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.