Monday, March 16, 2009

Economics in a Star Trek MMORPG +

In trying to reconcile real-world economics and what's been said in and observed in Star Trek, the best I've ever been able to come up with is the notion of "intellectual capital."

So my theory of Trekonomics -- and, by extension, the kind of gameplay economy I'd hope to see in a MMORPG based on Star Trekk -- depends on how we get from the production-oriented society we still have today to a society in which intellectual capital is by far the primary source of economic value.

Human technological and economic history has been a progression from the immediate and tangible to the long-term and abstract. We've gone from pure moment-to-moment survival mode (hunter-gatherer) to subsistence permitting cities and codes of law (Agricultural Revolution) to complex societies (Industrial Revolution) to a world of interconnected individuals (Information Revolution).

That last change is the one we're in the middle of today. Yesterday, capital was created by smokestack industries cranking out tangible mass-produced products. Today, we're experiencing the initial shocks of what I call "virtualization" -- the process of transforming the information that defines real, tangible objects into ones and zeros. The legal wrangling we see today over copying music; Kindle letting you read thousands of books; services for creating 3D sculptures of species that you create in Spore... all of these things and more are examples of the ongoing process of shifting from an economy based on mass-production and physical distribution to one based on the generation of unique ideas that can be duplicated and spread world-wide in mere minutes as virtualized concepts.

Now take that process and shift it forward two or three centuries, adding to it technologies such as anti-gravity, fusion and anti-matter power, faster-than-light travel, matter transporters, and matter replicators.

Question: In a society like that, where does "value" come from?

When basic material needs are all cheaply/easily met, when physical capital has lost most of its value, when mass-produced goods are no longer as desirable as individually-tailored services, what's left as a source of value that a person can contribute to a society in order to receive the advantages of participation in that society? (That is, assuming we want to try to set the Federation inside any kind of capitalistic economic environment, and not just give up and call it a full-blown Marxian communist utopia.)

All I can come up with is intellectual capital.

I guess that in the United Federation of Planets, your social rewards are somehow made proportional to the intellectual capital you contribute to that society. If you want to sleep all day, you can do that, and you'll get the essentials of life you need to do it: food, water, shelter. If however you create new things, if you demonstrate an aptitude for and interest in generating intellectual capital of some kind, then you're provided with whatever tools and services you can use to support your creative efforts.

And that would hold true whether you're an artist or a scientist or a starship captain. If you can demonstrate that you'll effectively use those tools and services to generate intellectual capital for the Federation, the Federation will allocate resources to you to insure that you're able to contribute to the maximum extent possible. Both you and Federation society (i.e., every other Federation citizen) win when the full creative potential of every individual is nurtured.

So that's the theory, which tries to explain Star Trek within something like a plausible real-world framework of economic behavior (albeit one extrapolated into a technologically-advanced future).

What about the practice? I have severe doubts that this could actually work.

My guess is that the trend toward replacing physical capital with intellectual capital is real, and that virtualization will not only continue but intensify. (The legal battles over who owns easily-distributable virtual assets are only going to intensify.) So intellectual capital could indeed become the basis for a new economic expansion -- in fact, I believe this process is already underway as an Information Revolution -- that will lead to a vastly better quality of life for most people on our planet. (Though it will also widen the gap between those who embrace the democratic capitalism that enables an Information Revolution and those still trapped in more repressive communistic, socialistic, and despotic cultures that promote statist power over individual rights, including the right to personally profit from one's creative labor.)

But even in Star Trek we still have that age-old practical problem of coercive power: who decides? If I labor creating works of art or doing science or flying a starship, who decides whether that creative effort is good enough to warrant handing me the keys to an efficiency apartment or a luxury home in the mountains? Who controls the rewards for achievement? Who judges what the creative effort of an individual is worth? And who's in charge over the people making these decisions, insuring that their decisions are fair and accurate?

This is where I see the "humanity has changed" argument (which Picard made a couple of times) as a necessary condition for Star Trek to work as an economic system. Without some critical change to what it means to be a human being, I see no reason to believe that Lord Acton's observation -- power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely -- has suddenly ceased to apply to us as a species.

Maybe the mostly-global transition to an Information Society will be enough to cause a dramatic shift toward altruism and trust, allowing a distribution-of-rewards system like that seen in Star Trek to work.


Finally, it seems to me that this theory of intellectual capital, which distinguishes between Industrial Age mass-production of physical capital and Information Age creative expression of intellectual capital, is very -- and not coincidentally -- similar to the difference between the manufacturing/sales and creative/exploratory models of "crafting" in MMORPGs.

It seems to me that many MMORPG designers are satisfied with simple pre-Industrial Age economic systems. For the feudal-era games set in fantasy milieux they usually crank out, that's perhaps not a problem. (A bit boring, but not a real problem.)

For a game set in a science fiction milieu, however... that's a problem. In what way does it make any sense at all that a technologically advanced society would still be using a barter-based economic model that's already antiquated today in 2009? Shouldn't the currency of a science fiction game be intellectual capital created by characters in the gameworld? Shouldn't letting players add to the total of wealth inside the gameworld be baked into the design of a game set in a near-term star-spanning future?

This is part of the reason why I advocate a crafting system for Star Trek Online that's based on players creating new kinds of objects and subroutines. It's a system based on the production of intellectual capital, rather than on the consumption of physical goods. I think this not only fits better in any science fiction MMORPG than mere barter, it fits much better into a MMORPG based on Star Trek for all the reasons described above.

For the truly hardcore gameplay designers still reading this novel :), I go into this subject in more game-specific detail in my essay Economic Stages in MMORPGs. For now, though, suffice it to say that I'd enjoy seeing Star Trek Online offer some gameplay more appropriate for its futuristic setting than just another medieval-era barter economy in which the concept of "banking" is considered far too advanced to implement....

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