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If the internet is a 'Great Online Game,' capitalism is the religion it pays tribute to

I think I finally understand crypto (and a few other things), and it's not...great.

Published onJun 08, 2021
If the internet is a 'Great Online Game,' capitalism is the religion it pays tribute to
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I’ve been meaning to look at Packy McCormick’s newsletter that compares the internet, writ large, to a giant global game for some time now. It’s an entertaining read, and frames the hypernormalization of influencer culture I described a while back in a new, compelling way:

We now live in a world in which, by typing things into your phone or your keyboard, or saying things into a microphone, or snapping pictures or videos, you can marshall resources, support, and opportunities. Crypto has the potential to take it up a notch by baking game mechanics -- points, rewards, skins, teams, and more -- right into the whole internet. 

The Great Online Game is free to play, and it starts simply: by realizing that you’re playing a game. Every tweet is a free lottery ticket. That’s a big unlock.

The argument certainly has merit. From the Ancient Olympics to the Mesoamerican ballgame, games have been large, often integral, parts of human cultures and societies across the globe for a very long time. They’re often associated with a culture’s dominant religion, which typically lends them symbolic importance that confers elite social status to its players. McCormick’s argument functions flawlessly at that level, too, if you think of late capitalism as today’s dominant religion, with commodified consumption as the object of its worship. What is a viral post if not the world’s perfect postmodern good? Immensely valuable, instantly reproducible, and infinitely consumable across the entire world at almost no marginal cost.

McCormick takes the metaphor several steps further. If the religion is also the economic system, then work must be part of the Game:

The Oxford English Dictionary defines a video game as, “A game played by electronically manipulating images produced by a computer program on a television screen or other display screen.”

If you’re working remotely from a computer, what you’re doing perfectly fits the definition of a video game. 

In McCormick’s telling, those of us working in the knowledge economy are functionally already playing online games. They’re just way less fun than Facebook, Instagram, Twich, TikTok and so on, which, as McMormick notes via investor Josh Buckley, are basically slot machines. Thus it’s only natural, he contends, that people will want to start earning “rewards” for their “play” in the same way they expect them from slot machines and video games.

Via this metaphor, McCormick offers the only even somewhat compelling explanation for crypto’s staying power and potential value I’ve read to date:

… crypto is in-game money for the internet. It rewards participation directly. Early users, supporters, builders, stakers, validators, and community members get tokens.

There are functional reasons, like financial regulation, that explain why cryptocurrencies are easier to implement as in-game rewards than conventional currencies. But I suspect crypto operates on a deeper, more psychological level as well.

As I noted above, the most impactful games operate on symbolic, as well as functional levels. Successful play confers a sense of societal achievement that goes beyond the technical rules of the game itself. It’s why we give children trophies and Olympians medals, to reward them tangibly in a way that currency can’t capture. McCormick calls this property “the meta-game,” which for him is essentially career advancement.

Cryptocurrency is the perfect fit for the postmodern careers he describes because it functions at multiple lèves at once, in the game itself and in the “meta-game,” collapsing the distinction between symbolic reward and money. Earning it is both a “reward for participation,” as McCormick puts it, and, for increasing numbers of people, a livelihood. You can both sound cool by talking about your favorite tokens at parties and readily convert them to U.S. dollars to pay your bills. It is both the gold medal and the six-figure endorsement deal. NFTs are just a natural extension of this culture collapse, or as McCormick puts it: “the digital trappings of digital wealth.”

For the first time, I can see some potential, though unlikely, upsides to crypto via McCormick’s game metaphor. McCormick believes that the expansion of the Game will break down barriers and create more opportunity for the masses by making it “easier for people to float in and out of projects at internet speed instead of committing to climb the ladder within a company,” and giving “the Great Online Game tools that were previously only available within the walled gardens of specific virtual or corporate worlds.”

Unfortunately, McCormick shares a blind-spot with the rest of the techno-utopianists: consequences, particularly systemic ones. At the beginning of the piece, he argues that in playing the Game, “the downside is limited.” Towards the end of the piece, he doubles down by adapting Shopify President Harley Finkelstein’s advice to entrepreneurs about the cost of failing to the internet itself:

The cost of failure is as close to zero as it’s ever been, and it will continue to fall. That’s true for entrepreneurship, and it’s even more true for the Great Online Game. Because entrepreneurs are trying to build a business; when you start to play the Great Online Game, you’re just building optionality. 

When people ask me my title, I don’t have a good answer. Writer? Founder? Investor? Some guy with a newsletter? They all fit, and I’m sure I’ll add more over time. Playing the Game is about having fun and opening doors that you didn’t even know existed. 

It’s a lot of work, but it’s fun work, with exponential upside and compounding returns. 

Go play.

McCormick is thinking and speaking here only about himself and people like him. People who are not Packy McCormick have lost their retirement to crypto, committed suicide because of crypto and online bullying, and been subjected to systematic online harassment. The cost of failure is not zero for many people, it’s much, much worse.

Then there are the systemic consequences. McCormick doesn’t stop for a moment to question his own comparison between social media and slot machines, despite the fact that unlike tech companies, gambling is a highly regulated industry because it often caters to addicts. He celebrates Elon Musk “getting away with things that people didn’t think were legal,” acknowledging that Musk is “playing a postmodern game against modern rivals,” without engaging in any critiques of Musk’s behavior or postmodernism.

Those may seem like abstract and academic criticisms, but the consequences of dismissing them are real. The same factors driving McCormick’s fun, low-downside “Great Online Game” are also behind a far less fun, far more dangerous game: QAnon. In fact, what if, as the many, many, many analyses of QAnon-qua-game seem to indicate, they’re one and the same? What if the same forces collapsing the distinction between work and play, currency and reward, and market manipulation and Twitter joke are also collapsing the distinction between reality and conspiracy, for the same reasons McCormick thinks the Game is succeeding: because participating in QAnon is more fun, or at least more hopeful, than facing the reality of what Cory Doctorow calls “the trauma of living through real conspiracies all around us.”

I fear McCormick’s Game might be, however compelling, not much different than QAnon: just another conspiracy theory, another momentary escape from our monstrous reality that allows the real conspiracies to continue. Perhaps until, as even Musk himself recently seemed to recognize, it’s too late for any of us to get out.

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