Wednesday, August 19, 2009

The Value of Violence

The fundamental tenant of economics is that money is both a medium of exchange and a store of value. In short, money is tool to exchange value between people. Economics recognizes that not everything in life can be monetized; economic models either implicitly assume an arbitrary value for such goods or explicitly dismiss them as externalities. Economics doesn't insist that monetary value is a perfect reflection of life priorities; it simply insists that monetary valuations are a useful tool for inquiry.

Valuing Patch 3.2

In the lead up to patch 3.2 several bloggers expressed their disappointment in what they felt was the poor value of the patch. Their position was that 3.2 represented a poor return on their monetary investment (subscription fees) compared to what they believed Blizzard could have done with their money. In all honesty, I thought this complaining was more a case of disappointed emotional expectations rather than a genuine effort to critique Blizzard's financial policies. As pointed out in this brief article at, Blizzard's attitude toward patching the game has gone from one of having wild sex once every few months to what is effectively a perpetual cuddle. Undoubtedly this leaves some people unfulfilled.

These blog posts did serve a useful purpose, however, because they got me to thinking about how precisely one would evaluate the value added of patches and on-line gaming in general. Even if 3.2 is a failure in light of some individual subjective standard, that individual is still left with choosing from among a variety of entertainment alternatives. Since all the major MMOs effectively charge the same regular monthly-to-month subscription fee of $15, the relative value added comes down to whether you enjoy the content of one game more than another. But what about the value added of MMOs compared to other entertainment options.

Consuming Violence in America

Let us assume for the moment that, as I wrote in this post, Warcraft is essentially a game about violence. What is the relative value returned by an MMO in relation to other options people have to consume violence. After spending a few hours doing research on the internet, I came up with the table below.

per Minute

World of Warcraft Subscription$0.013
Tom Clancey Novel$0.016
Major Release FPS Video Game$0.017
Chuck Norris Video Rental$0.048
First Run Action Movie$0.071
One NHL Ticket$0.276
One NFL Game$0.400
One SEC College Football Game$0.611
Ringside Boxing Ticket$2.381
Ultimate Fighting Ticket$66.667
Afganistian War$50,692.339
Iraq War$142,359.141

Regrettably, due to width restrictions with Blogger I cannot include the full table with complete calculations. Some of the underlying data used to produce the summary above can be challenged; my goal was to come up with what I think is a list of representative numbers that are valid relative to each of the other options. For example, I could find no official data on the length of an average Ultimate Fight match so I took the data from a blogger who based his opinion on his personal experience. His estimate was that an average fight lasted three minutes leading to a $66 average per minute. This number may not be precisely accurate but I am confident that it's not off by such an order of magnitude that it would disrupt its placement in the table.

One of the things that leaps out from this ranking is that MMOs in general are a fantastic entertainment bargain. Short of talking a walk in the park (free) or watching a sunset from the porch (also free) on-line games are the ultimate in cheap thrills. Their value is comparable to that of books and single-player games. One could fund an entire six-month subscription to a major MMO for the cost of attending one three-hour long NFL game.

Reality Revisted

Sometimes investigations lead you in unexpected directions. The more interesting thing about this ranking is that it clearly illustrates the fact that the more real the violence the more costly it is to consume; that is to say, the more value we place on it. By real here I mean the likelihood that the violence will result in actual physical harm to another human being. Pixel PvP costs you a penny a minute; physical PvP costs you up to $142,359 a minute. Indeed, we can even draw a distinction between soft violence (gaming, books, movies) all which fail to crack the 10 cents a minute barrier, semi-soft violence (sporting matches) which all fail to break the dollar per minute barrier, and hard violence (which is $2 a minute and up).

Here's the kicker. If there is no functional difference between reality and fantasy (a point I made here) then why is it that people spend their money as if there actually is. If money is a store of value then this ranking illustrates beyond dispute that people value what happens to their bodies much more than what happens to their minds. The only cogent explanation for why someone would pay $200 to watch men claw each other for three minutes is that somehow or another this player vs player violence is perceived as more real or authentic than the pixelated kind. Philosophers, poets, psychologists, and monks may believe that the mind is a terrible thing to waste but the ordinary man on the street--full pun intended--he isn't buying it. He perceives a difference between fantasy and reality and is willing to pay much more for one than the other.

The easy way out of this situation is to simply label such people materialists, or ignorant, or unenlightened. Such descriptors are not explanations. Addressing the question why some people draw distinctions where others do not is a topic much too lengthy to address at the tail end of a post. I do think the ranking, however, helps us to understand why some people see computer games as form of escapism; it's a defense mechanism. It's not enough to simply vote with their pocketbook, they need to actively denigrate others to stabilize themselves. If you think that saying the Iraq War is nothing but a cartoon graveyard is insulting to the survivors, think how that argument must feel to the people who planned and payed for it. Talk about a rip off; you payed a trillion dollars just to kill a bunch of pixels. That makes your teenager trade-chat troll look like the economic version of Albert Einstein. The distinction between fantasy and reality had better be a real distinction because if it is not some people are acting downright silly and, if I have the measure of such people aright, they are not going to take looking silly lightly; there is going to be hell to pay.


Klepsacovic said...

They didn't pay for the wars, they convinced others to pay. It's free entertainment for the planners.

Your statement of pixels is far more true than you realize, but in a different way. It is because they perceive others as mere pixels, rather than humans with lives worth preserving, that they are so willing to make them die.

Overall this reminded me of an argument I had with someone about people who derive fulfillment from WoW. He claimed it was failure because they didn't have real things like cars or houses, I thought he was just jealous that their addictions were so much cheaper than his.

MLW said...

People play games to escape or kill time. People go to war over fear, security, and control. Equating these is not only incorrect but slightly denigrating to actual violent events.

At best, your table stops at UFC. Including two recent wars is just gratuitous. And even excluding those two, there is may be very little market overlap.

Your writing is based on the very weak assumption that WoW players seek violence. You're really stretching here.

The numbers up to the sport events is an interesting comparison to value, though.

Anonymous said...


I'm not sure that it's a weak assumption to say that WoW players seek violence. Given how violent a game it happens to be it would be rather shocking to say the reverse, that it was a game for pacifists.

I do think it's a fair statement to say that I sometimes focus too much on the violence and not to the other reasons people play. But the reason I do so is precisely because, as you comment shows, it seems to me some people are in denial about the violence in the game.

"Equating these... is slightly denigrating to actual violent events."

Yes, that's the point.

MLW said...


When I see people starting a raid or a PvP match in WoW, there's usually a tone of excitement and anticipation.

When I see people actually fighting, I hear anger, fear, and bravado. I see intense trepidation and reluctance to push it to that first punch, because they know that it will be only harder to pull back.

Just because little cartoon characters are swinging swords around and setting kobolds on fire doesn't mean it's the same thing and derives the same sensation.

I don't know how you can possibly compare these two things.

Green Armadillo said...

@Jorm: Actually, I think including the wars does an excellent job of proving how silly the argument is. If you compare your MMORPG subscription to the entire realm of possibilities, of course there are dozens of completely irrelevant things that cost way more.

If I cancel my $15 WoW subscription, I'm not going to put the money into a piggy bank to save up for someday going to war with some foreign country. I might purchase a DVD with the money, or subscribe to a different MMORPG. That's a comparison that's actually informative.

Anonymous said...

@GA. I'm a confused about your response because I am not suggesting that individuals consciously chose between funding an MMO or funding the Iraq war. Such a thesis is damn silly which is why it is neither an assumption of the post nor a fair reading of my remarks.

All I can do is suggest you reread the post. I am not saying what you seem to think I'm saying.

Sweetcherrie said...

If you ever get seriously tired of the width restriction of Blogger let me know, it can be changed, just takes some work and fiddling with the template ;)

Dàchéng said...

Elnia asked "If there is no functional difference between reality and fantasy (a point I made here) then why is it that people spend their money as if there actually is".

Elnia, nobody bought your argument the first time. There clearly is a functional difference between reality and fantasy that everybody understands except you!

Look at your prices. There's a big jump once the violence becomes real, even if it's only on a football field. Also, I don't know what your standard unit of violence is, but I think you'll get more such units from a real war, such as is happening in Afghanistan or Iraq, that you will from a novel or film, no matter how "realistic" the latter's violence seems.

Green Armadillo said...

Quoth Elnia: "One of the things that leaps out from this ranking is that MMOs in general are a fantastic entertainment bargain. Short of talking a walk in the park (free) or watching a sunset from the porch (also free) on-line games are the ultimate in cheap thrills. Their value is comparable to that of books and single-player games. One could fund an entire six-month subscription to a major MMO for the cost of attending one three-hour long NFL game."

That's the paragraph my comment was addressing. Perhaps some people do actually weigh one NFL ticket versus six months of MMORPG subscription fees, but I'd imagine that most people consider those as very separate types of expenses.

An MMORPG subscription is an ongoing service that you pay for, while a sporting event is a unique experience that will never happen exactly the same way again, no matter how many more tickets you buy to future games. When someone - such as the bloggers you opened your post with - complains about the quality of the service in their MMORPG, telling them that it's okay that the servers are down and the game is buggy and that there's no new content because the MMORPG is still a better value/time is irrelevant, because that's not a tradeoff that the player would make.

From that already flawed leap, you want to make an even bigger leap to compare MMORPG's to sports to war, as if the dollars and the impact are equal. Even ignoring the magnitude of the violence for a moment, the impact is not equal.

The MMORPG service I get for my $15 affects me, and, to a greatly reduced extent the subset of other players on my server who are affected by my presence. The sporting event affects 40K fans in the stands, maybe another 100K-1 million on TV (depending on the ratings), and a slightly larger but less connected group of less interested fans who glance at the standings but don't actually watch the games. The war has huge effects on the residents of the countries in the war, and even on countries that aren't involved in the conflict. Moreover, the consequences of the war are potentially life-changing - people killed or permanently injured - while most people aren't going to be thinking about the game very much a day or so after it happened unless someone asks them about it.

Perhaps you'd have a better view if you could estimate the number of people impacted (pro-rated by how severely impacted they are, which would put a huge penalty on the purely entertainment forms of violence). As it is, simply adding up the cost, dividing by the time, and comparing the items is no more informative than holding a 2-meter long sword in one hand and a 0.2 meter stick of dynamite in the other and trying to guess which one is more destructive.

Ooke said...

if the wars cost each individual 150k per minute the country couldn't sustain itself for more than an hour. 150k x 60 x 24 x 300 million people is roughly $64800000000000000 per day. Your numbers are off.

if you divide it between the 150 million or so taxpaying individuals that would make more sense.

150k per minute divided by 150 million people is $0.001 per minute.

regardless, a lot of people have expressed the dissatisfaction with wrath and the dearth of things to do at retail compared to TBC or Vanilla. People not remembering how inaccessible it all was at those moments and how unforgiving they were.

I for one am a little disappointed that 3.2 hit so early, but being in a middle ground raiding guild I haven't even finished Ulduar on 25 yet so I'm a bit biased.

Darraxus said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Tesh said...

Speak for yourself, Dach. The last article made some good points, but some are willing to overlook them. Bottom line, violence *is* the major metric of interaction and success in DIKU MMO design (and most games, for that matter). That has a real effect on us as players, for better or worse.

Our physiological responses are largely the same between simulated violence and the real thing. The key is that we *do* have a conscious mind that processes these things and then relegates certain experiences to "fictional" or "real". As such, our *sum* experience is different between "fictional" and "real" violence. It's important to note that such filtering happens largely after the fact, though, and the immediate response is physiologically very similar if not impossible to differentiate, as Elnia pointed out last time.

Elnia, perhaps the difference then is what value that experience has after the fact. Fictional experiences can be learning moments, but aren't usually nearly as transient or unique as real experiences. We hear "pics or it didn't happen" often enough to note that people *do* care that things "really" happened. Somehow that has more value than "it was simulated, and could be again". There's a price assigned to uniqueness.

The bigger question in my mind is why humans even value violence at all, especially as filtered through our conscious mind after the fact. There's a visceral thrill in the moment, whether it's adrenaline or some other physiological rush, but when there's time to reflect on what happened, somehow some violence becomes *more* valuable in terms of what people pay for it. That's interesting to me.

Anonymous said...

@GA. You have individualized something that I haven't. That's where you are going astray.

@ooke. Yeah, that's where the numbers get tricky and it's too bad the whole chart can't be shown.

Darraxus said...

Seriously deleting posts. Classy.

Anonymous said...

Supply and demand: Wars are more costly because they are rarer. If you die in mmo you'll just ress in 15 secs; if you get badly hurt in a fight it might take you months to recover (sportfights being safer than realfights therefore the diffrence in costs); if you die in a war the audience has to wait some baby to grow up in about 20 years.

The more real the violence, the more costly the consequences; ergo losers have to take more time to recover the losses; Therefore less matches in given timeframe.

Demand, however, remains constant. Therefore rarer is more valuable, even if the audience is limited; participating in exceedingly competetive "plays" becomes a competition in and of itself (which paltry explains sports-fans -violence).

Anonymous said...

@tesh. Those are some good questions. One theory is that the reason human beings value violence at all is evolutionary. Species that value violence were more likely to survive than species that did not. The trick with super predators is that this violence doesn't run amok and destroy the very thing it was designed to preserve. From this perspective soft or semi-soft violence is a steam valve, if you will.

One of the major weaknesses to my post is that it focuses exclusively on intra-species violence. But it's an interesting question as to how we might value violence against animals in terms of hunting, or snuff films, or even for food. You could argue that when we look at the amount spent at Sea World, or on pets, we actually value non-violence towards animals more than violence towards them.

@9:50pm. Why would you assume that the demand for violence is a constant. It's an interesting thought that perhaps there is some biological constant of violence and that the only difference is that some people, societies, species get a bigger share of this pie than others. It's an interesting idea.

Eaten by a Grue said...

Wow is not about violence. WoW is about picking flowers and doing delivery quests. You guys are just playing it wrong.

Tesh said...

Tangential fuel for the fire, Elnia:

The Uncanny Valley effect has a significant impact on how we perceive things. The article has a few examples of people who *have* convinced themselves that virtual/fictional things are more valuable than real things. Those that flippantly dismiss the notion that virtual violence matters are also dismissing some pretty simple psychology.

Of course, we'd all *like* to think that our particular vice doesn't actually "count", but our minds aren't unlike computers; garbage in, garbage out. Talking about our soul might be the realm of theology, but everything we take in does have an effect on us in one way or another, from simple physiology to psychology to theology.

Dblade said...

Do me a favor, and go log in, and ask 50 people why they play WoW. Not one of them will say "I play it because it lets me act violently cheaper than anything else. No seriously, its much too expensive to beat up bums in real life, so I kill trolls here."

Theory is all nice and good, but it needs to pass the "spoken aloud" test.

Anyways, you do realize right that a UFC DVD costs 20 bucks, and is every bit as real as the live match? The reason why live matches cost so much is that they are scarce, and premiums are paid for scarcity. Anyone can buy a UFC DVD, but there are a limited amount of tickets and a limited timeframe for live events.

Again, a live event is no more authentic than a DVD in terms of raw violence, and may even be less. Electronic media can make the violence more intimate due to editing techniques. However scarcity is what drives live event premiums.

The war If you think the Iraq war was paying a trillion bucks to kill pixels, you really don't understand. That's such a simplistic form of reductionism that it boggles the mind.

Anonymous said...

@Dblade. Of course you are right about the video and the law of supply and demand. But if there experience was same or better on the DVD it would be illogical, irrational, from an economic point of view to say that the experience was the same.

You whole comment sums up where people are misreading me. From an economic perspective you *can't* pay more for less. That's a fundamental axiom. So if you are paying more you *must* be getting more. You can disagree with that but if you do you are not disagreeing with me, you are disagreeing with the idea that an economic perspective is the best way to inquire about what's going on.

You may be 100% right that 50 people logged on to WoW would not answer that it's a cheap way to get violence. But from an economic perspective that is 100% beside the point. Economics is not about what people say, it's about how people spend their money. And it's factually true that they spend more money on the Iraq War than they do on WoW.

Dblade said...

Unless you think people in an economic sense are subrational, you have to take what they say at face value. People spend their money based on their own reasoning-yeah there are often factors otherwise, that's marketing and advertising, but you can't ascribe to them motives solely based on the mass data.

You can say, people do pay more for wars than they do for videogames. But it's hard to go from that to say wars are inefficient means of violence consumption, because the idea of a war as a means of violence consumption is not found in pricing data.

It's hard to explain because I'm not best at theory. It would be like saying because we spend so much on violent entertainment, the act of people giving and receiving pain is very important to us. But it isn't-in fact most people would be horrified to view it as such. That's because despite the amount of money we spend, we spend it for reasons that are incidental to that specific reason.

Have to admit though it is a thought-provoking discussion.