Political Economy Synthesis
by David Ko Leong

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s an avid gamer and a future educator, I am fascinated with the potential educational value of recreational video games. A senior politics and history major who is also working towards a Master’s in Education, I am developing a handbook of ways for teachers to integrate recreational video games into the curriculum. I believe that the discussion that has passed so far, regarding Diablo 2 and political economy, is a perfect example of how to use video games to investigate academic questions.

Micha Ghertner's article was correct to identify certain limitations to the discussion of Diablo 2 and real life. I would like to go one step further and identify specific reasons why Diablo 2 is not identical to Hobbes’ state of nature. We must first begin by explaining Hobbes’ argument in “The Leviathan." In trying to justify the validity of established governments against civil unrest (as was the case with the English Civil War during the 17th century), he identified fear
as the central emotion common to all humans.

In the state of nature he envisioned, life was brutal, and moreover it was rife with fear. With no social structures, individuals were forced to spend all their time protecting themselves and their property. They could never settle down, develop art, practice farming, etc. Instead, people’s efforts were wholly dedicated to preventing others from killing them. To stop this never-ending cycle of absolute terror, people mutually agreed to form a government, the sovereign, to provide security. Individuals could dedicate their efforts to developing literature, science, etc. Notably, individuals did not give up all their rights, only some of them. Sovereigns, for example, were not supposed to arbitrarily execute its citizens.

Ghertner notes that no Leviathan exists, and that Diablo 2 is apparently tolerable enough that people continue to play years after its release. These assertions are unassailable. While I believe that Hobbes was wrong, however, specific elements make Diablo 2’s anarchic world differ from Hobbes’ state of nature.

First, the consequences of failure in Diablo 2 are far less than they are in real life. If another player kills your softcore character, you lose gold and respect, but you can simply reclaim your body. If every character were hardcore, as humans are in real life, every player would be as paranoid of Hydra PKs as hardcore players are now.

Second, Diablo 2 is far from a MMORPG. With only eight characters maximum in a game, each player only needs to be cautious of seven others. In a world with dozens, hundreds, thousands of others around, individuals’ security would be even more precarious.

Third, killing is not permitted in towns. In a true anarchic world, there would be no safe zones. In a Hobbesian state of nature, killing would be permitted (or rather no one would stop it) anywhere at any time.

Fourth, players are not allowed to hostile players less than level nine. In a purely anarchic world, children would be in as much danger as everyone else, regardless of their “level” or age.

Fifth, hostile warnings, automaps and the option to log off provide further protections. In Hobbes’ state of nature, individuals would have no warning, could not be infinitely perceptive of their environments, and would have nowhere to run. 

Finally, Diablo 2 acts as a form of escape for us. Most of us spend most of our days doing things we don’t particularly like, whether it’s work, school, chores, etc. Transporting to a fantasy world where we can be heroes free of the daily grind is the epitome of escapism. If we had to live in the Diablo 2 world 24/7, I doubt if it would be nearly as pleasant.

If all players were hardcore, had to be cautious of a thousand other players, there were no towns to serve as sanctuaries, no protections existed for the young, and individuals had no escapes, I believe that we might at least consider Hobbes’ proposed path. As it is, guilds and clans exist in essentially every online video/computer game. These organizations, however, exist for social reasons, not for security as Hobbes suggests. If Diablo 2 were more like the state of nature, I do not doubt that the organizations would evolve into nation-states or some similar established political organization.

If a true state of nature did exist, something resembling the current Diablo 2 world might come about. Certainly, towns might be made into safe zones, which would be enforced by PKKers. Eventually, some sense of fair play might come about. Prohibitions against hacked items, bots, etc. might similarly come into existence, at the very least to protect the trade system.

One interesting difference, however, would be Hobbes’ belief that criticism of the state was tantamount to treason. Anyone found complaining that 1.1 was too difficult or too easy, or that the system needed to be changed, could be tried and imprisoned or executed. Thankfully Diabloii.net does not abide by Hobbesian values.

In contrast, consider Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s vision of the state of nature. In his mind, the state of nature was a glorious time to which, unfortunately, European society could not return. He indicated the “noble savages” (ie Native Americans) as an excellent example of the benefits to the state of nature. Without society and/or private property, individuals were equal. No one person was so strong, fast, agile, etc. enough to violate the concerns of all others. Just as PKers often have to flee from games full of lower level characters ready to team up against them, Rousseau believed that oppression and tyranny were impossible in the state of nature. Note, that this is quite different from Hobbes’ view that the state of nature’s inherent fear was a form of tyranny and oppression.

Rousseau argued that society was the cause of inequality, or at least the catalyst for it. In Rousseau’s state of nature, some people were smarter, or faster, or luckier, or cleverer. But without established government and economic systems, they had only a marginally better standard of living. Once society came into existence, those individuals had more and more power that grew upon itself exponentially. Meanwhile, those that weren’t as smart or as fast or as lucky or as clever were stuck at the same place.

Nathan Danylczuk, in his Political Economy article, noted “the rich tend to get richer via item hunting with their high-level characters, while the poor remain poor, where Stones of Jordan measure wealth.” This seems to be an indictment of free-market capitalism. Extending the analogy, we can say that Stones of Jordan are akin to the U.S. dollar, up until recently by far the strongest currency in the world. Players trying to trade crappy uniques are stuck trying to convert their unwanted goods (perhaps their Jamaican dollar [1:65 for the curious]) for U.S. dollars, a difficult proposition to say the least. 

Ghertner argued that such criticisms establish no alternative. “When there is no incentive to do any work, people tend to do just that: stop working.” Essentially, some level of inequality is inherent to any economic system, and efforts to remove that inequality lead to failure. Communist Russia seems to be a perfect example of this phenomenon. And yet, there must be some alternative. As one of the many players Danylczuk described, struggling to get by with sub-par items, I was endlessly frustrated as no one was willing to trade or help.

Karl Marx, in his Communist Manifesto, argued that the owning class, the bourgoisie, exploited the working class, the proletariat. Capitalism, the economic system he rebelled against, would eventually exhaust itself. Workers would unite and violently overthrow the system, replacing it with first, socialism, and eventually communism. Under his communist idea, everyone would work as much as they could, and receive as much as they needed. In other words “from each according to his ability, to each according to his need.” The appeal of such a system is that it takes into consideration the less fortunate, and relies upon an idealistic, optimistic view of human natures. The drawback, is that it apparently doesn’t work.

Applied to Diablo 2, if characters could loot one another’s bodies, all the poorer characters would slaughter the richer characters and redistribute their wealth. Of course, each class (in this chase druid, necromancer, etc. rather than social class) would want items best suited to their needs. If this actually worked, all the players would be equally rich, and joyfully pass their time slaughtering monsters rather than each other.

The approach that Danylczuk seemed to be advocating is more akin to modern social democracies. No violence is involved. Members of a country, or perhaps a gaming community, democratically agree that unrestricted wealth is immoral, or at least amoral. In the case of governments, taxes are instituted to redistribute wealth in the form of tax breaks, services, food stamps, etc. In the case of Diablo 2, perhaps designers could alter the magic find percentages to have stricter diminishing marginal returns after, say, 150% magic find, and to have 100% magic find be the optimum value. In either case, the former poor would have greater access to the items valued in the society. Importantly, there is still an incentive to work. While the government provides a bare minimum on living standards, it does so in a way that still allows for some level of inequality in income and standard of living.

Key to understandings economics is the concept of capital goods, which have instrumental value, and consumer goods, which have intrinsic value. Capital goods include anything that is used to produce, make, or find something else of value. They have instrumental value, which is to say they are valuable in that they serve as an instrument towards a further goal. Consumers goods are those we buy at the store, any finished product ready for consumption. They have intrinsic value, which is to say they have value in themselves, not in their capacity to make or do something else. In the context of Diablo 2, capital goods are magic find items, and consumer goods are items like Windforces, Grandfathers, Enigmas and Breaths of the Dying.

Those who own the magic find capital (“means of production” in Marx’s words) have a far easier time gaining wealth, whether in the form of more capital or in the form of consumer goods. Those who do not can certainly try to attain millionaire status, but will likely meet with little success. After hundreds of hours of magic runs in desperate search for a Harlequin’s Crest, I can say that the rich tend to get rich, and the poor tend to stay poor. Expanded to the real world, the “American Dream” says that anyone can become wealthy through “pluck and luck,” determination and fortune. The Diablo 2 Dream says that anyone can become a rich player through determination and fortune. Whether either or both is true is up to you.

As a minor point, Ghertner’s analogy of Diablo 2 trade to Adam Smith’s “Wealth of Nations” is half correct. While trade does only happen when both parties benefit, Smith’s primary purpose was to argue for comparative advantage. Say the U.S. can make computers really well, and that Mexico can make shoes really well. If the U.S. were to only make computers, and Mexico were to only make shoes, more computers and more shoes overall would be made. Mexico and the U.S. could trade their respective items, allowing for more of each in both countries, thus raising the standard of living.

This comparison seems more at home at MMORPGs like Ultima Online and Evercrack. Since characters can specialize in lumberjack skills, metalworking skill, fur-trapping skills, etc. there seems to be a greater comparative advantage. In Diablo 2, instead, dedicated magic find characters are good at finding magic items, but nothing more specialized than that. Even if a character WANTED to specialize, and thus benefit from a comparative advantage, she would have a difficult time doing so.

That said, I found both previous articles enlightening and inspiring. That recreational games like Diablo 2 have educational value has been firmly proven by the previous two authors. Any minor quibbles have more to do with my own anal retentiveness than any flaws in their arguments.

I hope that readers found this guest article informative, and hopefully at least a little entertaining. On another note, I highly recommend “Dungeons and Dreamers: The Rise of Computer Gaming Culture from Geek to Chic” by Brad King and John Borland. It’s an excellent read about gaming communities since their humble beginnings to today.

By David Ko Leong

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