A man from Sydney, Australia, buys an island populated by wild animals for $26,500, and charges tax for hunting rights, as well as renting beach front property. This is perfectly normal behaviour in capitalism. The money he earns from it is real enough. The island, however, does not exist. It is a virtual island, with virtual animals. (New Scientist, May 20)
Elsewhere, in Shanghai, a man lends his prized sword to a friend, who then secretly sells it for 7200 yuan (£500), back-pocketing the proceeds. Furious, the man complains to the police, who do nothing. Enraged, he breaks into his friend’s house, and stabs him to death. The knife he uses is real enough, and the man gets life imprisonment for murder. No action is ever taken over the original theft, because the sword does not exist according to any known law. Real blood spilled by a virtual sword.
From Carolina, one man has made a fortune selling rare virtual furniture and other items, which, he discovered through a bug in the program, he could duplicate, and sell over and over again. Nobody knows if he has broken a law. The game company closed the bug hurriedly, but not before the man had cleared $100,000.
Online gaming is moving beyond the purview of geeky kids. Virtual items and goods, though theoretically worthless, acquire value in the real world as players seek to shortcut the time-consuming process of acquiring them in the game, and serious money is being made in the ‘grey market’ of virtual trading. Now game currencies have been indexed to real currencies, and one game developer, MindArk, has launched an ATM cashcard that players can use to withdraw real cash, calculated according to MindArk’s exchange rate of their ‘game’ wealth. The global trade in virtual goods is currently estimated at $880 million and rising, with 30 million, mostly western and mostly affluent gamers, playing games for up to 18 hours a day. In one popular online game, Second Life, a third of the players spend more time in the game than in the real world.
It’s not hard for socialists to see why people would want to escape the rigid fetters of real-time capitalism. People have been escaping the real conditions of life ever since the Greeks invented the outdoor theatre. What is slightly depressing but perhaps not very surprising is that people work so hard at their escapist fantasies only to create societies of lawlessness, savagery and insane self-destructive cruelty that make capitalism look like a pussycat by comparison. In one game, players are dedicated to the task of setting off virtual semtex bombs and blowing themselves and their online world up. In others, there are virtual assassinations, or random slayings, where players find their character has been murdered for no particular reason, apart from somebody’s idle amusement. A player can take a long time, sometimes years, to build a character up, provide it with its special faculties and powers, as well as its virtual property. To be robbed and murdered after all this work is no small thing and can be deeply upsetting to the player. But this is the virtual wild west, and there is a nihilistic appeal. Law doesn’t appear to work in people’s interest in the real world (true, in many ways), so the idea is to get rid of all law and have an orgy of violence and blood in the games.
The problem is, as with the Shanghai murder, the violence is starting to spill over into the real world, prompting some observers to suggest that law and punishment should be introduced into the games. The game developers are opposed. What is the point of playing a game that lets you do nothing? That’s just like real life, the very thing people want to run away from.
The other problem, from a socialist view, is the constant reinforcement these bloodthirsty games give to the perceived need for law and policing. For these are, in a way, highly moral games, in that they strongly emphasize what dread chaos results from ‘amoral’ or lawless behaviour. Socialism proposes to abolish all coercive law which serves class interests (which is to say, all property law, at the very least). What laws or rules socialism would retain is a moot but interesting question. What is evident however is that no rational debate on the socialist need for laws, or rules, or their nature or means of enforcement, is possible among workers while they are bamboozled into believing that a society without repressive legal structures is always going to look like a scene from Conan the Barbarian. Play one of these online games for a week and you will either become a nightmare axe-murderer from the Dark Ages or you will be screaming for the return of capital punishment and school floggings.
Why normal bank clerks and home heating engineers should want to lead double-lives as marauding rapists and genocidal maniacs is a topic too large to enter into here. But it would be interesting to speculate what a socialist society would make of it. Would they look back at capitalism and trace a pattern from the Boy’s Own stories of Empire days with their strongly moral content, through the poignant emptiness of punk culture and on into the cybernight of shoot-em-ups and global conquest games and say: there, that was a society in decline? By giving reality to the horrors of the repressed mind is capitalism liberating or enslaving us even more deeply? Will there come a point, perhaps with the total abolition of hard cash, when capitalism will itself become a virtual game, with a human population of players who try to amass arbitrary ‘units’ of currency in order to buy arbitrary artifacts? The difference between real life and a game is that you always have to return to real life eventually, but it is just possible that this difference may one day disappear, and our grip on reality may disappear with it.
On a more positive note, a friend who is a computer repairman reports a recent case where a young man came in to have his computer repaired. The graphics card, an expensive one, had blown, and the cost would be over £300. The man appeared, and was given the bad news. He went away to think about it. A week later he returned.
“£300 is a lot of money when you don’t have a job. I can’t get a job because I’m too busy playing online for 16 hours every day. I haven’t been to a pub in two years, all my friends have disowned me, and I never see anybody. On top of that, I’m bored with the games because I am Grandmaster in all of them and can’t be beaten. In the past week I’ve gone to the pub, gone to a party, found all my friends and even met some new ones. In fact, I’ve had the time of my life. Tell you what. You can keep the bloody thing.”
And with that, he walked out into the real world.