A materialist analysis of RuneScape

January 22, 2019 (1703 words) :: The materialist analysis that no one asked for but that I've been wanting to write for ages. Don't ask why. I won't be hurt if you don't read this.
Tags: games, meritocracy, financialisation, personal, cultural-criticism

This post is day 22 of a personal challenge to write every day in 2019. See the other fragments, or sign up for my weekly newsletter.

When I was 8, I started playing this browser-based massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) called RuneScape. In subsequent years, I would alternate between being totally immersed in the game (to the point where I was skipping school to play it), to going cold turkey and completely swearing off all video games. (At the moment, I’m still in the latter phase, and every day I live in fear of slipping back into the all-encompassing compulsion of the first phase.)

In other words, I find the game very addictive. Which may sound unusual, given that the game is almost 2 decades old and hasn’t really changed that much since then. For some context, here’s what the game looks like:

Still from the game An example of how adorably shitty the graphics are. Source: Wikipedia.

It’s a weird game, because it isn’t easily categorised. There is combat, sure, but it’s not a major part of the game, and the actual combat mechanics are almost comically basic. There’s kind of a story, scattered throughout multiple quests, but you don’t have to follow it. You can interact with other players in the game, but you don’t have to. Because it’s a blank slate, you can project whatever you want into the game.

In a way, it’s a game that isn’t a game, because there is no real objective. There’s no “winning”, or “losing”. It’s open-ended by design; you could spend your whole life playing it, wandering around the pixellated in-game world, leveling up your skills, making money, building a house. It’s even developed its own sort of in-game culture - people will throw parties, or get married, or pay tribute to the IRL deaths of well-known players.

Perhaps most importantly, it has an economy. You can gather resources from the world around you, refine them according to your skill levels, and sell them on the market (either via one-on-one trades, or in the “Grand Exchange” which is like the IRL stock market mixed with Amazon Marketplace). There are lots of ways to make money, but it’s usually those who have invested their time into improving their skill levels, or who are willing to take extra risks, who make the most money.

In some ways, RuneScape’s economy is the purest specimen of “meritocracy”, because everyone starts at the same level, and your “success” in the game is a pretty straightforward function of how good you are at the game. For a certain kind of person - lured by the idea of making progress towards some greater goal, and looking for a refuge from the real world - RuneScape is very easy to become addicted to. And though the game is mostly what you make of it, if you spend enough time within its boundaries, it ends up shaping you, too.

I finally finished Max Haiven’s Cultures of Financialization, a book that I’ve raved about in previous blog posts (day 19 and 20). There’s a chapter (a whole! chapter!) devoted to Pokémon, which theorises about why Pokémon was so successful in grabbing hold of the collective imagination of so many children. (Myself included - my very first video game experience, in 1998, featured a Pokémon Yellow ROM which was almost certainly bootlegged.) Haiven writes:

Pokémon is a site where children “learn to learn” (Buckingham and Sefton-Green 2004, 30) to develop financialized subjecthood and a sense of agency germane to a world without guarantees where social values are bartered, where the individual is an isolated economic agent and where society is merely the sum of its people’s economic decisions. This learning is clearly not the intention of the Nintendo Corporation, but the brand works and takes such a hold of children’s imagination because they, on a deep existential level, recognize what Pokémon can offer them: it affirms a world they see all around them, from observing their parents’ increasingly episodic careers and financial woes to the sorts of narratives they witness on television and the media. Pokémon’s success stems from its resonance within and reproduction of the ethos of financialization. (p.127)

Now, I’m not totally convinced that this is the most germane explanation of Pokémon’s success, but it does seem like a fair description of RuneScape. Because even though RuneScape is chronologically set in a pre-capitalist, mostly medieval era (in a fantasy timeline), a lot of the assumptions and behaviours within the game are suspiciously neoliberal. The game could have been anything - I mean, there’s a sizable magical element, and every conceivable fantasy creature under the sun shows up eventually - but instead, the game’s mechanics and design merely reproduce the capitalist reality we see all around us.

In many ways, the game is a testament to Mark Fisher’s concept of “capitalist realism”: the inability to imagine modes of production other than capitalism, even when everything else has been reimagined. The way it manifests in the game is different than in our reality - there are no giant corporations here, or even anything resembling a nation-state, only individuals - but it still manages to produce individual subjectivities synonymous with what’s most appropriate for capital IRL. Players are entreated to act as perfect entrepreneurs-of-the-self; you navigate the world as an individual, gathering resources from the natural world (which, by the way, perpetually respawn and thus are effectively unlimited), and levelling up various different skills in the process. And you can make a ton of in-game currency along the way, if you sell what you produce on the market, or maybe even start playing the market itself (by buying up others’ commodities and then selling them at a profit).

This is a world where you can really be Homo economicus, deciding how to spend your in-game time according to what will best maximise your net worth. After all, you only have yourself - there is no welfare state. In the worst case, you can hang around a town centre and beg people for money, but that’s commonly looked down upon. Everybody starts out in the game the same way (“level 1” in everything) and, upon leaving Tutorial Island, are given an axe and tinderbox and fishing net and other tools necessary to pull yourself up by your bootstraps. Everyone starts from the same place, so if you fail, you have no one to blame but yourself.

It would be so nice if the real world functioned the same way. Alas, the real world is much less equal, and much less kind to those on the bottom. Some are given gold-plated axes, or are provided with axe-wielding servants, while others are given no axe at all. Some will find that the natural resources they need to sustain themselves have been enclosed, and that the only way to access them is to spend time harvesting resources for the self-proclaimed owners. Some will have the misfortune to spawn on a patch of land with no resources at all, and will find that all the paths to more prosperous lands have been blocked by walls.

[edit, the next day: I totally forgot to mention the fact that RuneScape has a tiered membership system, where people who pay monthly subscriptions get access to a much richer game, with more skills, quests, mini-games, regions, and, of course, better ways of making in-game currency. Just like any purportedly meritocratic system, it doesn’t escape the consequences of the inequality from bubbles up from the level below.]

Now is probably the point where you ask, why did I bother writing all this? Surely it’s just a dumb game.

It is, but also, it isn’t. I spent a lot of time playing this dumb game when I was too young to know any better, and also during some of the worst troughs of my startup days, when I was old enough that I should have known better. Spend enough time doing something and it affects your psyche, for better or worse. All the hours I would spend making sequential plans … “I’ll just grind until I get a certain level in one skill, then I can do this quest, then I’ll gain XP in another skill, then I’ll grind some other skills, then I can do another quest, then I can acquire this commodity” … it bled into real life. “Skilling” in RuneScape became my default mode of approaching the process of acquiring actual IRL skills. It became sort of like a game: I didn’t have to think about why I was working so hard all the time - why I was such a willing slave of capital - because I was levelling up, even if in a less visible sense. I just had to keep doing it, because that was how the game worked; when your main lens for interacting with the game involves progress bars and inventory counts, you instinctively want to see the numbers go up.

But then eventually you realise you’re trapped inside someone else’s game, and maybe the prize isn’t worth it. Maybe the hours upon hours of just clicking random spots on your screen isn’t really going to add up to anything, because all you’re doing is making imaginary resources appear in your imaginary inventory in a world where resources are literally abundant because it’s all digital and the only scarcity is IRL time. Which, by the way, is growing scarcer with each passing hour of your life sunk into this game. Maybe you’ve latched onto this game because your innate desire for creativity and making progress is being stymied by your unfulfilling day job, and your monthly subscription fees to Jagex have bought you a convincing simulation to distract you from that truth, at least for a while.

I actually have lots more to write about RuneScape, especially when it comes to the prevalence of bots in the economy, but I’m almost out of time, so I guess I’ll save that for a future post. In the meantime, now that I’ve written this, I feel a strong urge to play RuneScape again, which I’ll do my best to resist (otherwise, all my future blog posts will be about RuneScape, and that won’t do any good for anyone).

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