potential for virtual assets to be bought and sold along with all of the other content. I felt sick as I envisioned cartoon like dollar signs floating from my very real back pocket.

As with many things in life, once our eyes are opened we begin to see the same phenomena everywhere we look. When my wife was pregnant with our son I saw pregnant women and babies everywhere. I wish my visions this time were as happy. Soon I started to notice more downloadable content for games I owned, and friends started mentioning to me how they paid money to add new characters to games—I could add Yoda to Soul Calibur IV for around $5.00. Growing up in a world in which additional levels and special characters were rewards granted to players based on their gameplay, I was infuriated at the thought that cool content would intentionally be withheld for profit. And as I looked to the PC games market, I saw everyone getting squeezed or squeezing someone else. There were subscription fees, gold farms in Asia, auctions on ebay for virtual items, real currency conversion rates, people making their living fabricating, selling, and working in virtual worlds. What happened to the days of just being a wizard laboring for fun with my friends and acquaintances in a violent and soft-core Multi-User Dungeon (MUD)? My point is not to weigh the relative value of this phenomenon. Rather, my aim is to briefly historicize the consumption of goods in digital games in order to discover how we arrived at this moment: a moment where a slave like ideology of commodity fetishization and conspicuous consumption has entered the virtual world along with our real dollars.

Digital games have far reaching origins spanning technology, art, and play, and it would not be much of a stretch to identify the current trend as ultimately having its beginnings in some other medium that far predates current technology. More recently though, one might begin with the development of digital games in their computer based and console based forms as they became publicly and commercially available to audiences during the 1970s. Of special relevance are the text adventures, Multi-User Dungeons (MUDs), and Role Playing Games (RPGs), that were the precursors to the current Massively Multiplay Online Role Playing Games (MMORPGs) and virtual life simulations.

The first text-based computer games began emerging in the mid seventies with Will Crowther and Don Woods’ Adventure (1975/1977). Though simple by today’s standards, the text-based Adventure was revolutionary in that it sketched out a complex virtual world underground to be explored by typing commands that caused a virtual text-based avatar to interact with the world (Jerz). This was followed (almost contemporarily) by the momentarily above ground game Zork (1977/1980) which saw commercial success in the emerging personal computer market of the 1980s (Barton). At this stage, while there were objects that could be manipulated that had use-value, there were no developed economies; in fact, there was no money to be exchanged. However, text based games of this sort provided much of the structure, tone, and context for later multi-user and text based, fantasy games—especially MUDs. The first MUD, a collaboration by Roy Trubshaw and Richard Bartle aptly titled Multi User Dungeon came into being between 1978 and 1980 (Bartle). Similar in many ways to paper based role playing games, the persistent world of MUDs allowed players to go on quests, socialize online with others, and most importantly to accumulate items or wealth to facilitate gameplay or at the least interactivity.

The early and mid seventies also saw a slew of commercially successful arcade and home video game systems many of which were tennis based. While Magnavox is credited with having the first console, it is Atari’s arcade and home versions of PONG that history remembers best. Moreover it was Atari’s 2600 (1977) that won Americans over by providing ports of many popular arcade games (Space Invaders, Missile Command, etc.) (“The Atari”). However it wasn’t until Atari released a graphic interpretation of Adventure (1979) that video games attempted to do visually what computers were doing textually. Perhaps more importantly, and unlike text adventure games, on the home console virtual consumption was not only imagined but visually depicted. Pac-Man (1980) was a consuming machine. He weaved in and out of digital corridors chomping on dots, special power pellets, and sometimes ghosts. In fact, the only way to earn points and to prolong playing the game was to speedily and strategically consume. CHOMP. CHOMP. CHOMP.

Later console games in the 1980s continued this trend, albeit in a much less satiating and more abstract capitalist guise. In Nintendo's famed Super Mario Brothers (1985), players controlled the plumber Mario who, in addition to his typical tasks of stomping on things and eating mushrooms, spent his time bashing bricks with his head (abuse ones body to obtain wealth) to collect coins. Though he never was able to visit a store to spend this money, the rules of the game rewarded the collection of 100 coins with a free life.

In the same year, the two worlds of image and text collided with the graphical MUD Habitat (1985) for PC produced by Lucasfilm Games (Morningstar and Farmer). This game/virtual world was notable because it combined graphics with online multiplayer capabilities, and very crudely made visible the symbolic exchanges that where taking place in MUDs. Through the course of interacting with the virtual world of Habitat players could acquire in-game tokens, the equivalent of money, which could be spent on virtual items from other players or on items from special vending machines. Players could also sell their items back at these same machines, with different regions offering different prices to simulate a real economy. One famous anecdote tells of the night that players learned that one pawn machine was buying used items for more than the new price, which caused a minor economic crisis. Though relatively short lived, habitat provided a glimpse of the future (Morningstar and Farmer).

Around the time of Habitat, Nintendo and Sega introduced various Role Playing Games (RPGs) to the much larger home console market; these included Dragon Warrior (1986) and then later two other franchises that survive today: Final Fantasy (1987) and Phantasy Star (1987). Working alone, players of these games were presented with the opportunity to amass large sums of booty from the turn-based battles in the games and then use the money they earned to purchase weapons, armor, and other items which strengthened them. The eventual outcome being that the player-characters could venture further, defeat more powerful enemies, and beat the game.

Throughout the late eighties and early nineties both RPGs and MUDs continued to develop. While RPGs became more graphically complex better depicting the various weapons, armor, and items being consumed, MUDs on the other hand had given birth to MOOS that could grow in size and scope with players given the ability to program new content. Both of these instances of virtual worlds seemed to grow exponentially throughout this period as the technological resources increased in storage, graphics, and connectivity. It was at this point and in this context that the Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game (MMORPG) as we know it was born, and virtual economies became significantly more complex.

One of the first and earliest commercial MMORPGs was the AOL release of NeverWinter Nights (1991). Another early and successful game still active today was Ultima Online (1997), a franchise that got its start as one of the first computer RPG games in 1980. Upon purchasing the game, players would receive 30 days of free online play, after which they where required to pay a $10 a month subscription. This fee allowed players the right to an unlimited amount of playtime on the Ultima servers with multiple characters (if one so desired) per server. As in other games, characters had attributes upon which they could improve by interacting within the virtual world. Notably player-controlled characters could learn skills to produce items that could be sold to other players in the games for virtual gold. Of course, this was not required as gold could be gained several other ways, like by gathering the raw materials to make items and then selling these items for gold. While the labor of the industrious was rewarded, so was the labor of the lazy and criminal as even skills for begging and stealing could be gained. While items could be created, they could also be destroyed through wear and abandonment, or stored in virtual safes for later use. In an early essay on the game “The In-game Economics of Ultima Online,” Zachary Booth Simpson notes that the economic system served to “ration power,” “support specialization,” “encourage interaction,” “provide goals,” and “support economic role-playing.” According to Simpson, the economic systems in place also created several problems relating to “accumulated wealth and real estate,” players creating characters solely for economic gain, and inequality between established players and new players.

Notably, because items could be bought, sold, and gifted to other players an underground economy also emerged in Ultima Online where virtual items and virtual gold were traded in the game for cash in the real world. Indeed, at this point a black market for virtual goods emerged online and has persisted since to serve the desires of MMORPG players of several different games. While this market began largely with Ebay auctions, it has grown to include websites dedicated to virtual currency exchanges—often despite a game’s End User License Agreement (EULA) prohibiting such activity.

While many game companies and players see the black market as undermining gameplay and thusly the industry’s ability to make profits, others have capitalized on the ease with which we can now make electronic fund transfers by changing their sales model. A free-to-play sales model has emerged in which massively multiplayer games and virtual worlds are made freely available to audiences, however not all content and interactivity is made available to those playing the games. Some content, most often personal adornment items, home furnishings, and real estate is provided for a fee. In some cases this even extends to the types of interactivity that is allowed. A game like MapleStory fits into this category, as does the previously mentioned virtual social space PlayStation Home and the immensely successful Second Life. Second Life is especially notable because it combines the extensibility of MOOs by allowing players to program new content for the world with the pay-for-perks model that lets some players make virtual profits from the sale of these goods—profits which can then be exchanged for real world dollars.

The idea of giving a game away for free and selling virtual assets is not new. It was a crude version of this that made ID software so successful in the early 1990’s. ID made Wolfenstein 3D freely available for download and then sold a more tricked-out version of the game for an extra fee; the same model ID used in the following years to sell the more popular DOOM (Anderson). What is new though is the fact that virtual asset sales seem to be an industry wide trend, and this in congruity with current broadband revolution promises to affect the way in which we interact in virtual worlds. Edward Castronova, the foremost authority on the inner economics of gaming, projects that in total there is "almost certainly above US$1 billion" in trade that takes place annually in online games and that “GDP per capita surpasses that of such developing economies as India and China.” This is not hard to image when one recognizes the infinite resources and reproducibility of goods in the virtual world and numbers of people playing; the dollars are bound to add up. However, when people are willing to pay as much as $26,500 for a virtual real estate investment, as was the recent case of one Project Entropia player, they add up even more quickly (“Gamer Buys”).

But what does the fact that we can now manufacturer, sell, and purchase commodities with money we earned from laboring outside of the game realm mean for our future in virtual worlds as gamers, role-players, or real people? On the surface we get to play games and enter simulations for free and can save time in the game world by buying just the items we want. However, there are certainly other implications. In their essay “Cash Trade Within the Magic Circle: Free-to-Play Game Challenges and Massively Multiplayer Online Game Player Responses” Holin Lin and Chuen-Tsai Sun report the results of a study aimed at identifying gamers perceptions of recent trends in virtual asset sales, which they cite as having become increasingly popular in Taiwan since 2004. According to Lin and Sun, the ability of players to “buy virtual treasures and capabilities—and therefore status—with real money” and the “worry over real world economic resources has the potential to endanger a player’s sense of immersion, trigger beliefs that other players buy their way to success, or build distrust of game companies…” This serves to undermine the potential of games to be fun and reduce games to “a shopping experience requiring careful calculations.”

These changes should also cause us to reflect on the ideological implications. While in the context of some games like Warcraft these goods might include clothing, weapons, and food that make life possible, as Jennifer Martin writes in her Marxist analysis of Second Life, most of the goods in that world have little use-value and are purchased more for symbolic reasons “wealth, power, status, individuality, and belonging” than to serve a real need. Indeed, commodity fetishization and conspicuous consumption lie at the heart of many gaming and simulation experiences. Michel Baudrillard warned two decades ago in System de Object that “We are verging on the point where consumption seizes life entirely” (quoted in Baudrillard). Baudrillard later speculated in For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign that “social salvation by consumption” which at some points in history has been the mark of aristocracy, has now been “conceded to the lower and middle class”. It is the dominant “slave morality (enjoyment, immorality, irresponsibility) as opposed to a master morality (responsibility and power)”; a class of subaltern “courtesans dedicated to paraphernalia”. Perhaps our need to consume during online play is as much a representation of this ideology of consumption as it is a need resulting organically from narrative or gameplay.

To be sure, the ideological allegiances of symbolic and interactive media are complex and the degree to which these affect audiences is a subject of debate across academic and popular media. If for example we investigate the ways in which virtual asset consumption might work in the best interest of audiences we might arrive at an entirely different conclusion. As de Certeau argues with regards to television, “the analysis of the images broadcast by television (representation) and of the time spent watching television (behavior) should be complemented by a study of what the cultural consumer ‘makes’ or ‘does’ during this time and with these images.” (xii). Far less insidious than Baudrillard, de Certeau argues that “the procedures of contemporary consumption appear to constitute a subtle art of ‘renters’ who know how to insinuate their countless differences in to the dominant text”. From this vantage, one might conjecture that the virtual asset trade has the potential to alleviate some of the real societal pressures we face to consume in ways that are not economically sustainable; indeed, there is some anecdotal evidence to support this.

What cannot be argued though is that MUDs and RPGs once existed in a state where skill, labor, and the rule of each according to her ability and luck dominated—mostly. We played in fantasy worlds with little consequence except maybe addiction. Then the money came and the goods in the game gained real economic value, conflating leisure and labor. Given that these games and the digital artifacts within are so intertwined with our real economic conditions, there is both an opportunity and urgency to continue studying the medium and this trend. After all, while I have killed a number of virtual pets and ridden a horse to exhaustion on more than one occasion, no real pets or people have been harmed—yet.

Works Cited:
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Bartle, Richard. “Early MUD History.” Message to Alan Cox. 15 Nov. 1990. Email.
Barton, Matt. “The History Of Zork.” UBM TechWeb, 28 June 2007. Web. 20 May 2010.
Baudrillard, Michel. For a Critique of the Political Economy of the Sign. Ed. Mark Poster. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988. 166-118.
Castronova, Edward. Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games. University of Chicago Press, 2005.
DeCerteau, Michel. The Practice of Everyday Life. Berkley: University of California Press, 1988. xi-xxiv.
“Finance And Economics: A model economy; Economics and gaming.” The Economist. 22 Jan. 2005: 73. Web. 1 March 2009.
“Gamer Buys $26,500 Virtual Land,” BBC News. BBC MMX, 17 Dec. 2004. Web. 1 March 2009.
Jerz, Dennis G. “Somewhere Nearby is Colossal Cave: Examining Will Crowther's Original Adventure in Code and in Kentucky.” Digital Humanities Quarterly. Summer 1.2, (2007): n. pag. Web. 1 March 2009.
Martin, Jennifer. “Consuming Code: Use-Value, Exchange-Value, and the Role of Virtual Goods in Second Life.” Journal of Virtual Worlds Research. 1.2 (2008): n. pag. Web. 1 March 2009.
Morningstar, Chip and F. Randall Farmer. “The Lessons of Lucasfilm's Habitat.” Cyberspace: First Steps. Ed. Michael Benedikt. Cambridge: MIT Press, 1991.
Simpson, Zachary Booth. “The In-game Economics of Ultima Online.” Computer Game Developer's Conference. 7 Apr 1999, San Jose, CA: n.p., n.d. Web. 1 March 2009.

Nathan Garrelts is an Associate Professor of Languages and Literature at Ferris State University in Big Rapids, Michigan. His scholarship focuses mostly on narrative media, and he has edited two collections of essays on digital games: Digital Gameplay (2005) and The Meaning and Culture of Grand Theft Auto (2006).

Copyright © Nate Garrelts. All rights reserved.