Workers’ Play, Players’ Work

Originally Posted on The Yale Herald - Medium via UWIRE

At the beginning of the quest “Merlin’s Crystal,” in the massively multiplayer online role-playing game (MMORPG) RuneScape, the player must talk to a non-player character, or NPC, named “King Arthur.” Though RuneScape takes place in the fantasy realm of Gielinor, Arthur notes that “Back in England, [Merlin] got himself trapped in some sort of magical Crystal,” and the player must help break him out. Much to fans’ amusement, this section of dialogue implies that England — and thus, our world — exists within the universe of RuneScape. Jagex, RuneScape’s developers, are no strangers to in-game “Easter eggs.” Most are occasional fourth-wall breaks, meta jokes, or references to real-life material, like the mythological King Arthur and the Knights of Camelot. These connections are mostly innocuous, and they fit within a well-established history of cross-referencing within the fantasy genre. One connection between the land of Gielinor and our own, however, is not so innocuous: money.

Real-world trading is the process of exchanging in-game currency for real-world currency and vice versa. Though strictly against the rules of RuneScape, it is a widespread phenomenon in-game, and its potential for real-world profit has given rise to entire industries of gold farmers and traders. Currently, the website “RSgoldfast” — an illicit but popular real-world trading website — marks the exchange rate at 1 million gold per .79 USD. According to Mod Mat K, a product manager at Jagex, “at any given time, 50 percent of all players are engaging with real-world trading.” Even if real-world trading is not a planned feature of the RuneScape economy, it is a feature nonetheless. Beyond the game itself, real-world trading has legal implications. As the RuneScape code of conduct explains, “Nobody has our permission to sell RuneScape accounts or any RuneScape related virtual in-game items. All RuneScape accounts and virtual items are the property of Jagex Ltd and players are only granted a limited, revocable permission to use accounts and virtual items.” The world of RuneScape and all exchanges within it are the property of Jagex; any real-world gain from the game belongs to Jagex, and thus, these activities are akin to theft. Moreover, real-world trading often occurs via hacking, phishing, or other illicit ways of obtaining access to players’ accounts. It also can involve real credit card fraud, as gold farmers use others’ credit cards to pay for RuneScape membership.

But before we analyze the RuneScape economy, let me bring you up to speed. Money — referred to in-game as “gold,” “gold points,” or “gp” — is central to a player’s progression, allowing them to buy items that make progression either more efficient or possible at all. The vast majority of economic activity in-game happens via the Grand Exchange, a commodity-exchange infrastructure through which players can anonymously place offers to buy or sell items in exchange for gold. It is both an in-game location, located northwest of the city of Varrock, and a global infrastructure. Before its release, players had to physically congregate in-game to trade, and trades were completed player-to-player. Now, the Grand Exchange allows near-instantaneous buying and selling between players, permitting trade across servers, time zones, and languages.

The magnitude of trade that occurs via the Grand Exchange is astounding. In the last six months, the top 10 most-traded items accounted for 167 billion coins in-game, equivalent to $132,000. The most expensive trade to occur on the Grand Exchange was a single “Scythe of vitur,” a rare drop from one of the game’s hardest bosses, which sold for two billion coins, equivalent to around $1,500. The Grand Exchange also allows for economic coordination between players in the form of “merching” clans. “Merching,” much like real-life arbitrage, is the process of manipulating prices in-game through buyouts of certain items, thus inducing a shortage in supply and raising the price. Given that items are subjected to “buy limits,” which limit the amount that a single player can purchase in a given amount of time, coordination among players is necessary to induce a change in price. Any given player’s ability to change an item’s price is also limited by access to capital. The Grand Exchange is a relatively free market, subject to the same forces and logics as the real-world economy. Critical to understanding the “realness” of the RuneScape economy is understanding the language that surrounds it. On the RuneScape wiki, the page “economy” features supply and demand infographics detailed enough to use for an ECON 115 study guide.

The rationale for the illegality of real-world trading is two-fold. Both Jagex and players argue that real-world trading devalues players’ legitimately earned progression. For context, a “maxed account” — an account that has level 99, the highest achievable, in every skill — takes between three and seven thousand hours to achieve. Given an infinite cash stack, a player could speed up their progression exponentially, as many skills in RuneScape are considered “buyable.” RuneScape is a game centered around “grinding,” the repetition of tasks ad infinitum as the primary means of progression. Even as players lament the monotony of tasks in RuneScape, a semi-ironic commitment to them is a badge of honor. The language of labor and economic metaphors permeates discussion of in-game achievement, even among those not participating in real-world trading. Most skills in RuneScape are most efficiently trained through intense repetition of a single task, and players often discuss these skills with half-hearted disdain. And yet, they still play. Much of RuneScape’s player base started when they were kids, enraptured by the magic of goblins, quests, and chat room abuse.

Many players find this current obsession with efficiency at odds with why they began playing in the first place. “There is a culture of efficiency, ‘no xp waste’… Why are you even doing this again?” one disgruntled player wrote in a Reddit post from 2018. The question remains: why do these efficiency-obsessed, jaded players still play the game? Are they “playing” at all?

Psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi attributes this form of play to the psychological phenomena of “flow,” when “a person is able to concentrate on a limited stimulus field, in which he or she can use his or her skills to meet clear demands, thereby forgetting his or her own problems… at the same time obtaining a feeling of control over the environment.” Thus, the clear-input output relationship made possible by RuneScape’s mechanics is a form of play in and of themselves. The ability for a player to calculate exactly how many logs they need to cut or runes they need to craft to obtain a certain level allows a sense of perfect control over their environment. It is a world in which the rules are clear and the outcomes certain; thus, the only variable is the “grind” that a player is willing to commit.

The pervasiveness of this “grind” culture is evident throughout the RuneScape community but perhaps best exemplified in an exchange I witnessed in a chatroom:

PLAYER A: these quest requirements aren’t that high at all

PLAYER B: nope not at all / questing is a joke

A: I’m about it because it feels like every other quest gives me something new / Whether it is useful is irrelevant

B: im [sic] proud of you son / you are what we call weaponized autism

While players can oscillate between “efficiency” and “fun” modes of play, and while both modes of play can appear contradictory, the consistency of their internal logics is important to note. The grind is fun because the grind is fun, and aimless exploration is fun simply because aimless exploration is fun. How a player arrives at either mode of play depends on their knowledge of the game’s intricate mechanics, their age, and their participation in the game’s surrounding communities. These self-affirming logics of leisure and “play” are both socially enforced in-game and through forums like Reddit and Discord.

It is no coincidence that “flow,” as discussed by Csikszentmihalyi, manifests in both work and play. In fact, according to Csikszentmihalyi, “flow” is present more so in work than anywhere. However, just as “play” is a socially constructed term, “work” is a construction as well. Games like RuneScape, which seem to blur the lines between work and play, are apt sites to investigate these constructions and test accepted definitions of either. While Max Weber argued that capitalism emerged as a product of Protestant asceticism, restraint, and prudence, he also saw a universality in the desire for gain: “Capitalism may even be identical with the restraint, or at least a rational tempering, of this irrational impulse. But capitalism identical with the pursuit of profit, and forever renewed profit, by means of continuous, rational, capitalistic enterprise.” The fantasy world of RuneScape, thus, is fertile ground for the capitalist spirit to grow. It is a world where all resources are replenished in an instant, where all slain monsters are revived, and where death is little more than a calculated setback. The blurred lines between work and play that bring about flow, that occur as a result of some “Protestant ethic” of simultaneous restraint and unending ambition, make possible the form of play known as “grinding.”

Moreover, the blurred lines between work and play bring closer the fantasy economy of RuneScape and our own — an extreme example: the case of Venezuelan gold farmers.

In recent years, Venezuela has undergone an immense economic crisis. Inflation rates have topped over one million percent, with prices of common goods doubling nearly every three weeks. As a result, thousands of young Venezuelans have taken to gold farming in RuneScape as a means of survival. These players use the game’s most profitable money-making methods to generate gold, which they then sell in exchange for real money. Doing so has the potential to earn many times the average wage in Venezuela via traditional sources of income.

Left: Dragon Bones price per day OSRS market watch. Right: Venezuelan internet connectivity, Netblocks.org — A clear supply shock is visible as a result of the March 2019 power outages across Venezuela.

The language that surrounds “grinding” as performed by dedicated players is different from that which is used to discuss gold farmers. Despite the fact that gold farmers often undertake the same processes as regular players, many players view them as a problem. As one Reddit post, titled “JAGEX DO SOMETHING ABOUT THOSE VENEZUELAN [Real-world traders]” reads, “Since there is a serious IRL crisis in Venezuela for example the blast mine is overloaded with these cunts who crash the spot to sell money they have gathered.” One controversial post on Reddit, titled “Killing Venezuelans at East Drags [sic] Guide,” though since removed, stirred controversy for laying out a step-by-step guide for identifying and targeting Venezuelan gold farmers. In the divided, vitriolic comment section, the border between the RuneScape world and our own appears nonexistent.

Commenters are not discussing avatars, they are discussing the real people behind them. One comment reads, “I never thought I’d see a guide on how to efficiently kill poor people,” with another joining in, “This is kinda [sic] fucked that you are going out of your way to literally help people make already poor people who can barely afford clothes/food etc. struggle even more than they already are.” Some players seek to absolve responsibility through either in-game means, saying “RS isn’t a charity, it’s a game and property of Jagex, kill them all,” while others blame real-world structures, claiming that “Socialism killed them, this is just burying the carcass.” Along real-life fault lines of racism and classism, others take pride in targeting gold farmers, writing “I kill these guys when warming up my switches on my pure. They are pure offensive practice and some of the best people to kill… Also, you could just say ‘Trump’ while you attack them and that will easily get their jajajajaja’s going.” The real-world consequences of a Venezuelan gold farmer being banned or killed go far beyond a simple setback. Both by circumstance and intention, Venezuelan gold farmers do not enjoy the same insulation from the consequences faced in the world of Gielinor as normal players do. Death in-game can literally equate to death in real life, and the game suddenly seems less fun.

But what happens when the real economy starts to resemble a game?

The streamlining and abstraction of wealth and exchange in the RuneScape economy is corollary to that of the Post-Fordist economy. The geographer David Harvey, in his article “Between Space and Time,” argues that the advancement of capitalism in the modern world is predicated on a collapsing of space and time, an incessant drive towards the instant. This is on full display in both RuneScape and the financial sector. The Grand Exchange is dialectical in that, while it is a physical space, the exchange it permits has no grounding in said location. While the “Financial District” is a neighborhood, the business that flows through the stock exchange — and computers across the globe — is not bound to any one place. Whereas the market was once a location, it is now an idea. It operates not via bartering, but via logics of supply and demand, mysterious algorithms, and global exchange. And just as the financial sector’s ever-expanding consolidation of power combined with the digital revolution of finance has permitted its hegemony over the world’s economy, the Grand Exchange has permitted unprecedented abstraction in the RuneScape economy: the mystery of in-game algorithms, the instantaneous nature of trade, and the ability for real-world traders, merchanting clans, and other actors to manipulate prices and quantities with little regard for those on the other end.

What is critical to note here is that abstraction is born of concrete phenomena. Abstraction occurs in inconceivable amounts of money, whether that be item prices or trillion-dollar bonuses. Abstraction is found in the alienation of the worker from their labor, whether manifesting in the devaluation of a hard-earned, maxed RuneScape account or the increasing share of economic growth that goes to the financial sector rather than to workers.

Abstraction grows in the gap between cause and effect, action and responsibility. Just as responsibility helps shape the distinction between a game and real-life or play and work, responsibility (or a lack thereof) has been a critical component of the creation of the modern financial system. This diminishing liability is at the root of the corporate form. As theorist Joshua Barkan argues in The Sovereign Gift, “corporate power has always been articulated within the context of responsibility.” As Barkan proposes, the modern corporate form is designed to shield actors from liability. The “Limited Liability Corporation” is one in which no single person takes the fault for the actions of the whole. It is why CEOs can walk away from financial crises with no jail time. It is why multi-billion dollar fines for misconduct and other limited forms of punishment can be shrugged off as costs of doing business.

The consequences, as filtered through the corporate form, simply aren’t that severe. The same logic applies to risk-taking in RuneScape. For the vast majority of infractions, a banned account is the worst penalty one could face. They can simply make another. A death, loss of gold, or destruction of special equipment simply does not matter that much, as it is all part of the game. Even for individual financial workers, as anthropologist Karen Ho argues, being “liquidated” is a part of the job on Wall Street and constant instability is part and parcel of simply riding the market. On the contrary, the dire consequences of death or punishment faced by Venezuelan gold farmers or the utter destruction of being fired from a blue-collar job reinforce the distinction between play and work. This limited liability, this insulation from consequences, as Ho uncovers in Liquidated, is how the language and mindsets of games manifest in financial sectors. As one analyst in Ho’s book explains, “from a shareholder investor perspective, it’s all about playing the game.” This sentiment is echoed by businessman-author Andy Kessler: “[Investment firms] literally exist to pay out half their revenue as compensation. And that’s what gets them into trouble every so often — it’s just a game of generating revenue because the players know they will get half of it back.”

There is nothing consequential about an in-game murder when you can simply shut the game off, and there is nothing scary about death when you know you can respawn, whether in Gielinor or on Wall Street.


Workers’ Play, Players’ Work was originally published in The Yale Herald on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

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