How the invisible hand ruins everything (a rant that kind of trails off at the end)

I’m sorry to interrupt the fun & games but something has been gestating in my mind for years now and I thought I might put it into writing. Today’s topic is how the invisible hand ruins everything. (The “invisible hand” being a metaphor attributed to Adam Smith, describing the hidden forces of the market or capital…)

But before looking at Adam Smith our story begins with a note about Aristotle. Aristotle taught that the proper function (purpose) of vegetable life is to grow. Not just to flourish or reproduce — the organism itself must constantly grow, if it is to be considered successful. Think of a bamboo stalk as a fairly perfect plant specimen.

Back to the invisible hand. This is Adam Smith’s metaphor that has been more or less cast into a golden idol by modern American economists. His idea is basically that self-interest, rationality, and supply-and-demand converge as unified force that guides economic activity. The “invisible hand” pushes an agenda, and it is an article of faith in a capitalist society that this agenda ultimately benefits everyone.

Adam Smith would have described himself as a moral philosopher, but his reputation today is largely as an economic thinker. I don’t know that he would approve of the many uses to which his ideas have been put (including this use here!). But it is undeniable that his notion of an invisible hand, and the lassiez-faire capitalist ideology that looks to his ideas for support, have a moral component, and it is simply this: the invisible hand is basically a force for good. This belief is a cornerstone of American social and economic conservatism.

And it is mistaken.

If the “invisible hand” exists at all, I would say it is amoral with immoral tendencies. The church of the invisible hand professes that market forces should be trusted to make decisions about how we live, how we distribute goods and services, and how we organize our society. Rationality and supply and demand and self-interest obviously can’t be ignored and I would even say that none of them are evil or immoral in themselves. But notice that in this model of self-interest and rationality and supply-and-demand there is no account made of altruism, or the interests of others, apart from whatever can be justified by rational self-interest. Certainly self-interest may lead us to respect the rights and interests of others as we would want our own respected (the golden rule & silver rule — which after all can be derived from almost any ethical theory with enough logical gymnastics). Self-interest may even lead us to go for a social contract. But because the rights and interests of others are merely derived goods, and not seen as good in themselves, I think they often get overlooked, set aside, bracketed, even ignored.

Here is where Aristotle comes back into the picture. Aristotle’s idea of the properly functioning vegetable life is centered on growth. This idea is generalized to see success as growth, especially in economics, and especially in business. A successful business does not merely pay its employees, fill a need and turn a profit. The profits must grow.

Example: Ben & Jerry’s sells (out?) to Unilever

The founders of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream were forced to sell to Unilever. They might have tried to fight it, but the legal case was inarguable, because corporations have a duty to maximize profits and so maximize returns for investors. Ben & Jerry’s had a very laudable and socially responsible mission as a private company, but the ugly truth is that as soon as they became publicly traded, they had an obligation, under the law, to maximize shareholder dividends. Here is a contemporary (to the sale) analysis:

The Motley Fool, styled as the commonsense voice of the common shareholder, recently complained that Ben & Jerry’s has “underperformed the market’s historical average during the greatest bull run in the stock market history. That’s unacceptable any way you slice it.” As for the company’s famous program of donating 7.5 percent of pretax profits to charity, that may be “commendable,” but “the program lost its luster when the company failed to deliver reasonable results to its long-term investors.” A Prudential research note on the deal cited by sounds a note of disgust, as well, taking the populist tack of complaining that Perry Oak, the Ben & Jerry’s chief executive since 1997, holds options that will be worth about $13 million at Unilever’s takeover price–“which is incredible considering that [Ben & Jerry’s] lost all sorts of share under his tenure.” Still, the analyst concedes the silver lining: “For shareholders, this is more than a fair price.” Power to the people, right on.–Slate magazine, April 12, 2000

It’s not that Ben & Jerry’s was unprofitable, or failing to grow, or failing to return profits. It is that they failed to grow as much as they might have. No good being healthy and green and growing in a sustainable way. The invisible hand says, “Couldn’t you grow another seven inches this week? Look at that bamboo, an inch a day.”

This, then, is how the invisible hand ruins everything. I suppose you might want to argue that Ben & Jerry’s ice cream is still as good and socially responsible as ever. I don’t really eat a lot of ice cream actually so I can’t say if that has changed. I would have to assume that at least some of the charity and whatnot was cut back, based on the stated goals of maximizing investor returns and increasing market share. And the larger point is this: any business, to survive, has to do those things. The quality and integrity of a product only matters in so far as they promote those two goals. If you can reduce either, at some savings of costs, that is OK as long as the bottom line is no worse than it was before. Apparently advertising is more cost effective than creating a good product anyway. If you listen to music, watch television or movies, or read papers or magazines or books, you know that quality and integrity are not priorities except for certain niche markets. There are some good shows and bands and papers, but they are not usually the most successful ones.

I think this has happened in gaming as well, because the giants of the industry are focused, laser-like, on selling product. It would be foolish and revisionist and false to claim that the old game companies weren’t in it for the money; by and large they were. But that was before the art of selling crap was as sophisticated as it is now. And now that D&D is in the hands of a really big business (Hasbro owns WotC/TSR, sure, but it also owns Parker Bros., Milton Bradley, Coleco, Tonka, Kenner, Playskool….most of the toy and game companies I remember as separate entities when I was a kid), the expectations of sales and profit are very high. So high that turning D&D into something the average teenager (who has not read anything in Appendix N but has read some manga and series like Harry Potter and so on) will buy means turning it into something geared toward the mass audience. When I was a kid, we had free time to make shit up and research polearms and all that. Kids these days don’t (actually they do but they have other passive forms of entertainment available and why work at having fun?). Maybe a better way to put it is that as long the hobby is a small niche, the hardcore gamers can control the direction of development. But when it becomes a mass media entertainment, it has to have mass appeal and appeal to the demands of (lowest) common denominator.

I don’t know that this OSR thing can continue to flourish as a mostly free hobby for most of us. It is still the minority that are actually selling their products, and frankly a lot of the free stuff is very mediocre, but a lot of the free stuff is also amazing and inspired and even polished. If getting some remuneration for your efforts makes it worthwhile for some people to share their campaign materials, I have no problem with that. Heck, if your dream job is to be an RPG publisher, I’m not going to rain on your parade, sell away! But I think we have to recognize that the OSR is just as much a reaction against commercialism and the results of letting the invisible hand guide the evolution of the games as it is a reaction against the particular changes we didn’t like. What I’m trying to say is that in order for TSR (and WotC and Hasbro) to survive and flourish as publicly traded corporations, they had to ruin D&D. They had to broaden the appeal beyond The Swordsmen and Sorcerer’s Guild of America; they had to remove the devils and demons and assassins and half-orcs; they had to dumb things down so that people who never played a wargame or read Robert E. Howard or had the patience to look up what a glaive is, could still play. And they had to add infinite splatbooks and settings and railroad modules based on novel series based on rehashed fantasy classics, to make it all profitable.

Hate the game, not the players, right?

But hobbyist publications (free or for sale, print or web/blog only) don’t have this restriction. So we get our Carcosas and Swords & Wizardrys and LotFPs and all the rest.

Update #1. Since I wrote this essay several months back, LotFP has become more obviously a full-time enterprise for James Raggi and it will be publishing Carcosa, and S&W has moved to a “real” publisher too. But still these are not publicly traded companies and are hobbyist efforts in spirit, so I think the larger point still holds up. Substitute “Land of Nod” and “Age of Conan” as poster children of the OSR if you prefer.)

The invisible hasn’t and can’t ruin these, as long as they stay hobbyist.

As the “industry” discovers and mobilizes to exploit interest in the “old school” games, maybe we’ll see glossier and more professional and more soulless, inartistic crap emerge. So anyway I for one am hoping moderate success to everyone publishing in the OSR. Do well enough to support your hobby, and maybe pay some bills, but not so well that Hasbro or Games Workshop or Blizzard notice you, and buy you out, and realize they could sell a lot more copies of Carcosa if they edited out the objectionable content and made the characters more powerful and heroic, or could tie Mazes and Minotaurs in with the Percy Jackson franchise and sell a card game version to the tweens. Because they would owe it to their investors to do it.

Update#2: After polishing this essay a little for posting, this morning I heard that WotC are dropping their D&D minis and Heroscape; this on the heels of introducing collectible cards for 4e. The hobbyists and gamers are rightly unhappy about these moves, but again, this is just how capitalism works. It’s not necessarily that the minis were posting losses, only that they weren’t posting big enough profits. The invisible hand strikes again. WotC and Hasbro are not in the business of supporting D&D or gaming or creativity or anything like that. They are in the business of maximizing profits, full stop.


OK — that’s two blah blah blah rants in a row. I’m done.
JOESKY penance for your D&D game:
invisible hands are thought to be, like so many creatures, merely the results of a wizard’s experimentation, or perhaps phantasms left over when ghosts or other insubstantial undead are destroyed incompletely. Certain sages disagree and argue that they are in fact the residue of spell casting which becomes “stuck” in the prime material plane after the spell effects wear off.
Invisible hands seem to range in size from a normal human hand to massive titanic hands, lending credence to the sages’ theory.

AC 0[20]; HD 1/2-9; special: invisible; damage: d6 per HD and see below; save: as MU; MV: 18″; Alignment: varies, usually chaotic.
Any time telekinesis type spells like Mage Hand, touch-attack spells like Shocking Grasp or Bigby’s Hand spells, and similar are cast, there is a 10% chance that an invisible hand will remain after the spell’s effect ends. Invisible hands retain the special effects of the spells that create them (Shocking Grasp hands cause electrical damage, Vampiric Touch hands drain HP, etc.), and their size is based on the spell that created them (1/2 HD for cantrips, 1 HD for first level spells, etc.) The invisible hand is never under the caster’s control and will immediately pursue its own agenda. Some hoard or redistribute treasure; some play harmless but humiliating pranks such as copping random feels; and some attempt to strangle or pummel people.

Published in: on January 14, 2011 at 9:00 am  Comments (23)  

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23 CommentsLeave a comment

  1. You did mean remuneration, not renumeration, didn’t you?

    Seriously, one man’s crap is another man’s ice cream. No matter how much WotC dumbs down D & D, it will still inspire the imaginations of kids getting into gaming, and some of them, perhaps many of them, will be inspired to delve deeper and discover the really good stuff.

    • 1) yes, thanks!
      2) you are giving a rational response to a rant. Stop it.
      But seriously yes, I’d rather there be what I consider a BAD version of D&D than NO D&D for kids to pick up, and I’m not about to introduce my daughter to D&D via the “Grindhouse edition of LotFP”. There is a place for vanilla, “safe” RPGs.
      Thanks for talking me down of the ledge there, Ken.

  2. In your essay you mention how busy young people are these days and how much alternate media there is out there. I teach in an affluent area and this is point of frequent discussion. Basically, the children are terrible over-scheduled and rarely have time to relax, explore and pursue their own interests. No time to explore pole-arms as you say. 🙂

    • I was probably just lucky that I didn’t care about sports and grew up partly in N.J. where any participation in school activities was grounds for ceaseless beatings and had all the time in the world to read about trolls and stuff. Kids today seem to have a structured activity every freaking day, and two on Saturdays, and no time to be kids.

  3. “they had to dumb things down so that people who never played a wargame or read Robert E. Howard or had the patience to look up what a glaive is, could still play.”

    I’m not sure that the examples you give are really applicable. I play AD&D, if I get the chance to play anything, and I haven’t ever played a wargame, or read any books by that author. The only reason that I’ve looked up a glaive is, is that it was in the back of the Unearthed Arcana, and I was reading through it.

    • Have you read any old books, looking for stuff that interests you? Have you played any games that are not on the Xbox or purchasable at Target/Walmart? Have you spent any time looking for pictures of kappas or maps of Middle Earth or info on mythology? Because the specific examples of the stuff I might have done are not the point, the point is that as least as late as AD&D 1st ed. the hobby was not mainstream and kind of roped off for nerds, creative types, smart kids, etc., and assumed a certain amount of effort to be made on the part of players to “get into” the game rather than just being a consumer with a couple of hours every other week for an “encounter”. I say “dumb down” but maybe a better way to say it is “reduce the admission/investment cost” (in time/effort, NOT money!). A good thing to do if you want more players. But its not going to make people who see the hobby as a … hobby very happy.

      • Good point. I have done all of the alternative examples you provided, with the exception of looking up a kappa. Does making stats for the Jabberwocky count towards that? Anyway, I suspect my attitude is reflected in the blogs I read… LoTFP, B/X Blackrazor, Telecanter’s Receding Rules, The Tao of D&D, The Mule Abides, Cyclopeatron, etc.

      • But how long was roleplaying really a hobby? I was born in 1987, pretty much after all of this change towards ‘dumbing it down’ or whatnot happened, yet when I played RPGs with my friends, it was still a fringe activity that I invested a significant chunk of time into. I guess I missed out on a certain golden age or something?

        • I don’t think there is a sharp cut off point; just a trend away from the pre-Hasbro hobbyist model toward the current media empire model and the trend is really only clear to me now in hindsight.

          I don’t know that was ever really a “golden age” but I can compare how things are right with how they were ten, twenty, thirty years ago and in some ways it was definitely better in the past, and the things that worse are that way because of market forces and market forces play a bigger role, the bigger the business gets.

  4. I predict insane meandering responses to this post.

    I also really like the spell/monster.

    • In all fairness it’s an insane meandering post, so what kind fish am I going to catch with that bait? 🙂

      But I can’t wait for the 9/12ers and Tea Partiers to say I’m an elitist and/or socialist too. (OK, maybe I am but the post is not the communist manifesto or anything)

  5. I share the frustration. Some thoughts:

    * I can understand they didn’t make money on the minis. Opinion: they were stupid for not reaching a licensing agreement with Reaper or someone else. Those little totems are good for business.

    * I’m wondering if Essentials may be ‘it’. If WotC is pruning costs, etc., I don’t know how they could justify rolling out a ‘5th Edition’. The era of ‘cheap outsourced printing’ can’t last forever. Opinion: in the ‘post-Edition war’ continuum, I doubt the word ‘edition’ will ever appear on a D&D product from WotC.

    * In terms of Tabletop gaming – maybe the Ravenloft game is on to something… One of the criticisms of 4E was that it was too much of a tactical wargame – perhaps in this light it was too good a product and players didn’t stick with it and found other, more interesting wargames/skirmish games to play… effectively ‘bleeding’ customers over to another section of the gaming market. Maybe Hasbro will give us Lego Greyhawk…

    * I read so much about ‘what’s good for WotC is good for the industry’, but I’d like to see it proven. Watch GenCon and other cons closely. WotC had a pathetic Christmas presence last year… maybe it’s time for them to go.

    It’s going to be a strange year.

  6. This is going to be similarly ranty, so I apologize in advance.

    I really agree with a lot of what you’ve said. One of the reasons that I really like the RPG blogging scene is that it’s a very independent, DIY approach to creating games. But as a future children’s and teen librarian, this kind of set me off:

    “So high that turning D&D into something the average teenager (who has not read anything in Appendix N but has read some manga and series like Harry Potter and so on) will buy means turning it into something geared toward the mass audience.”

    I think that you’re unfortunately conflating a ‘mass’ audience and a ‘current’ audience. And honestly, what’s wrong with that? So kids these days aren’t reading Howard, Vance or Leiber. They have a completely different base for fantasy than Gygax et Co. did in 1974. Is it somehow selling out to try and make role playing games that appeal to them, instead of the older generation who, by and large, have decided what kind of games they already like and want to play? What’s wrong with outreach?

    Kids are still pursuing their own interests. For every handful of kids that are playing on the computers at my library, there’s one who’s writing his stories or looking up architectural floorplans to print out.

    • There is nothing wrong with outreach.
      I’m not an anime fan but I don’t care if they hire new illustrators for D&D.
      I care that they took a hobby that encouraged DIY and creativity and turned into a business model where to play the game you need to keep coming back to the store and buying packs of cards and supplements to “fix” “broken” rules and use a glorified spreadsheet to “build a character” instead of using you imagination.
      I put that part in parentheses because it is inessential to my point, actually. What I’m getting at is that D&D as it exists right now in you local Borders or FLGS is aimed at the kids playing video games, not the ones writing stories. Wizbro wants the handful, not the one. To accomplish that they are marketing D&D as sometihng you just buy a bunch of stuff and unpack and play, rather than as a springboard to use to create your own worlds and fun.

    • Oh, and good for you going into Library Science! I’m a librarian too.

    • A library around here uses the 4E Encounters as an afternoon activity for tweens, and the groups are mainly girls who were discouraged from geekery. I say, any access point is an access point, and this is coming from someone who started with 2nd ed D&D and went on from there.

  7. I call it the ‘invisible hand job’ myself. Bigby got nuthin’ on Smith.

    I’ve got too many supporting examples so will keep it short and not name specific anecdotes but a system wide event: the financial meltdown of 2007-8 was not an anomaly but the logical and recurring consequence of the market economy.

    • Invisible hand job FTW.

  8. […] first was this item from Swords & Dorkery (an outstanding blog title, by the way); I encourage you to read it in […]

  9. Yeah, Adam Smith would be kind of pissed about what people are saying he said back in 1776. The ‘invisible hand’ refers to prices reaching and staying at an equilibrium level if competition is allowed; ‘free markets’ refer to markets that are free of cartels and monopolies. Smith didn’t actually advocate laissez faire policies, the main focus of Wealth of Nations is actually on how the guild system holds society back.

    But, to address the substance of your post, yeah, it’s kind of tragic the way good, profitable things end up having to change because they weren’t quite profitable enough.

  10. The invisible hand does not mean that things that you don’t like, or don’t agree with, will never happen because the invisible hand will be there to save you.

    But don’t take my comment the wrong way. I like your blog.

    • 1) Agreed. I’m just pointing out that invisible hand doesn’t give a rat’s ass about anything except maximizing profit. I’m not complaining about the invisible hand, which I think is obviously nonpersonal and amoral. I’m complaining about the idiots who talk about “free market solutions” and “the customer is always right” and all that jive.

      2) I take all comments here as fawning praise; is there any other way to take them? 🙂

  11. I basically agree with all you’re saying. It just highlights what a difference there is between the hobby and the industry. I myself consider it a hobby, and have almost no use for the industry.

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