Friday, April 03, 2009

Is World of Warcraft Evidence for Socialism?

There are lots of different versions of socialism and lots of different arguments against them. In this post, I am concerned with one particular question—whether, in order to get things produced, it is necessary to pay people to produce them. Some variants of socialism, typically decentralist and perhaps utopian, argue that it is not. In a well functioning society as they see it, workers will work for the pleasure of working, possibly reinforced by nonpecuiary motives such as status, feelings of social obligation, and the like—a craftsman model of the economy.

One might argue that World of Warcraft provides evidence in favor of their position. After all, players spend many hours "working" at producing things of no material value. A high level blacksmith or jewelcrafter or engineer has made the effort to learn and practice his craft, within the framework of the game, largely for the fun of it—possibly reinforced by various nonpecuniary motives. If it works in virtual reality, why not in realspace?

It does work in real space—within limits. Quite a lot of effort goes into a wide variety of unpaid voluntary activities. It may not result in as much effort or output as can be produced by material incentives; I do not think I know anyone who puts forty hours a week into online crafting. But we are, historically speaking, a very rich society, and may well grow richer still in the future. Reducing output to, say, half its current level might be a reasonable price to pay for a society where nobody find that he has to do work he doesn't want to do in order to pay the bills.

A more serious problem has to do with what work gets done, what goods get produced. In a market society, one of the things determining what people do is what they like doing; it is easier to hire people to do work they enjoy than work they don't enjoy. But the other thing determining what people do is what other people want done, since that affects how much you can get paid to do things. In the sort of society I am describing, the second element comes in only through mechanisms much clumsier than the price system. If nobody likes plumbing or ditch digging, someone may decide that it's his social duty to take it up or that other people will award him status for doing so. Or he may simply hope someone else does it, while he gets on with writing the Great American Novel.

One of the attractive features of World of Warcraft and its competitors is that the virtual world has been constructed, in some cases with considerable care and ingenuity, to be a place that it is fun to do things in. The real world has not. Some of the things that need doing there are things that people enjoy enough to do them even when not paid to, and some things get done that way. My guess, for instance, is that the vast majority of all novels written end up unpublished and that at least some people keep writing novels even after they realize that the chance of getting paid for them is very low. But I am dubious that all, or even most, of the world's work can get done that way. An economy in which resources are allocated almost entirely on the basis of what people want to do rather than what other people want done is likely to end up with quite a lot missing.


BlackSheep said...

Interesting. I'm not sure if you can still call a bottom-up economy that emerges to resemblance a Marx fantasy as socialist though. By definition, it's still of an individualist economy in nature, it just evolves a different set of institutions than what you'd expect.

Anyway, there are some economics paper that look at marriages as if it was a market. It sounds like a lot of the economy you expose could still be called a market. Even if a lot of the stuff produced are public goods, you still have room for discrimination. If it is a book, you could always make the content such that it is only of interesting for some people you like: maybe making it technical, or using characters only your intended audience knows about.

William H Stoddard said...

In all of the arts, it's inherently hard to make a living, and one of the big reasons is that there are huge numbers of people who enjoy the art so much that they'll do it for free, or even pay to do so. So you have to be significantly better than the people who give their work away to get paid at all, and better than that to earn a living at it. The same applies to other activities such as writing roleplaying games; I've earned more from Steve Jackson Games than I spend on gaming material for a number of years now, but nowhere near enough to live on.

If the average wealth level got high enough, I could imagine an increasing number of "industries" acquiring that sort of price structure. Perhaps even some dangerous activities, such as search and rescue or military service, could be done largely by unpaid volunteers. But the unpleasant and unglamorous activities would still get paid, I think.

Anonymous said...

I don't really see the difference.

In the case of the game, items that are crafted can then be sold, for game money. Game money is in turn useful to buy other things in the game world. In this it is like life.

What is different from life? Is it that, ultimately, the game money is exchanged for tools which are used to level up, and leveling up is "fun" and "nonpecuniary"?

But isn't real money also often used for "fun" and "nonpecuniary" ends?

The communist vision is very different from either the game economy or the real economy. In the communist vision people produce goods and then let those goods go to whoever needs it, not in exchange for anything. But in WOW you can sell the goods you make, for game money to be sure but it's very different from simply making things that are then simply left for others to pick up for free. Some players may of course practice charity, but some people practice charity in the real world as well.

jimbino said...

The flip side of this is to consider why the hell we pay folks to overproduce things they would produce without pay. I think of all the breeding we support in the USSA, for example.

Anonymous said...

Online crafting and/or auction trading with the sole purpose of wealth acquisition is a goal in itself. I've spent weeks at a time (without lvling or doing typical adventuring tasks) making items in different MMO's, ones that other people don't make for some reason and sell it to people's second characters (alts).

Typically, I would get every profession raised as high as possible to supply my own characters and have a bredth of goods that can be sold.

Spend a few hours a day making stuff, spread it among different characters (limits on how many items can be sold at a time per character). Login periodically to adjust prices, re-post old items if MMO uses auction system (as opposed to shop/vendor). Collect money. Repeat. The more time you spend on online crafting, the more money you end up making.

One advantage is leveling without budget constraint is more convenient. Another is non-pecuniary and harder to explain but is largely the same why people keep accumulating real money after they already have $100M net worth.

Anonymous said...

Another is non-pecuniary and harder to explain but is largely the same why people keep accumulating real money after they already have $100M net worth.

So people in the game act like people in capitalism. Even more reason to question the supposed socialism of the game.

Andrew said...

What happens in 20-50 years when we are able to hack our brains and genes to make plumbing and ditch digging as pleasant a pursuit as making art?

David Friedman said...

Andrew asks a very good question. I think the general answer is that a constrained maximization can be expected to give a lower value than the corresponding unconstrained maximization.

I don't know what the future technologies will be or what their limits are. But if I'm trying to redesign myself to have the most attractive possible life (skipping over lots of questions about what that means) and you are trying to redesign yourself to have the most attractive possible life subject to spending it digging ditches, I would expect that I would end up with a better life than you would.

David Friedman said...

Blacksheep: "Socialism" means a lot of different things to different people. Some versions are indeed decentralized. One could have a society that a libertarian regarded as free-market capitalism and (some kinds of) socialists regarded as socialism.

Paul Birch said...

Even if we were able to engineer people to enjoy ditch-digging, etc., this would merely change the details of people's preferences and values. The free market would still be the best way to optimise their satisfactions given their characters and situations (whether engineered or not). There is nothing in market theory that requires wages to be positive, yet even if some (or all) were negative, one could still expect differences between them, adjusting supply and demand for the various different jobs. Socialism would still have its calculation problem to overcome. Note that there are already market "jobs" earning negative wages - such as amateur actors, voluntary workers, unpaid local councillors, writers. I know, I'm all four!

Jared Saltz said...

You mentioned that WoW has crafted (no pun intended) its realm to be enjoyable, while the real world has not.

Would this be a potential argument for an expansion of Work Design Theory (in the Realm of I/O pschology)?

Grant said...

A good post, but I feel compelled to point something out: if people were motivated to work for non-monetary reasons, they'd do so regardless of the economic system they lived under. Free goods and services are available under capitalism, we just recognize they aren't enough to provide us with all the things we want.

If social externalities were causing much added work as people played zero or negative-sum status games, they could opt to live in societies where these games were banned (communes?). In the real world, this seems relatively rare.

Best World of Warcraft Gold Guide said...
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Joel Davis said...

first I think I'll respond to Grant. The current system is currently very heavy-handed in its economic use of force. If your argument is that under conditions of liberty social would gradually manifest the collective will of people, I (and almost any anarchist) would agree. The point of difference, though, is what "conditions of liberty" means. Communists would say we need to liberalize property restrictions (to varying degrees depending on who you talk to) and have people seeking certain level of mutuality before a society can be said to operate "without force."

and BlackSheep: as David said earlier, there are many forms of socialism. Marxism didn't come onto the scene until very late in the formative stages of socialism. Saint-Simon (considered one of the founding figures of socialism) actually died in the 1820's, right around when Karl Marx was born.

At any rate, responding to David's comments now.

I, not being a communist, don't really advocate the system due to issues of whether or not material incentives are necessarily exclusive of social or emotional ones and issues relating to whether or not managing things communally is a good idea and whether or not making an individual's life more "modular" can actually give them a lot more control over it.

Now that I've beefed up my communist creds, let me go into the apologetics.

>"Take, for example, an association stipulating that each of its members should carry out the following contract: "We undertake to give you the use of our houses, stores, streets, means of transport, schools, museums, etc., on condition that, from twenty to forty-five or fifty years of age, you consecrate four or five hours a day to some work recognized as necessary to existence. Choose yourself the producing groups which you wish to join, or organize a new group, provided that it will undertake to produce necessaries. And as for the remainder of your time, combine together with those you like for recreation, art, or science, according to the bent of your taste." -- Peter Kropotkin, Anarchist Communist, The Conquest of BreadPut like that, the tasks get prioritized by the commune and it functions somewhat similarly to an employment contract on the market, except you can not do it and still get food and shelter.

Other factors come into play too, mainly preference (some people don't mind handling garbage), personal inconvenience, and social esteem.

A lot of possible communism can be looked at by examining the typical suburban nuclear family. No one likes cleaning out the cat's litter box or taking out the garbage, but it gets done anyways. I would also wager not many people reading this would feel like they might have to call the police on their significant other to get them to take out the garbage or to take care of spring cleaning.

Litter control and simple maintenance of that sort can just be turned into a social event and so it can be expected to be enjoyable to large segments of any population.

hope that helps further the discussion.

take care,

Joel Davis said...

ok, one more thing:

>"It may not result in as much effort or output as can be produced by material incentives; I do not think I know anyone who puts forty hours a week into online crafting."I will say that once you've decided to commit time to something, especially an occupation, you tend to want to be good at it just as a matter or self-respect and because you become absorbed with the reality of doing the thing. My meaning on the last one is that if you undertake something you get lost in doing it, not really worrying about the amount of work going into it except as a consideration for efficiency.

When people flake out of things it's usually either because they have emotional problems of some sort (depression, anger, stress, etc) or it's not their choice to be there in the first place (or maybe both.)

that said I do think that material incentives like what we see on the market can have some kind of encouragement on prioritizing work with more input from the demand side in a market than some sort of consensed view of what the commune needs done.

Joel Davis said...

I'm also a little surprised that you haven't heard of the lives ruined by WarCrack. It wouldn't surprise me at all if there were some people who dedicate 50 or 60 hours a week to it.

John T. Kennedy said...

I think examples in Open Source Software are even more striking (or perhaps accessible) than World of Warcraft: Linux, Apache, MySQL, Firefox - tremendously complex products that compete astonishingly well with commercial alternatives even though nobody has to pay for these products and people generally are not paid to produce them.

blob said...

It still doesn't matter too much, because the interesting thing to work at all is the things you produce not the work itself. Which brings us to the calculation problem. They would be all be happy to do things and maybe produce a lot of things, but it would be a lot of garbage.

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