MMORPG RMT and sumptuary laws

Queen Victoria and Prince Albert at the Bal Costumé of 12 May 1842 At some point during the discussion described in the previous post, Joshua Fairfield wanted to contest the status value of high-level characters by arguing that there is no correlation between the the level of a character and the skill of the player. Be that as it may, I think he eventually conceded that there may still be status value, if for no other reason than that the player has spent a lot of time leveling, and is thus a member of what Joshua called “time aristocracy” (which I think is an excellent term by the way).

We can question the status value from our own standpoints (“they are just kids with too much time”), but it is nevertheless real for some MMORPG players and may be worth protecting by operators that wish to cater to that segment. To explore this point a little further, I thought I would re-post a comment I left in a Terra Nova discussion long time ago.

A perspective from economic sociology

In any given pre-modern society where consumer goods were very scarce, there was a strong link between consumption and identity. A person with a sword is certainly a member of the warrior class. The one with the crown is the king. This way, you could read a person’s social identity from their possessions.

However, as societies became more affluent, it became possible for masses of people to obtain goods previously available to a few only. For example, you no longer had to be a lord to be able to afford a purple coat. This threatened the ability of goods to establish identity.

The higher classes stood to lose if identities were to be “evened out”. As a solution, in many societies (e.g. Romans, Tudor English, Tokugawa Japanese) the higher classes tried to enact and enforce sumptuary laws, rules that determine what each social class or group is allowed to consume: e.g. color and material of clothes, food served at banquets, neighbourhood to live in.

This story can be read as analogous to the rise of RMT in MMORPGs. Before RMT, you could read something about a player (playtime at the very least) from the possessions of her avatar. But when anyone can obtain anything using RMT, this link breaks down. Players who are afraid of losing the means of establishing their high level social identity are thus calling for sumptuary laws (forbidding RMT). The question is, should operators oblige them?

We can try to look for insights from what happened in real consumer societies. Sumptuary laws didn’t last. Some things remain exclusive (very expensive goods, rare goods, hand-made goods etc), but mass-produced commodities are the norm and choice is almost limitless. So what happens to social identity when anyone can have the purple coat?

One way of seeing it is that we move from the possession of scarce goods to the possession of scarce information as the means of establishing identity. You can choose any good you want, but in order to send out the right message, you have to choose the right one. Commodities thus become signs, and fashion is born. Taste classifies the classifier, is Bourdieu’s famous quote.

Who determines which goods/signals are the right ones? One way to see it is that it’s part of a kind of class struggle. Higher classes seek to differentiate themselves from others by adopting new symbols, and others seek to de-differentiate themselves from the higher classes by imitating their symbols. In order to maintain the distance, higher classes must constantly adopt new symbols and devalue old ones, leading to fashion cycles (Simmel).

Others may also attempt to subvert the leading position of the higher classes by offering their own set of symbols as a preferred alternative (Featherstone). This leads to fragmentation: there is no single fashion, but multiple fashions. Social identity is no longer a point on a rather one-dimensional axis (high class-low class), but an area in a multi-dimensional matrix. This corresponds with contemporary notions of diversity and egalitarianism as the preferred alternative to class society.

Can we draw some insights from this to MMORPG RMT? Well it’s a stretch, but I’ll indulge myself a bit. Identity and status will not disappear even if everything is up for sale. Strong social pecking orders and factions emerge in virtual worlds like Habbo Hotel despite the fact that almost everything can be bought there by anyone. Habbo resembles contemporary consumer society in this sense.

But what if you really want to have a game that resembles (and I use this word in the loosest possible sense) a pre-modern class society? What if a simple hierarchy established by possessions (e.g. levels) is what you would like?

Even in market capitalism not everything is for sale. Markets are still socially conditioned, just not so much as they used to be. Within a group of six people playing a tabletop RPG, it is typical to observe a social norm that forbids players from engaging in RMT, even if trading would be economically feasible. Nothing says MMORPGs can’t forbid RMT as well if that’s what the operator wants.

But in an MMORPG with thousands of players, it seems that such norms are difficult to enforce — incentives to trade are strong and the norms weak. Prudent developers design their games in such a way that RMT doesn’t break them. I think it’s also worth thinking about how you could actually embrace RMT. Even if purple coats are no longer privileged (at least not this season), contemporary society can still be a lot of fun.

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2 thoughts on “MMORPG RMT and sumptuary laws

  1. The difficulty with RMT is that the person buying items isn’t the only one paying for them.

    I think it’s interesting that you used the “purple coat” as an example, since colouration is also the system used in WoW to mark the rarity/value of any given item. The highest colour any player can realistically ever encounter is purple, so a purple coat is quite literally a mark of distinction within the game.

    Which is important for more than just bragging rights.

    I always inspect the gear of any character I might potentialy party with, or even quest in close proximity of. I want to ensure that they are equal to my class, or at least within an acceptable range. There is a very strict dress code in effect anywhere within a twenty meter radius of myself.

    Why? Because of RMT.

    It’s not a matter of being snobbish and thinking I’m better than someone who pays for gear outside of the game (I am, but that’s not the point atm), it’s because if I commit to grouping with four other people to run an instance together I want to have some idea who I’m going in with. Too many times something that should take thirty minutes becomes a two hour ordeal that only ends when half the party quits in frustration.

    While having gear consisting entirely of blues and purples creates a strata of players who can sneer down at everyone else (which I do), the main function of that “societal class” is to distinguish people who can play the game from the unwashed masses. It can take a long time to get a party together, and the last thing you want to hear when you get there is that your Warrior forgot his shield, or your Priest didn’t train any healing abilities because he didn’t use them much on his own, or your Rogue doesn’t know how to pick locks because he never did the quest at level 20, or any number of things that anyone capable of playing the game should know.

    It’s the difference between someone who studied and worked hard to earn a certain position, and someone who was just put there because their parents had money and connections.

    Fortunately, Blizzard also added “Bind on Equip” or “Bind on Pickup” to items as well, meaning that any BoP items a character has carry more “weight” than BoE ones.

    It has been said, and said often, that having a lot of “epic gear” isn’t really an indication of skill. Instead, people acquire those items simply by spending countless hours playing, and that everyone else just doesn’t have that much time to spend on the game. This is partially true, but saying that people have gear just because “they play more” isn’t a very solid argument against the merit of having those items.

    First, playing the game makes you better at it. It won’t necessarily make you a good player or a bad player, but you will be more knowledgeable and capable than you would be otherwise. Second, most of the activities considered massive time commitments cannot be done alone. Which means that if you are overwhelmingly incompetent, it is highly unlikely that you will find forty other people willing to pay Blizzard money to put up with you for a couple hours every day.

    Yes, the game does create a class society. The important thing to keep in mind is that these classes are not arbitrary, predetermined, or unchanging. No one is born into a lineage, and no one is restricted from any movement into or out of a caste. It is created as players earn and acquire any number of things which are considered to be of value, typically those hardest to obtain. The assumption is that someone who possesses these things of great value is also someone who has undergone the greatest difficulty to obtain them, and thus the most skilled.

    People have to pay to play these games. When someone buys their way into a “class” and then cannot perform what is expected of them, it costs everyone who depended upon them time and money.

    I didn’t inherit my crown, I decapitated a Dragon and half his family to go into a vault and get it. Several times. Ideally, the class system created in-game is based on merit. Items like that crown are indicators of not only that class, but at least some measure of ability. When people can buy these things with real world money, it debases that.

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