Saturday, June 7, 2014

Videogame Currency and Reproductive Labor

The labourer consumes in a twofold way. While producing he consumes by his labour the means of production, and converts them into products with a higher value than that of the capital advanced. This is his productive consumption. It is at the same time consumption of his labour-power by the capitalist who bought it. On the other hand, the labourer turns the money paid to him for his labour-power, into means of subsistence: this is his individual consumption. The labourer's productive consumption, and his individual consumption, are therefore totally distinct. In the former, he acts as the motive power of capital, and belongs to the capitalist. In the latter, he belongs to himself, and performs his necessary vital functions outside the process of production. The result of the one is, that the capitalist lives; of the other, that the labourer lives. (VII.XXIII.11)
Tim Rogers identifies 13 types of currency in his review of The Sims Social. These are:

The three "apparent currencies"
  • Simoleons
  • Social Points
  • SimCash

The "output currency"
  • House Value

The "videogame staple"
  • Experience points

The "[un]thought through"
  • Lifetime Points

The "meta-currency"
  • Quest Items

The "mightier meta-currency"
  • Facebook wall posts

The "brain-benders"
  • Energy
  • Real Money
  • Time

The "sub-currencies"
  • Mood
  • Needs

I'm assuming that Rogers means "currency" in the broad sense: a medium of exchange. Even with this definition, three categories stand out: the "output currency," the "videogame staple," and the "sub-currencies." The final stands out because (and here I note that I have not played the game, and am treating Rogers' essay as a text unto itself) it at no point lets the user "buy" anything. These "sub-currencies" are a closed circuit with an output that translates abstractly into one of the "apparent" currencies.

The initial stand out simply can't be used (in the context of the game as such) as a medium of exchange: it is the game's leaderboard.

Rogers explains how the middle – the "videogame staple," experience points – is a currency like this:
Earn experience points to level up. Level up to gain access to more items in the shop. You’ll need to be level six to buy a particular thing, and level seventeen to buy another. In short, experience points are the “currency” with which you “buy” the right to buy other things with your other currency.
Assuming, still, that the term is meant broadly – which is to say, not as a synonym for money in the sense of a universal medium of exchange or even a legal tender – this, too, is functionally a closed circuit with an arbitrary output into another form of currency, although this time at another remove. The "sub-currencies" result in a higher return on investment in the use of energy to produce an "apparent currency;" the "videogame staple" is an expression of the expenditure of energy which enters its own loop, unable to be spent outwards. It "buys" the ability to buy (using other currencies), but cannot be spent. The emphasis here should fall on the "it."

The real universal currency in this game, of course, is "energy," which is a wage. Or rather, it is a quantification of time into an exchangeable object. Everything within The Sims Social is an expression of "energy," up to and including spending "real-world monetary currency" into it – whether in direct conversion or as a circumvention. Which, given that this extraludic money is likely a (portion of) a wage itself, makes sense: your choices are M-C or M-M'. Sort of. But this isn't about how The Sims Social works.

Rogers' essay provides a context for the issues I have with the general impulse to see in the RPG process of grind-get experience-level up a mirror for the process of production under capitalism. This is something that has bothered me for a while, but it took Stephen M. Beirne's "Level 99 Capitalist" to clarify my issues with it. Beirne claims, similar to Rogers on experience points, that:
Mechanically and systemically, levelling up usually constitutes this: as the player achieves ludic goals, they’re rewarded with points or toys to increase their proficiency at completing future ludic goals. It’s a cute little economic process devised around accruing and storing wealth, since that’s what experience points represent: a quantitative measure of one’s power and successes, an abstract currency to be traded for self-improvement, although ‘self-improvement’ in this regard mainly extends to ‘improving one’s ability to collect currency.’
...
Capitalism is founded upon an exchange of labour for wealth, where labour is the product of a labourer to be bought and used by others in pursuit of their own wealth. In terms of a videogame, labour would be the activities involved in generating the player’s wealth, such as combat in Final Fantasy IX and questing in Skyrim....
In this exchange of labour for wealth, you farm baddies to be able to better farm baddies.
Here, again, experience points are formulated as a kind of currency. That they cannot be spent, indeed can only spend themselves, is likewise glossed over. It is in Beirnes subsequent claim – specifically, the metaphor he chooses that, to my mind, beautifully and productively undermines the whole theoretical framework of his argument – that I determined my nagging issue:
Baddies in this sense are little more than little packets of experience points waiting to be freed up and collected by the player. As one ingests food for physical nourishment, we slaughter enemies and absorb their remains. [emphasis mine]
The claim I'm making here, in full: the critique of video games (as texts) is a critique of reproduction, not of production. I mean this all the way down. From the act of play to the parsing of code to the critical engagement itself, what is occurring is not production (in the sense of the application of labor power to the means of production to produce products), but the reproduction of that labor power. This is inseparable from the process of production in the long view, but at a granular level requires different (theoretical) tools to be made graspable.

Following on the epigraph, Marx continues:
The capital given in exchange for labour-power is converted into necessaries, by the consumption of which the muscles, nerves, bones, and brains of existing labourers are reproduced, and new labourers are begotten. Within the limits of what is strictly necessary, the individual consumption of the working class is, therefore, the reconversion of the means of subsistence given by capital in exchange for labour-power, into fresh labour-power at the disposal of capital for exploitation. It is the production and reproduction of that means of production so indispensible to the capitalist: the labourer himself. The individual consumption of the labourer, whether it proceed within the workshop or outside it, whether it be part of the process of production or not, forms therefore a factor of the production and reproduction of capital; just as cleaning machinery does, whether it be done while the machinery is working or while it is standing. The fact that the labourer consumes his means of subsistence for his own purposes, and not to please the capitalist, has no bearing on the matter. The consumption of food by a beast of burden is none the less a necessary factor in the process of production, because the beast enjoys what it eats. (VII.XXIII.13)
The title of this chapter of Capital is "Simple Reproduction," and the quotes pulled cover that. What subsequent theorizing has done is to add the category of reproductive labor. That is, that this reproduction, of the worker herself and of the class of workers, is not exempt from the labor process. Time spent cooking is time spent performing reproductive labor, as is time spent fucking, as is time spent gaming.

The base level truth of this is, I hope, fairly obvious: I play games after work, they alleviate (or enhance, but in a different way) my mental exhaustion, and then I go back to work. Reproductive labor is how the loop is closed.

And here is where this argument's loop will close (though the tail will go on): this is the real significance of my pointing out the "closed circuit currencies" discussed by Rogers and Beirne. Experience points, with some notable exceptions, are not a medium of exchange, even when they include, say, the ability to manually affect certain statistics or qualities of the player avatar. They are still not being exchanged. The apparent qualities of the process of leveling up – for Beirne, analogous to accruing wealth – are, despite mechanical consequences, purely aesthetic. Rogers claims that damage is the "output currency" of the RPG while Beirne – per Austin Walker's response – focuses on the player's soul as the ultimate output point. Experience points are, as tabletop RPG theorists have been saying for ages, a pacing mechanism. That is, they are a way of gating time.

Because of Energy, this makes Rogers' inclusion of experience points in the general category of currency make some sense, even as it (in my estimation at least) ultimately fails to stand up to close inspection. For time to become currency, the wage relation is required as an organizing principle of social relations. The difference between RPGs and Social Games, at least at the level of political economy, is precisely this: the social game turns what was a convention of incorporating manipulable numbers directly to the player into a proper economism. What before was a set of interlocking numbers simulating an economistic totality is plugged into a form which takes as its organizing principle the actual mode of production's organizing principle. Rogers, in a parenthetical, notes that "'RPG Elements' is what they tend to call an 'economy' now, in a game." On the face of it, this is true; but deeper, it is that prior to Energy, games could only gesture toward an economy by sleight of hand. And that sleight of hand persists, even as the new economic order has finally been discovered.

Which isn't to say that social games are the true mirror of capitalist production, and that the object of inquiry need only be changed. They remain as fundamentally about reproductive labor as any other genre of the form. Per Marx, it doesn't matter what the beast eats; only that it sustains her.

2 comments:

  1. (This is in response to these tweets: https://twitter.com/tozji/status/475795017018380288 & https://twitter.com/tozji/status/475795267221225472 )

    So I think what you're asking is just outside of what I was going for, which I averred from when I said that this wasn't about The Sims Social, but I'll try to answer:

    Rogers offhandedly said that RPG Elements is the phrased used now when a game has an economy, and I think he's pretty dead on with that statement in terms of its usage. RPG Elements, to me, boils down to: this game with an avatar has some numbers in it. Numbers like "experience points" or "stats," mostly, which is to say, a pretend glimpse into the back, the numbers that control it all. It could be likened to a sort of pseudocode, maybe: you know that this thing you're doing (playing a videogame) is a bunch of numbers that cause this representation you're interacting with, so here are some numbers "behind" the representation (both, say, your avatar's STR number and the toggled-on "damage" number). In games with the cutaway battle system (Final Fantasies, etc) those numbers are the manipulable base on which the abstraction of "battle" takes place.

    The point of all that: as these conventions codify, they start to take on the semblance of a system of managed scarcity, which is to say an economy. This is a bit more historicizing than I feel comfortable with, so I should clarify that I'm using this more as an analogy than a history of RPG development.

    Anyway, because this pseudocode is numbers, it seems like exchange and starts being treated like it. The problem is that it (mostly) doesn't really work that way, because these worlds are (mostly) static and built around the capacity to be mastered. There's no wage, kind of, I guess.

    So: referring to an economy in a game as RPG Elements is wrong insofar as you assume An Economy means the dominant mode of production (Capitalism), because RPGs are just collections of numbers that vaguely resemble an economy.

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    1. so essentially the quote marks should be around "economy systems" as much as or if just altogether not "rpg elements"

      Well I'm going to assume you're chalking economy resemblance down to this whole problem of experience points, yes? Am I right in guessing that you consider in game currencies to lend to this economy resemblance? i.e. farming gold, spending gold on upgrades and weapons?

      The energy spent economic model seems interesting. I don't know if the whole point of this post is to debunk game economies altogether but I like this focus on what labour consumption and production yield aporpos gamer as active labourer through player agency, if that has any significance whatsoever.

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