For the Win

March 23, 2011

If the actuality of human triumphs and tragedies overflowing the bounds of video games isn't enough to defeat claims that it's “not the real world,” then economics and politics will do the trick.

For the Win’s sweeping plot connects gold farmers1 in the slums of India and China to gamers in the U.S. to investors on Wall Street to the designers and administrators of some of the largest nation-rivaling economies within massively multiplayer online games (MMOs). It’s a bona fide maelstrom of international–hell, inter-world–economic and political intrigue. As with most great sci-fi, it’s a diagnosis of the present writ large upon the future. And For the Win swells with predictions: about the coming role of virtual economies in real-world economic life, about how digital media and the internet are changing the nature of politics and revolution, and about the growing place (and global costs) of video games in our lives. I found it fascinating and thrilling, and if you’re interested in economics, politics, or video games, I think you will too.

A strength of the novel is its characters. Among the most memorable is Mala, a teenage girl from the Indian slum of Dharavi whose leadership and gaming skills lift her family out of poverty and earn her the title among her army of “General Robotwallah.” Then there’s Leonard Goldberg, who goes by Wei-Dong, an American kid who makes his way to China to help his guild mates in a real-life boss-fight against tyranny. And then there’s Connor, the young economist, brilliant and starving before his equations accounting for the “fun factor” of games allow him to predict the tidal movements of billion-dollar virtual economies. I notice that Doctorow’s strongest characters are the ones who hunger the most, whether they want for lofty freedom or the banality of a bulging bank account.


Fingerspitzengefuhl means “fingertip feel”–that feeling you get when you’ve got the world resting against the thick cushion of nerve-endings on the tips of your fingers. That feeling when you’ve got a basketball held lightly in your hands, and you know precisely where the next bounce will take it when you let it go…

Proprioception is your ability to sense where your body is in space relative to everything else. It’s a sixth sense, and you don’t even know you have it until you lose it–like when you intertwine your fingers and thread your hands through your arms and find that you wiggle your left finger when you mean to move your right; or when you step on a ghost step at the top of a staircase and your foot lands on nothing… Fingerspitzengefuhl is proprioception for the world, an extension of your sixth sense into everything around you.

I love that there’s a word for this, and naturally we have the Germans to thank (although it’s a similar idea to Mihály Csíkszentmihályi’s less alphabetically taxing term “flow”) This is one of the great pleasures of video games: letting the limits of your mind and body seep into the mouse, keyboard, and screen until their heightened capabilities are nigh your own. If the hardware and software we use for work could facilitate this kind of interaction as well as games do, we’d be productivity machines. In time, no doubt.


But envy wasn’t about what was good: it was about what someone else thought was good. It was the devil who whispered in your ear about your neighbor’s car, his salary, his clothes, his girlfriend – better than yours, more expensive than yours, more beautiful than yours. It was the dagger through your heart that could drive you from happiness to misery in a second without changing a single thing about your circumstances. It could turn your perfect life into a perfect mess, just by comparing it to someone who had more/better/prettier.

Envy is what drove that flurry of buying and selling…

Envy, not greed, was the most powerful force in any economy.

Envy drives a lot more of our behavior than we think. Making someone want something–something you have–gives you power over them. Even checking Facebook repeatedly, I think, stems from the fear of missing out on something someone else is a part of, and isn’t this a kind of envy? Probably the majority of advertising is based on envy, and video games (at least the multiplayer ones) work it masterfully, creating rankings and item-levels to always let you know who’s got it better than you.

What I can’t figure out is why we’re such suckers for envy. If you have everything you need, what good reason is there to want more? A little introspection tells me I’m most envious when I’m feeling insecure. Perhaps it’s when we’re uncertain of what really matters that we’re most vulnerable to suggestions that useless tokens count for something. The inoculation against envy, then, is to figure out and constantly remind yourself of what’s important. Then no one can use envy to gain power over you.

  1. Gold farmers are people who play games not for fun, but to do the most monotonous and repetitive tasks for hours on end in order to rack up in-game gold and items which they (or more often, their bosses) can sell for real money. They are usually poor, from countries like China and India, and they perform their services for paying customers typically in the U.S. and Europe. It’s the sweatshop model, but instead of delivering cheap sneakers, they help people in industrialized countries succeed in video games. Protestations of “but they’re just games” aside, this is a several-hundred million dollar industry