In the post I wrote yesterday, I said multiplayer games don’t usually have a proletariat - a ‘doubly free’ population who, by virtue of having no ownership of the means of production, have no choice but to sell their lives as ‘labour-power’ to a capitalist, but also are not specifically beholden to one particular capitalist.

Well, I remembered a possible exception to that story. Last year, I stumbled on a fascinating story by someone called Alice Maz, who played the market in a Minecraft server…

The story talks about a speculative bubble where the speculators were mostly selling to each other, and how Alice exploited another player who was producing and then selling wool at far too low a price to benefit from the speculative bubble. What struck me about that is that in some ways, it resembles wage labour. Not in the sense of not owning the means of production - that player owned everything they needed to produce wool. But in this case, Alice provided them a steady income, in return for taking a cut of the full value of the wool. For the player producing wool, it was a matter of “put in time, get money at fixed rate”… for Alice, she could treat her money as capital, use it to make more of itself: literally completing the cycle M-C-M’.

Rereading it, there’s another case in that story where there is more standard wage labour taking place:

Victoria did plenty of that kind of business too, but my favorite hustle of hers was her farm. She had on her land wheat fields, livestock pens, a tree farm, and various other such things. I mean, we all did, but she set up buy chests for all those goods right there at something like a quarter market rate. I was way the hell in the middle of nowhere, so it wouldn’t have worked for me, but she also had the nether rail. “Take the white line to the third stop and you’re right there!” And people would go work her fields, shear her sheep, chop down her trees, replant everything, and immediately sell her the goods at rock-bottom prices.

I find this pretty fascinating. In Marx’s understanding, a capitalist buys a special commodity, labour-power, whose value (like any commodity) is the amount of value (average proportion of aggregate social labour) needed to reproduce it, i.e. to obtain the commodities needed to maintain a certain standard of living, train up replacement workers in schools, support the ‘indirectly market-mediated labour’ carried out by the worker’s family etc. By combining this labour-power with means of production, labour can be performed, making new value… which allows the capitalist to sell commodities for more than the cost of the materials.

However, the fact that the capitalist is buying labour-power is obscured: it seems like they’re directly paying for labour itself. By making the payment for labour-power into an hourly wage, the capitalist enforces labour-discipline: in order to get enough to reproduce themselves, the worker has to do a certain number of hours of labour. Or at least, convince the capitalist that they’ve done that much labour.

Another way labour-power can be bought is a ‘piece rate’, where workers are paid not for the number of hours worked but for how much they produce in that time. This is generally hated and bitterly fought against by the workers, because it forces the workers to work at a particular, usually extremely gruelling intensity. As prole.info’s The Housing Monster puts it:

Another way for the company to keep us working hard is to pay piece wages. This is usually only done for jobs where it’s easy to measure how much work is getting done. Drywallers will often have part of their wage tied to the number of sheets of drywall they put up. This gives them an incentive to work faster. Where some drywallers are paid partially in piece rates and some on straight hourly wages, this creates a division between them. Some will try to go faster and others will try to go slower. The ones who want to go faster are often the more experienced workers and are often given some authority to supervise the other workers. Instead of being pushed directly, workers who get piece rates have an incentive to push themselves (and their coworkers) to go faster. The job is more stressful, since we have to worry about how fast we’re working ourselves. It doesn’t mean we’re working for ourselves. It doesn’t make the work less boring. It just changes the way that the pressure to work harder and faster is applied.

In this case, Victoria owns means of production - her farm - but she doesn’t have any formal arrangement with the players who come and work on her farm to pay them a specific wage. Rather, this is all handled informally: her ‘buy chests’ declare what she’ll spend on labour-power, as a piece rate, with no negotiation possible. Apparently she correctly judged the piece rate so that people who didn’t have capital would come and work for her.

Victoria in many ways has it easier than IRL capitalists. These workers have absolutely no protections or security: if Victoria decided she wanted to lower the rate on her buy chest, or close it, she could just do so and those workers would be fucked. Nor does she need cops to protect her farm from being seized by the workers, because her ‘ownership’ is encoded into the game (in this case, the economics mod the server was running). Moreover, her fixed virtual capital doesn’t depreciate the way a real life machine would… her trees will keep regrowing forever, without maintenance. Her buildings will never fall down. The only thing that ended it was (presumably?) the server reset.

So anyway, that post raises all kinds of questions… the author uses it to argue for some kind of inevitability of class stratification, because after the server was reset, she and her fellow capitalists (the ‘diamond cartel’ of the richest players, who rebuilt the economy after an item duplication glitch crashed it) were able to very quickly apply their knowledge of the game’s systems and the server’s dynamics, not to mention their apparently copious amounts of time to pour into Minecraft. At that point, she didn’t find it fulfilling anymore: to her, apparently, the joy is in learning, and ultimately breaking wide open, a complex system…

It’s reasonably easy to see the appeal of that, at least, but what I wonder about is the appeal for the “workers” who apparently regularly logged in to work on Victoria’s farm, or shear their sheep to sell to Alice. For them, working on the farm was surely just a means to an end: they wanted money to get materials to build whatever they wanted to build in their corner of the server (at all, or faster through diamond tools).

A few responses to my previous post point out that, in general, games thrive on restrictions: as @averyterrible commented:

w/r/t the point that as you remove constrictions, the game becomes less fun, this is an inherent property of games. imagine a version of golf where you don’t have to use the club to hit the ball somewhere, you can just drop it in the hole, or basketball where you can just carry the ball around, and the basket is on the ground, and no other players will try to stop you. a game is a willing constriction on your own choices in order to have fun doing something The Wrong Way, and when you decided those choices are on the whole not enjoyable you basically stop playing the game.

and @experimentalmeowsiclesbian made a similar point, and noted

I would probably point to zachtronics games as ones that use very deliberately constrained mechanics not based on scarcity

which I think is a great example: it’s a game about efficiency and optimisation but not accumulation, which is very interesting! You’re just doing it for its own sake.

Anyway, it’s certainly true that like, the ‘game’ is in the struggle to like, overcome whatever restriction there is; the goal itself is pretty much nominal. Nobody cares about a ball going into a net on its own, but ‘getting ball into net’ creates a situation where you have to come up with all sorts of tricky strategies to beat the opposing players. My gf @baeddel mused that the accumulation grind came out of taking that oppositional model and making it single player:

But the Minecraft situation seems strange… Sure, for Alice Maz, it’s not about being rich in of itself, but in working out how to get rich. She could very well run a creative-mode server and build whatever she likes, but instead she finds it much more interesting to play virtual capitalist. But what about the players who go to work on Victoria’s farm? Is working on the virtual farm what’s fun for them?

I guess in Minecraft, there’s a few separate activities which different people might find ‘fun’. For some people, the fun part is in building elaborate structures, complex redstone contraptions and so on… I’d probably fall into this bit. Mining is just a speedbump on the way to that.

But some people seem to find satisfaction in the grinding, the repetitive part? I’ve lost the link and forgot the term, but I remember reading about a strange sort of Minecraft server which dispenses with the building element entirely. Instead it just spawns a large room full of stone, which the players have to mine out until the room is empty. There were a variety of paid rewards that allowed people to lord it over the others in this weird virtual prison. And I have to admit I don’t understand that at all! Once you’ve mined one rock, what’s the interesting in mining another hundred in basically identical circumstances? (Maybe it’s that not-formally-diagnosed adhd I think I have?)

To bring this back around to the real world… kind of… I want to believe if something deserving the name ‘communism’ is ever realised, it will be through the “self-abolition of the proletariat”, the ending of the compulsion to work for the sake of expanding value (ultimately) and to stay alive (proximally). As Marx said, for these things we do to instead be “life’s prime want”. Which, I’d like to believe, will come in a vast reduction in the amount of tedious repetitive work we all have to do… the people who go furthest with ‘anti-work’ theorising say that activities that are currently understood as work should become a lot more like ‘play’. I am not sure how far that can be possible for some things like cleaning, but anyway…

What seems so weird about all this is that we seem to like, without even really thinking about it, turn the thing that should be fun and done for its own sake into something that takes on a large proportion of the characteristics of ‘work’ under capitalism. Which, whatever you think of ‘anti-work’, work is generally held for most people as an unfortunate necessity… we go to work for as long as we have to, and then we have ‘free time’ to do what we actually want. (Of course, capital wants us to think of work as what we really love to do, but that’s generally recognised as bullshit you say at an interview I think?)

So we apparently go to ‘work’ in a game, and honestly, why do we do this to ourselves…

A ton of games that don’t focus on violence (or at least not directly) theme themselves around production and colonisation in some way. This might be like, a pastoral fantasy like Stardew Valley, or imagining organising a factory like Factorio or Infinifactory, or trying to grow a city with a functional set of infrastructure for growth, like in Sim City or Cities Skylines. And of course, the games that focus on being like, a general purpose small self-sufficient producer, Minecraft being the most famous. Even games where the primary focus is on something else will have a ‘crafting system’.

Maybe part of the appeal of those games is that they’re vastly simpler than the real, bewilderingly huge and global and totally opaque economy… they offer you a chance to do work that doesn’t feel like, pointless and arbitrary for the sake of saying alive, but clearly connecting to other factors, an understandable system. And of course, in comparison to running a real farm, it’s much, much easier and rewarding to run one in Minecraft or Stardew Valley

I don’t know, I think I need to think about it more.