SCARCITY IN SOCIETY

 

A man spends his evenings as a tiny wood elf or a voluptuous woman. Another lives as a ball of blue light, floating through a landscape of neo-gothic cathedrals and high-rise glass towers. A husband and wife, separated by half a continent, meet each day for lunch in a skybox, floating miles above the ground. When I started reading about virtual worlds, these were the stories that captivated me; the mutability of gender, race, age, and class, the potential to create real money and real livelihoods out of nothing more than bits of computer code, the communities that are forming across national boundaries and attracting such loyalty from their members that in a 2001 survey of EverQuest users, 20 percent of respondents said that they lived on Norrath and commuted to Earth to go to work (Castronova 2005, p.59). In virtual worlds, people are "playing with the boundaries of consensus reality", creating the worlds that they really do want to live in (Shaviro 2007, p.2). Indeed when they first emerged in the 1990s, virtual worlds were seen as potential heteropias, or 'other-places', defined by Foucault as "real places, actual places...which are sorts of actually realised utopias" (Foucault 1998 in Shaviro 2007, p.2).

Reading this history, I found that fifteen years on, a certain disillusionment has set in. In his famous economic assessment of Norrath, Edward Castrnova found that the distribution of in-world wealth is significantly less equal than in all post-industrial societies on Earth, despite the fact that Norrath's GNP per capita greatly exceeds that of India or China (Castronova 2001). Journalist Julian Dibbell notes that virtual world users are now spending tens of hours performing menial and repetitive tasks to earn virtual items, seemingly transforming their playtime into more work (Dibbell 2006). Reflecting on these developments, political economist Simon Shaviro writes with puzzlement that in places built entirely from computer code, with effectively an endless potential to copy information, virtual worlds are still built around the concept of scarcity (Shaviro 2007). Indeed according to Dibbell and Shaviro, contemporary capitalism has so moulded us, the users to virtual worlds, that we can't free our minds from the addiction to scarcity. The few virtual worlds that were built on the concept of abundance and equality collapsed.

 No one wanted to play them. They weren’t 'fun' and they certainly weren't lucrative. Scarcity, the eternal problem of the human race, seems to be here to stay due to the sobering fact that people "will fight for their servitude as if for salvation" (Spinoza 1998 in Shaviro 2007, p.12). 

Virtual worlds demonstrated the deliberate design of scarcity into a customisable environment as a parameter for social functioning. I found this intriguing. I wanted to explore the role that scarcity - specifically socially constructed scarcity  - plays in virtual worlds. Critiques of socially constructed scarcity in Anglo-European society are well known. Aristotle, Rousseau, Veblen and Sahlins have linked the ceaseless pursuit of self-differentiation and status to a constant experience of deprivation and an ever-growing chain of mindless consumerism. Political theorist Nicholas Xenos argued in 1989 that socially constructed scarcity is so grounded in Western values and identity structures, that “perhaps the best we can hope for is to free our minds from this concept that has taken hold of it" (Xenos 1989, p.117). Yet surely this is not enough. The ill-effects of socially constructed scarcity are so evident, in poverty rates and carbon-dioxide emissions among others, that maybe the true source of the problem has been overlooked. The development of virtual worlds suggests a new perspective on socially constructed scarcity – that it can in fact be levelled as an asset for successful social functioning.

Using ethnography from four of the most successful and longest-lived virtual worlds,  this study is a 10,000 exploration of the design of scarcity into virtual worlds and how I see this as fundamental to their growth and longevity. In virtual worlds, the design of scarcity allows individuals to achieve social identity and status, encourages the formation of resilient social groups, and generates systems of social value that provide purpose and meaning to human activity. There is therefore the possibility that socially produced scarcity can be treated as a potential resource for positive human activity., with the implication of this being that the undeniable ill effects of scarcity in contemporary society should be reframed as a problem of design, rather than a reflection of an inherently negative human condition.