To un­der­stand the equal­ity para­dox, play a game

The China Post - - COMMENTARY -

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.

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