The Learn module on value states:
Without tracing the whole history, one can see how our ability to create value has always been tied to the ways in which we tell stories about, and with, our shared records.
However, we have already traced some of the history in the introduction to this guild. The story most common to modern ideas about valuation is scarcity, though it was not inevitable that value should be thought of in these terms. David Graeber helped us track the development of this line of thinking from Charles Darwin, who borrowed the term “survival of the fittest” from the sociologist Herbert Spencer. Social Darwinism was challenged by Russian thinkers like Peter Kropotkin, but this was largely forgotten after the discovery of genes and all the subsequent work which landed us squarely in the realm of neo-Darwinism and selfish genes acting like Chicago gangsters in order to maximize the propagation of their own genetic codes.
However, this tradition forgets something essential, summed up neatly by people like Friedrich Schiller (please forgive the gendered form):
Man plays only when he is in the full sense of the word a man and he is only wholly a Man when he is playing.
The central point here is that digital environments challenge the long-held intellectual assumption about the inevitable link between scarcity and value (we use the word 'intellectual' specifically here, because it seems that simple and close observation of the natural world would also tend to suggest that scarcity is not the primary force within many systems critical to maintaining life).
🌍 In a virtual world, the scarcity of goods is just a shared fiction.
In the serviceberry essay linked above, Robin Wall Kimmerer makes some fascinating points about indigenous observation and understandings of natural systems. In particular, she focusses on reciprocity (what modern technologists might call feedback loops) and the unique gift of human beings; the conscious expression of gratitude:
Gratitude creates a sense of abundance, the knowing that you have what you need. In that climate of sufficiency, our hunger for more abates and we take only what we need, in respect for the generosity of the giver.
In a gift economy, wealth is understood as having enough to share, and the practice for dealing with abundance is to give it away.
With a serviceberry economy as our model, it prompts the opportunity for articulation of the value of gratitude and reciprocity as essential foundations for an economy. Reciprocity — not scarcity.
It is with these thoughts in mind that we can begin to assess how we might craft different fictions about what underpins value in the digital world. In particular, might it be the case that digital items are not made valuable by some arbitrarily-imposed scarcity, but by the degree to which they are shared?
Might this kind of narrative lead to ways of making compelling games which are not about capturing value, but rather discovering it by virtue of time spent together, time spent talking positively, and the successful navigation of high-emotion situations which lead to the development of new skills or understanding?The Value of Systems¶
Reshaping old narratives, or crafting new ones requires an appreciation of systems. However, the key insight here is that this can often be approached not by looking at the complexity inherent in a system, but by understanding its origin and uses. The origins of systems are usually surprising, as exemplified by these three points from David Graeber's talk on debt:
- Virtual money systems came before physical currency.
- Physical currency was invented to pay soldiers.
- World religions start up as peace movements against materialism due to money.
Our financial systems represent the accumulation of centuries spent moralising about violent inequality. They are often archaic, and ill-suited to contemporary needs. That they take the form we now know is not the result of some inevitable, divine diktat: they are products of their history, which is why understanding it deeply provides fresh and new insights into what "improvement" actually looks like. We should look at games in a similar light, ask why things are the way they are, and see where we can change them for the better.
Better questions about what a language of play, and playful languages, might look like may be found through (as Graeber suggested) treating play as our starting point, rather than economic models. When we do so, we realise that:
Economic processes such as production, logistics, and trade are not simply means towards ends but can also be fun in themselves. Game content does not always have to be inspired by adventure and combat. It can also be about trade and industry - Lehdonvirta and Castranova, Virtual Economies: Design and Analysis
NFTs and other standards emerging in the web3 industry do not add anything new to this realisation. However, the fact that these primitives for gameplay exist in a medium that is also already economic means that their use for increasingly compelling trade and industry play is greatly amplified. Such games need no longer be limited to in-game economies.
What is being suggested here will be expanded further in our next guild session, but - for now - we ask you to consider what it might mean to create games whose success is not defined in terms of DAU or their revenue, but rather in terms of their ability to shape how trade occurs; how industry serves consumers; how politics realizes power. We will end with another insight from David Graeber and David Wengrow:
What is true of technical creativity is, of course, even more true of social creativity. One of the most striking patterns we discovered - indeed, one of the patterns that felt most like a genuine breakthrough to us - was how, time and again in human history, that zone of ritual play has also acted as a site of social experimentation - even, in some ways, as an encyclopedia of social possibilities.
There is a lot to absorb in the reading above. Simply read through it again, follow the links that interest you and come prepared to discuss the dissolving boundaries between "in-game" and "real-life" economies, and how the merging of these two realms opens up new fields of meaning for this simple word, value.
The Virtual Worlds Future is Already Here¶
Or perhaps the Metaverse is already here, and it's just not evenly distributed? Tony Sheng once again gives us a helpful, complementary opposite view.
If you feel compelled, there are many fascinating examples of games which already bridge aspects of the digital and physical worlds. Start here, and good luck to you.
The guild has changed and evolved over the course of many blocks, and so this video was not originally recorded under the current topic. However, we archive it here as a means of illustrating the links between technical and social creativity outlined above. More than anyone we know, Austin Griffith epitmoizes the idea of development as play, and play as development. In so doing, he helps us all see how a deep understanding of all the economic, interconnected primitives might lead to more compelling, delightful and even subversive play: