I remember many a school lunchtime misspent down at the local arcade. A friend and I would sneak out past the school prefects who stood on guard at the gate, and make the long walk down to our local electronically-chanting neon Mecca; through back streets and alleys we wended our way, thus avoiding any teachers or police officers who would want to enquire as to why a couple of youths were in that part of town on a school day. I remember the entrance, it was dark and seemingly impenetrable, and the first time we stood before it – like two adventurers stood before the gaping hollow of the dragon’s lair – we almost didn’t venture inside. Scared perhaps, that it wasn’t an arcade at all but the mouth of some strange creature set to look like all the other shop fronts, to tempt young men inside with the mimicking chime of arcade games and slot machines, before gobbling them up in one swift violent movement, then slowly settling itself back in place ready for the next unwary school kid with pocket money to spend. Of course we didn’t have pocket money to spend, but we did have our lunch money. We had come to the conclusion very quickly that we didn’t need food, we felt that we could subsist purely on the thrill of mortal combat, the challenge of a street fight, the engagement of afterburners to outrun our enemies. The siren song of the machines inside was too much for our little Odyssian expedition, our fears were quickly washed away as we were swept inside and into that whirling maelstrom of noise and smoke and strobing light.
It was a good time, for the most part, but it was always over too soon. Ten pence went a long way in those days, enough to get you three or four credits on the slightly older machines, where now you’d be lucky to get one credit for a pound coin. With our eighty pence of lunch money you’d think that we could have lasted there forevermore, trapped unwittingly on a digital Aeaea, feasting on the delights of the den of pixelated pleasure. Little did we understand at the time, however, that arcades were a business and thus had a vested interest in you spending as much with them as they could possibly convince you to part with. It is a treacherous situation when you pay money to play a game where the profiteer can set all the rules. Many of the games we played would have a wall, a point at which it was almost impossible to pass without feeding an inordinate number of coins in to fuel your character’s lives and thus allow you to play on, just that little bit further.
Just that little bit further. Oh perfidious phrase! How you have visited misery on so many of those arcade gamers who would follow your promise of glory; yet what triumphant jubilation and what gleeful satisfaction you have rained upon those few lucky enough to overcome your challenge and win through.
My concern is such: MMOs seem to be making a shift towards the philosophy of the arcade, but where previously we had coins, we now have micro-transactions: virtual game currency linked to real world currency by a piece of plastic card. When we ran out of credits in the old arcades it was time to crawl around on the floor looking for dropped and forgotten coins, to rummage around in the return trays of the change machines and the game machines, before finally resigning ourselves to the fact that we had no more electronic lives left and beginning the long walk back to school. Such physical limitations are not so readily present in our Internet enabled world of electronic commercial transactions, and it’s all available without so much as having to step foot outside the front door of your home. What’s more, if ever the phrase ‘just that little bit further’ wished for a home where it reigned supreme, king of all it surveyed, untouchable and godlike in its power over the majority of its minions, it wishes no more, for it has found its throne and it observes with lofty indifference its subjects toiling daily all across the captivating land of MMO.
‘A coin for a life’, that was the agreement in the days of the arcade; a simple one-for-one transaction, a deal with the devil of temptation no doubt, but one where you could at least see the terms of the contract clearly. But now the contract has changed: that coin is no longer equivalent to a single coin in the real world, it is now ‘coin’ plural, or a ‘gold’, a ‘credit’, a ‘point’; furthermore it buys you much less than a life, a little more health perhaps, more mana or energy or other potion of wondrous invention to boost your character’s dwindling fuel. But wait! It can also buy you improvements to your character, better weapons and better armour. Even better companions. There are now a myriad number of options to help you carry yourself over that wall and on to the next, it is no longer the binary choice of “Continue: Yes/No?”, no longer continue to play, but continue to play better.
‘Just that little bit further’ teases you, seduces you, wraps itself around your body and whispers in your ear:
“You can have it all: you can go further and faster and higher than any other. All it will take is a little more coin.”