Invidious Comparison

Every now and again we host a “Friends of Terra Nova” cocktail party at one of a number of undisclosed locations. The last one we hosted was aboard our yacht (the “Acqua Nova”) which happened to be tied up at the Piton moorings near Cap d’Antibes. In looking around, some guests noted the gaudiness of the other boats, and began talking about conspicuous consumption and the meaning of ownership in the real world and in the virtual worlds. We hurriedly convened a Roundtable to discuss the issue; the following transcript is a lightly edited account of what took place.

The tape recorder missed the first part of the conversation where a number of people referenced Thorstein Veblen’s “The Theory of the Leisure Class.” In that work Veblen coined the well-known term “conspicuous consumption”, but more generally proposed that economic value in work came about through the separation between exploits and drudgery: initially exploits in battle or hunting come to be signified by trophies and booty, and then in time this material wealth came to stand for the honorable activity itself. As a result, as a leisured class emerges honor attaches to those who have greater material wealth than others. Thus “invidious comparison” becomes a fundamental feature of ownership, since the psychological and ethnological value of an item is determined in large part by the fact that some people are not able to access it, and some are.

The participants in this conversation were Tim Burke, Julian Dibbell, Roger Fouts, Dan Hunter, Eric Nickell, Alan Prosser (our boat builder, and a serious MMOG player), Mark Wallace and Dmitri Williams.

[Editorial note: The abrupt end of the conversation occurred when Prosser knocked the rapporteur’s dictaphone into the waters of the Mediterranean.]

Dan Hunter The invidious comparison we can make to the size of those yachts over yonder, or even better to those poor people who don’t own a yacht, is similar to something I see a lot in World of Warcraft. It’s the PvPers who insist on having some kind of glowing enchant on their sword. I’ve pretty much lost track of the number of times I’ve seen something like: “WTB lowest priced fiery red sword enchant” in the trade channel. It’s not about the utility of the fiery red enchant, it’s about the way it looks as against my pitifully non-glowing sword. It’s kinda like the way that rare hair dies operated in Ultima Online: no ostensible value, except by way of a signifier that “I have it, and you don’t”.

Tim Burke
I’ve long thought that this is the single most interesting thing about MMOG economies: the (often substantial) value of purely aesthetic or symbolic goods.

Julian Dibbell
Agreed. Though surely what’s most interesting about the phenomenon is how rare this most virtual aspect of real life economies is in actually virtual ones. The full panoply of symbolic goods—brands, industrial designs, art objects, collectibles, and above all, curiously enough, intellectual properties—is only dimly reflected in MMOs.

The most robust example I can think of is the “true rares” market in Ultima Online—odd bits of sloppy programming that survived in the database and became collectable as curios. Their value, in turn, was contingent on the ability to show them off in your house, which I guess is why the phenomenon never really turned up anywhere but in real-estate-crazy UO.

Bourdieu would have a field day, but it’s curious that there’s so much more grist for his mill in real life, than in these spaces that are so fundamentally symbolic and so relentlessly about distinction, class, level, and so forth.

Alan Prosser
Yes, I think that’s right. The virtuality of the virtual seems like a really appealling topic, until you realize how virtual the real is, and that actually seems more interesting. Especially with regard to appearances, group identification, money, and so on.

Mark Wallace
On aestheticized value, I wrote on similar topics for the Escapist not long ago. While I’m aware Veblen is not the most well thought of thinker these days, I do think he’s one of the most fun. I also think I may be overstating the argument and taking it a bit too far in the piece, but I still maintain there’s a lot more conspicuous consumption that goes on in MMOs than we usually think of. Which doesn’t surprise me at all, really. I think at a deep level the games are about individualism and identity as much as if not more than they are about progression. You can level up just as easily (more easily?) in a single-player RPG. But there wouldn’t be anyone there to see you do it. That’s not the only difference between single-player and MMO-player, of course, but it has a bearing here, I think.

The rares market in Ultima Online is the shining example of this. But what’s interesting is that the drive to aestheticized value is so strong even when the tools provided are so thin. In Asheron’s Call, the single hottest market for a long stretch was in different colored armor drops. People would pay fantastic amounts in various informal currencies in order to get the right mix of armor colors (of armor with roughly equivalent properties) to fit their desire for customization.

In World of Warcraft, check the price on the white wedding dress in the AH. People want that puppy just because it looks different. WoW has so very little in the way of unusual trophy items and aesthetic goods, which I guess goes along with the sparseness of character customization.

Point taken for sure, Mark. And maybe that’s one explanation for the dearth of more explicit examples like rares and wedding dresses—conspicuous consumption and intangible value so suffuses these spaces that there’s almost no point for players to reinvent it there. Building a brand or an IP regime in a level-based MMO would be like having the Steamwheedle Cartel build a little goblin-tech computer you could play Zork on.

I used to think that the hair dye stuff was all about the “conspicuous consumption” social aspect of the game and the way the virtual thing signaled something about your different status—you got the cool pet or flashy armor to stand out in a group—same thing with the capes in City of Heroes, etc.

I’m now a little skeptical of that. There’s something to it, of course, but I don’t know how much, because there’s something else going on. I know of players who have numerous virtual pets, and they like to have at least one of them running around after them at all times. How much is it that they want other people to see the pets running around after them, and how much is it that they just like seeing the pets running around after them? My guess is that these guys would be buying them in a solo game too.

It’s not all about conspicuous consumption, of course. But as to the pets: That’s because they’re not all that rare. In the context of, say, World of Warcraft, there are certain pets that are more easily available to one faction than to the other, and these bring a great deal of money on the auctionhouse. People may be paying all this gold just to check them out, but I’d wager there is also a not insubstantial degree of invidious comparison that’s driving the price up. In any case, it’s not just that other people see you, it’s also that you know you’re better / different than the people who don’t have these rares.

Eric Nickell
Conspicuous consumption should be included in the broader category of recognition for achievement.

On my previous server, I bought and frequently displayed a Crimson Whelpling, consciously and deliberately, as a marker of wealth.

On my current Horde server, my character has a prairie chicken as if to say to the cognoscenti, “I know how—and have bothered—to accomplish something that is non-trivial.” The hoi polloi do not even understand the magnificence of my chicken, but what are they to me?

Mark, you suggested that there is a substantial degree of invidious comparison that’s driving the price up. On the other hand, you could explain it by simple scarcity—if the Alliance has pets A, B, C and Horde has D, E, F—then, if ABCDEF are similar but not perfect substitutes, you’d fully expect the price for the rare thing to be higher because it is more scarce to that group. Not to say that this isn’t somewhat about the value of “import” status, but there are two stories.

Mark, you also said that “it’s not just that other people see you, it’s also that you know you’re better / different than the people who don’t have these rares.” But is there any way to parse that out from the more general state—ie “seeing X on my toon gives me pleasure regardless of whether it gives others pleasure—despite the fact that I know X is rare and not possessed by others?” Could there even be negative utility to possession of a rare?

There are several factors here that need to be teased out. Seeing an orc with a white kitten running around behind them does not tell you why they purchased that kitten. Are they deriving pleasure from watching the incongruity of the burly orc and the frolicking kitty? Or is the primary motivation to have something unique and rare? Or, slightly different, to display something costly?

To some degree, these questions get at the heart of why people are playing MMOs in the first place. Or part of the heart.

Prosser, I don’t disagree, there’s definitely more than one story at work. I just think there’s a certain amount of “cool utility” (for lack of a better word) that is missing from the equations.

Actually, there’s something of a control group to be found in character customization in single-player games, especially those few for which downloadable content is available for purchase. I haven’t followed this very closely, but it’s my understanding that this content is proving fairly popular. While this vacates my conspicuous consumption argument, it also calls into question scarcity as a sole or even dominant measure of value, at least in this one context. If you’re buying things with which to customize your single-player-game character, you’re not doing so because they’re scarce, you’re doing so because they give you more pleasure by virtue of the fact that they differentiate you from the general issue. I’m sure there’s some sound economic explanation for this (which I’m happy to hear and concede to), but I prefer to think of it as some kind of “cool utility” that has more to do with our notions of individuality and expression than with anything competitive. Perhaps it’s just that (WARNING: sweeping generalization ahead) in order to feel we’ve realized ourselves as individuals we need to feel we are “rare.” Which puts us right back where we started, more or less, but changes the tone of the calculation somewhat, in my view, and in any case is interesting to think about.

Dmitri Williams
Here’s a testable hypothesis: people seek to be different in a normally distributed fashion. On one tail are those who do whatever others do. In the center are varying degrees of individuality. On the far tail are those who do whatever no one else does by design.

World of Warcraft, for example, doesn’t enable a lot of the variance we’d see in, say, how people shop for clothes in real life. What little variation that’s there comes in the middle and you only get a few diehards (whom we’ll call “chicken wranglers”) who go to serious lengths to get out on that far right tail. Other games that allow for more customization show this normal curve in all of its varying glory.

The other thing all this reminds me of is Richard Bartle’s thinking about how MMOs help us explore/determine our identities. The question Eric raises, of why people show up in these places in the first place, is important. If, as Richard maintains, it’s to explore who they are, then the auctionhouse can’t be separated from that, I think. If that’s the case, then the value of your MMO dollar (in subscription fees) is affected by how much identity value you get out of your time in-world. I’ll leave it to someone else to tell me whether this simply circles back to the original scarcity argument, but I still feel like it’s a slightly different calculation, at least in tone if nothing else.

The kind of self-exploration Mark discusses tends to be interesting to people of certain personality bents. That’s not to say that it’s completely uninteresting to others, but I think there’s a case to be made for creative, intuitive types to want to explore edge cases and individuate, and for other personality types to prefer to excel by meeting community standards. Dmitri’s idea of a distribution of variation could be explained very well within a personality-preference framework. With Mark, I would argue for a broader set of motivations to play MMOs than exploring identities. In fact, one could argue that WoW’s break-out popularity might stem in part from a de-emphasis on roleplaying and exploring identity, the very things that helped attract previous generations of players and developers, but may be either uninteresting or even intimidating to a broader audience.

Roger Fouts
This is an interesting discussion. I would think that there are many different reasons for obtaining these adornments. To me it fits into the category of nonverbal communication called self-presentation. With self-presentation (clothes, cars, make-up, hair color, etc) we are making a statement about ourselves. Nonverbal communication is our loudest form of communication and in some circumstances accounts for more that 80% of the meaning in a two-person conversation. So it could be an “exploring who they are” in the same sense of a teenager doing this with the latest, radical styles. In addition, it could be the individual making a statement about a variety of different topics. With my toon I am perhaps rationalizing his plain attire as a cool form of understatement, and kid myself that my coolness comes from my battle skills… But the coolness of the Alliance praire chicken did evoke some envy.

Eric, you argued for a broader set of motivations to play MMOs than exploring identities, and I don’t completely disagree. But I’d just point out that exploration of one’s identity doesn’t have to be a motivating factor (at least, not consciously) in the decision to enter a virtual world. I would maintain, though, that once you’re in there, what’s happening is, at least in part, an exploration of identity, not through hard role-playing but simply in the fact that inhabiting an avatar loosens the constraints of who we are in the broader world (i.e., if we think of “the broader world” as encompassing both the physical and virtual). If that weren’t the case, if virtual worlds didn’t expand who we could be, I wonder whether we would visit them at all.

Just to clarify: I don’t equate “exploring one’s identity” with “role-playing.” In fact, I think sticking strictly to “thee, thou, thy” probably limits the kind of exploration one can do. Now, chicken wrangling, on the other hand, that is an exploration of identity. Seriously. What’s so cool about that chicken that you had to have it? What does it say about you that you went to the trouble to get it? What does it say about me that I think the prairie chicken is one of the coolest things in the game, but that I just can’t be bothered to get myself one? If the chicken is so cool, why doesn’t everyone want one? Do you respond to being ganked with anger, sadness, pain, humor, disappointment or an unstoppable desire for revenge? How close to or distant from your avatar do you feel? Does seeing a level 60 kitted out with the most über gear make you more committed to getting some yourself, does it make you want to give up, or do you have some more neutral reaction, perhaps just marvel at how cool he/she looks? Etc.

These are all pretty simplistic questions, but I just include them here to illustrate the kind of identity exploration I’m talking about. Come to think of it, if I remember my readings correctly, much of play is about exploring one’s identity in such ways. If you’re not a gold farmer, I bet most if not all of what you do in virtual worlds feeds into those questions in some way.

Roger brings up the excellent example of a teenager in their rebellious phase. These are the kinds of things we get to re-explore in these places.

I think this is kind of the heart of the issue. The interesting thing about MMOs qua “games” is that, according to handful of ludologists out there that care about this stuff—MMOs don’t seem to be games. They’re too open ended.

The level advancement track that we’re all on does seem a little bit like a game, but at the same time, it feels a little bit like knitting or dancing—where’s the real challenge in getting to level 60? There is no challenge, unless you really want to do it “well,” whatever that means for you.

At the same time, I think the difference between MMOs and other games can be overstated—just because bowling has clear rules and win/loss conditions doesn’t mean that the social practice of bowling is just about those aspects of the game—people can bowl, or play many other games, for a variety of reasons that aren’t part of the formal rule structure.

I guess what’s most interesting to me about virtual worlds is the way we tend to drift between various sources of pleasure in playing. For me, one day, it’s all about the fishing and exploring new places, another day, I’m trying to level by grinding or playing with some new gear I bought, another day I’m doing quests and enjoying some hokey narrative, another day I’m just hanging out in a glorified chat room—most of the time I’m doing multiple things. The MMO as a database offers all sorts of affordances for play, and I think most people move between them.

One more thing. Dmitri noted how stripped down customization options were in WoW, and I think that’s a really interesting point. I wonder if this might be a reason for its popularity. It seems to me that the future potential of these spaces is to give players much more agency in fashioning their “self-presention”—maybe not as far as Second Life offers or requires—but I think City of Heroes is a good example of how a great degree of self-expression can actually be made to fit into a unified theme.

World of Warcraft feels lacking to me in that way—it seems to treat the player as a content consumer in something approaching the traditional video game or even movie industry model—this works in its own way, but to people interested in the art of virtual world spaces, I wonder if the success of World of Warcraft isn’t a little bit of a disappointment. But maybe some people are overwhelmed by worlds with greater demands on their agency, and so WoW is a type of helpful baby step toward something more rich.

You know, this doesn’t explain the guy in Ultima Online who had 10,000 white shirts and who…

[There is a smack sound on the tape at this point, and voices become muffled. The last discernible sounds seem to be the clink of icecubes, some laughter, and a faint “cluck cluck”. Tape then cuts out]

Comments on Invidious Comparison:

alan says:

>>"It’s kinda like the way that rare hair dies operated in Ultima Online: no ostensible value, except by way of a signifier that “I have it, and you don’t”. "

I think this is the major motivating factor in today's mmorpgs. It's why people go through unenjoyable parts of the game... so they can show off. Levels and titles are just an extension of this too. If it's rare, then it is valued. Being a Dread Lord or Glorious Lord in UO represented a rarity.

In the real world people work more than they need to, in order to buy fancy clothes, fancy houses, and fancy vehicles. Do most of them enjoy their work so much that they are doing it for fun? No, but they sure like to show off. The same motivations and willingness to endure drudgery apply to mmorpgs.

Posted Jan 26, 2006 3:16:05 PM | link

Warren Grant says:

Now I want to know more about the guy with the 10000 white shirts... :)

Its funny no one mentioned SWG, which in its pre-NGE state provided the most expansive example of being able to decorate your character/change their appearance since thousands of items of clothing and an extremely flexible character appearance system were both available in game. As a one time Tailor/Image Designer in that game, I can attest to a steady stream of customers in game who wanted nothing more than to make their appearance highly distinct from everyone elses, often with absolutely no in game beneft at all. Usually they arrived with a very clear idea of the "look" they wanted, and luckily the game was flexible enough to make that very possible. Sadly in the new version of the game with its emphasis on extreme simplicity of gameplay many of those people have left - including my Tailor/Image Designer (a professional combination which is also now impossible).

As well - again, prior to the NGE - the Creature Handler profession enabled players to tame multiple pets from amongst thousands of in game creatures, some of which were extremely rare. A Master Creature Handler could have up to 22 pets if I recall correctly, and as some were extremely rare tames, this was the entire focus of some Creature Handlers who would strive to tame a full menagerie of 22 of the most rare creatures in the game. I only met one person who ever had a full set of ultra rare pets and he proudly showed them off to me one after another. Some of these pets were also sold for large amounts of ingame money to other Creature Handlers. I did a brisk but brief trade in Female Narglatches at one point when I tried CH out. They were only moderately rare but in demand and commanded reasonably profitable prices.

All in all a fascinating discussion, and its too bad the rest of it was lost to the Caribbean :P

Posted Jan 26, 2006 3:17:41 PM | link

Lanky says:

That level of specialization is totally missing from WoW, agreed. I think the game, and its playerbase would definitely benefit from that kind of customization, perhaps to a lesser degree in order not to frighten off more 'casual' players. Heck, all MMO's could use that kind of stuff. It is unfortunate that SW:G could not redeem itself enough to be truely, consistently fun for many types of players.

I really like this topic, and that conversation is exactly what I picture mentally when I read other TN posts.

Posted Jan 26, 2006 3:28:43 PM | link

Chas says:

I was also surprised by the lack of mention of SWG, as there are many aspects that add elements to this discussion (alas, the stigma and pain of the NGE can make this a taboo topic in polite circles..)

I recall when the "rebel endor helmet" (no combat value, and coloration was slightly off from any match with other attire) was taken out of the quest rewards, sparking a massive demand for it. (made my first million-cred sale... back when a million meant something... on my helm)

Similarly, rare painting rewards... heck, even the rare "broken imperial communicator" junk became regular trophies for player homes.

More relevant to this conversation, I vaguely recall the uproar that came when reward tables were changed, and some of the previously-rare items became rather commonplace. The "elites" were in an uproar over the devaluation of their precious status symbol. The attitudes- even the demand for compensation- and the accusations that SOE somehow was obligated to provide compensation- struck me as amazing.

So, when "rare" items develop such value, should a developer be mindful of the world's valuation and keep items rare? Is it more important to keep a persistent world view to lend to the sense of stability in the virtual world, or is it better to shuffle up things, keeping the haves and the "wanna haves" constantly hunting for things of value?

Posted Jan 26, 2006 4:44:13 PM | link

hikaru says:

i read this and am reminded of the differences between western and eastern MMORPG players: individualism vs. collectivism. a westerner wishes to distinguish her character by looking different. an easterner wishes to distinguish himself by looking the same. generalizations, but true: compare SWG's wide open character creation/paper doll system vs. FFXI's, which is probably the most limited/restricted in the current market except the original Lineage.

how does one design a game like WoW, where solid revenue numbers come from both sides? can one play both sides and get away with it?

using WoW, as an example, i think they're successful for the western masses in providing a large selection of clothes for the casual, yet fashionable night elf. end game, however, it still goes back to cookie cutter images: the one set to rule them all, and in the dungeon bind them...

corollary, but the high end raid game in the u.s. i would say is very similar to the asian "communal" game -- teamspeak instead of PC bangs, but still, hive mind, one goal, toe the line, militaristic, specialized roles, sacrifices for the group, etc.

WoW has broken both occidental and oriental markets. bigger players with more experience have failed. only FFXI has succeeded, to a smaller extent. what did blizzard and square do differently...?

Posted Jan 26, 2006 5:55:56 PM | link

Raph says:

Have a brand that was already established in both markets?

FWIW, for its time, UO also had success in the Asian market (Japan primarily).

I've heard unsubstantiated rumors, though, that there were "many thousands" of UO players in China on gray shards years ago.

UO (and SWG to a lesser extent) both had a LOT of the "everyone in a guild dress alike" thing, using the same tools.

Posted Jan 27, 2006 1:31:29 AM | link

Mike Sellers says:

The Geography of Thought: How Asians and Westerners Think Differently... and Why, by Richard Nisbett (Amazon link)

I've recommended this book before. If you're interested in both theoretical and practical aspects of US/Asian (or West/East) divisions in thought, culture, and practice, I highly recommend it. It's not a "game development" book by any means, and at times you do have to step back and recognize that even it was written by an analytic (rather than synoptic) Western male, but even so this book can help Westerners and Asians understand the surprisingly deep differences in their basic patterns of thought.

I believe it is possible to design games that appeal to men and women, Westerners and Asians -- but the current lack of success in doing so from either side of the Pacific (StarCraft and World of Warcraft being two notable exceptions) should illustrate how deep the differencees in thought and concepts of what's fun truly are. Doing what we've done in the past isn't going to get us there.

Posted Jan 27, 2006 9:00:24 AM | link

Mark Wallace says:

nice post, Dan, good wrap of that discussion. My only correction would be to the broken link to my Theory of the Gaming Class article, which can be found here for anyone who's interested. ;]

Now to attend to my sunburn...

Posted Jan 27, 2006 9:45:57 AM | link

Dmitri Williams says:

What happens when a game has a lot of customization options and goes both East and West? Do the Eastern markets reject it as too individualized or do they just create mostly matching characters once a norms is established, i.e. paper doll by practice, if not design?

Paging Jessica Mulligan . . .

I think WoW's success is *despite* the lack of customization, not because of it. I base this sweeping generalization solely on my wife's reaction to the character creation screen.

Oh, and on my normal curve hypothesis above, I'm going to add to it further by saying that if customization comes in, the curve gets pressed down flatter (kurtosis for stats geeks), but stays normal.

Posted Jan 27, 2006 12:23:50 PM | link

hikaru says:

Raph: well that's the thing, i think the Star Wars franchise is a much larger franchise in Asia than the Warcraft or Final Fantasy... in the states and in europe, think SWG brought a lot of new blood into the MMO market. you know the numbers better, but i think it didn't make as big a footprint in Asia...

Posted Jan 27, 2006 2:04:27 PM | link