Things that are real:
- physical sensation
- religious organizations
- a hand-written letter
- a fat stack of cash
- a DVD with data written on it
Things that someone could argue aren't real:
- human relationships
- an email
- financial investments
- digital currency
- account balances
- legal arguments
- property rights
- substance abuse
- social connections
- digital currency
Things that probably aren't real:
- robots who transform into dinosaurs
- the absolute truth that the old ways were better than new ways
- the absolute truth that new things are better than old things
- boyfriends whose bodies are pigeon bodies
These lists are not exhaustive. Feel free to suggest additions to each. I find it's easiest to add to that middle list — things that might be real in some sense, but that might be considered "not real" by other definitions of "real."
Earlier this month, Sean Sands wrote about EVE Online cost conversions to USD, and he wondered about ways to justify the valuation of ships lost in the recent EVE Online war. (I slipped some things into Sean's article, because he was veering into cane-shaking territory against digital stuff, and I only want him to look like a flippant reactionary when he really means it and I think it'll be funny.)
Thing is, I think it's clear that the noble co-founders of GWJ aren't into paying for digital goods, even if they're both well used to buying games via Steam, GamersGate, GOG, and other services that exclusively deliver content digitally. I did find it interesting that Sean was able to compare digital goods to entertainment experiences, though. You pay to see a movie, and it entertains you for a short time. Same with a new mission pack in a game, or some pretty new horse armor to show off to any NPCs who deign to notice.
At the end of the day, we all have our own loose definitions of what makes something "real." But if someone actually wants to not value anything because it isn't "real," they'll find themselves in a twisty semantic struggle to define what "real" means — especially if they want to divorce their definition of "real" from "what matters to me."
This past holiday season marked the 30-year anniversary of a Christmas classic that has been close to my heart for a very long time: Trading Places, starring Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd. Ultimately, it's a film in which abstract notions get converted into physical reality, and we all laugh and try not to make eye contact with our parents when we suddenly remember too late that there are kind of a lot of topless women in this movie.
In broad strokes, the story of the film goes like this: Two rich brothers, the Dukes, run an investment firm, trading commodity futures. They set up a Pygmalion/My Fair Lady scenario, where they make a bet on whether good education and upbringing are really important for their jobs or if anyone off the street could do just as well, given a reasonable chance. They put a bet down and contrive for Dan Aykroyd (here as a young man born into wealth, and every bit the reason I'll never wear boat shoes) to find himself penniless, friendless and homeless. Meanwhile, Eddie Murphy is promoted from scam artist on the streets to managing director of the investment firm in Aykroyd's place.
After many wonderful gags, the two lead actors figure out what was going on and set up the Duke brothers for some payback, courtesy of the combined devilry of theft, a classic wire scam, and some good, old-fashioned market manipulation. Planet Money and 99 Percent Invisible did a good job looking at the way commodities futures work in the story, but the punchline basically comes just after the Dukes are tricked into buying futures contracts — contracts to buy massive amounts of frozen, concentrated orange juice at a fixed price at a future date. The Dukes find that the market price of OJ will be lower than the price they'd paid to lock in. If they don't declare bankruptcy or cash out at a huge loss, they may soon find themselves paying a premium to take actual, physical delivery of a massive amount of frozen juice. They're one more bad decision away from truckloads of "real" OJ.
The thing is, up until that OJ is delivered, you could argue that a lot of what's going on in the show is exchanging "real" money for pretty abstract "not real" stuff. It's numbers in a ledger reflecting imagined future transactions. It's no more than paper and ink, bits on a hard drive, and ultimately nobody on the trading floor ever expects to see delivery of these massive quantities of frozen OJ or any other commodity they're theoretically trading. Current digital markets have computers trading futures and stocks with other computers at amazing speed, and I can tell you that not one computer ever decided to hold a pork belly contract and demand physical delivery of a ton of delicious bacon.
But then there are certainly things that are real, even to a young wordsmythe watching from the warm recesses of naivete and excess that we call "the '80s." A few items from the list of "real" things that I noticed in Trading Places: poverty, panic, drugs, sex, and being a jerk. These were all made startlingly real to me on my first viewing, even if they aren't all physical objects. Even if no physically real frozen, concentrated orange juice ever changes hands, the characters in Trading Places have had some very real things happen to them by the end of the film. They are really, materially changed.
Let me be clear here: Only in metaphor can you club someone over the head with poverty. If poverty is "real," then it's a different kind of real than a rock is, and it's probably important to remember that. Even "virtual" items and events can have real repercussions. "Likes" on a social network can have a very real impact in the way people treat each other offline. There are good reasons to keep in mind that the worlds of games we play aren't physically real. The state of mind we enter into when we play a game might not be a "magic circle" as such, but it's certainly a different sort of thing. We accept objects, rules, and dynamics without bothering with the skepticism we'd apply if someone popped their head up from the cubicle down the hall to shout that mushrooms will make us double in size. But I still feel like I've lost something when my companion in Skyrim gets killed.
Not that I'm advocating becoming fully immersed in games, mind you. Games can be more interesting and fulfilling experiences when we play with some degree of detachment. Our ability to recognize fantasy for what it is allows us to examine our play with a critical and theoretical eye. But when we seek to categorize something as "real" or not, we should be sure to keep in mind that "realness" might be better judged with a sliding scale, or multiple sliding scales.
Now if you'll excuse me, I seem to have a hankering for orange juice.