Okay, I’m A Centrist I Guess

Market simulator video game mechanics reveal the core of human soul.

Today I saw a short YouTube video about “cozy games” and started writing a comment, then realized that this was somehow prompting me to write the most succinct summary of my own personal views on politics and economics that I have ever managed. So, here goes.

Apparently all I needed to trim down 50,000 words on my annoyance at how the term “capitalism” is frustratingly both a nexus for useful critque and also reductive thought-terminating clichés was to realize that Animal Crossing: New Horizons is closer to my views on political economy than anything Adam Smith or Karl Marx ever wrote.

Cozy games illustrate that the core mechanics of capitalism are fun and motivating, in a laboratory environment. It’s fun to gather resources, to improve one’s skills, to engage in mutually beneficial exchanges, to collect things, to decorate. It’s tremendously motivating. Even merely pretending to do those things can captivate huge amounts of our time and attention.

In real life, people need to be motivated to do stuff. Not because of some moral deficiency, but because in a large complex civilization it’s hard to tell what needs doing. By the time it’s widely visible to a population-level democratic consensus of non-experts that there is an unmet need — for example, trash piling up on the street everywhere indicating a need for garbage collection — that doesn’t mean “time to pick up some trash”, it means “the sanitation system has collapsed, you’re probably going to get cholera”. We need a system that can identify utility signals more granularly and quickly, towards the edges of the social graph. To allow person A to earn “value credits” of some kind for doing work that others find valuable, then trade those in to person B for labor which they find valuable, even if it is not clearly obvious to anyone else why person A wants that thing. Hence: money.

So, a market can provide an incentive structure that productively steers people towards needs, by aggregating small price signals in a distributed way, via the communication technology of “money”. Authoritarian communist states are famously bad at this, overproducing “necessary” goods in ways that can hold their own with the worst excesses of capitalists, while under-producing “luxury” goods that are politically seen as frivolous.

This is the kernel of truth around which the hardcore capitalist bootstrap grindset ideologues build their fabulist cinematic universe of cruelty. Markets are motivating, they reason, therefore we must worship the market as a god and obey its every whim. Markets can optimize some targets, therefore we must allow markets to optimize every target. Markets efficiently allocate resources, and people need resources to live, therefore anyone unable to secure resources in a market is undeserving of life. Thus we begin at “market economies provide some beneficial efficiencies” and after just a bit of hand-waving over some inconvenient details, we get to “thus, we must make the poor into a blood-sacrifice to Moloch, otherwise nobody will ever work, and we will all die, drowning in our own laziness”. “The cruelty is the point” is a convenient phrase, but among those with this worldview, the prosperity is the point; they just think the cruelty is the only engine that can possibly drive it.

Cozy games are therefore a centrist1 critique of capitalism. They present a world with the prosperity, but without the cruelty. More importantly though, by virtue of the fact that people actually play them in large numbers, they demonstrate that the cruelty is actually unnecessary.

You don’t need to play a cozy game. Tom Nook is not going to evict you from your real-life house if you don’t give him enough bells when it’s time to make rent. In fact, quite the opposite: you have to take time away from your real-life responsibilities and work, in order to make time for such a game. That is how motivating it is to engage with a market system in the abstract, with almost exclusively positive reinforcement.

What cozy games are showing us is that a world with tons of “free stuff” — universal basic income, universal health care, free education, free housing — will not result in a breakdown of our society because “no one wants to work”. People love to work.

If we can turn the market into a cozy game, with low stakes and a generous safety net, more people will engage with it, not fewer. People are not lazy; laziness does not exist. The motivation that people need from a market economy is not a constant looming threat of homelessness, starvation and death for themselves and their children, but a fun opportunity to get a five-star island rating.


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  1. Okay, I guess “far left” on the current US political compass, but in a just world socdems would be centrists.