Tuesday, 1 June 2010

That's Money Honey Part II: and Them.

Cast your mind back to the halcyon days of two weeks ago. You'll remember that Well-Rendered took a chillingly practical look the the financial cost of being a gamer, one of those misanthropic individuals to whom a sunny day is an annoyance which means having to erect blackout curtains in order to get a better view of the screen.

This week, it's time to round off our investigations with a look at how video game characters acquire and spend money, and whether any of them can be viewed as politically correct in these times of global austerity and uncertainty.

Obviously Rich Uncle Pennybags isn't politically correct. He represents the cheerful face of mindless acquisition, of conquest without consequence. Interestingly, Monopoly, the famously light-hearted game where the rich get richer as they slowly crush the poor was released to great success in 1933, right in the midst of the Great Depression. This just goes to show that the success of any given entertainment medium doesn't have to have anything to do with context.

Consequently, the search for a recession-friendly video game character is over before it has begun. In times of difficulty and hardship, perhaps the most "recession-friendly" game characters are those who take the player furthest away from their situation. In which case, I think we have our winner right here:

I also realise that it is potentially quite crass to speak about depictions of equality in a medium that is restricted to those who have the substantial income required to partake in it. But then no-one tends to question the importance of the written word even though there are millions of people around the world who are never given the opportunity to learn how to read. This is not a protest on my part, but rather an illustration of the fact that drawing lines is reductive and does nothing to further any discussion.

If anything, an examination of economic activity within video games reveals that economics is perhaps the facet of reality which games are furthest from depicting. There are plenty of tear-jerking moments in games where the player becomes emotionally attached to the characters because the game has managed to convey love. Stomach-churning anxiety as a consequence of being unable to afford rent is something that games have yet to convey.

If there's anything to explain the success of this whole "art" business that seems to have done so well over the last few thousands of years, I suppose it would have to be its power to provoke emotion in the observer. Video games might be digital, but they've still got humans behind them creating characters, writing scripts, acting parts, playing music and imagining beautiful scenery. Consequently, we get swept up in their depictions of love.

It's a trick, of course. Emotionally affecting video game relationships don't have anything to do with artifical intelligence, and the most powerful ones are (at the moment) as scripted as any film. Ask any gamer which video game relationships made them cry, and they will, without fail, list the ones over which they had no control. Final Fantasy VII is probably the most famous of these. At no point does the player have any control over the relationship between Cloud and Aerith, it is played out for them.

It's quite possible that we'll see some convincing artificial intelligence within a decade or so, but for the moment, games do a very good job of depicting convincing romantic relationships with the tools they have at their disposal.

Economics is a different matter. Very simply, this is because the game can't take financial transactions out of the player's control. Having money in a game is pointless unless the gamer is able to decide what to do with it at will. Sure, there are games where the player has control over their romantic entanglements, but these tend not be emotionally affecting.

In order to function within a game world, economics must be simplified to the point where it no longer resembles its real world counterpart.

This is not to say that video games do not invent their own economies. In fact, due to their inherently quantative nature and the fact that so many revolve around aquiring items and amassing high scores, video games often find themselves simulating simplified forms of capitalism. The difference is that real-world economies are utterly dependent on the behaviour, instincts and interests of billions of people, which is something that video games are currently years away from simulating. Perhaps just as far away as they are from simulating a human mind.

It's just that human minds don't need to be simulated in a game engine in order to show people humans, they can be depicted using actors and writers. If there is to be an economy in a game, the player needs to be able to interact with it, which is why video game economics are so universally bizarre.

So without further ado (and I think you'll agree there has been quite a lot of ado), let's have a look at a couple.

Although there is a school of thought which believes that the ghosts in Pac-Man represent the bourgeois establishment (trying to prevent the worker, Pac-Man, from obtaining the rightful profit of his labour, the pills) I think it makes more sense to interpret Pac-Man himself as the bourgeois consumer. He devours all the pills/resources in his path, and the more he devours, the stronger he becomes. The larger pills allow him to become so powerful that he is able completely obliterate the proletariat ghosts who keep trying to charge him tax. Once he has consumed all the pills on one level, he moves on to another, to start the process all over again.

I honestly know whether or not Pac-Man was ever supposed to depict capitalism, but like most people with too much education, I like to find significance in things where there is probably none in order to feel better about the hours of my mortality I have spent in a library.

Is Pac-Man politically correct? Well, you're meant to be on Pac-Man's side as he casually lays waste to the environment, natural resources and those less fortunate than himself, so no, he's not. Is Pac-Man relevant? For the same reasons, absolutely he is. Wakka wakka.

A slightly more literal depiction of capitalism is given in Fable II. In this game, you begin life as a penniless gypsy before making your way to the big city. There, you can gain a job as an apprentice blacksmith (or whatever), and hammer away for hours, initially for a pittance. The better you become, the more money you make, and the more likely you are to gain a promotion. With your earnings, you can eventually buy houses and businesses in the various cities, and charge rent in order to increase your income whilst you are out adventuring (or philandering). It is entirely possible to buy every business and property in the game.

You could view this as a sort of American Dream, where if you work hard, you can make something of yourself, even if you come from nothing.

However, there are no limits placed on your buying power, so you can happily extort every last penny from your hardworking employees and tenants. Even when you own everything, the money still rolls in because the resources are infinite. Your tenants might grumble, but they don't revolt because they never actually run out of food. Albion's resources don't have to come from anywhere, because there isn't a finite amount of water/space/food in Albion as there is in our world. It's a world that has been created with the sole intention of providing entertainment for one person, the player.

Similarly, in The Legend of Zelda: Link's Awakening, Link wakes up in a strange village and proceeds to run around digging up people's gardens and taking whatever treasure he finds.

Nobody seems to care, probably because treasure (or "rupees") regenerates over (a short) time. As you might have noticed, real money does not do this.

Unlike Sparrow and Link, The Sims do have to contend with limited resources. In order to obtain money for food and leopard print wallpaper, they have to go to work. Although The Sims is just as one-sided as Fable, (in that we only view the flow of resources from the player's perspective), it does at least do a fair job of representing the drone-like drudgery of professional life.

The soul-destroying drudgery of office life is horrifically represented in The Sims in the same way that being stabbed in the shower is horrifically represented in Psycho. That is, it only shows you the reaction of the victim rather than the crime itself. In Psycho, you only see a knife hovering about and Janet Leigh screaming, but that's enough to imply numerous stab wounds. In The Sims, you see your Sim get in a car, and then eight (game) hours later, he/she comes home and weeps. You can only imagine the horrors they have endured at work.

There's something gratifyingly nihilistic about The Sims. Sims go to work in order to earn money in order to buy a slightly better variety of plastic flamingo for the garden, but they're depressed every time they come home from work because they are tired and lonely. They don't have any time to address the soul-crushing emptiness at the centre of their lives because once they have satisfied their basic bodily needs, they're exhausted and they need to go to bed before they've even had time to really enjoy the flamingo. Since they don't age, their only escape is to drown themselves in the swimming pool which they worked so hard to afford.

Oh well.

At least the Sims can find jobs, unlike Nico Bellic, who is rather optimistic at the beginning of Grand Theft Auto IV. He arrives in Liberty City hoping that he will be able to forge a decent and honest living. Five minutes later, he's already stealing cars, threatening hookers and hating himself. Like The Sims, Grand Theft Auto does a fair job of representing the effect of an economy on its worker bees without actually having to represent the economy itself. Neither the Sims nor Nico Bellic really have any time to pick up a copy of the Financial Times and pontificate over the various powers that influence their situation. They're too busy trying to survive.

Bizarrely enough, both games are great fun. This is largely because the player is encouraged to react against the economic forces in ways that would be difficult to accomplish in real life. In Grand Theft Auto, the clue is in the title. In The Sims, characters can often find relief in seducing their married next door neighbour, inviting him round for dinner and farting on him.

In Beyond Good and Evil, Jade's family fun out of money, leaving them unable to pay their electricity bill. This in turn puts them at risk of attack from airborne monsters who take advantage of their dormant shield. Even though the planet of Hillys is seething with monsters which the population are desperately trying to avoid, Jade is still able to find gainful employment taking photographs of them, something no-one else on the planet is apparently able to do. Perhaps because they don't have cameras? I don't know.

This is by no means a criticism. Beyond Good and Evil's animal photography is endlessly engrossing and utterly charming. However, it does demonstrate that in order to keep a focus on the aspects that are fun and exciting, video games often have to dispense with logic. The Penny Arcade guys have made a very comfortable living for many years living pointing this out.

I really could go on citing examples of games which use some form of currency and how they don't really represent real life, but I think you've got the point

So what have we learned? Well, that video games don't represent real life economies because we spend our lives struggling with real world economies and we don't want to spend our valuble gaming time grappling with them too. I've said before that for all my intellectual bluster, I truly believe that we play games - and indeed devour all kinds of art - on a very a base level to be taken away from our real lives, however happy we are in them.

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