The Second Opium War

Remember way back in the innocent days of the twentieth century? When we looked for the online game that would break the mass market barrier, and get, in a Dr. Evilish voice, ONE. MILLION. SUBSCRIBERS?

Those were such innocent days. I slaved away in a dot-com cubicle blowing off my lack of any real work to do by mocking these newfangled gaming things, and Clinton was still President, and Britney Spears was a talentless android.

Fast-forward to today. I jumped over the fence, and now find myself too busy at work to actually make fun of people any more. Kevin Federline makes us nostalgic for ‘Baby One More Time’. Clinton’s not President – but give her time! And the US MMO market is estimated, by most, to be at or around three to five million total subscribers. (The number’s all over the map, and really is dependent more than anything else on how much churn World of Warcraft is experiencing one year in.) Which is pretty respectable. It’s the size of a fairly small country.

China has over twenty six million.

That’s not just statistically significant quote — it’s statistically overwhelming. Even when you factor in that the Chinese market is insular, and that the average user pays far less ($4-$6/monthly vs. approx. $20 in the West) clearly, Chinese online gaming has succeeded to a far greater extent than those of us in the West. Visitors to China report, in one memorable line, Why do we make fun of Asian MMO gamers, again? John Smedley’s keynote at last year’s AGC, distilled down into one sentence, was that ‘Asia is our future, and I’m going to bring it here.

Yet when you ask the average Western MMO player about China? “Oh yeah. The farmers.”

It’s a stereotype that refuses to go away. Many of the farmers are actually in places like Indonesia or Romania (Eastern Europe is the actual sweatshop of the gaming industry, apparently), or, in the dirty secret most MMO players know and are hesitant to acknowledge, simply Western players who decided to clean out their guild’s accounts.

Still, there’s a lot of farmers in MMOs that speak Chinese. Which makes a certain amount of sense, when you consider that there’s an awful lot of everyone else in MMOs that speak Chinese. Twenty six million of ’em. Few of which actually play the same MMOs that we do — they’re too expensive, and few are localized in the Chinese language (WoW being the notable – and successful – exception). Instead they treat them as colonial beach heads, full of resources to harvest, while running roughshod over the natives who have some cultural objections to being treated as commodities.

Hmm. No, no parallels here at all, nope!

But the casual racism that erupts from this all is what bothers me, and I fear it’s a consequence of… well, vice.

You see, farmers don’t care about the world they parasitically draw sustenance from. They’re just there, looting and pillaging like any proper conquistador. The fact that their activities harm the game they draw life from, and could possibly harm it to the point of killing it (as could be argued is happening to Lineage 2 in the US) doesn’t phase them in the slightest. They’re just small fry in the food chain, after all. The suppliers. The real blame, if you could use the term in this context, really devolves to the dealers and the consumers. Which, dear reader, is you. Or someone you know.

And when you get this kind of rampant cultural imperialism, people tend to get irritated. We see it in Iraq. It’s little surprise we see it online as well, isn’t it? And much as the blunt instrument of American foreign policy results in anyone appearing vaguely Western being snatched off the streets of Baghdad and held for ransom, the typical MMO player generalizes the plague in their midst as being the enemy. And foreign. A dangerous combination indeed.

The answer? The same as any other drug problem. Dry up the market, and the “Chinese farmer” will return to pillaging other colonies. Games have to be either designed to be real-money-transaction resistant (liberal uses of instancing, a transparent economy that is in no way based on scarcity, and a design that makes the ingathering of wealth a function of casual gameplay which players in all tiers of skill can participate in) or simply support it up front and thus make the pimps that have used the gains of virtual vice to infest our community and purchase ‘respectability’ irrelevant.

Because it’s like any other drug problem. You can go beat up on Chinese farmers, or Colombian farmers, all you want. But really, in the end, you have to attack the supply line and reduce demand. And it’s not an easy task. The real world hasn’t managed yet.

But that’s the joy of MMOs – it’s a land of fantasy. And solving this problem is one fantasy I still cling to.