Worlds, Cash, and Inverting Dependencies

I posted the discussion for the Facebook LitRPG group.  A lively discussion followed, which made me think a bit deeper on the subject of creating a believable setup.  In particular, there’s a thread started by GR Cooper that gets into the meat of it.

The problem with that is – how do you create dramatic tension when there is no death? No or little pain?

So what if Goldfinger has James Bond on his laser torture table – it won’t really hurt much and when Bond dies, he’ll just rez and come back for more.

No drama. Boring reading. Look at most action/adventure (hell, even *love*) stories – the dramatic tension is there because of death, of loss. The most basic premise that most LitRPG shares is the removal of that device. It means that we, as authors, have to come up with other ways to introduce tension into the character’s lives.

 Jimquisition has a great explanation of this problem:

His point being that games over reliance upon violence means they don’t explore alternative avenues of emotional development.  Video games aren’t the only medium that can fall into this trap, but since these are books based heavily on video games, it’s important to understand how authors might unconsciously be carrying the biases of that medium into the printed page.

First up:

I see nothing really different from your setup and Way of the Shaman as an easy example

This is a superficially true statement, because Mahanenko put a good bit of thought into his World setup before he proceeded to get started with the game.  I’d put him as someone who does this better than most others, but we’ll explore how the devil is always in the details.  Another poster, Andrew Forstner gives a good point that makes me feel warm inside:

 VR game is designed to create profit, so not only will pain be an issue but a whole list of other things that keep people away from games. Not many games have done well over the long run because people are real picky on what they are willing to play long term. Designing a game world that fits your story, but would go bankrupt fast if it was real really drives me nuts

Now we have someone thinking through the consequences of the World building.

Why would mining in a virtual World create real cash?  Computers cost money to run, so who would pay for this virtual currency?   How would mining for ore in a virtual world create money in the real World?  How would the real World work if all of the young, industrious people spent all their time playing virtual games?

Even a cursory glance at gaming right now would tell you that games make far more money than they pay out to professional players.  Being a professional gamer is more of a dream for most people than a realistic life choice, but most of these games simply assume that in the future somewhere, playing video games will be the number one job employment opportunity.

This is like assuming that being a professional gambler is a viable employment strategy for most people.  The only way a casino works is that the house must constantly beat the players.  Any system where this doesn’t happen is unviable.  This is how all MMOs work right now, they are constantly getting money from players, not giving them money.  It’s why the Way of the Shaman doesn’t quite work because it recognizes this at one point, giving an elaborate detour about how the game constantly gets money from players at every turn, but then proceeds as if this wouldn’t be a problem.

To go deeper into that, the game would be a source of revenue extraction, like a casino, not a source of revenue creation.  In Mahanenko’s dystopic world, the game would create problems, it wouldn’t solve them, anymore than putting a casino in a third-world country would solve the problems of that country.

As a detour, I find it weird that dystopic worlds are often used for these novels since most of the setup would make more sense in a utopic World.  I.e. if everyone had money and all their needs were met, they’d be looking for ways to spend all their free time.  This is what I mean about unconsciously absorbing the biases of the medium.  Dystopian worlds are common in video games, so authors might unconsciously create this World without exploring alternative avenues.

Detour aside, if you go deeper into this, the problem is that most novels assume an inverted dependency setup.  What that means is that right now, as you’re reading this, games exist to serve real life.  We work hard in real life so we can play a video game and enjoy ourselves.  If a game isn’t fun or enjoyable, we don’t play it. In most of these novels, the real world exists to serve the game.  That is, the assumption is that people are playing the game so they can do things in real life things.

Ask yourself, “Is that really a logical idea?”

That’s where most setups break down, they don’t think about all the implications and answer the immediate questions that arise from that setup.  To use Thomas Sowell’s book Thinking Beyond Stage One, most setups use stage one thinking.  Of course, people will spend all their time in a virtual game and of course everyone will exchange virtual money for real money.  The unspoken assumption is that everything in the real world only exists to ensure the game’s success.  Every person, entity, corporation, and government acts in the interest of preserving the game instead of furthering their own ambitions.

Let’s look at this utilizing the given Survival Quest, which is a standout novel and does better than 90% of other novels I’ve read that use this type of setup.  If I were to pick a novel that does this completely wrong, Plotline Tester is my choice.

For Survival Quest, it does a great job setting up the details  and then answering its own questions on a Stage One glance:

After all, there are rumors that artificial intelligence had been created some time ago somewhere deep in military laboratories, that it is currently in operation and is making itself very useful. In general, with the appearance of the imitators life became happy and carefree. But the resulting unemployment brought little joy to anyone, so the tension in society following the emergence of the imitators constantly increased…

Mahanenko, Vasily (2015-04-20). Survival Quest (The Way of the Shaman: Book #1) (p. 7). Magic Dome Books. Kindle Edition.

So with automation and new artificial intelligences, we have an increase in unemployment.  He’s thought this part through very well.  All good so far.

So, as soon as the imitators became an established feature of our world, increasing the number of the unemployed, prisons began to get filled up at a catastrophic rate.

Mahanenko, Vasily (2015-04-20). Survival Quest (The Way of the Shaman: Book #1) (p. 11). Magic Dome Books. Kindle Edition.

So with this mass unemployment, we start getting a rise in crime.  Still very good.

For a modest fee he proposed to put all the prisoners inside his capsules and send them to special locations within Barliona, where they would spend their time in useful activities, like resource gathering.

Mahanenko, Vasily (2015-04-20). Survival Quest (The Way of the Shaman: Book #1) (pp. 12-13). Magic Dome Books. Kindle Edition.

And stop.  This is when we hit Stage One.  How would it be cheaper to put a bunch of prisoners in capsules, send them to go gather resources in a virtual World, and then have them mine ore or craft jewelry instead of doing this in the real world?   How would that be a “useful activity”?

The answer:

All the necessary laws were passed for securing the status of a state-run game for Barliona and the Government itself acted as a guarantor of the game currency, facilitating its free exchange for real money.

Mahanenko, Vasily (2015-04-20). Survival Quest (The Way of the Shaman: Book #1) (p. 13). Magic Dome Books. Kindle Edition.

Try proposing to any government that they should tie their national currency to a virtual currency in a game World and see the response you get from the government.  The way currency works is that the value of any currency is a simple formula:  GDP / Monetary Base *.  Or the total amount of goods and services an economy produces divided by the amount of money in circulation.  It’s why printing more money doesn’t help, the more money you print, the more it costs to buy any good or service.  Too little money has the opposite problem, if there were only one dollar in circulation, then one dollar would buy you every good and service in that economy.

Adding in another currency would immediately jump the monetary base up, meaning that the cost of all goods and services would go up.  Banks would start screaming because if they charge 7% interest on a loan, and the inflation is 10%, they lose 3% of the value of that loan.  If the economy of the virtual World crashes, then it would hit a deflation spiral. Since investments require a stable currency base, no government would use a currency system that is inherently unstable.

Tying the real World to the virtual World is again, an inverted dependency chain.  The only reason any government would do this is to try to make sure that the game is successful, not to make sure that their own country is successful.

So, could this premise still work?  Yep.  You just have to tweak the details to change the flow of dependencies.

The game could function as a quasi blockchain for a non-State cryptocurrency.  To prevent runaway inflation, cryptocurrencies utilize artificial scarcity, usually an algorithm that takes longer and longer to generate new currency.  The game’s cryptocurrency would be determined by amount of goods and services produced in the game.  People would simply use it like a regular cryptocurrency they use now.

How does this work right now?  Governments try to impose heavy taxes on investments in certain countries.  So investors have used cryptocurrencies ** to circumvent these laws.  Now we have a reason for people to be heavily invested in the game working correctly, because the cost of maintaining the game is lower than the cost of trying to deal with all the government tariffs and regulations that exist.   The game developers would constantly look for new ways to get people involved in the game since that’s what determines the worth of the currency.  Again, the game is now furthering real World goals instead of the other way around.

The government would probably track this currency use because they would be interested in finding people trying to dodge taxes or hide wealth, but they wouldn’t tie their currency to a game that could fail at any moment.   In fact, there would be a tension between government regulators and the game World, providing plenty of plot points or conflicts within the story.

I could analyze the scene where he gets his loan from the bank, but it works the same way.  The assumption is made that the real world exists to further the game, so of course he gets the loan for his daughter and wife.

Most of these novels seem to assume that people will willingly and gleefully join the game for all eternity, but even World of Warcraft, the juggernaut of online MMOs, has been steadily losing subscribers for a long time now, losing about half of its subscribers in the past five years (2015 is the last count we have for now).  And that has only been around for 14 years.

By creating a game that takes into account the fragility of consumer subscriptions, and creating a reason why people would be invested in this game for their own selfish reasons, you create a more believable novel with characters that act in a believable way.

This is where the Universal LitRPG Generator comes into play.  Which, I’m not suggesting that you should use it, I’m telling you that you should think about how it answers the questions I’m posing.

In this system, the game serves life.  Large amounts of elderly people are using most of the resources of the state, own land, medicare, medicaid, social security, etc.  The military is losing badly in its wars because it doesn’t know what works until they actually try it in war, which is too late.

By putting criminals and the elderly into the game, huge amounts of resources are freed up in the real world.  Because these people are digitized, there is no cost of maintaining their lives in storage capsules.

Thus the game is serving real life at every step of the way, we never have a situation where it only makes sense if real life is meant to serve the game.

So the simple question to ask for a novel is this:  “Does the game exist to serve people in real life or do people in real life exist to serve the game?”  Think about all the implications of your World and how answering these questions will create a richer, more believable environment.

 * The actual formula is more difficult because people try to influence the strength of cash and investors can buy bonds to increase cash flow, and the interest on bonds is tied to the belief that the government will honor its debt and pay the interest, and banks try to put out massively more loans than they have reserve capital to cover, but we’ll use the classical economics approach of ignoring all the complicated pieces and then wondering later why the predictions don’t work.
** If you read my blog, you’ll have to get used to economic theory.  Deal with it.

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