I am a gray pixel. That is, I am a middle aged video gamer who has been playing games for quite a few decades now, really, all the way back to the early days of the Atari 2600. And I have seen a lot of gaming trends over those years. A lot. But there is one aspect of the video game culture that has remained constant, a guiding “North Star” of the hobby if you will, that has always intrigued me. Simply, it would be the burning love exhibited by the gaming community for space games. And not just any type of space game–I am not talking Space Invaders here–but for games where the player is permitted to enjoy the limitless freedom that outer space provides, particularly economic freedom. Really, when it comes to video games, space simulations have proven to be the hobby’s monument to Milton Friedman.
Huh? What is that? You thought video games were decidedly anti-conservative, like the rest of the pop culture? Actually, no. As someone who has not only been a long-time gamer but has also done my fair share of gaming journalism, I can assure you that a lot of the themes in the world of gaming are actually conservative in temperament. So conservative, in fact, that as of late a number of progressive developers have been attempting to pull the industry leftward. For example, Red Redemption released Fate of the World in which the player is made global dictator and charged with “protecting the Earth’s resources and climate versus the needs of an ever-growing world population.” Molleindustria, a publisher that calls for the “radicalization of popular culture," offers Phone Story, a mobile game that "attempts to provoke a critical reflection on its own technological platform" by making the player "symbolically complicit in coltan extraction in Congo, outsourced labor in China, e-waste in Pakistan and gadget consumerism in the West." Video games have now entered the realm of political propaganda.
Despite such progressive forays into gaming, most video games remain rather conservative in their outlook. And none more so than open world, colloquially known as “sandbox” space games in which the player is challenged to make a living by trading and mission-running out on what Gene Roddenberry so appropriately termed “the final frontier”. This idea of a game built around the roguish space trader preceded even such iconic space smugglers as Star Wars‘ Han Solo or Firefly‘s Malcolm Reynolds. And David Kaufman coded Space Trader back in 1974. But it wouldn’t be until 1984 when David Braben released Elite on the BBC Micro that the a space trading game genre would really hit the big time. That game is often considered to be the one of the greatest ever made. Its success was followed by other popular titles, such as Christopher Roberts’ Freelancer, a 2003 mega-hit in the world of would-be space entrepreneurs. The genre had definitely found an audience.
Regardless of the specific title, the theme always remained the same when it came to such economically oriented space sims. Rarely did the player need to acquire a spaceship just to pick up his government cheese at the nearest space welfare office. Rather, gameplay always revolved around the player setting out on a daring new life, free from the nanny state hassles of Hillary Clinton’s “It Takes a Village” manifesto, where the player could pursue fame and fortune as he saw fit. This theme continues to be a mainstay of the genre, as evidenced by the latter-day offspring of Braben’s and Roberts’ classic titles. For example, read this official description of EVE Online, one of the more popular contemporary “sandbox” space games:
“Economic power and industrial might are as crucial to the capsuleers of EVE as to any other society that has sought to impose its will on history. The space-industrial economy of New Eden is increasingly controlled by the capsuleers, who produce and use a large proportion of its vast output. Capsuleers mine asteroid belts and moons for vital resources. They exploit planets through their colonies and build starbases and outposts, in order to refine minerals and create exotic new materials. These pilots research their own creations and construct them in nanoforges controlled by sophisticated blueprints. The capsuleer market sees trillions of ISK in transactions every day, with goods ranging from ore to battleships changing hands in vast quanities. This economy is the engine that drives EVE’s never-ending cycle of creation and destruction.”
EVE Online, like many space games, is built upon the notion of a free market–albeit, a sometimes violent, brass knuckles-enforced free market–that serves as the driving engine of a future civilization. The community wouldn’t have had it any other way. Indeed, international gamers, which number somewhere well over 400,000, have so embraced this laissez-faire environment over the game’s eleven year existence that the developer, CCP, needed to hire Dr. Eyjolfur Gudmundsson, an economist, to help keep the game’s economy under control. Dr. Gudmundsson, a newcomer to the world of video gaming, was stunned by the game’s complex economic model. He would write:
“EVE Online is emerging to become a true economic system which is self-sufficient in providing the goods and services required for its own universe, which has several categories of pilots and thousands
of items. The fact that EVE Online is a single universe in which all pilots can trade and share items directly with each other makes it one of the most complex virtual economic systems today.”
This title is not just capitalistic in gameplay, either. More than a few players have declared (in the game’s active forum community) that, having been exposed to EVE Online‘s thrilling free market environment, they chose to pursue real world entrepreneurial undertakings, or even a degree in business as a result. The game is what once might have been referred to as free market “edu-tainment”.
Yet another space game that exemplifies this laissez-faire attitude is the forthcoming title, Elite: Dangerous, the official sequel to Braben’s Elite from 1984 (a BBC Micro is no longer required, fortunately). Here is its description:
"You can trade for profit between systems, ruthlessly pillage and pilfer at any given opportunity, take part in alliances to bring down planetary economies, tipping the balance of power, or simply explore the open world wonders of the galaxy, together or alone….Your first trade is much more than merely padding your bank account – it puts you in the driving seat of your own story. Your choices can make you wealthy, can make you powerful, and can make you knowledgeable, but can also make you the target of every Elite-wannabe from here to the edge of the galaxy.”
Again, is this not the essence of a free market economy in game form? Although Elite: Dangerous may never attain the lofty economic heights of Eve Online as the game is still under development (but eager space traders can buy into the beta program now), it is again heartening to see such free market principles at the core of the experience. Indeed, this game owes its very existence to capitalism, as Elite: Dangerous was the beneficiary of a crowd-sourced funding effort that reached the sizable sum of 1.7 million pounds (around $2.8 million dollars). That’s gamers using capitalism to finance a game about space capitalism. How appropriate.
Another contemporary title that exhibits this free market ideal is Evochron Mercenary. Perhaps its description is the most evocative of the entrepreneurial ideal:
Trading commodities while sneaking past hostile forces, racing the best pilots in the area, mining for diamonds, negotiating for survival, spying for a curious energy company, cleaning dirty solar arrays, transporting an impatient passenger… and that’s just on a Monday. The life of an independent mercenary is rarely without excitement. At times, you may choose to work under contract, while at others, you may want to take matters into your own hands in a quest to build your reputation and fortune. Your spacecraft awaits.
The free market theme continues.
And there are more: Egosoft’s X: Rebirth, Procedural Reality’s Limit Theory, and Chris Robert’s Star Citizen, a title that has crowd-sourced a staggering $50 million dollars. Now, I want to be clear. I am not saying that the aforementioned titles were conceived as ideological exercises. No good game ever is, which is why those previously mentioned progressive titles are so tedious. But I am saying that they have instinctively embraced the free market ideal and, in turn, have been embraced by gamers themselves. This is what I find so fascinating about this laissez-faire trend that stretches back to the hoary 8-bit years. Despite living in a world that becomes less economically free all the time, game developers and game players still embrace the oldest and best performing economic model of all. Well, in their games, at least.
Let’s be honest here. None of these games could even exist if they were set in Leftist/Progressive/Marxist/whatever-code-word-is-being-used-this-week setting. That entire descriptive paragraph from Evochron Mercenary would have to be re-written to something more like the following in a socialist setting:
Busting commodity traders sneaking past government regulatory forces, taxing the winnings of the best pilots in the area, shutting down environmentally unfriendly diamond miners, regulating for survival, spying on neighbors who didn’t vote for the dear leader, funding green energy arrays that don’t actually work, transporting Al Gore…all in a 15 hour work week! The life of a government-dependent drone is rarely exciting. At times, you may choose to form a union, while at others, you may want to take matters in your own hands and file a discrimination lawsuit in you search for reputation and fortune. Your government-provided Space Trabant awaits! Your adventure begins in the public sector.
Why do I suspect that the player would also be subjected to a video of Barack Obama reminding him that he “didn’t build that”? And it would probably play on a continuous loop on one of the cockpit’s monitors….
My counter-factual take on Evochron Mercenary‘s universe demonstrates how such a rigid economic system would kill an entire gaming genre. It would represent the polar opposite of the rugged individualism gameplay that players have become so passionate about over the decades. This alternative version instead represents a Cass Sustein fevered dream, a game where the "sandbox" would just be a "box", and career advancement found only in bureaucratic subservience. Not a pretty sight, is it? Would you want to play a game like that? I doubt it.
Interestingly, the mere fact that I know of no such statist space simulation points to what I believe is indicative of a continual conservative impulse in the hobby. The objective of all these space games is the same: to get away from our nanny state real world and put ourselves in an alternative universe, where a person can use his God-given talents to pursue his dreams without interference. Every one of these games distills what is best about the conservative ideals of individual liberty, or what John Locke called man’s pursuit of "life, liberty, and estate", the foundation of the civil society. This is why I have been fond of space simulations ever since I learned how to hold a joystick. I may have not understood the precise nature of the freedom encountered in such games, but I certainly found it exhilarating. I still do! Indeed I sometimes wonder if all those years I spent playing space sim classics like SunDog, Universe II and Elite made me a conservative in my politically formative years.
Nowadays when I find myself drifting through the depths of a simulated universe, I am often reminded of the words of Alexis de Tocqueville that an unfettered government…
“…renders the exercise of free agency of man less useful and less frequent; it circumscribes the will within an narrower range and gradually robs a man of all his uses of himself… It covers the surface of society with a network of small complicated rules, minute and uniform, through which the most original minds and the most energetic characters cannot penetrate, to rise above the crowd."
Such a game setting wouldn’t be worth my time. Fortunately, space sims have instead imagined a freer reality where people can pursue whatever career they choose, unmolested by the heavy hand of government regulation. I often find myself luxuriating in such settings, treating it as a sort of virtual vacation. These games also give me hope for the future, because the continued popularity of the space sim genre would seem to indicate the existence of lots of other like-minded individuals. I like to think such games are slowly and effectively educating people on the benefits of economic liberty. And if those lessons are absorbed, perhaps–just perhaps–the next real-world laissez-faire revival might be launched by the very people now piloting spacecraft in a virtual galaxy. Author Ridley Pearson once remarked, “Always trust computer games.” Seeing how the free market impulse has existed for so long in the world of space simulations… I do.
This article is adapted from my blog post, Space: The Last Conservative Frontier.