Guild Wars 2’s Cultural Revolution
Rowan Kaiser observes that ArenaNet’s handling of economic exploits in the game’s market go against the spirit of capitalism.
ArenaNet has been taking a heavy-approach to their handling of “exploitations” of Guild Wars 2’s economy. “We take a harsh stance on exploiters because this decision should be easy: find an exploit, report the exploit and move on,” says an official blog post on the state of the game’s economy.
This suggests that the role of players—all players, at all times—is to consider the long-term health of the game. It’s certainly a noble ideal, and it’s one that ArenaNet apparently believes they can enforce with a “harsh stance.” Yet this rubs me the wrong way. The philosophy may be noble, but the act of banning players for “exploits” strikes me as fundamentally illiberal (in the classical sense), but taking place within a classically liberally model.
Guild Wars 2 uses the “Black Lion Trading Company” as its conventional MMORPG auction house. These auction houses act as pure distillations of capitalism. Players work to find or create items, and sell those items for the best price they possibly can. And on the other side, players looking to avoid the work of finding or crafting those items will spend their in-game money on them, looking, of course, for the lowest price possible. When ArenaNet’s John Smith talks about an economy that can be “ruined,” he’s talking about the common prices the capitalist player-driven economy.
Capitalism is a “liberal” philosophy. To simplify a necessarily large amount, classical liberalism is a set of political (democracy), economic (capitalism), and other philosophies that came to prominence during the Enlightenment. Liberalism is built around the idea that self-interest is good, and that by giving people the freedom to do what they want, they’ll work to make their lives and likely the lives of the people around them better. The logical assumption is that people will behave in this fashion regardless. The role of the government or authority under this philosophy is to step in the case of people acting in ways detrimental to the well-being of others. For example, you can drink as much as you want at home, but make too much noise, get violent, or try to drive a car, and the government has laws that allow them to stop you.
Beyond potential threats to health and well-being, liberal philosophy works to prevent disaster that there may not be laws for. The systems it builds are aimed at ensuring that the people in charge cannot, through apathy, ignorance, or malevolence, ruin things for everyone else. It is entirely legal to have a bad or even insane president under the American constitution, for example, but the checks and balances (including impeachment) that limit the powers of the office theoretically will prevent them from doing as much damage as would happen under an authoritarian system.
Guild Wars 2’s use of a capitalist auction house seems to place it within that liberal context. Almost every video game ever does as well: act within your own self-interest, and you’ll maximize your abilities within the game. Obviously this includes making money within the game, which allows you to improve your crafting or buy better items. Players who attempt to maximum the money that they can make within Guild Wars 2’s in-game systems are acting according to their own self-interest. Some of that maximizing may end up hurting the game’s economy in the long run, yes. In a liberal economic theory, this behavior would need to be regulated so that it couldn’t happen, yes. But ArenaNet is permanently banning players for exploits.
(It’s worth noting that Guild Wars 2 doesn’t have to include a capitalist economy. It could shut down the Black Lion Trading Post. A barter economy would immediately appear, but even that could be eliminated by not allowing players to trade items with each other, only non-player vendors. Once you go that far, it would be easy to eliminate in-game money entirely, and have a system where everything a player needs can be acquired through exploration or looting. ArenaNet made a deliberate decision to include a capitalist economy in Guild Wars 2.
It’s also worth noting that that intentional decision gives them benefits in real-world capitalistic terms—players can buy gems with real money and use it to purchase in-game items and money. ArenaNet combating inflation is in their monetary self-interest as well.)