The Soapbox: Time is money, friend

Disclaimer: The Soapbox column is entirely the opinion of this week's writer and does not necessarily reflect the views of Massively as a whole. If you're afraid of opinions other than your own, you might want to skip this column.

MMOs are plagued by nasty -isms. Racism. Sexism. Nationalism. Ageism. Orientalism. Homophobia. Misogyny. OK, so those last two aren't really -isms, but you get my point. No matter how much we want our fantasy games to be zones of escapism, these prejudices chase us there. Sometimes we bring them with us as unwanted baggage that spills out in chat channels and character choices. And sometimes they're inherent in the game design itself.

Classism is one such problem you'd think the internet would reduce or conceal, but the divide between the haves and have-nots is stronger in MMOs than ever. To illustrate that point and how it affects us as gamers, I'd like to talk about another set of games ruled not by skill or talent but by money.

The Olympics pose a perfect parallel to MMO games. They are (with rare exceptions) participated in and won by wealthy amateurs in large, rich countries. To participate, you and your family need excess time and money to invest in training, equipment, and coaching. If you're really talented, a corporation might sponsor you in return for what is effectively advertising. If you're in most countries, though, you're lucky to find a team let alone score state funding. The result is that the Olympics aren't even remotely a collection of the best athletes whom our species can offer the world. They're merely a collection of the best athletes who could afford to participate. That cheats everyone and demeans the games. And the people with the luxury to play are intrinsically invested in making sure others are kept away from participating.

"Many gamers brought up on subscriptions simply don't want to associate with real-life poorbies."

Subscription games are no different: They exclude the relative poor. Fifteen bucks for an MMO sub is insignificant to me in California, but it's a lot of money to most people in the world, people in countries where the cost of living (and subsequent income) isn't artificially and exorbitantly inflated. Kids, low-income gamers, retired gamers, families on tight budgets, handicapped players without means, gamers in third-world countries... these people can't afford huge box fees and pricey subs, and therefore they gravitate to freemium games. Insensitive gamers love to blurt out, "Well if they're that strapped for cash, they shouldn't be playing anyway!" I suppose if you're poor, broken, or unskilled, you shouldn't be allowed to have one little thing in your life that isn't depressing drudgery. Shall we yell at them to get a third job? Why not kick a homeless person while you're at it?

Like the Olympics, subscription games have become (and maybe always were) the domain of relatively privileged people in wealthy countries. ("Relatively" according to worldwide standards; if you have a computer and free-time, you're already ahead of the game.) And many gamers brought up on subscriptions simply don't want to associate with real-life poorbies. They view a subscription as a welcome barrier to entry, a country club fee that keeps the unworthy out. This is part of the reason that so many traditionalists trash accessibility. Some gamers pine for the "good old days" when games featured gameplay that better filtered out the undesirable elements. EVE Online's tedium and brutality is painted as a necessary measure to keep lesser beings from mingling with the elite. Ultima Online's rampant PKing and EverQuest's anti-solo design ensured those who lacked social skills would wash out. And World of Warcraft? WoW's current blend of ultra-accessibility is criticized for letting the rabble in. Blizzard screwed up, so say these elitists, by making the gameplay so easy and accessible that "casual" gamers flooded in to ruin everything. And what is the word "casual" but code for money-poor, time-poor, or skill-poor -- all of which are, as the Olympics show us, effectively the same thing?

Time vs. money is the perpetual class issue in MMOs, one that existed long before the first freemium game hit the internet. The subscriptions-or-bust crowd scoffs not just at freemium games but at the microtransaction content featured in those games (and at black market or even open market RMT before that). You'd think the wealthy would be in favor of games that allow them to buy their way into MMO success, but the wealthy aren't just rich in money; they are rich in time. They can easily afford the luxury time necessary to undertake time-consuming hobbies (like, say, competing in the Olympics or raiding for the very best gear). The poorbies, by contrast, are generally short on time because they're working twice as long for less money, so even if they can afford a sub, they can't afford as much time to compete as the wealthy hardcores. The casual gamer is thus born.

"And what is the word 'casual' but code for money-poor, time-poor, or skill-poor -- all of which are, as the Olympics show us, effectively the same thing?"

In an ironic twist, an excess of money and time allows hardcore anti-freemium players the luxury of putting a high value on time-intensive activities like raiding for full tier-whatever armor or getting 10 alts to the cap or maxing out a PvP title or becoming the richest crafter on the server. In seeking to remain elevated over their less fortunate peers, these players become the most vocal about microtransactions and pay-to-win issues -- they are adamant that no one be able to buy his way into their tax bracket. "Why, if some poorbie could shell out a fiver and get a silver sword of doom, it'd demean my hard work... and *gasp* no one would be able to tell us apart. No one would know that I am elite and privileged and time-rich and he is just some dumb casual noob!" Even in F2P games, this aristocracy of hardcore players is constantly trying to thwart the in-game advances of the gaming equivalent of a lower-middle class.

Consider our own recent Behind the Mask column. In it, Patrick suggested that Champions Online's recent conversion to a F2P game (and the subsequent inflow of freemium players) had increased griefing (crime?) in the game. While I know Patrick to be an upstanding citizen and he's usually very careful to specify "griefers," even he in a few instances equated griefing with the free players while recommending roleplayers find new and exclusive places to hang out. "The blimp in Millennium City, the UNTIL building, and the Champions HQ building offer other indoor areas for people to get away from the huge swarm of free players," he said, as if the free players themselves (and not the rise in griefing) were the problem. He also recommended that Cryptic create new pay-to-play RP zones and ways for pay players to skip the early free-player-heavy zones because he "like[s] gating RP with real money more than levels or subscription status." He's not wrong that an increase in players, freemium or not, usually correlates to a rise in griefing, but we must be careful not to assume that a player's ability to pay for a game tells us anything about his willingness to grief. The "poor=crime" stereotype is hard enough to combat in the real world.

I don't mean to suggest that we should all eschew capitalism or that the downtrodden workers of the world should revolt to get their fair share of the MMO pie. Nor am I claiming there are no legitimate complaints to be made about freemium games, only that the loudest complaint is rooted in something vile -- a pretense that time isn't money, affected solely for the purposes of class warfare on video game turf. In fact, I'm the first to say that freemium games deserve mountains of criticism. Many are terrible and tawdry and tacky. Many compromise gameplay values and quality for a quick buck. But the pay-to-play and pay-to-win and F2P and RMT arguments are as much about classism as they are about game design. So the next time we're picking on freemium games, let's make sure we're doing it for the right reasons... and not just out of sheer snobbery.

Everyone has opinions, and The Soapbox is how we indulge ours. Join the Massively writers every Tuesday as we take turns atop our very own soapbox to deliver unfettered editorials a bit outside our normal purviews. Think we're spot on -- or out of our minds? Let us know in the comments!
This article was originally published on Massively.