Theory of the Gaming Class

The institution of a gaming class is found in its best development at the higher stages of the barbarian culture. The upper classes are by custom exempt or excluded from industrial occupations, and are reserved for certain employments to which a degree of honour attaches. Chief among the honourable employments . . . is warfare; and priestly service is commonly second to warfare. . . . This exemption is the economic expression of their superior rank.

So wrote economist Thorstein Veblen, more than 100 years ago. Except that he wasn’t actually writing about gamers, as presciently accurate as he may sound today. The passage above is actually the first few sentences of Veblen’s most famous work, The Theory of the Leisure Class – except for the word “gaming” that somehow snuck in to replace the word “leisure” in the first sentence.

Published in 1899, The Theory of the Leisure Class was a scathing economic and social critique of America’s habits of leisure, luxury and, to use the phrase Veblen coined, “conspicuous consumption.” Though much of it is unreasonably harsh, Veblen’s basic observations are no less salient today than a hundred years ago. If Veblen is to be believed, though, the fall of Western civilization is at hand – and it just may be gamers who are going to pull it down.

Veblen held that most of the economic activity that goes on in a modern society is little more than an effort by individuals to distinguish themselves from one another, specifically by demonstrating how much more luxury each one of us enjoys than the next. Society moves forward in a constant game of one-upmanship: When everyone can afford a Lexus, I’ve got to work that much harder in order to buy my Mercedes. I need the Mercedes as a way to differentiate myself from the masses; God forbid I should simply drive the same car as everyone else.

“Conspicuous leisure,” another Veblen coinage, works the same way. The leisure class consists of people who have lots of time to waste on activities that don’t specifically produce the kind of staples needed to survive. “Abstention from labour . . . comes to be a requisite of decency,” Veblen wrote. Work is for the plebes. Clearly (to Veblen, at least), the fact that I have enough free time to level my World of Warcraft toon to 60 in only four months means that I occupy a higher station in society than the people who spend most of a year getting to the endgame – even though we’ve all “/played” the same 500 hours to get there. In this case, I belong to what we might call the “gaming class.”

Of course, Veblen had his detractors, including the famously acerbic literary critic H.L. Mencken, who wasn’t at all convinced that the only reason we enjoy our luxuries is to set ourselves apart from those who can’t. To Mencken, leisure was valuable in and of itself:

“Do I enjoy a decent bath because I know that John Smith cannot afford one – or because I delight in being clean? Do I admire Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony because it is incomprehensible to Congressmen and Methodists-or because I genuinely love music? … Do I prefer kissing a pretty girl to kissing a charwoman because even a janitor may kiss a charwoman – or because the pretty girl looks better, smells better and kisses better?”

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Gamers might ask themselves similar questions. Do I dig those Flying Tiger Goggles because I need the +4 stamina and spirit, or because they make me look sharper than all the other Undead rogues out there? Which is a better two-handed sword, the Truesilver Champion, with its holy shield, or the Warmonger, because it’s so much cooler looking?

The fact is, we make a lot of our gaming choices based not on whether they help us get ahead in the game, but as a way to mark ourselves as different – usually better – than the “noobsticks” who are always getting in our way. MMOGs especially are great places to see the kinds of distinctions at work that Veblen had in mind. What level 40 character in WoW, having just saddled up his first steed, isn’t gripped by more than a twinge of envy when that 60 warrior rides by on her flaming-hoofed epic mount?

Games, after all, are designed for this kind of thing; they’re competitive spaces where a large part of the point is claw your way to the top – and make sure everyone knows that you have. Easy “pwnage” isn’t the only reason uber weapons are desirable. Even if you’ve never made it halfway through a high-level instance, the rare item you like to flash in front of the Ironforge auction house says, “I’m uber and you’re not.” Imagine for a moment an Azeroth in which every sword and shield, every weapon, every piece of armor, and every item of clothing looked exactly the same. You’d still try to get your hands on Typhoon as soon as you could, but I can guarantee you it wouldn’t be as exciting. Game companies are well aware of this – which is why your epic mount has flaming hooves in the first place: it’s not enough to be uber, you have to look uber too.

The one-upmanship of gaming extends outside the realm of any individual game, as well. If you want evidence of a gaming class, look no further than Jonathan “Fatal1ty” Wendell and the rise of competitive gaming. Microsoft has now brought us a tool that anyone can use to distinguish themselves from their lesser peers, with the introduction of their Xbox Live service. Just beating Painkiller isn’t the point; now it’s where you rank on your favorite Painkiller server. It’s almost as if there’s no such thing as a single-player game anymore; no matter what you play, you’re not just playing against the AI, you’re playing against the background of all the other gamers out there who are playing the same game – and mostly you’re coming up short.

The gaming class values such distinctions even outside the realm of play. You can see it in the premium we place on information. The two favorite words of gaming news sites and magazines are “exclusive preview” – even if all they’re really showing you is a couple of stills from a trailer that has nothing to do with the actual gameplay. Knowing something no one else knows yet is what’s important. Who really cares if that knowledge is in fact useless, or even wrong?

This was Veblen’s beef with conspicuous consumption: It led us down a path of darkness, at the end of which “useful” work became “odious” and waste became a badge of honor. But if today’s gamers are lucky, that’s exactly where society is headed – and as I said earlier, gamers will be the ones to take it there.

The fact that we have time to waste in gaming marks us as proud members of the gaming class. Like being a member of Veblen’s leisure class, this is what marks us as standing apart from the unwashed masses. This is how we know we’re cool. And Veblen as much as predicted the rise of the gaming class as standing apart from the rest. In feudal Europe, it was the fact that I didn’t have to toil in the fields and could spend my time in more “honourable employments,” such as warfare. Back then, it was the lords and knights who were the “in crowd.” Doing combat was a luxury. (A Knight’s Tale, anyone?) The only difference between then and now is that these days the in crowd fights battles that take place on a computer screen.

Of course, the rest of the world hasn’t yet figured out the fact that gamers are the new leisure class, but it’s only a matter of time. Our moment hasn’t quite arrived yet, but it’s right around the corner. We already have our own swell parties and exclusive industry events, it’s just that no one cares but us gamers for the moment. But that’s already changing. Right now, gaming is on the cusp of a mainstream apotheosis that will make gamedevs and the uber geeks among us as cool as the dot-com boomers were in the late 1990s, as flashy as indie filmmakers were earlier in the same decade, as sought-after as the modern artists of the 1970s and as hip as the rockers of 1960s.

Soon enough, games will be the single most culturally important entertainment medium out there, the yardstick by which we measure our leisure time – and thus our station in society. When that happens, all your cool will belong to us.

Are you ready? Say it with me: Muwahahahahaaa.

Mark Wallace can be found on the web at His book with Peter Ludlow, Only A Game: Online Worlds and the Virtual Journalist Who Knew Too Much, will be published by O’Reilly in 2006.

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