Infinity + Muse= Human

Infinite: unbounded or unlimited; boundless; endless.
Muse: think or meditate in silence, as on some subject.
2.Archaic. to gaze meditatively or wonderingly. meditate on.
4. to comment thoughtfully or ruminate upon.
5. the genius or powers characteristic of a poet.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

World of Warcraft: Capitalism By Any Other Name [PHIL 2715 WDE, Response #1]

[Warcraft and Utopia Critical Response]

Alexander Galloway's "Warcraft and Utopia" has an interesting notion on its mind: utopia. It is not just any utopia that Galloway concerns himself with though. For when we think about utopia we might usually define it as the word we use for a 'perfect society'-- No crime, pollution, concerns, or any worries at all. While utopia and utopian projects still refer to "the best possible way" to live and do things, It is firstly important to understand that here, Galloway bases his argument on the notion of utopia as we see it in the works of Fredrick Jameson. That is, to Galloway, utopia is a "site" in which capitalism is the central question. It is a place in which "non-capitalist ideas are worked-out, worked-through or proven not to work at all". Once we understand the notion that utopia is concerned chiefly with capitalism or an escape from capitalism, we can further understand the article.

In fact, there are three kinds of utopia to consider. The first, is a notion of utopia as a kind pre-capitalist minimalism-- a period before all the machines and the glitz and the glamour of celebrity culture and spectacle culture. There is also a notion of utopia that comes after capitalism as well, which is related to communism and the fall of the capitalist machine. Most importantly too, there is a notion of kind of utopia that is occurring now. That the way things are now is the best possible way to do things.

All of this said, there are two major things which Galloway hopes to discuss in his article and he lays them out succinctly for the reader to begin the work: 1) " the problems and challenges...of imagining life after capitalism" and 2) "networks and play" and the way in which they have "become entirely synonymous with the present mode of production and exchange" in recent decades. To the best extent I can, I shall offer comment and analysis on each of them, but I will also place a great deal of focus on the issue of capitalism as it is represented virtually. The capitalistic expressions within World of Warcraft and the way in which they help express the progress of the world toward and perhaps inescapable life of capitalism are of most interest to me. In some cases, this will clash with the arguments posed by Alexander Galloway, and at those times I will be sure to rationalize the disagreement.

Now, one of the main undercurrents to his article is the metamorphosis that the concepts of network and play have undergone. At one point the metaphor and concept of the network was thought to exist outside of, or in opposition to, the capitalist system. We might think of the workers union as being somewhat explanatory here. After all, the idea of a union at a workplace is essentially the idea of establishing a network between the workers-- a construct within which communication is possible, where experiences can be shared and where connections can be made. While the union was a very specific kind of network, it expresses some of the qualities of a network, and is at least an illustration of the disdain that classic capitalism can have, and has had for the practical applications of the network.

In another way, the notion of "play" occupies a space which is directly opposite to many of the tenants of capitalism. Work that produces commodities and which generally engages in production in an efficient fashion is the modus operandi of capitalism as we know it. Given that, the concept of engaging in an activity that creates or produces nothing but one's own pleasure --'playing', in other words-- is clearly an antithetical action when compared to the expectations of the capitalist mode. Play represents rest, downtime, and the experience of something other than work and production.

As Galloway and others attempt to argue though, the advent of more advanced digital technologies has allowed the division between network /play and capitalism to become eroded. As it stands, the concepts of network and play are no longer "threats to or departures from" capitalism, and have instead become invaded and consumed by it. They are tools and products of the system, and in certain ways have helped lead to vast amounts of capital gain, as well as having provided a few unprecedented methods in which to gain that capital. The network is now part of the capital machine, and 'play' (or entertain) is a major part of what capitalism has always sold. Today, both network and play link together in interesting ways. However, I would argue that these ways are not as utopian as Galloway seems to suggest in a few key ways.

To Galloway the video game might well be said to occupy a kind of utopian space because of the way in which it allows fundamental rules and laws to be mutable within that space. Society as we live it now can be traded (for a time) for an existence and experience that is quite different, and it therefore allows game developers (and to an extent, players) the ability to imagine other ways of living, and perhaps other potential Utopian projects. In some ways, World of Warcraft certainly has this possibility-- players are able to experience life in different ways through the game, and some of these ways may well provide certain individuals with an experience they believe is superior to the societal experience they have in the non-virtual world. As a move in this direction, Galloway goes on to suggest that World of Warcraft is a specific example of the pre-capitalist utopia-- That is, of a world before the machinations and machinery of capital systems really takes over. Now, in a narrative sense, this is true. After all, World of Warcraft sees the players existing in a time where players wield medieval weaponry and the capitalist engine has barely begun to start up. As a world of (generally) old technology, we can surely imagine that, at least superficially, the game does provide us with a chronologically pre-capitalist experience. However, Galloway goes further than this in his description.

Galloway highlights the cooperative nature of World of Warcraft as perhaps being a potential site of Utopian endeavour. In the game, players band together for common cause in events as small as two player quests and small skirmishes all the way to forty-player raids and even larger scale wars. Things become even more interesting when we note that the game supports and encourages the creation of player-run organizations known as guilds which can be composed of hundreds of similarly-minded players who have chosen to join together under an organizational name for a number of common purposes in a less-immediate sense. That is, a guild is generally a long-term commitment between players who will share a chat-channel, a means of identification and a common, long-ranging goal.

The implications of all of this kind of group-association is not necessarily that it will directly lead to some kind of anti-capitalist proletariat revolution, but that it at least enacts a kind of modelling of proletariat ideals-- A group made up of the masses which pursues common goals and has the ability to communicate with one another. From this, I suppose it is somewhat possible that beneficial relationships could be fostered and that they could indeed endeavour to procure a kind of utopia, or at least enact change , as Galloway notes;. However, I believe that the potential for that is minimal at best especially given the immense amount of capitalist expressions within World of Warcraft.

My experience playing World of Warcraft suggests something quite contrary to the utopian potential of the game as it is expressed by the use of pre-modern technologies. Simply put, I believe that while this is certainly true of the game-world, there are a plethora of built-in and implied capitalist-like mechanisms-- some of which are even embedded within the pre-modern tech itself. Take the notion of 'gear' in the game. In World of Warcraft, the primary reward for completing any delegated task, dungeon, or raid is 'gear'. In game terms, gear simply refers to items, and specifically items that can make your character 'better'. These range from armour, to weapons, scrolls and so on. Firstly, the notion of receiving both gear and coin for the work you do in any given quest is quite obviously capitalist in a sense of working for your pay. More importantly, it is not as though you can grab any axe in the game and enjoy a romp with simple pre-modern, non-capitalist goods. Instead, there is an underlying current to playing World of Warcraft (WoW) and that is the ever-present push for more gear and better gear. At all levels of play, the general drive of the WoW community is that each and every character should be forever seeking the best gear for their level. In doing so, this means that gear is swapped on and off of your character quickly as you improve from doing more 'work' and the useless, used, or old gear is sold for a pittance to A.I. controlled trade vendors so that, inevitably, you can make room in your bags for more gear. The rush for gear is so heavy that players will literally play through the same in-game content in the same area over and over until they acquire the specific gear that they seek. More than this, gear is rarely prized by players for its aesthetic or sentimental value, but only for its functional workings. The question players ask is simply this: Does this piece of equipment make me better at my role? Does this staff make me a more productive healer? Do these blades make me a better damage dealer? Does this armour make me a better protector? Simply, the question any and all WoW players will ask themselves by sheer fact of the mechanics of the game is: "does this equipment make me better at my job?", and to me, that question states World of Warcraft's inherent Capitalism and indeed, its failure as a utopian project.

Honestly, Nothing of what I described is utopian as I see it. What I see in the mad rush for gear is the very same rush to acquire products that is a tell-tale trait of capitalism. Every single player-avatar in World of Warcraft is automatically engaged in a virtual evocation of "Keeping up with the Jones'"-- If you wish to do your job well, and thus be accepted into groups and be honoured for your work within the game you simply must always strive to acquire more goods that make you better at what your designation is. Your class. What this means is that even the pre-capitalist technology is being placed into a capitalist over-structure -- Each piece worth a set amount and each piece either makes you a superior avatar to what you were before or it does not. If it does not, then it is sold for monetary gain, and if does then you apply it to your character and make him or her better until you find something else. To me, this blind rush for more is very similar to the capitalist structure that Galloway seems to suggest the game has the ability to avoid. Similarly, the rush to constantly better oneself is very similar to beauty industries, automotive companies, clothing stores and so on. That is, capitalism demands that we acquire what they are selling and that what is on offer will make us a better version of ourselves. All these industries cater to the notion that acquiring items will create a better me, and that is exactly the preposition at work in World of Warcraft.

Indeed, the technologies at use might be pre-modern or pre-capitalist-- but the mindset and function attached to them is so modern and capitalist that the pre-modern aspect is nothing but a visual token-- meaningless in the greater script of the game. This is one major example of the prevalence of capitalism in the World of Warcraft system, and I believe this fact alone makes any discussion of the technologies used in the game moot. Yet, Galloway also discusses the lack of signifiers in the game as a possible site for a non-capitalist for Utopia, and it is worth considering, even if we may have established the capitalistic leanings already.

Another way Galloway approaches the notion of Warcraft as a potential Utopian construct is from the perspective that it is a Utopia for its lack of signifiers. The real experience of its narrative world, he argues is devoid of signs. No advertising, no logos, no brand names and so on, as we know them today. For him, this is a kind of modernist dream-world, where without signifiers, the purely aesthetic experience of the diagetic world remains. However, I again take issue with this notion, and I truly believe it can be debunked in an easy and rather alarming way.

While I will agree that the world is somewhat free from advertising in the modern sense, I have already argued about how the gear system of the game is one that is interested in only the functionality of the goods and how it improves one's productivity and standing, and that for most players, the act 'getting geared' has no real concerns regarding the artfulness of the items at all. That is, aesthetics rarely matter in the acquisition of goods. Only betterment does. That flies in the of Galloway's statements that the game qualifies itself as concerned with the world is a kind of aesthetic paradise devoid of signifiers. He does note however that the that because the world's signifiers are mostly based around the user interface, this calls attention to another utopian expression. A place in which signifiers are understood as purely functional. I will grant him this as a fact about the game world, because so much of WoW is indeed obsessed with the function of the thing.

In a very real way, the masses that engage in World of Warcraft do not value a story, and instead, see only functionality. It is not what you do to get the reward, but simply that it gets done. It is not, on some level, how awesome that fire-ball spell looks that you cast when you press the number 5 which seems to concern WoW players, but rather, how much numerical damage you cause. I agree then that the fundamental world is mechanistic in nature, and all the signifiers that do exist seem to serve function over aesthetics. From the very code of the game itself to the way in which players interact with that code and what they value within and coming-from that code, it is indeed always about function: It is about how we as players might function better in this world. This is quite true of the world, and I think, quite astute of Galloway to point out the fundamental property of the signifiers of the game to be based on pure, raw function. How this can possibly express utopia though is a strange suggestion and one that I admittedly do not fully understand. Utopia, as I know it is about creating the best world to reside in, and, according to Jameson, it is a highly capitalist project that allows us to imagine other ways of existing. But the hard-code functionality of the game seems only to express the drive of pure progress and betterment and out-put... a kind of character-capitalism in a way-- where the amount of damage one does is the expression of one's success in the world, much like money is a successful marker today. This is because damage in the game means that you have the right gear for what you're supposed to do. Top the damage charts in a skirmish and you're like a successful businessman. Every kill is an expression of your worth within the system and every kill is rewarded with yet more gear. This is the basic function of the game world and is the is what Galloway would deign to call 'utopian'?

Frankly said:

I see it as yet another expression of Capitalism-- and it really goes on. Forget utopia, and think about the ways in which players sell items to others and engage in capitalist bidding wars at the game's auction house. Think about the ways in which the players use their chat-capabilities to advertise for the newest goods they seek to sell, and the ways in which even possibly proletariat constructs like Guilds are inviting people en masse regardless of cause, simply so that guild leaders can see their guild progress and gain points, and in that way, gain them rewards as well. Arena teams and groups are now demanding members who only fit a functional and numeric pre-set of requirements (like a certain amount of health on their character , or a certain numerical value of 'resilience') ...

The point I'm trying to make is that in every single aspect and expressions of the game experience-- from outside the game with its endless merchandise and pay-to-play monthly fee; to the race for better and better items inside the game, and better and better numerical killing-power as an avatar--- are based entirely upon individual progress. This is capitalism by any other name. It is progress in every damage point done, and wealth in every point of stamina or agility gained. There may well be gold and silver coinage in the game too, but the fact is that there is more than one layer of pure currency in this game-- and you whether groups seek damage, resilience, attributes, or just more warm bodies to fill their guild-ranks... Everyone is broken down into currency to someone else.

And frankly, for me, the issue ends there... It ceases to matter whether it has the potential to offer utopian possibilities when, or whether or not the capitalism it suggests IS the utopia. What matters to me, and honestly what should worry us the most as citizens is the way in which capitalism has absolutely eroded concepts of network and play. Let us not forget that WoW is a game, and in that, it is a game that has become the epitome of capitalism in so many different forms. It has taken play and turned it into production, and it has used the network to link people together so they can commoditize each other.

In all these ways World of Warcraft is a fascinating and frightening image of how far capitalism has come, how resourceful it is, and how adept it is at finding ways to demand production from its participants at every turn.

In the end, all I see when I read Galloway's article after having played World of Warcraft extensively is how determined the game is to want to make you believe that it is utopia-- that its capitalist-soaked game-world is the best type of world that could possibly be.

And though I am a gamer, the only thing I can do when I try to equate the notion of World of Warcraft as a utopia is shudder. For Capitalism, overwhelming numeracy, and overtly mechanical worlds with "no story" that are based entirely on incremental individual betterment is no utopia to me.


1. I had a very difficult time coming to grips with the notion that World of Warcraft could be an expression of Utopia. Can you think of any ways, minor or otherwise, in which a game world could be seen as the best possible expression of life, or at least, a place with which we engage in new ways to view the world?

2. How do you feel about the argument that a world which separates its signifiers from its aesthetics is a kind of utopia? What kind of utopia might it be?

3. Galloway poses the question at the end of the article as to whether World of Warcraft is labour or play. Essentially, I believe that I have characterized it as labour filled with different currencies. Which is it to you, labour or play? Why?

4. The uses of network and play have shifted into the realm of capitalism, and now, with the internet, and video games [and in World of Warcraft's case] they are front and centre and an integral part of the system. Is this a positive, negative or neutral shift, and why?

5. What are your feelings toward World of Warcraft and any other Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Game (MMORPG). What does it say about the game when we note that there are now 12 million people who play it, world-wide?

Teaching aides

The Capital Concerns of World of Warcraft:</strong>

This video seems to perfectly fit one of the largest concerns that I believe World of Warcraft generates. The way in which a virtual world of production not only morphs into and interacts with the real world, but also the way in which the virtual space has become absolutely polluted by capitalist motivations and the mad rush for more gold, more gear, and the need to have the best gear (the best products in other words) to be somebody. The video itself is a bit of an add to try to get players to subscribe to a game guide on how to make virtual coin within the game, but it speaks to how integral and engrained the capitalist and material mindset is, within the game.

Capitalism from the inside, out:  MIw  

This is a brief trailer for a documentary on Chinese gold farming in MMORPG's within which people are seen playing these games to simply gain in-game currency en masse and sell that currency for real money to other players in the game. The practice is illegal in terms of in-game rules, but it suggests just how permeable to borders between the real and virtual are becoming and how easily capitalism slips between the divisions

The' Production of "Damage"' : Basics :</strong></strong>

This short WoW tutorial goes some ways to explaining the role-system and the group mentality in the game, as well as the way in which the amount of damage you do is, in this world, as important as the amount of bolts you rivet, papers you deliver, or tables you serve in real life. Damage in other words, is a kind of wealth in World of Warcraft, and it's integral to the game

Massively Multiplayer Online Role-playing Games: A Wikipedia overview:


  1. Galloway is more ambivalent about the possibilities of utopia online or in World of Warcraft than you suggest –– he does acknowledge that there is a tension between the seemingly utopian tendency within the game and the fact that networks and play have come to be embedded within capitalist production. However, your arguments that even the seemingly pre-capitalist elements of WoW are reminiscent of capitalism is very convincing; the argument that all game play concerns rank, efficiency, and class is also indicative of capitalism's goals.

  2. > How do you feel about the argument that a world which separates its signifiers from its aesthetics is a kind of utopia? What kind of utopia might it be?

    I'm not very familiar with the field of aesthetics, but I'll take a stab at this. I think the origin of this argument comes from a distrust of language stemming all the way back to Plato. Language can be used with guile to represent, to twist meaning. When we begin attaching signifiers to our aesthetics, we ruin the neutrality of those aesthetics and begin burdening them with meaning and perhaps even an agenda.

    That being said, I don't think it's pragmatic to separate signifiers from aesthetics. Or, to put it another way, I think that if we accomplished such a separation, aesthetics would be the poorer for it. One of my favourite things about art, something I think makes art beautiful, is its ability to convey and signify meaning in a non-linear way. If we remove signification, we're left merely with decoration, which isn't quite as fun.


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