New year, new toys, and lessons I learned from 2011 – Part Un

So it is coming around to that time of year again. What?! I hear you say, “New year as already passed you by!”

Well, that’s true, and, also not. Being of Chinese descent, I am generally forced to celebrate both the lunar calendar new year (Chinese New Year) and the regular new year, by a number of circumstances. Great thing is there are two times when I am allowed to pig out and generally be jolly and good natured. Bad thing is, for almost an entire month of each year I can’t figure out whether I should be using the current or past year date when talking to my family and relatives.

Anyway, all of this pales in relevance with the excellent news I have to tell you.

Firstly, hurrah! Using a convoluted means of mail server routing I have finally managed to get my new email address working! hullo@chumshouse.net now officially lives! after several hiccups… (why are these things so damn difficult! Is it too much to ask to make it work like a Wii?)

Secondly, and this is probably the real news, after hearing the results of my work last year at various screenings throughout Melbourne, I was thoroughly unimpressed by the sound captured by the existing microphones. It was greatly different to how I thought it would sound when listening to it straight out of the field recorder.

If you are a soundie or sound designer, or editor, or just some guy who dabbles in post-production, you may say, “hey, but, after all the mixing and designing, surely, it would all be properly normalised to a mean, and you wouldn’t be able to tell what mic was being used anyway”

Well, that seems a logical argument. However, there was the proof staring (or blaring, I should say) me right in the face, and this wasn’t just coming out of my home stereo, this was coming out of one of the most potentially cinematic spaces in Victoria, ACMI (with its 2k projector and proper surround sound space). Despite all of the backhanded praising from neighbourhood sound recordists everywhere, and the touches of a world class sound designer (yes, he really is world class), my RODE NTG-3 and stereo set of Avantone CK-1’s (which, to my surprise, despite being a matched pair actually had a variance of 3dB… shocking really), amongst all the loveliness of Sennheiser MKH416’s, Scheops CMIT5U’s and Sanken CS3e’s (they all have their unique characteristics, you can tell, even post mix), were sorely outclassed.

People told me that it was a good job, that I did nice work, but, I wasn’t fooled for a second by the politeness (in fact, if the sound was really that good, would they have noticed it? It should have just faded into a holistic viewing experience). To my ears, not only did it seem that they microphones were difficult to mix together (there was a clear distinction between when a RODE was being used and an Avantone), but they were harsh, thin, and distractingly crunchy.

Ah! But astute film-makers everywhere would tut-tut and say, but, well, you are getting what you pay for, and in comparison to the competition around them, these mics are great value. And it was on this basis that I bought them, to be fair. I knew I wasn’t going to get the lovely warmth of a colette series mic, but, hey, they picked up sound, and how bad could they be?

I know this is turning into a mini ranting diatribe of a review, but yes, I paid $600 for the RODE, and, for the new microphone kit I will be unveiling I paid more than $2000 per microphone, but even if you paid $3 for crap and $1000 for gold, you are still purchasing crap… And it is in the same vein that I classify the RODE and Avantone microphones. Are my new microphones 3x better than my old ones? In a clinical test, no, probably not. But, amplify that to fit a cinema like ACMI’s and they are INFINITELY better.

As an audience member I came to realise something. Audiences can’t tell what microphone was used in recording. They can’t tell how a soundtrack was mixed to bring out the dialogue and reduce extraneous noises. Sometimes, they can’t even tell if its a surround sound mix or stereo mix. But, something that audiences everywhere understand, whether its consciously or subconsciously, is whether the sound was great or crap. There is no degrees to it, if the quality of the sound does not reach a certain threshold, it is just crap, there is no “how crap it is” or “what parts were crapper than others”, it just is, and the reason for this is it “breaks” an audience out of a viewing experience. Like a poorly cut scene, there is no degrees in badness, it is just jarringly bad.

So, to those budding sound recordists everywhere, I say this to them. Consider your audience. If you know this is a corporate video that is going out to a bunch of new recruits in a conference room, or its a short film only your mum will see, sure, skimp a little on the sound equipment. Beg, Borrow, Steal whatever to get the film made, as long as it maintains its integrity (i.e. it’s still the film you wanted to make and not just a pile of steaming poo). But, if you know that it is going to a wide audience, in state of the art cinema’s and being pitted against other films of its ilk, some of which are bound to be extremely well polished, take a realistic look at your potential to record sound for that film before sticking your hand up to it. I realise story can be king, but take a little strain off the writer and director by recording it with tools and techniques that do the film justice. Sound CAN and it DOES break films if either those two facets of its capture are found wanting.

If you can’t fork out a bajillion dollars for the newest top of the line mic, then consider hiring or borrowing one. If they want to bring in the writers cousin on board to boom operate for you, firmly decline, and source a boom operator you can trust. If you are not sure about the requirements of a gig, speak up before its too late and the camera is rolling, mistakes caught later when nothing can be done about them hurt 10x worse then redoing a shot. You don’t have to do it alone, if you know you are too inexperienced, bring another with more experience so you can tag along and “learn the trade”. Also, one more important piece of advice, it’s a bit specialised, but necessary: DON’T MAKE THE MISTAKE OF THINKING LAPEL MICS ARE GODS GIFT TO SOUND RECORDISTS. They are tools like any other in your arsenal.They have pros and cons. Use them realistically within a sound plan, and realise that they are delicate, breakable and a nightmare to use logistically, more so if you haven’t already found out what the wardrobe department is doing. It is one of the most difficult things to learn, how to rig up one of these, as a budding recordist (practice makes perfect), don’t think it can be done in 5 minutes, and don’t think some clothing noise is bearable and can be removed in post. Never settle for anything less than smooth and perfect sound.

The number one thing I keep in mind, when it is my job to record sound is: like a lens to a camera, it doesn’t matter how good the field recorder is, or the sound designer is, or the gear he is working on, or even headphones and the speakers the film ends up on, are, if you record crap, you can clean it up, but it’s still crap all the way through the pipeline.

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Business Card Design

Hey guys, so you’ve probably realised that I’ve decided to take this seriously, hence, deciding to legitimise the website with a proper website address, a proper email, and now, as you can see above, a proper business card (now… all I need to do is get it printed hmmm).

Hopefully, there will be a little more regularity as to when I post and not just its use as a repository of research material (although that is still handy). If there are any comments on the business card design or anything else, feel free to contact me via comment or in the about me and contact section of the website.

Economics of MMORPGs

This is a summary of an upcoming thesis I am creating for my PhD:

What is the problem?

Mis-management of virtual economies in MMORPGs (Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games) due to the implementation of overly simplistic tools, known simply as gold (currency) faucets (supply/source) and sinks (destruction), resulting in serious flaws in macro-economic flows, leading to unstable and unsustainable levels of inflation, known as Mudflation, a lack of distributive justice, compounded by the unique problem of asset permanence and abundance.

NOTE: Micro Economic management is inadvertently well catered for by designers.

 

Research Methodology/Method(*) – not finalized

–       Primary Constructive Research. The aim is to provide meaningful enact-able solutions to the problem at hand.

–       Quantitative Data Collection on Virtual Macro Economic Flows from both Secondary and Primary Sources (technical barriers need to be addressed) to create Positive Economic Trends/Theory.

–       Qualitative Data Collection on Player User Experience from both Secondary and Primary Sources in order to inform the implementation of Normative Economic Theories.

–       Drawing on Secondary Research Material (in particular the work of Castronova, and more recently, Barnett and Archambault)

–       This thesis will draw heavily on the structural characteristics of Castronova’s first published work, “Virtual Worlds: A First-Hand Account of Market and Society on the Cyberian Frontier”, a first hand, participant ethnographic, largely qualitative investigation on the economic characteristics of MMORPGs.

 

Initial Literature

Joshua H. Barnett and Leanna Archambault (2010). How Massive Multiplayer Online Games Incorporate Principles of Economics, THE GAMING EFFECT, TECHTRENDS, Volume 54, Number 6, 29-35, DOI: 10.1007/s11528-010-0451-y

Tanla E. Bilir, (December 25, 2009), Real Economics in Virtual Worlds: A Massively Multiplayer Online Game Case Study: Runescape.

Edward Castronova (2001) “Virtual Worlds: A First-Hand Account of Market and Society on the Cyberian Frontier”, The Gruter Institute Working Papers on Law, Economics, and Evolutionary Biology: Vol. 2: Article 1.

Edward Castronova, (July 2002). On Virtual Economies. CESifo Working Paper Series No. 752. Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=338500

Edward Castronova, Dmitri Williams, Cuihua Shen, Rabindra Ratan, Li Xiong, Yun Huang, and Brian Keegan (2009), As real as real? Macroeconomic behavior in a large-scale virtual world, New Media & Society August 2009 11: 685-707, doi:10.1177/1461444809105346

 

Limitations

Currently, very few MMORPG developers adequately monitor macro economic flows. Exceptions include EVE Online, and Alter Aeon. At first glance, there is also limited existing literature on the subject matter; a more thorough investigation is required.

 

Contributions to the field (of MMORPG Research)

Beyond the seminal work of Edward Castronova (possibly the only economist to take MMORPG research seriously) and a work of a handful of other mildly curious academics, this is a truly neglected field of MMORPG research, to the extreme detriment of continued MMORPG development. This thesis aims to provide, if not a foundation, then an indicator of what tools may be required in correctly managing virtual macro economic flows, whether they be unique to MMORPGs or analogous to real world methods, in order to promote a healthy and relatively egalitarian virtual society. We must also begin to integrate an understanding of game (or decision) theory in order to maximize optimal outcomes in player interactions, minimize sub-optimal interactions, while still maintaining the enjoyment of “play” (competitive or otherwise). Finally, we must begin to understand the player as not just interacting within a virtual gaming environment, but also as an economic agent, with the power to shape the economic system that is an MMORPG society.

In order to greater understand player expectations as to their socioeconomic position within such a society, I believe it would also be of great benefit to understand whether Culturalist or Substantivist models can apply to player population groups from different nation states, or whether the normalizing powers of MMORPG environments/developer initiatives, lead to the movement towards adoption of Formalist models of economic interaction.

Hopefully it will also serve to inform real world economics, providing an alternative and addendum to the prevailing free market paradigm, and provide the outline for viable means of testing a managed economy.

It is important to note this thesis will not concentrate on the currency transactions between real and virtual currencies between the effects this has on currency supplies within virtual world.

An epistemological and ludic analysis of what economics is within the context of an MMORPG social environment will need to be the precursor to the main argument.

Fuji X100 – The new king of the compact cameras?

With Leica, the makers of the almost mythical M series rangefinders and the legendary lenses that accompany them, recently announcing first quarterly profit increases of almost 30% and the continuing meteoric rise of the recently Cosina revived Voigtlander rangefinders and lenses, it would seem that the losing party of the SLR/Rangefinder war of the 1960s is gaining more (if still niche) traction.

However, consumers wanting digital versions of these cameras, for the more than half a decade, have been restricted to either Leica M9’s, used Leica M8’s or the rarely found, but, effectively obsolete Epson R-D1 (co-developed by Cosina, incidentally), all of which were out of reach of the average aspiring roving photographers wallet. Most were relegated to either using increasingly difficult to process 35mm film, or to descend from the clouds to ponder the merits of the Leica X-1 (although its almost comical price of over AU$2700 is far from lowly) or the Sigma DP range, both of which are pricey, feature aging technology and being superseded by even premium compacts.

Drum roll, the Fuji X100.

With the (actual) launch of this much hyped digital camera looming (the original release date of early March was delayed due to the natural disasters that have occurred in their place of manufacture, Japan), and many members of the press finally getting their hands on the “star” of the 2010 Photokina expo, we will finally get an answer as to whether Fuji’s attempt to capitalize on the recent uptrend in the popularity of the vintage rangefinder system has paid off.

It will feature a 12.3 Megapixel APS-C CMOS sensor, coupled with a fixed 23mm (35mm lens on a full frame camera) Fujinon lens that is relatively fast at F2.0. But, the performance of the lens wide open remains to be seen with Fuji stating optimal performance is only achieved at a more pedestrian F4.0-5.6. It also allows the capture of 720p video at 24p, although, that is its only video recording mode. However, of more interest is this camera’s utilization of a hybrid quasi digital rangefinder (which will probably require some adjusting to in focusing for those not already familiar), and the decision by Fuji to place a leaf shutter, an ND9 filter (-3 stops for bright daylight shooting) and aperture blades directly behind the front element of the lens, with the remaining 6 elements behind this. Fuji stated that this would allow for minimal shutter vibration, noise and, with the design of the lens elements, better flare control.

Officially this will hit Australian shelves with a AU$1299 price tag, which thrusts this beast well and truly out of even premium digital compact cameras, and squarely into several spots of predicament, the most important (and problematic) of which is, considering the other options available at this price point, why purchase a Fuji X100?

For example, those who are after an advanced compact camera for snapshots, both Canon and Nikon duke it out with the recently released Powershot G12 and the P7000, respectively, both of which provide a more than adequate feature set and picture quality at less than half the price, albeit with a smaller sensor.

For those after either a more advanced camera to wean themselves into digital SLRs, or a light and compact backup camera to augment their main DSLR (such as myself), or even just for more control and better snaps, for similar money, they have access to the rapidly proliferating interchangeable lens camera systems e.g. the Olympus Pen series, the Panasonic G series or Sony NEXs (which harbor s similar sensor in terms of size and performance). These have minimized the issue of noise and vibration with the removal of the mirror found in full sized DSLRs, and have the added bonus of allowing photographers to swap between lenses (and not only from the proprietary manufacturer, but the advent of these cameras have allowed owners of “orphaned” lenses (such as AR, FD and MD lens systems) to brush off the dust and put them back into service).

While the diversification of the market for digital cameras is a welcome trend, has Fuji gone a bit too far and created an entirely new niche of its own? Whatever happens, I for one am looking forward to experiencing the hybrid viewfinder and, its unique and, hopefully, whisper quiet shutter.

Risk Society and Media

Question: what are the implications of Becks “Risk society” thesis for our understanding of the media?

This question can be viewed in two parts.

What must be first understood is what a risk society is.  Secondly, what must be discussed is how such a societal paradigm’s development could be linked to media and communications practices.

Importantly, the use of the word “implications” within the question implies a negative connotation for the link between media and the risk society. While there is motivation to media outlets to commoditise and exploit the public trust that has been awarded to them in a resource scarce capitalist system, the role of the media is central to Beck’s idea of modernisation becoming reflexive (Beck, 2009), they occupy a key position in the mediascape of the “relation of definitions”.

This essay aims to briefly discuss this and it will argue that, as the risk society becomes increasingly mired in the anxiety of a reflexive modernity, this anxiety begins to take the form of more polarized, extreme views on risk. This is a schism that only serves to stifle meaningful discourse (such stagnation can be seen in a variety of “hotbed” issues), and it is a schism that best serves society if it is avoided.

It should be noted that the effect of the mediatisation of risk extends further then this, from the radicalisation of groups within society, especially within societies of ethnically diverse Diasporas, to the further stratified distribution of wealth and inequality, and the changing habits of consumption. However, due to the scope of this essay they will not be discussed explicitly.

So, what is a risk society?

In a public lecture given by Ulrich Beck at the London School of economics in 2006, Beck referred to the narrative of risk is a narrative of irony, and narrative that dealt with involuntary satire, optimistic futility, and attempts to anticipate what cannot be anticipated by the institutions of a contemporary society (Beck, 2006). As Socrates said, “I know that I know nothing”, and so, as we move towards a more technically driven society, we move towards a society where man-made consequences to man-made solutions become more unfathomable – manufactured uncertainties. It provokes us to re-assess the exceptional nature of this age and our positions within a society of ever increasing risk.

While the past is an indicator, like Schrödinger’s cat, the reality is, perceiving risk is an entirely futuristic exercise in calculating quantum physics, as it can be seen as both immeasurably minute and infinitely large in scale and scope. Risk society errs on the latter (Beck, 2006).  As society increasingly tries to reconcile growing perceived risks and an understanding of its unpredictability the question when implementing man-made technological solutions is no longer about the effectiveness and economic viability of the technology, rather how to manage the risks of utilising such technology, both political and economic, social and ethical. This is, in essence, Beck’s concept of reflexive modernisation.

As the world becomes increasingly interconnected, so the risk society is becoming a more globally shared experience. As Beck (2006) noted, it is not something that can be denied. The more emphatically the existence of world risk society is refuted, the more real it becomes.  And so, it is through this inexorable globalisation of risk that the questions of reflexive modernisation become equally interconnected.

But, how is the media involved?

While Beck’s work has not been widely critiqued by mass communication researchers, nor has he elaborated on the role of media in the risk society, it is clear that, spattered throughout his work, he has afforded media a fundamental role in the processes of reflexive modernisation (Cottle, 1998, p. 6).

The idea of the “relations of definitions” was created by Beck to encapsulate the way he saw risks as socially constructed within a public discourse. He identified the mass media as the medium for which the social construction, contestation, and criticism could occur within a risk society.

This has become increasingly important in our contemporary late modernity, as defining the ontology of risks, that is, what Beck refers to as manufactured uncertainties with the potential for catastrophe, and epistemology of how they understood, has also become increasingly problematic.

“Risks such as those produced in the late modernity differ essentially from wealth… [They completely evade] human perceptive abilities… They induce systematic and often irreversible harm, generally remain invisible, are based on causal interpretations, and thus initially only exist in terms of the (scientific or anti-scientific) knowledge about them. They can thus be changed, magnified, dramatized or minimised within knowledge, and to that extent they are particularly open to social definition and construction.” (Beck, 1992 p. 22–3)

While Beck acknowledges the historically exceptional scope, scale, and potential effect of contemporaneous risks, what is important to note, as is acknowledged in his above statement, is the fact that more and more these risks are invisible to the “human perceptive abilities”. Only when they are processed through fora that allow for the negotiation of a socially defined relation of definitions, such as within the scientific, legal, political, and economic systems, and, most importantly for our discussions, media and communications, can they become “visible” to the lay.

To Beck the most insidious of all risks that evade human perceptive abilities, above all others, is that of radioactivity and a nuclear catastrophe (Beck, 1992 p. 22).

Catastrophe. A foregone conclusion?

Beck, as the proponent of a society, is suitably nihilistic about nuclear energy. He sees their invisibility, scope, lethality and, multigenerational impact as calculations of risk approaching infinity. Even insignificant risks are now compounded by insignificant risks, a consumer surrounded by consumables of “minimal danger”, is in fact, surrounded by danger. Precedents instituted by scientific and legal approaches, essentially, collapse, as their potential consequences eclipse their potential use, and, hence, any form of oversight.

As such, Beck criticizes the basic validity of the institution that calculates this risk, the scientific.  He sees sciences’ monopoly on rationality as broken (Beck, 1992 p. 29) (even down to the rules of mathematics); that the erratic and unpredictable path of the effects of risks disrupts the idea of causality, causing science to be more theoretical than concrete; that scientists can no longer separate the political content of the definitions of risk from their impetus in pathos of objective rationality – to acknowledge this is to confirm Beck’s observation, and to reject it is to also acknowledge the dehumanising process that the scientific system engenders upon their contribution to the creation of a “relation of definitions”.

However, despite being part of the academic lingua franca the assertions of Beck’s risk society have remain problematic, and some elements murkily defined, this is especially the case with Beck’s fragmented writings on the role of the media. Cottle (1998, p. 25) noted that, despite the media’s key role in performing various processes within the risk society and the relation of definitions, Beck’s  “discussion of the mass media has, however, been found to be uneven, underdeveloped, and often contradictory…”

Forgiven the fact that, if self reflexive, Beck’s arguments would be contradictory, Beck’s powerful, if not inflammatory, ideas, while they have implanted their importance within the academic psyche, have resulted in a clear polarisation of ideologies.

Beck recognised the struggle in the negotiation of the relation of definitions between economic and political interests involving the scientific system, it is ironic, then, that disciplines of science heavily invested within Beck’s work, social science and media and communications, is also recognised, by Mythen  (2007, p. 4), to also be engaged in a struggle to negotiate the relation of definitions of Beck’s “risk society”, without significant success.

Mythen noted that, “what is notable about responses to the risk society thesis is that they have clustered around the polarities…  it would seem that the middle ground between these coalitions is sparsely populated. The impulse to either embrace rebuff Beck’s project has sidelined important sociological questions about which aspects of the risk society thesis can be profitably researched…” (2007, p. 795)

Mythen’s statement acknowledges the fundamental polarising effect of the nihilism within Beck’s concept of “risk society”, even down to the debate over its validity, and the barriers this schism creates to the meaningful discourse of its ideas.

So, does risk society warrant further investigation, or does the thesis’ nihilistic avoidance of discourse say otherwise? And, how does it affect our understanding of the role of the media

Beck’s writings on the risk society are a testament to the development of the 20th century. They are macro theoretical musings about the permeability of society’s different spheres and the understandings of risk that flow between them, and have provided a structure for us to understand the role of the media in the flows of communicating risks in the process of creating a “relation of definitions”.

It would be remiss of us to disregard Beck’s risk society and theorists have shown their applicability to a wide range of fields (Benn, 2004; Moldrup and Morgall, 2001; Stenson and Sullivan, 2001).

However, it would be equally remiss of us to allow the polarisation of “camps”, academic, political, or otherwise, to continue, and to allow the media to favour coverage of this schism, due to economic interests, and obscure the public sphere’s ability for common meaningful discourse.

As Mythen (2007, p. 807) stated,

“…Metaphorically speaking, we need to fund the fruits of Beck’s harvest at the same time as uprooting some of the weeds…”

Biblio

  • Beck, Ulrich (1992) Risk Society: Towards a New Modernity. London: Sage.
  • Beck, Ulrich (1997) The Reinvention of Politics: Rethinking Modernity in the Global Social Order. Cambridge: Polity Press.
  • Beck, Ulrich (2006) ‘Living in the world risk society’, Economy and Society 35(3): 329-345
  • Beck, Ulrich (2009) ‘Critical Theory of World Risk Society: A Cosmopolitan Vision’, Constellations 16(1): 3-22
  • Benn, Suzanne (2004) ‘Managing Toxic Chemicals in Australia: A Regional Analysis of the Risk Society’, Journal of Risk Research 7: 399–412.
  • Cottle, Simon (1998) ‘Ulrich Beck, Risk Society and the Media’, European Journal of Communications 13: 5–32.
  • Møldrup, Claus and Morgall, Janine-Marie (2001) ‘Risk Society – Reconsidered in a Drug Context’, Health, Risk and Society 3(1): 59–74.
  • Mythen, Gabe (2007) Reappraising the Risk Society Thesis: Telescopic Sight or Myopic Vision? London. Sage.
  • Stenson, Kevin and Sullivan, Robert (2001) Crime, Risk and Justice: The Politics of Crime Control in Liberal Democracies. Uffculme: Willan.

Killing the noob – a summary

Recently, I was forced to present the content of my thesis, albeit in a truncated format. Only so much you can say in fifteen minutes. Anyway, here it is

Why study it?

Over the past year, this thesis has evolved from it’s original concept of power structures in Massively Multiplayer Online Role Playing Games (MMORPG’s) to an analysis of the detrimental effects of the meritocratic distributive mechanism within societies, in particular, the social framework of an MMORPG.

A question that is often posed is why pair a socioeconomic distributive mechanism with very real dynamics with a genre of video gaming that is rooted in the virtual.

It is believed that, while meritocracy in a pure form is a practical impossibility, elements of the process in its various states of degradation are amalgamated with current social structures, which affect us all.

Millions of people now partake in the virtual worlds of MMORPGs and understand the emotional investment required by the characters they make and by other characters created by other participants, make it more than just a game. Rather, many see it as an alternative to real life.

The uniqueness of the virtual social structure, as found in the virtual worlds of MMORPGs (and, in fact, any persistent multi-user virtual world) is that they provide an environment, in which, meritocracy, in as close to its pure form as allowed by the scope of human nature, can flourish. As MMORPGs can be seen to be a reflection of real world society, the reason why it is so important for them to be researched academically, lies in possibility for them to provide an insight into our society’s undercurrents.

As Edward Castranova (2001, p. 2) once stated,

“…One does not study the labour market because the work was holy and ethical; one did it because the conditions of work meant a great deal to a large number of ordinary people…”

And, it is in the same vein that this thesis was conceived. The conditions of the meritocracy within MMORPG virtual worlds has come to mean a great deal to a large number of ordinary people, not only to those that are “inside” the virtual worlds, but also to those outside it, as well, such as the developers, publishers and community built around it.

 

What is meritocracy?

The defining characteristic of meritocracy, and also the most understood facet of it, is this simple equation, first proposed by the originator of the term, Michael Young in his seminal work, The Rise of Meritocracy (1958), and further refined by such theorists as Richard Hernnstein (1973), Arthur Jensen (1969), and McNamee & Miller Jr. (2004).

The above equation is also strikingly similar to the ideals of equal opportunity, and, for many, including egalitarian Brian Jackson (1964), and the nations of Britain and Singapore (which currently continues to pursue a meritocratic educational process), meritocracy is still seen as the way to achieve equal opportunity within society.

However, this essay, the presentation it follows, and the thesis it is based on, will argue that it is not a method of achieving equal opportunity, rather, it is, in fact, one of the most divisive and socially polarising ideas in contemporary society, and fundamental to the realization of interminable inequality.

The advantages and disadvantages within a meritocracy come in two phases. These coincide with the first generational cycle after the inception of a meritocracy and all generations thereafter.

In its purest form (as outlined earlier, a practical impossibility), the first phase of a social structure driven by meritocracy has its advantages and disadvantages, which would be comparable to what is expected of today’s western capitalist democracies. It is only after this first generation has embedded itself into the fabric of society and begins producing the subsequent generation that it becomes apparent the self-destructive nature of meritocracy as a function of society.

Using the framework of modern day MMORPG virtual worlds* (and the Singaporean Society in the case of the thesis), this essay aims to outline the process by which the societal distributive mechanism of meritocracy, from its inception to future generations, and demonstrate it’s self-destructive progression.

  • * Modern day MMORPG virtual worlds refers to the MMORPGs launched within the last 15 years, the earliest of which was Ultima Online, launched in 1997 and published by Mythic Entertainment. Richard Garriot, first used the term MMORPG in reference to this franchise, which he was the creator of.

 

What is the Process?

We take, as an example, an imagined situation starting with two children named Monica and Joey. Neither of them have biological relatives, nor do they have any predecessors. Monica and Joey are test tube babies born of entirely new DNA, and are, essentially, blank slates.

They are then thrown into a meritocratic system, where they are compelled to develop their abilities; we would see this as a system of education. Both apply the maximum amount of effort that their abilities afford them, and both reach the height of their potential.

Joey ends up as a prodigious gardener, while Monica rises to an executive position in a company that specializes in the interior design of high-rise office buildings, owned by large multinational conglomerates.

Certain theorists, such as Brand (1996), and Jensen (1969) would see this distributive process of meritocracy as advancing society – a derivative of social Darwinism.

This interpretation is connected to the first problem of meritocracy. If we accept that a meritocratic society is monetarily driven, financial rewards are given in exchange for demonstrated merit, then, going by the example of average Australian wages in these industries, the question must be asked: is there a reason why Monica is earning almost 300% of what Joey is earning?

Within the meritocratic framework, one must ask, is Monica exhibiting 300% more effort than Joey? Or, does Monica possess 300% greater ability in her field than Joey? While differences between individuals understandably exist, it is highly improbable that the difference between the  “demonstrated merit” of Joey and Monica is so monumental.

So, if neither lack in ability nor effort, what differentiates these two individuals?

In the case of the meritocracy, it comes down to the definition of merit. According to Ruth Lister’s (2006) points on the deficiencies of a meritocracy, she notes that a meritocratic distributive principle is based on narrow definitions of what “merit” is and what is of value to society.

In the case of Joey, unfortunately, in this society, his ability to grow an excellent pumpkin does not rate highly in value to society (ironic, considering human’s fundamental need of food). This results in low pay, low socio-economic status and, because these definitions of merit are rarely questioned in society, low self-esteem.

As British journalist, Polly Toynbee (2002, p. 35), once reflected on her experiences as a lowly paid worker,

“Low pay is low status… Just as pay is a cause for boasting among fat cats, it is equally a source of daily humiliation, for the low paid, seeing how little one hour of their hard work is valued at…”

It is this differentiation between types of “merit” that, not only can be seen to have a tremendous impact on social justice. It is also is a reason why the meritocratic distributive principle cannot help but continually undermine itself as an allocative mechanism of equal opportunity, for what is equal when the defining of what is “merit” is decidedly un-equal.

If this example is extrapolated into a second generational cycle, the self-destructive nature of meritocracy becomes apparent as social stratification becomes systemic, with elements of nepotism, inevitably occurring.

Say, Monica and Joey decide they would like to have children of their own and along comes Rachel, Joey’s daughter, and Ross, Monica’s son. Like their parents, Rachel and Ross are also thrown into a meritocratic system and are compelled to develop their abilities. However, unlike their parents, they have potential access to wealth generated and accumulated by their parents.

As is often the case, the natural instincts of the parent dictates that both Monica and Joey attempt to give their child every chance to succeed.  However, with significantly more wealth accumulated, Monica is able to give Ross an education at a more prestigious institution than can be afforded by Joey for his daughter, Rachel.

Even if Rachel was demonstrably more brilliant than Ross, discounting other environment factors, the major environmental factor that Rachel now has to deal with is her own family’s resources. Ross has access to his mother’s wealth and societal connections, and an education at a prestigious school, which, if it not to provide a more comprehensive education, then at least it can serve to generate social capital at an accelerated rate.

While it is not to say there would be entirely no effort required on Ross’s part, at worst, Ross would likely secede Monica in her professions, but, even more likely, with comparable effort and ability, he would develop wealth and social capital at a much faster rate than Rachel could.

From this extended example, there are four ideas we can conclude are the detrimental effects of meritocracy on society.

Firstly, in its initial phase following inception, we have determined that in order for the distributive mechanism of meritocracy to operate, for opportunity to be taken advantage of, the notion of what is meritorious and what is not must be defined. However, in society, the definition of what “merit” is and what is of value to society is narrow (the more narrow the definition is, the more inversely disproportionate the compensation for those with the right kind of “merit”) and rarely challenged.

Secondly, meritocracy’s distributive mechanism is shown to continually override equal opportunity, leading to an exacerbation of inequality. This social stratification is only magnified with each subsequent generation. As Patrick Diamond and Anthony Giddens (2005, p. 108) succinctly wrote in the new egalitarianism: economic inequality,

“…Pure meritocracy is incoherent because, without redistribution, one generation’s successful individuals would become the next generations embedded caste, hoarding they wealth they had accumulated…”

Thirdly, the notion of meritocracy, that each individual determines the scale of their own merit, combined with both the socially stratifying effects of it, and the discriminatorily narrow and rarely challenged definition of what is “meritorious”, leads to a widening gap in the self-confidence between those who are of low socio-economic status and those who are of relatively high socio-economic status.

As the self-confidence of those of low socio-economic status continues to erode, within a meritocracy, they are likely to reflect on their situation as a result of their own failures, leading to apathy, self-loathing and further distancing themselves from seeing the possibilities of change.

Those of relatively high socio-economic status are likely to view their current fortune and their future successes as a result of their own meritorious capabilities, leading to a heightened sense of self-importance. Of this, Michael Young (2001) said later in life, while discussing the wide misreading of The Rise of Meritocracy,

The business meritocracy is in vogue. If meritocrats believe, as more and more of them are encouraged to, that their advancements come from their own merits, they can feel they deserve whatever they can get…

So assured have the elite become that there is almost no block on the rewards they arrogate to themselves. The old restraints of the business world have been lifted and, as the book predicted, all manner of new ways for people to feather their own nests have been invented and exploited. Salaries and fees have shot up. Generous share option schemes have proliferated. Top bonuses and golden handshakes have multiplied. As a result, general inequality has been becoming more grievous with every year that passes.”

 

What is an MMORPG?

In the most basic terms, an MMORPG is a virtual world. Apart from niche text driven worlds, most of them are visually depicted.

Millions of participants are, nowadays, connected to these virtual worlds via programs installed on their computers called clients. Each of these participants has created characters (often more than one) to inhabit these worlds** and they are all able to see each other and interact with the world in real time. This is the “MMO” side of things.

The reason why this genre of games is labelled MMORPG is that the virtual world employs elements derived from role-playing games in order to motivate, entertain, educate and allow players to interact with each other.

Within the nascent research field of MMORPGs major work is being done on important subjects such as issues of economics, governance and ownership (Dibbell, 2006, Castronova, 2005), the pedagogical potential of virtual worlds (Steinkuehler, 2004), the nature of relationships within these worlds (Yee, Ducheneut, 2006), and the possibility of identity exploration (Turkle, 1995).

However, in this second major portion of the essay we will be dealing with the existence of a meritocratic societal distributive mechanism within the virtual worlds of MMORPGs, having already established the detrimental effects of such a mechanism.

So, what has meritocracy got to do with MMORPGs?

 

What has meritocracy go to do with MMORPGs?

Above, is my character that resides within the MMORPG of World of Warcraft. I am a participant within the virtual world of Jubei’thos*** and have been actively so for more than twenty per cent of my waking life for the last six years and two months.

During my time in this virtual world, as well as in countless others+ I noticed that, even in non-traditional worlds, people gravitated towards traditional social structures, and, just as in our earthly reality, jostled within the distributive mechanisms of that society to secure power. All of these worlds had similar game design elements, elements that were conducive to creating a meritocratically driven social structure.

Although the forms and labels with which inequality occurs may differ, there are structures equivalent to those existing within a meritocracy, which perform in much the same way.

For example, there still exists two phases within MMORPGs, which could be considered analogous to the generational cycles presented previously. While, the first phase of total equality in opportunity within a completely vacuum initiation can never occur in reality, it is a brief reality within MMORPGs and is one of the strongest motivations for people to join the virtual world – the lure of escapism and the potential of starting with a completely blank slate.

However, while the concept may remain as a marketing tool, the reality is that, it will erode further and further as more time passes and with each new inductee.  So the self-destructive cycle of meritocracy begins.

  • *** In many MMORPGs, particularly ones with a large user base, the user base may be split into many different virtual worlds (contained on computer servers). In most cases these different virtual worlds are estranged from each other.
  • + Others include Final Fantasy XI and XIV, City of Heroes, Champions Online, EVE, Conan, Warhammer, Tabula Rasa and Fury.

 

What is the Process (in MMORPGs)?

Importantly, it has been noted by many theorists including Castronova (2005, 2007), T.L. Taylor (2006) and William Bainbridge (2010) that participants of an MMORPG do not see characters, they have created, as separate from themselves. Participants do not state, “My character Prometheus slew a bearded witch.” when describing their actions to others, either within the virtual world or divorced from it in reality, rather, they will always state, “I slew a bearded witch.”

It is using this same transcendence of the paradigm of the participant-character relationship that it becomes apparent that a participant’s stable of characters can also act and progress in much the same way as the more traditional family structures discussed previously.

To outline the distributive mechanism of meritocracy within the virtual worlds of MMORPGs, we look to another hypothetical situation.

Take two characters: Bullet Face and Axe Smash. Both are new to the virtual world within MMORPG-landville.  As in the earthly reality, both are thrown into a meritocratic system where they are compelled to develop their abilities, in fact, a system of grading even exists within this world, much like grading within education, although it is referred to, instead, as “levels”.

Through their actions Axe Smash finds that he derives greatest enjoyment in moulding metal and stone into all sorts of useful tools, weapons and armour. Bullet Face, on the other hand, joins a band of adventurers to gleefully bludgeon her enemies with extreme prejudice. Axe Smash’s income will be currency exchanged for the goods he creates, while Bullet Face is left to scavenge from the bodies of those she has slain.

It can be said that neither lacks in ability nor effort in their skill (in fact, within an MMORPG it is possible to be quantifiably “equal”), yet Bullet Face will earn significantly more than Axe Smash.

Consequently, as a demonstration of the differentiation of merit it can be said that ones ability to kill is defined as more meritorious and of greater value to an MMORPG society than a nice pair of chainmail pants.

The differentiation of merit exists not only in occupation, but also between the performances of different characters in a combat situation.

This relates to the reliance and obsession of many of these games on quantitative performance data. Classes, or types of characters, where their style of play is not conducive to producing large numeric values in performance data tables (accessible by participants using client-based applications) experience the same lesser value in the eyes of society, just as Axe Smash has as a craftsman. These are utility or support characters, such as damage preventers, such as tanks (which are characters which protect other characters by taking incoming fire), secondary healers (which are characters who seek to prevent damage than remedy it); and buffing characters, such as bards (whose sole purpose is to improve the abilities of others, but they have no primary function of their own).

However, the socially stratifying effects of meritocracy become most apparent in the second phase of an MMORPG, after sufficient time has passed since the influx of characters at the virtual world’s inception. Depending on the breadth of the virtual world this can range from a week (in the case of World of Warcraft) to six months (in the case of Final Fantasy).

Say, for example, Bullet Face decides to conceive another character, as does Axe Smash. They are named Bomb Face and Sword Smash, respectively. Leveraging on pre-existing wealth and social capital built accumulated by Bullet Face, Bomb Face, with relatively equal ability and effort in comparison to Sword Smash, would, likely, develop much more rapidly than what Axe Smash’s accumulated resources would allow Sword Smash to. A new participant who chose to join the virtual world at this point would develop much more slowly than either Bomb Face or Axe Smash.

In this scenario, both Bullet Face and Axe Smash could be seen as equivalent to a parental entity, and Patrick Diamond and Anthony Giddens’ statement that the successful individuals of one generation lead to the embedded caste of the next, holds true. Meritocracy is shown to continually override equal opportunity and exacerbate social stratification with each generational cycle, or phase, within an MMORPG virtual world.

Also, low self-esteem derived from low socio-economic status is not exclusive to reality, just because theorists such as Davies and Griffiths (2006) would see MMORPGs as just a computer game. In fact, the disinhibition of participants without a physical connection to their characters can often make the tension between different socio-economic classes more vicious and polarizing. An indicator as to the toxicity of the society within an MMORPG can be the amount of derogation of language evident within that society, where the mastery of the evolving lexicon could be seen as a marker for social dominance. This is similar to what was found by theorists such as Sherbloom (2002) in “l33t” subculture.

Inevitably, as the cycle of merit driven inequality continues, unlike the earthly reality, despite all the emotional investment participants impart into their characters, it becomes comparatively easy to “pull the plug” as they and their characters becomes more and more disenfranchised with, what they see as a reflection of their failure, rather than systemic inequality.

Due to the interminable inequality derived from the self-destructive cyclical nature of the meritocratic distributive process, as more and more participants “pull the plug”, the amount of participants “leaving” would begin to overshadow the number of participants willing to “join”. When the numbers of characters within the MMORPG virtual world can no longer maintain the critical mass required to sustain a society, that society collapses, and, as a business venture, the MMORPG no longer becomes commercially viable.

Notable examples of this occurring can be seen in such MMORPG franchises as Tabula Rasa, and the catastrophic Fury, and All Points Bulletin.

However, in conclusion, there is a caveat to this. Despite meritocracy’s detrimental effect to the long-term sustainability of a virtual world, it is, unfortunately, the only viable means currently available to the developers who design these worlds, to keep participants engaged.

The constant struggle to attain, often unattainable power has a strange attraction to people.

 

Biblio

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  • Castronova, E. Synthetic Worlds: The Business and Culture of Online Games. London, UK: University of Chicago Press, 2005. Print.
  • Castronova, E. “Virtual Worlds: A First Hand Account of Market and Society on the Cyberian Frontier.” Working Paper. CESifo, 2001. Print.
  • Chappell, D. Eatough, V. Davies, M.N.O. Griffiths, M (2006). “EverQuest —It’s Just a Computer Game Right? An Interpretative Phenomenological Analysis of Online Gaming Addiction ” International Journal of Mental Health and Addiction 4(3): 205-216.
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The dilemma of the Leica

Hullo everyone,

Lately, I have been considering purchasing a Leica Rangefinder. I’m a bit of a purist so I was looking at the earlier 35mm rangefinders, such as the Leitz IIIf’s and M4’s and 5’s. The IIIf because I am a sucker for nostalgia and the 4’s and 5’s because they were probably the ones that had the feature set I wanted (hmph, why can’t Leica make a Leitz III lookalike with the features of an M7… I would buy that).

However, never mind the Leica, it got me thinking, and this is in reference to discussions I had been having with my housemates dilemma weighing up whether he should save for an M8 or declare it utterly futile and use the money more wisely, am I really purchasing the Leica as an excercise in practicing on-the-fly focus pulling or was it just, as he referred to, for the hypothetical “Leica experience”.

Don’t get me wrong, I believe photography is essentially an homage to the visual sense, however, does a well made film winder really define the experience of photography, or is it the way that the eye is forced to look at the world anew? My personal belief is of the latter, which makes the dilemma of the Leica a moot point. However, the quality of the equipment you use to capture the visual sense cannot be divorced from the experience (or in other words, would you eat soup with a fork?). And there in lies the fine line between being a camera gear fetishist and a too hip for my own good lomographer, and the dilemma of the photographer.

Most photographers, at least people who actively label themselves as photographers, fall into the two categories above. It is a polarization of ideology similar to evangelists and hippies. Just as a camera gear fetishist is more likely to take a picture of his camera than what the camera is looking at, so is a lomographer more likely to snap incoherently without looking through the viewfinder at all and declare it a piece of post-modernist art, “because that is the lomographic way”, at which point two things happen, 1. they become the exact anti-thesis of a photographer 2. the appreciation of a non-photograph taken without any thought pulls them further away from being a photographer.

In either case, neither of these two groups are capturing the visual sense, and hence, neither of these groups can possibly call themselves photographers. It is only when we transcend either the adoration of the physical tools we use to photograph, or the cultural misdirection surrounding a photographic fad, that we can truly unify the eye and the lens. As no two people have eyes that are alike, so too no two people have photographic styles that are exactly alike (although some may aspire to others).

And it is here that we discover the Leica experience is not an exclusive experience at all. It is in fact an experience possible with any camera, that of transcendence.

So, I suppose, getting back to the original question…

Do I need a Leica Rangefinder?

Below, my kitchen bench through the eyes of a Holga