Thursday, April 28, 2011

Six Shooter Capitalism

Wow...I really need to get back to blogging.  I can't believe it's been almost ten months since my last entry!  To be fair, I've been busy keeping GameSquad.com up to date, though.  Anyway, my resolution for 2011 - is it too late for a New Year's resolution? - is to update Burke's Joystick more frequently.

Some time ago, I wrote an editorial for GameSquad.com called Six Shooter Capitalism.  This editorial was about how I believed that Gearbox's super fun (that's better than merely fun) sci-fi shooter was a wonderful tribute to capitalism, which it is.  Ironically, the other day I stumbled across an editorial by an unabashed Marxist about how Borderlands is actually a wonderfully artistic indictment of capitalism.  Go figure.

Anyway, I thought I would post the original essay here as well (and if you haven't tried Borderlands yet, what the heck are you waiting for?!?)


 Six Shooter Capitalism

Capitalism is good.  There, I said it.  In a time of bank bailouts, corporate bailouts, rising unemployment and falling productivity, you might think it strange to hear such sentiments expressed at such a time as this. Well, not really.  While my praise of the free market may rankle the latte drinkers over at the New Zork Times, any student of history and economics recognizes that despite its flaws (and I’m not conceding that the world’s current economic woes are due to the flaws of capitalism…I’m looking at you, Big Government!), it is the best economic system ever devised.  Why?  Because where capitalism flourishes, so does free choice.  Choice not just in major decisions (where to live, what occupation to purse), but also when it comes to minutia (what cereal to buy, which electronics store to patronize).  All things being equal, Choice is a good thing and people seem to instinctively recognize this.

I bet right about now you’re wondering if you accidentally strayed into an economics lecture.   Don’t worry, you didn’t.  It’s just that after investing a considerable amount of time playing Gearbox’s Borderlands, this idea of choice and capitalism struck home.  While it is probably indisputable that CCP’s EvE Online is the gaming world’s most prominent tribute to Adam Smith,   I believe Borderlands might be the second.  Simply, it is a game awash in free market sympathies.


Let’s begin with the characters themselves.  While few details are provided about their backstory, Lilith, Mordecai, Brick, and Roland are plainly described as “fortune hunters” and they are just that.  These are the prototypical “rugged individualists”, characters that have a lot in common with such iconic American characters as Calamity Jane, Wyatt Earp, Billy the Kid and Wild Bill Hickok.  Arriving on Pandora with little more than a weapon and the clothes on their back, all four, via the good graces of the gamer of course, will struggle against a hard world to…get rich.  That’s right, to achieve fame and fortune by locating the lost “Vault” that is allegedly packed with alien riches.  But for that motive, would they even be on Pandora?  Would they be risking life and limb for…universal healthcare?  I doubt it.  They are, in short, the lifeblood of capitalism: the daring risk taker willing to put it all on the line for a shot at a better, more comfortable life.  Pandora might be an alien planet, but it is all about a return of the pioneering spirit that was found all over the American West of yonder days - a chance to start again and do better for oneself.


To quote an infomercial: "But wait, there is more!"  Gearbox has made much of Borderland’s gun generator, something that is reputedly capable of generating over two hundred thousand weapons.  Now, someone who is less enamored with the free market would probably question the need for such extravagance.  After all, isn’t one type of rifle good enough?  One pistol?  Well, no.  As Borderlands makes clear, sometimes you just need a shotgun that spits corrosive acid.  Who would have thunk it?  Certainly not some bureaucrat sitting comfortably in his office, located far from Pandora on a planet so safe that even BB guns are probably illegal.  Fortunately for the fortune hunters, somebody did think of it…Maliwan.  All sorts of other weapons too, from manufacturers such as Dahl, Tediore, Jakobs and others.  Because we can assume a free market exists in this game’s galaxy (i.e., it is not suggested that they are government-run enterprises), we can therefore extrapolate that these companies were free to take a risk and actually manufacture such oddball weaponry and try to sell them is a target market.  When all is said and done, the weapon manufacturers helped themselves financially (and their employees...assuming that the manufacturing plants aren’t staffed solely by Claptraps) and the fortune hunters in terms of personal safety.  It’s the classic win – win situation that is so prominent in a capitalistic system, one that no government hand, no matter how smart, could have anticipated.

Speaking of manufacturers, I have to hand it to Gearbox for simply taking the time to so prominently interject them.  I suppose it would have been far easier to just generate guns with some generic moniker, such as ‘Assault Rifle’, but Gearbox didn’t take the easy way out.  Instead, not only did they come up with some cool names for the individual weapons (my favorite:  the Dahl ‘Desert Law’), but also created the aforementioned corporate brand names, such as Torgue or Atlas.  It may be minor, but I find that it makes the experience all the more immersive as far too many games just throw equipment out there as if the stuff was harvested instead of manufactured.

But there is also a larger benefit than immersion.  By linking specific manufacturers with their random weapon generator, Gearbox has created, perhaps for the first time in history, chic weaponry.  It really is quite amazing.  Not to belittle the other aspects of Borderlands, but it seems to be true that one of the reasons why people can’t stop playing the darn thing is because they simply can’t stop collecting the weapons!  Forums are afire with players bragging over acquiring this Vladof or that Jakobs, or the rare “legendary” weapons such as the Hyperion Nidhogg.  It really is quite amusing and a bit ironic considering how forums are often equally afire with critiques of this very nature of capitalism which, in the real world, is known as mass marketing.  Yet here it is, alive and well, proving that people like to own property and, even better, brag about it to their friends. 

Even more incredible are how players have begun to band together to trade and sell weaponry.  Not only is it striking because this type of activity is usually reserved for MMOs, but also because there is that capitalist spirit again.  Here, Gearbox isn’t to blame: they did create the product (i.e., guns) but it is the Borderlands community that has acted on its own to set up all sorts of little weapon-dealing entrepreneurial efforts.   Some players are even calling for the creation of corporate bank accounts or online stores (there is always that one guy who takes it to extremes, such as the case of one player who auctioned off his in-game weaponry on eBay!).  Of course, where there are open markets, there will also ultimately be under-the-table black markets, and those are here as well as Gearbox is now trying to deal with certain unscrupulous players who have crafted “modified” weapons that are seriously unbalancing the game.   Hmm…I think we might have an economic “bubble” forming here.

But there is more.  I found some of the challenges in Borderlands to be blatantly capitalistic. For example, there is the “I want it all!” challenge, which is earned if the player purchases 200 items.  Or the “Good Consumer” challenge, earned for purchasing fifty items.  And who can forget that “Money.  It Buys Happiness” challenge?  That just about says it all.

Then there are the NPC capitalists that abound on Pandora, such as Crazy Earl, the Joe Isuzu of Pandora, or Marcus Kinkaid, the arms dealer.  For such a desolate planet, it certainly is awash in entrepreneurs looking to make a buck!

That’s a lot of economic activity that suspiciously mirrors real world, free market endeavors for one game.  Could Borderlands be Gearbox’s love letter to capitalism?  Or is it perhaps that the free market, being a realm of intense competition, is just naturally suited to conflict-oriented gaming?  I don’t know but I do know that but for the free market, which admittedly is becoming less free all the time, we would not have such gaming pleasures.  I suppose that lesson is the real treasure to be discovered in Borderlands.

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