[Originally published July 16, 2016]
Michael John McLeod is standing up to one of gaming’s Gods: Valve. He’s just filed a lawsuit alleging that Valve has “knowingly allowed… and has been complicit in creating, sustaining, and facilitating [a] market” where players and third parties engage in gambling with CS: GO skins. This accusation has set off a flurry of Hot Takes, but most of them seem to ignore a pretty disheartening part of this whole situation.
Valve has always been doing this. Valve is doing this. Valve will likely continue to do this. In a sea of Hot Takes, may mine be the hottest.
Allow me to direct your attention to this Gamespot story back from 2012. I’ll give you the cliffnotes:
– Valve hires the economic theory professor, Yanis Varoufakis
– They hire him to specifically study the data behind in-game currencies, and thereby help them understand how to create a better shared in-game currency
– This hire took place shortly after Team Fortress 2 went free to play.
This was 2012. 2012. You know how we joke about how Team Fortress 2 is a hat-wearing simulator? This is why. While Valve may have made TF2 free to play, they retained a revenue stream through the hat economy. Sure, they didn’t set the precedent for monetized accessories in a free to play model, but they did it better than anyone else. The hat economy birthed a thriving black – and white – market, and this opened the greatest book of Valve’s Old Testament: The Book of Perpetual Commodification.
Perpetual Commodification is a term from economic theory, and I promise you that it was a recurring topic of conversation during Mr. Varoufakis’ tenure at Valve. It’s pretty much exactly what it sounds like: the perpetual creation and sale of commodities (i.e. the products of labor, divorced from their creator). Gaming has pursued this concept relentlessly. It’s why we have DLC. It’s why we have microtransactions. It’s why we might be looking at a future of iterative console releases.
After TF2, Valve expanded the applications of Perpetual Commodification. Where there’s a black market, there’s profit – but there isn’t quite as much profit as they could possibly accrue. Their answer was Steam Trading Cards. Think about what Steam Trading Cards are at their basest conceptual level. They represent a Monetized Gamification of using the Steam application. It literally commodifies a platform whose sole purpose is to sell commodities. You’re rewarded for achieving a higher Steam level. How do you do that? Spending more time on Steam. What do you do on Steam? Play games. How do you get those games? You buy them. You buy them, and Valve gets the profits. STCs have also birthed their own black market, but that black market funnels even more profit into Valve – especially since it works in tandem with the hat markets.
What Valve’s doing with CS: GO skins is no different. They’re simply commodifying the commodification of in-game commodities. Commodi-ception (natch). The real problem is that Valve is – by no means – the only company partaking in these practices. Rocket League just introduced unlockable loot crates. Rocket League is a lucrative game with a passionate fan base. Black and white markets will surely emerge, and people will surely gamble their money away in pursuit of their virtual commodities. It’s almost inevitable at this point. The precedent has been set, and there will be no legal ramifications.
This is why Mr. McLeod’s lawsuit is almost certainly doomed to fail. Valve has “knowingly allowed… and has been complicit in creating, sustaining, and facilitating [a gambling market].” Of course they have. They – as well as several other companies – have been doing it for years. Upon reading of Mr. McLeod’s lawsuit, the first image that came to mind was David v. Goliath. But that’s not what it is at all. It’s David v. God. And when David struck down Goliath, God was the one that made it so.
You can’t kill God, Mr. McLeod. God will dare you – over, and over, and over again – and you will never, ever succeed.
But good luck, all the same.