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capitalism in virtual worlds
on my mmorpg-pilled childhood
I’m writing this piece as a tribute to my hours spent on MMORPG games, and as a personal reflection after having been thrown back to my fascination with virtual worlds after having experienced the VR equivalent of MMOs recently (VRChat, thanks to Anthony).
My childhood was half spent in reality and the other half spent playing MMORPGs (massive multiplayer online role-playing games) and Facebook world-building games. Think Club Penguin, Fantage, MapleStory, YoWorld, Poptropica, TinierMe, Moshi Monsters, Animal Jam, etc.
I spent thousands of hours throughout the summer of 4th grade through 6th grade in these games. Convinced that this was obstructing my performance in my classes and other productive activities in the summer, my dad actively blocked each new MMO website he found on my computer so I couldn’t get my fix of dopamine each day from completing my login streaks.
Part of my appeal in spending time in these virtual worlds was the lack of an ability to explore the outside world on my own. At the unripe age of 10, I wasn’t able to walk many places in my uneventful suburban town, didn’t have friends living right next door, and didn’t have any actual work to do. I wanted to explore the world, but was trapped in my room with my computer. Playing these games became a refuge from my boredom and my personal on-demand portal to the outside world.
The MMOs I played the most were Fantage and Club Penguin. Fantage was an MMO with a range of minigames and activities to accrue digital currency in a world and dress as a virtual avatar. Club Penguin was the same as Fantage but penguins.
In both Fantage and Club Penguin, there was a social hierarchy in the haves and have-nots. The haves were the cooler kids that had access to a credit card to purchase a premium membership or in-game currency. The have-nots didn’t have the approval of a parent to purchase virtual clothing and avatar upgrades.
I quickly realized how much extra features the premium members got that I didn’t get. I didn’t know it at the time, but I had experienced the social inequality of having to work more time for less pay (through playing the mini-games for in-game currency), while the upper class elite premium members were able to breeze by and purchase their clothing for less with an alternate in-game currency called “e-coins.”
In order to climb up the social hierarchy to these games without being a “premium member”, I spent more hours playing the mini-games, and making a smaller fraction of the in-game currency as a normal free member for each run-through. I was gated from having the power to purchase goods that were reserved for the elite. I saw value in owning those exclusive jpegs to put on my character, and I wanted those jpegs in context because I wanted to be a part of them.
Even as an unknowing tween, I knew I wanted to be a premium member because I would have a much better experience playing the game. My dad wouldn’t budge no matter how hard I explained my reasoning or bargained with chores to pay for a premium membership. I decided I had to take matters into my own hands. I scoured the internet for tutorials on finding hacks or bugs that weren’t patched to gain access to a free membership. I scoured forums where people posted the logins to their old accounts and for redemption codes to premium subscriptions. I took online surveys for tokens to redeem for gift cards, but much of it wasn’t enough to redeem for a subscription. In the end, none of my endeavors succeeded and I was still stuck as a normal member. The digital paywall was too high to climb over as a credit-card-less 10 year old.
Much of this gated access to digital goods reminds me of present day gated online crypto communities. In Friends with Benefits, a cultural membership-based DAO, you are required to possess set number of tokens to join the community and access the resources within. The value of the community comes from the desire from those outside to be a part of it, and the value is there because of how people place value in it. It’s like “paying the digital rent” to invest in a property as a member of the community and selling it off after leaving the community, with the expectation that the token value will grow stronger with the people and network over time.
On the flip side, my experience in VRChat was much different. In VRChat, you embody a 3D avatar and teleport into 3D worlds that are community-created. There are no classes for digital goods, and anyone can fully express themselves with any avatar available in the community without restriction. My first experience felt unusual because I wasn’t used to everything being ungated and free for use. I realized I had become used to better digital goods being gated and inaccessible to the public when I felt weird taking all the digital goods without pay.
In the digital world of Discord servers, DAOs, and VRChat worlds that represent online cities and countries with tokens or in-game currency as the currency of virtual nation-communities, I’m constantly reminded that we need not carry the same mistakes of the real world into the digital world. Instead, I’m curious on what a model that would not be a repeat of hyper-capitalism would look like. It didn’t take understanding a capitalistic system fully to feel insecure about inequality in my childhood MMOs. I’m continually learning the economics of what the future of organization might look like, and am hopeful that there is a balance between keeping a community in check and in creating inclusion.