Thursday, November 10, 2016

If I Had a Little (less) Money

"So I must leave, I'll have to go
To Las Vegas or Monaco
Ahnd vin a fohrtune een a game
My life will never be the same."

ABBA - Money, Money, Money

I've praised the game Banished before. It's an unassuming but quite ambitious (in its way) small-scale product encompassing the essence of city simulators. It's clean, sleek, complex, honest and everything indie games should be instead of some faux-pixelated "neo-retro" bullshit. It's Mount&Blade for the nonviolent. It's both classic and creative. Here's a picture of a merchant's boat stopped at one of my trading posts. Tell me what you don't see. What's missing?
Give up?
It's money.
As one of Banished's more interesting aspects its in-game economy runs on the barter system, though its developer sadly will not accept chickens in payment for the game itself. In one way this simply fits its frontier-style setting beyond the borders of civilization, but it also brings up the age-old issue of social engineering in persistent virtual worlds. Can we get ourselves an MMO without a default in-game currency?

On one hand this falls into the category of top-down social engineering in the real world. As the game industry grew it began to pander primarily not to its customers but to rich investors whose interest lies in dictating public opinion. Games now push the social agenda of the rich, and nothing defines the rich more than... well, shit, you can guess this one, right? Money.

Interestingly enough Banished itself illustrates the effect of this cause to its circular effect. My cities in Banished look decidedly decentralized compared to my old Sim Cities. Farmlands intersperse with housing neighbourhoods and mines dot the hills but if you didn't know the center of town is probably near the center of the map you'd be hard-pressed to find it. There's no central wallet into which you can bleed the "surplus" of all your workers' daily toil for a neatly absolute measure of your overlordship. It's harder to work the whole city to death to feed your new pet building project for your own greater glory. By refocusing your attention on the physical presence of goods and labor, Banished yields a much more balanced "buy local" mindset. Less reliance on 18-wheelers belching smoke along five thousand miles to lug seabass and bananas from Chile to Toronto just so some fatcat can make an extra half cent a pound profit on the stuff. Harder to grow fat off wastefulness by playing one side of the world against the other.

Barter systems may sound primitive, but their greatest advantage is placing a logistical upper limit on the centralization of wealth and power. The robber-barons of the silk road didn't build their palaces out of silk or by hoarding silk but by controlling the prices on it, and so does Donald Trump.

On the other hand, we've arguably already had at least one example of an MMO without a central currency, dating back to the pre-WoW days of yore. A Tale in the Desert ran much like Banished does, on an economy of grass, carrots, papyrus and camel's milk which players moved from place to place if they wanted to get anything done. The effect was much the same: decentralization. There was no grand capital like WoW's Ironforge or LotRO's Bree with the entire player population cramming into one auction house to rip each other off, no Las Vegas or Monaco - and yet, Pyramids still got built in ATitD, grand works got worked.

Keep in mind the concept and functionality of currency likely cannot be removed completely, either from the real world or any fake ones. It's too useful in itself, too logical, and one of those freedom-loving genies which abandon their bottles for good.

Take Diablo 2 as one example. It featured an in-game numeric currency in the player's wallet, but this was soon inflated and trivialized into insignificance by the hundred-level exponential grind, about as useful as 1930s Deutschmarks. Trading soon regressed to bartering rare pieces of armor and weapons toward each other based on their functionality and rarity. From that system one item (the Stone of Jordan, and yes it was a joke about Michael Jordan's NBA rings) emerged as the new money. Players began advertising their buy/sell prices in chat rooms in units of "SoJs" and a new in-game economy sprang into being based on a player-determined currency instead of Blizzard's official one.

Note also that Banished in truth does contain an invisible currency. Those goods at the trading post have a predetermined "value" with basic foodstuffs all being equal to 1, so there's an underlying frame of reference in play even if it's never officially named, keeping those prices artificially balanced. Otherwise coal would rapidly soar in value while fish, firewood and venison would tank. Nonetheless it still portrays an economy based on actual goods and services instead of chimeric fabrications like mortgage futures.

Instituting such an economy in an MMO would be much simpler than it seems. Establish a system in which all valuable goods are produced by players from resources acquired by players and traded to other players. A player economy in which everything has weight and/or bulk and has to be stored and moved without teleportation and can be looted and/or decays. Then, quite simply... leave out the currency. No gold, silver or copper coin icons in player inventories. No interstellar kroners. Allow the creation of trading posts in which players can set their desired buy / sell orders in units of a variety of basic goods: daisies, nails, healing scrolls or goblin snot, all plucked, hammered, incanted or squeezed by player effort.

Let relative values be determined by ease of acquisition, storage bulk, usefulness of the various goods. Unofficial currencies will soon emerge, and not artificial ones but direct representations of players' own assessment of their communal or individual effort. Attach effort to the centralization of wealth by ensuring that wealth has to be moved and stored. The rich want you to buy into the glorification of money. They want you to play games with stock markets, auction houses, the worth a nation in your pocket. They want you to want to be like them. So don't buy into their bullshit. Money is at best just a mirror reflecting the value or true goods. Don't take a reflection for the real thing... at least not within your escapist fantasies. And hey, who knows, maybe if we can make it work in imaginary worlds, then a more rational sort of economy might start bleeding into the real one.

Start raising kids playing games in which value is represented by tangible value and not by financial markets' pies in various skies. Show them a decentralized economy. Show that world based not on usury and gambling and strangling productivity by hoarding wealth but on real productivity first to one generation, and then the next, and the next. Plant the meme. Planet the meme. Apples for oranges.

First, we take Manhattan...
-edit- No, no, wait, first we take Gotham...

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