Written by guest writer and regular Scanline podcast host Allen Ibrahim.
I wake up every morning afraid. Not afraid the way you might be if someone is threatening you or trying to rob you, but afraid like bottom is going to drop out from beneath you, and your social, economic, and physical luxuries are going to disappear overnight. One way to counter this fear is to let go of worldly desires as Buddhism says, or to accept that these things are and always will be transient. It is empowering to accept your own ephemerality and live in the present. Unfortunately, capitalism requires us to do everything against that greater instinct. It does not ask, it expects us to sacrifice the physical for the financial, the mental for the facsimile of stability, and the moral for a fleeting comfort. We each fight these anxieties in our own way; some through creating a work that lives beyond them, others through surviving to the best of their ability every day. Another way to fight back against capitalism is to simulate and exist in a better world. MMOs have been the constant escape of this sort for me..
I love games like World of Warcraft and Final Fantasy XIV (which I will be primarily focusing on, because it is my current game of choice most nights) due to their virtual simulations of freedom. In XIV, the Gold Saucer is a massive casino and amusement park dedicated to idle tasks for the player to do every day. The currency is not the same as the rest of the game’s, its amusements are not meant to be dangerous like MMO combat. It is a home away from home in a home away from home. In the Gold Saucer, players spend Manderville Gold Saucer Points, or MGP, as a substitute for gold to win and (more likely) lose in the Gold Saucer attractions. Several of these simulate real-world gambling, such as the cactpot drawings (think real life MegaBux or your local equivalent). In this game, the house isn’t in it for your money. This is always something that scares me away from real-life casinos; no matter how much fun you’re having, you’re feeding the house. But in Eorzea, the money is yours to play with and the stakes are negligible. In our world, even the luxury of being able to gamble is afforded only to those with money to spare, but anyone can play in the Gold Saucer.
What separates the systems in XIV from our own world is the fact that your actions in-game are defined by what you WANT to do, and what doing that will get you in return. People come back to places like the Gold Saucer every day because the rewards are fun and the act of getting them isn’t stressful. I’m currently unemployed, and one of the most frustrating things about this as someone with a very active mind is the lack of mental stimulation provided by some forms of labor. I miss the constant streams of new faces from my retail job, and the new challenges that arose every day at my research study job. Now, I’m as pro-worker as anyone, and I think a common criticism of these ideas is that people who want better worker’s rights do not want to work for a living. Trust me, even if we lived in the socialist paradise that many of us envision, I would still be working. However, it would be on my own terms, trying out different careers until something stuck. In Final Fantasy XIV, the way I start my dream job is just doing it. One night, I want to be the best Warrior of Light in all the land, so I work towards armor upgrades and practice fight mechanics. Another day, I want to mentor my friends, or become a fashion designer, or furnish my surprisingly affordable room inside a nearly-infinite interior space in a home owned by my friends. All of the options are laid out before me and easily accomplishable, a staunch contrast to the real life struggles that come with changing careers even a single time.
This is all not to say that Final Fantasy XIV doesn’t still contain the evils of capitalism and class conflict that our real world does. After all, what good is a simulation if it only contains a handful of the systems it is trying to emulate? When you’re finally at max level, you are forced to earn rewards only as fast as the developer wants you to. Waiting, persistence, and “the treadmill” are unfortunately factors in achieving most of what you want in-game (at least, if you care about gear and the other combat-based systems the game puts front and center. If you don’t, lucky you!) One final thing that sets XIV apart from its contemporaries that I love is the way its systems value your time and consistency more than your ability to roll dice. In World of Warcraft, a large part of gearing up in the endgame is hoping for a piece to drop, and then winning the roll that lets you keep it. It is a system directly mimicking our own, where some people luck into success and financial stability, while others simply wait their turn.
My thoughts above do not reflect the ways race affect status in our world, or how the worry-free universes in these games exist explicitly to keep us bought in financially. Comparing our world to one that SEEMS better, one that APPEARS more accommodating, is exactly how we envision a better world. The developers at Square Enix may have made XIV to be a time and money sink, but it’s certainly a better and more fulfilling one than ours, and maybe exploring that is how we find peace and happiness in our every day.