Saturday, January 16, 2021

Gaming vs Government

There are parallels between government and gaming that help disinformation and profits, respectively, thrive.

Today’s games, in particular triple-A titles like Call Of Duty and Star Wars: Battlefront 2, are top-tier games that in addition to offering a fun gaming experience also offer things like swag and other perks in exchange for real-world money.

You might pay upwards of $60 for a game to start, but then indulge in anything from special swag for your in-game character to ammo that does more damage, the former cosmetic but the latter an example of game studios’ so-called pay to win revenue model. Some players might splurge once in a while and buy emblems or weapon skins or clothing, but others go too far, like this teen in India who squandered his father’s life savings to buy in-game merch in the free-to-play game PUBG Mobile.

Game studios are private, for-profit entities for the most part, and the games they produce are a black box to their customers. They might use proprietary code and algorithms that give them an edge over the competition that could be considered trade secrets. That’s the first parallel gaming has with government; certain things simply have no public visibility or are actively withheld from the public.

Among the things a game studio might keep under wraps about its product is how much it seems to care about things like physics. Bullet drop, for example, is pretty faithfully tracked by say PUBG or ARMA 3 or the Battlefield series of games; you need to account for this when sniping especially to ensure you compensate for gravity’s effect on the bullet you just fired at a distant target’s skull hundreds of meters downrange.

Sniper's bullet drop in Battlefield 1.

Call Of Duty notably seems lax as far as “real world” game mechanics go (that is, mechanics that faithfully resemble real-life gunplay and weapon dynamics). You might wonder why that is, but it becomes clearer when you consider the hype surrounding the game.

The term “gaming industry” comes to the fore when you realize what a big business gaming is. Not merely creating and boxing and selling the game itself (more digitally than boxed nowadays, but I digress) but getting that game in front of as many eyeballs as possible to get the owners of those eyeballs excited about the game and want to get involved in it. Ideally this involvement for the play-to-win model, especially, will be in the form of a healthy in-game economy which its players actively participate in.

In generating hype, as is the case with government, truth becomes not only less important but less of a priority. Lawmakers may not push to get new laws on the books for objectively good reasons. Rather, they might’ve been treated in the U.S. for example to perks by lobbyists big and small to earn (or effectively buy) politicians’ attention. Fancy dinners, trips to the Bahamas, and of course “donations” fuel the sway lobbyists have over the politicians holding the keys to the taxpayers’ coffers.

Eventually the origin of and circumstances surrounding the hype become less important than the hype itself. This is key, because it creates an artificial, yet sustainable, relationship between lawmakers and their constituents, and game studios and their customers.

Government and game studios have in common control over what is revealed to outsiders, whether citizens or customers. In government, we the public don’t know who bombed an adversary nation’s ship in the Persian Gulf or fired missiles at their nuclear power plant. In games, we the customers don’t know how the RPG we fired at a helicopter over a kilometer distant managed somehow to knock it out of the sky.

Some things just happen, and when they do, the outcome is spectacular, and for some, profitable.

Call Of Duty is one of the most popular games out there. I focus on it here because I play the free-to-play Warzone flavor of the game, which is to its credit free, but offers players numerous and occasionally irritating reminders that you can pay real money for in-game swag.

It also pigeonholes users (including myself with less than great broadband internet, thanks to a local monopoly and lack of real competition among ISPs) into downloading sometimes ridiculously large updates, often hundreds of MB but for major updates tens of GB. When your ISP charges monthly overage fees (paused initially due to COVID-19 but after some months resumed) free becomes less so. Easier I suppose than selling USB sticks to purchase via snail mail, but more expensive to customers strapped for cash.

Games including Call Of Duty have tournaments that variously claim to test the skills of players in competition either online or on-site (the latter less so given current events). While I have no doubt there are players out there who have gaming skills that remind one of trade craft used by secret agents, that skill is likely not absolutely a reflection purely of their prowess. It instead is modified to suit the game studio’s primary objective to make money.

If a gaming studio wants to generate hype, it might actively seek to distance itself from reality. A particular game’s version of the truth might not reflect the real world. A sniper’s literally long shot from kilometers away might not be a “natural” head shot, but if you ask the game, it is, however inexplicable. 

To the game studio it’s ultimately profitable, which achieves one of their goals. To sustain that goal, enter streamers, gamers who make it their business to play competitively or just for fun online and themselves make bank off their audiences.

Streamers are analogous to government’s taxpaying citizens. Streamers, facilitated by an agency like YouTube or Twitch or other video hosting or streaming services, play to their audience for a share of profits. They generate hype for the games they play which in turn generates new customers, a fraction of whom will pay hand over fist for swag, their or their parents’ wallets permitting.

A streamer in his natural habitat.

Taxpayers working for a living or otherwise obediently and diligently paying their taxes do what they do, and those taxes variously fund initiatives according to the whim of lawmakers and maybe themselves if they manage to make enough noise (something increasingly unlikely especially in a consumerist late-stage capitalist society like the U.S.).

Leaving the USA? Take a lobbyist!

Which would create more hype? A game that mimics a sniper’s reality faithfully? A reality that demands carefully, patiently, tediously stalking their target, lining up a shot, and firing that shot precisely for the golf equivalent of a hole in one of the first person shooter, a headshot? One shot, one kill? Or a game that puts the brakes on reality, and perhaps widens the hit box a bit, so that instead of a target’s brain case being like the head of a pin at a thousand meters is instead like a beach ball at that distance?

Clearly the latter.

Just as government would have citizens believe in different flavors of truth, games would have players, their customers, believe the hype is the truth. For game studios, hype translates into profits. For government, hype translates into power. Both once achieved are far too tempting to surrender, and far too lucrative not to maintain for as long as possible.

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