Frontiers of Decommodification: Video Games, Micro-transactions, and Authenticity

I’m not familiar with any serious schools of thought suggesting that Burning Man has much in common with video games. This post is not going to change that.

But I was intrigued to read a recent Kotaku editorial arguing that using micro-transactions to monetize games ruins video gaming communities. That is a whole new frontier for questions of Decommodification – and any frontiers of Decommodification are something we want to think about.

The point of Decommodification is not that money is evil, but (among other things) that money as a mediating factor between people leads to very different kinds of interactions, and very different kinds of communities, than you see emerge when that factor is taken out of them.   Writer Kirk Hamilton’s observation that the presence of micro-transactions breaks down community trust, and creates the suspicion-leading-to-paranoia that people have hidden agendas, is a perfect illustration of this. Players can be doing the exact same things, with the exact same people, and have it lead to an attitude of mutual trust and respect that allows communities to flourish – but as soon as you introduce the element of a profit motive to certain areas, the community becomes adversarial.

It’s not that anyone minds the game manufacturer making money – it’s not even that people necessarily mind spending the money. Instead, if I’m reading Hamilton’s descriptions correctly, when the micro-transactions start to involve the actual mechanics of gameplay itself, the objections become more existential:

  • People wonder “Am I being taken advantage of?”
  • People wonder “Do I have to invest in the process of this game at all, or can I just buy my way through it?”
  • People wonder “Are my accomplishments really significant if they can be purchased by people who put in no effort?”

The more invisible the micro-transactions and the rules governing them are to players, the more intense these questions become. Games without micro-transactions don’t generate these same questions because the answers are obvious from the beginning: you pay your entry fee (or sit through the ads) and then go on your adventure, and the amount of money someone pays has nothing to do with that adventure – which is the core experience people come for.

All of which is to say that the amount of money involved isn’t actually relevant to these questions: people could pay the exact same amount up front that some people pay in micro-transactions in the games … or double, or triple … and none of these issues would come up. The damage that these transactions do to communities is not related to the existence of money as a factor, or the amount of money. Instead, the money does damage when it is applied in ways that raise doubts about the authenticity of the core experience. Authenticity of motives, authenticity of effort, authenticity of accomplishment, authenticity of status. Vast amounts of money spent in ways that do not raise questions about authenticity seem to do far less damage than even small amounts of money applied in ways that do.

This is entirely consistent with what we found in our own exploration of art and money for the 2015 “Da Vinci’s Workshop” theme. Money applied in ways that enhance diversity of perspective and supports discernment between superior and inferior quality, generally leads to engaging and advanced art scenes; money applied in ways that enforce orthodoxy, build walls between communities, and disregards expertise, kills art scenes (even if it produces a lot of monuments or paintings).

The presence of money or lack thereof doesn’t seem to be the point; whether money supports the community ethos, or the community ethos is warped by pursuit of profit, is the key issue.

Video game platforms have something in common with Black Rock City, in that they are communal spaces essentially created from scratch, often with communities to match, and the examination of how game companies struggle to monetize is a perfect illustration of something else we found in the Renaissance series: that money is ultimately a conceptual art project. Video game developers, cryptocurrencies, local currencies – all are attempts to reformulate the “money” art project to make it do something new.

Far from rejecting these experiments “because Decommodification,” we should applaud them. The future of Decommodification in a year round global Burning Man culture will have, absolutely have, to find artful ways to make currency support culture, rather than put unconditional values up for sale. Artists – and everyone else – need to make a living. Just wishing won’t make it so. Experiments like these provide useful ideas and insights. If you want more of them, we’ve got a few.

But experiments can be dangerous, the stakes are real. The lessons we can learn both from what’s happening with, crypto-currencies, local currencies, and video game platforms, along with more explicit conceptual artists, can provide as many warnings about what not to do as they can useful data about what might work.

These new experiments seem to be confirming that the closer transactional elements come to a core experience, the less the amount of money involved matters.  Micro-transactions are exactly that:  micro.  And yet their impact, when applied in the wrong places, can be devastating. Haggling over price can’t solve existential dilemmas any more than it can buy love.  Some experiences are only valuable when they’re not for sale.


Cover image:  Dance Dance Immolation 2013 (photo by Mark Hammon)

About the author: Caveat Magister

Caveat is Burning Man's Philosopher Laureate. A founding member of its Philosophical Center, he is the author of The Scene That Became Cities: what Burning Man philosophy can teach us about building better communities, and Turn Your Life Into Art: lessons in Psychologic from the San Francisco Underground. He has also written several books which have nothing to do with Burning Man. He has finally got his email address caveat (at) burningman (dot) org working again. He tweets, occasionally, as @BenjaminWachs

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