MMOs are plagued by nasty -isms. Racism. Sexism. Nationalism. Ageism. Orientalism. Homophobia. Misogyny. OK, so those last two aren't really -isms, but you get my point. No matter how much we want our fantasy games to be zones of escapism, these prejudices chase us there. Sometimes we bring them with us as unwanted baggage that spills out in chat channels and character choices. And sometimes they're inherent in the game design itself.
Classism is one such problem you'd think the internet would reduce or conceal, but the divide between the haves and have-nots is stronger in MMOs than ever. To illustrate that point and how it affects us as gamers, I'd like to talk about another set of games ruled not by skill or talent but by money.
The Olympics pose a perfect parallel to MMO games. They are (with rare exceptions) participated in and won by wealthy amateurs in large, rich countries. To participate, you and your family need excess time and money to invest in training, equipment, and coaching. If you're really talented, a corporation might sponsor you in return for what is effectively advertising. If you're in most countries, though, you're lucky to find a team let alone score state funding. The result is that the Olympics aren't even remotely a collection of the best athletes whom our species can offer the world. They're merely a collection of the best athletes who could afford to participate. That cheats everyone and demeans the games. And the people with the luxury to play are intrinsically invested in making sure others are kept away from participating.
"Many gamers brought up on subscriptions simply don't want to associate with real-life poorbies."
Like the Olympics, subscription games have become (and maybe always were) the domain of relatively privileged people in wealthy countries. ("Relatively" according to worldwide standards; if you have a computer and free-time, you're already ahead of the game.) And many gamers brought up on subscriptions simply don't want to associate with real-life poorbies. They view a subscription as a welcome barrier to entry, a country club fee that keeps the unworthy out. This is part of the reason that so many traditionalists trash accessibility. Some gamers pine for the "good old days" when games featured gameplay that better filtered out the undesirable elements. EVE Online's tedium and brutality is painted as a necessary measure to keep lesser beings from mingling with the elite. Ultima Online's rampant PKing and EverQuest's anti-solo design ensured those who lacked social skills would wash out. And World of Warcraft? WoW's current blend of ultra-accessibility is criticized for letting the rabble in. Blizzard screwed up, so say these elitists, by making the gameplay so easy and accessible that "casual" gamers flooded in to ruin everything. And what is the word "casual" but code for money-poor, time-poor, or skill-poor -- all of which are, as the Olympics show us, effectively the same thing?
"And what is the word 'casual' but code for money-poor, time-poor, or skill-poor -- all of which are, as the Olympics show us, effectively the same thing?"
Consider our own recent Behind the Mask column. In it, Patrick suggested that Champions Online's recent conversion to a F2P game (and the subsequent inflow of freemium players) had increased griefing (crime?) in the game. While I know Patrick to be an upstanding citizen and he's usually very careful to specify "griefers," even he in a few instances equated griefing with the free players while recommending roleplayers find new and exclusive places to hang out. "The blimp in Millennium City, the UNTIL building, and the Champions HQ building offer other indoor areas for people to get away from the huge swarm of free players," he said, as if the free players themselves (and not the rise in griefing) were the problem. He also recommended that Cryptic create new pay-to-play RP zones and ways for pay players to skip the early free-player-heavy zones because he "like[s] gating RP with real money more than levels or subscription status." He's not wrong that an increase in players, freemium or not, usually correlates to a rise in griefing, but we must be careful not to assume that a player's ability to pay for a game tells us anything about his willingness to grief. The "poor=crime" stereotype is hard enough to combat in the real world.
I don't mean to suggest that we should all eschew capitalism or that the downtrodden workers of the world should revolt to get their fair share of the MMO pie. Nor am I claiming there are no legitimate complaints to be made about freemium games, only that the loudest complaint is rooted in something vile -- a pretense that time isn't money, affected solely for the purposes of class warfare on video game turf. In fact, I'm the first to say that freemium games deserve mountains of criticism. Many are terrible and tawdry and tacky. Many compromise gameplay values and quality for a quick buck. But the pay-to-play and pay-to-win and F2P and RMT arguments are as much about classism as they are about game design. So the next time we're picking on freemium games, let's make sure we're doing it for the right reasons... and not just out of sheer snobbery.
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