My family and I were both on the housing market in April. They had to sift through assignments and go to empty open houses. It involved me sitting at their kitchen table with my computer, playing Square Enix Holdings Co’s Final Fantasy XIV online role-playing game.
In Final Fantasy XIV, like half a dozen other online games, players spend real money on virtual homes where they can entertain friends, plan battles, and have a good time. The extravagantly furnished houses gave rise to the idea of Cribs and HGTV spinoffs in a dream world. More importantly, player homes provide the glue that holds the virtual world together: a sense of community.
But despite having the means, the time, and the motivation to buy a house, my friends and I couldn’t make it in-game. As with almost every other online role-playing game, Final Fantasy XIV’s housing shortage lasted for years. To ensure that only the most established, wealthy, and politically connected participants acquire homes, systems have been put in place on a first-come, first-served basis.
Raph Koster, lead designer of the MMORPG Ultima Online, told me, “No one who has run an online world has any illusions about a libertarian version of the economy.”
In 2017, two wealthy gamers bought 28 properties on a single server, buying up an entire neighborhood and bringing attention to FFXIV’s housing problem. The gambling aristocracy could seal the earth, or house flippers could make a profit by allowing players to enjoy grandfathering in luxurious homes in desirable neighborhoods.
It was possible for someone to own an unlimited number of dwellings, even though most of them were never occupied. Apartments are also available in Final Fantasy XIV, however, they are much less appealing.
It’s not fascinating that the games reflect actual ownership disputes. It’s the fact that over the past two decades virtually every video game designer has independently found the same workaround for their housing crisis. Real-world fair housing activists may recognize this idea, which involves making it illegal to stockpile or speculate on real estate.
In the middle of April, the hotfix that would finally fix Final Fantasy XIV’s housing issues was released. So what finally worked? More houses should be built first. An additional 3,640 home plots have been added to each server, bringing the total to 7,200.
The developers also limited the number of properties each individual and each guild could own. However, the inclusion of vacant properties in the game was perhaps the most significant adjustment. My friends and I got our gorgeous new home in the medieval fantasy neighborhood of Empyreum in a random housing lottery in which abandoned homes were razed and their plots redistributed.
Video game producers often claim that the social aspects of their creations are what ultimately attract gamers.
“According to Vili Lehdonvirta, professor of economic sociology and digital social research at the University of Oxford, who has studied virtual worlds, “a very obvious social consequence of land and property as a speculative asset is that neighborhoods will evolve into uninhabited storehouses of value.” For a community to function socially, it must have individuals residing there.
If people cannot afford to live there, they will not join and the culture of the community will suffer. In 1993, this happened in Ultima Online, a game based on free market ideas.
According to Koster, “what we developed made homes affordable for the top 4.5 percent.” Shortly after Ultima Online was released, there was no more land available for construction. Game characters with residences found monetary benefits that those without housing did not, such as the freedom to open their shops and businesses. The prosperous and secure moved in, while the poor and homeless left.
The ownership problem in the virtual space station game Eve Online was solved by a comparable method. In the game, the economist recommended increasing rents, which would lead to a “hot potato effect”. Observer, game designer, and follower of Henry George, Lars Doucet, found parallels between strategy and the socialist economist’s views on how best to use the land.
Either you sell the land or you put something of great value in it, Doucet says, if you’re not using it to its full potential. Video game creators often include real-world mechanics in their works to help players feel immediately at home.
However, when these mechanics cause friction in a video game, designers can make adjustments much faster than they can in the real world, where the stakes are considerably higher. Lehdonvirta believes there are areas where the group can improve on their current performance. The economy of the virtual world has caught up and overtaken the real one. “The real world is way behind.”
In Final Fantasy XIV, we upgraded our abode with wooden accents and a fully stocked bar. This week, as we gathered in our backyard for a massive battle, a neighbor across the street shouted hello and invited us to join her. A little later I went to her house and recorded the victory in her guestbook. C. D’Anastasio, Cecilia
What to play this weekend?
Now that I’ve started playing Overwatch 2, it feels like 2016 again. Blizzard Entertainment’s sequel to its famous hero shooter is now available for free. For better or worse, I played the original game for years, and in many ways this sequel improves on it. The sequel’s already impressive visual design is bolstered by the addition of friendlier protagonists, more stunning environments, and polished mechanical tweaks that speed up and slow down encounters.