To understand the equality paradox, play a game
One of the biggest generational disconnects of our time is how the young and the old often fail to establish mutual empathy based on the belief that the other side is having a better time. Millennials regard their parents’ ability to achieve the middle-class dream of stable income and home ownership with envy as the income divide makes both out of reach for many. The parents, meanwhile, often see the anguish of the young as a result of the naivety and self-centeredness of a spoilt generation. “If only I had their resources when I grew up,” they say.
Both views are to some degree true. The world is both more equal and less equal at the same time. A good illustration for such an apparent paradox lies in the world of video gaming.
An article that recently went viral in Taiwan’s blogosphere bemoans the decline of video gaming skills. Before the age of smartphones, some of the most popular video games were real-time strategy games. In these games, players nurture virtual armed forces and their supporters. By gathering resources, researching technologies and building warriors with unique abilities based on the player’s research, the players prepare forces with which to annihilate their opponents’ control by AI or other online players.
Players start on a level playing field, they begin the game with the same amount of resources, controlling different characters of their choice. The great flexibility and the multiple strategic possibilities of these games enable players to develop their unique game plans. So skill is the main factor deciding the result of the game. At an advanced level, players often go through off-game training and create their own hotkeys in order to gain the precious few seconds (a typical game lasts around 10 minutes to an hour depending on gaming styles) in the decisive opening phase and to better control their virtual warriors.
In fact, the levels of skill and complexity in these games are so high that some are featured in professional gaming tournaments in which players enjoy proper corporate sponsorship and celebrity status.
Yet turn on the TV or walk down the streets nowadays and you will be greeted mostly by advertisements for a newer form of strategic games: the “freemium” smart device online games. These games are mostly free for download on smart devices. Players collect and build their warriors through fights with virtual items over time in order to fight other online players in a global arena. Instead of hours and hours of repetitive fights, players can also take shortcuts by paying up and purchasing high-power virtual characters or items that are painstakingly difficult for nonpaying players to attain. In part due to the hardware restrictions of smart devices, these games are typically a watered-down version of console or computer video games in terms of complexity. Satisfaction comes in the form of a collector’s pride in seeing a roster of high-potential characters and the vanity of seeing one’s name at the top of a global leaderboard. Judged by the growing list of A-list entertainers endorsing these games, there is true money to be made in handing out games for free and then luring players to pay.
The viral article points out that these games no longer put players on a level playing field.
“Payers” who are new to a freemium game can, with deep enough pockets (total investment can be upwards of NT$10,000 in some games), easily defeat veterans who do not pay.
Gaming is indeed more equal nowadays in the sense that high-end video games are more readily available (often for free) for smartphone-owning players. The strategy games of old typically cost nearly NT$1,000 apiece and needed (then not necessarily cheap) computers to play. The almost weekly rolling out of new titles gives gamers nowadays much more choice and variety. Resourceful and skillful players can still outsmart “payers” without spending a dime. Sometimes they can even make some real money by putting up their virtual items for sale.
Yet, on the other hand, in a way similar to the real world, the virtual world of competition is also becoming less equal. Success is often no longer based on gamers’ skills but on their financial fire power. While the extraordinarily intelligent gamers can still benefit in this system, the vast majority of players are left to be beaten by people who can afford to pay for such pleasure.
The young generations have much going for them in a world of huge technological advances and generally high education that provide possibilities undreamed of in their parents’ time. Yet they also live in a world that is increasing intolerant to mediocrity without money. The old formula of “keep your head down and work hard” no longer works as well as it did.