The rich and powerful don’t live in reality. That’s both terrifying, and cause for hope

Ok, so when I said I was “finishing up” my sanctions piece, I meant I was continuing to work on it and will have it done very soon. Self-imposed deadlines don’t always make me get things done when I want to, but they do at least move the work along. As with previous such things, I hope to have it out soon, so I can start taking way too long to finish my Outer Worlds post.

The fact that I’ve mostly maintained a solitary life, due to being a self-employed writer, means that the surreal passage of time many of us felt during lockdown has continued unabated. I’m reasonably sure I’ve been in Ireland for a year, but I could be off by a decade or two in either direction. B’fhéidir go raibh mé amú ag sióga.

That said, it also feels like news is moving rapidly. When we first decided to move to this side of the Atlantic, I have to admit that Putin was one of our bigger short-term worries, and while the war has had little affect on us beyond the emotional, I would have preferred to look back and think I was silly for worrying. I continue to hope for a swift end to the war, with as little bloodshed and as little of a shift towards authoritarianism as possible. As with so much else, it feels like there’s not much I can do beyond that.

I did, however, want to share this thread I came across. I can’t speak to the accuracy of this analysis, but it feels right to me. That should probably make me more suspicious of it, but I’m not seeing much of a hole in the reasoning:

The thread is pretty long, and I’ll include another couple bits of it, but this line of argument spoke to me not because I like playing strategy games like the Civ series to unwind, but because I’ve noticed this… video game logic, for lack of a better term, before. It has struck me a few times that libertarians seem to think reality is like an open-world roleplaying game. These can be single-player or multi-player, but one pretty consistent theme is endlessly replenishing natural resources. I think it first occurred to me while I was playing Witcher 3 a few years ago, and needed a little more money, so I just went out into the woods, found some monsters to kill, and hey presto, I’ve got what I need!

But even leaving out the way the game makes these slow and laborious activities quick and easy, there’s the fact that if you pluck an herb, it will have regrown within a couple days, and that continues year-round, forever. In a game world like that, libertarianism actually almost makes sense. There’s a direct correlation between time invested and rewards gained, and it’s easy to “make a living”, even on the hardest difficulty. The same is true of pretty much all of these games – they all come with an endlessly and rapidly replenished commons, so no matter how bad things get, if you’re alive, you can go from having nothing at all, to being pretty rich ten times out of ten. Not only that, but everyone starts out in the same place. It really is a level playing field. While I was thinking about writing a post about this, back in 2020, Thought Slime beat me to it, with a video focused on Minecraft:

When I was a kid, I thought adults had it all figured out. I think that’s a pretty common experience, and it probably makes for a far more comfortable childhood than the alternative. I have no shame at having had that misconception. I lost it as I grew older, and it wasn’t something I particularly needed to be taught. What does cause me a little shame is how long I held on to the belief that politicians and pundits have any more of a clue what they’re doing than anyone else. Certainly, some of them have expertise in areas like law that most of us lack. Overall I think division of labor is a good thing. The problem is the message that competence in law (or “business”) is an indicator of competence in governance. Again, it’s a claim I believed for a time, but eventually I realized that it wasn’t a coincidence that most of our leaders seemed so incompetent, or so ignorant. For a lot of them, they’re so detached from reality, that their actual lives probably do feel pretty similar to being the main character of a video game.

And I have to say that that is both a clarifying and terrifying realization. In a lot of ways, we are at the mercy of immensely powerful children who never fully grew up, and who don’t really see us as much more than the background and programming for their game.

A quick glance at history will show the horrors wrought by this arrangement of power, but I also think provides us with very real grounds for hope. People who think they’re in a video game are far less likely to be prepared for the non-player characters in that game to organize and cut off access to goods and services. They’re utterly dependent on most people going along with how they want the world to work, and they run into problems when reality doesn’t go along with their plans.

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  1. K says

    Don’t know how Libertarians think (like children?), but I have this comment on videogame thinking:

    I was in high school before videogames were a think, and then it was just PacMan, Frogger, DonkeyKong, and Centipede and that era of 8-bit graphics. Putin is older than I am, and also lives in Russia, where videogames didn’t make an appearance well into his adulthood. I’m skeptical that Putin’s thinking would be influenced by videogames.

  2. says

    @K – that’s my bad for a lack of clarity – I don’t think Putin is influenced by video games, I think his power and wealth has detached him from reality to the degree that his actual life, ruling Russia, isn’t far off from what it feels like to play a game like that. If you prefer an older metaphor that’s been used in similar situations, he’s a chess player and sees the rest of us as pieces on his board. Which still doesn’t account for reality.

  3. sonofrojblake says

    everyone starts out in the same place. It really is a level playing field.

    The first bit is true. The second, not always. Many, many games give you the option to pay real world money for in-game advantage. So while poor(ish) kids (poor enough that all they can afford is to be be able to play at all…) can be “rich” in game if they’re prepared and able to put in the time, rich kids can start by throwing money at the game and advance much, much quicker (and likely further) than the poor kids, even if they (the rich kids) objectively suck at actually playing the game.

    And this is, to me, a pretty accurate reproduction of real life. Born poor? If you work really hard and get some lucky breaks, you could be president/prime minister/rich etc. Born rich? You can have those things if you want.

  4. K says

    OK, Abe thanks for explaining. Makes sense now. Putin almost certainly played chess in his youth/formative years, and also was active in judo because the coach took a personal interest in him. Putin came from poverty, not wealth.

    What I see in Putin’s behavior is the same as I’ve seen in any number of bosses who were bullies. The stakes are too high to tell him the truth, so his people lie to him.

  5. says

    Yeah. That’s part of what gives me some hope – it happens in pretty much every authoritarian regime. They have built-in weaknesses like that.

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