36. Placebo meritocracy: on video games and why life is hard

One source of uneasiness amongst young people is the contrast between the pervasive difficulty of steering one’s (work)life and the ideological promises of meritocracy and opportunity. In this essay we explore this tension and some of the ways society tries to fill this gab, including role playing games.

For those who spend little time with young people: we currently have an epidemic of anxiety. This problem has many causes, but one that grows stronger over time is a creeping panic about the realistic chances of occupying a desired (or expected) position in society that grows on people as they mature. In itself the clash of expectations and reality is a basic part of the human condition, so what is specific about our  times? Part of the answer might lie in the fact that in particular the millennial and Z generations were instilled (by previous generations) with the liberal ideological promise that one can (quickly) become whatever they want if they put the right effort into it. One is both supposed to be ambitious and to achieve these ambitions solely based on one’s own merit, and woman are no longer exempted.

Liberalism obviously promises individual liberty. Yet as wise commentators – from Hegel to Durkheim – observed, this is not enough. What people really want is to belong: to occupy a particular position or function in society and be respected for it. To meet this desire of yours, liberal ideology created the idea of meritocracy: society is a game governed by rules that are equal to all, and everybody has a fair chance of winning (that means: occupying a desired position) based on their merit. While ‘merit’ can take many forms, in neoliberalism this increasingly became understood as effort, creating a moral justification of inequality as a (false) division between those who tried and those who didn’t. Or as almost every middle class parent has told their children: you can be whatever you want if you put your mind to it. As these children grown up, they become increasingly aware of the many structural limitations on this ideological picture.

To start, meritocracy itself is an ideological construct rather than a reality, for its base promise of equal opportunities is false. Some dry statistics: according to the Centro de Estudios Espinosa Yglesias (2019), in 2017 only 3% of people of 5th quintile (top 20% income) come from outside that group, and of that 3% who did only 6% came from poor families (bottom two quintiles). In other words: the chance of rising from poverty to middle class is 0.18%. Note that this refers to actual poverty, not humble-but-really-above-average roots that so many parents and grandparents falsely portray as ‘from the bottom’ to further pressure you.

    Yet that number is probably still improving. Most countries have made significant advances in opening up education to increasingly large groups of people, in particular regarding woman. Yet education has consistently failed to eliminate inequality, partly because inequality itself (mainly the resources available to parents) influences educational trajectories early one. Children are thrown into a giant and instantly consequential competition since the age of two, spread out over a wildly unequal educational landscape. By the way: even if public education would be better, elites would keep finding new ways (German in kindergarten!) to increase the distance between them and the rest.

Next we have the basic and completely ignored fact that society is a pyramid, and while everybody has a theoretical chance of reaching the top, it is impossible for us to all rise there at the same time. Your chance of occupying certain positions is directly related to other people not getting them. Being ‘higher up’ really means ‘having others below you’, who both provide the base work for you to appear to be doing more advanced things, and the surplus value to pay your higher salary. What this means for our larger story, is that making your best effort is often not enough. For example in the application for scholarships, a common dream-crusher amongst my students: it doesn’t matter if you are good as long as someone else is better. Or in the Mexican context: it doesn’t matter if you are good, as long as somebody has better connections. The irony here is of course that corrupt elites who will preach the gospel of meritocracy and opportunity the loudest, are the first to bribe judges or get out of military service.

    While the previous two factors are older, sociologists have pointed out since the late nineteen nighties that the way careers worked or could be planned has been changing. In his classic work The Corrosion of Character (1998) Richard Sennett observes that careers have become more unstable and life harder to plan. This was due to a combination of amongst other things the declining power of labor unions, shorter term contracts, technological advances which made people more replaceable and interchangeable, etc. This evolution has continued until today, where young people don’t need to find ‘a job’, but many jobs in succession. In Mexico this is combined with high rates of informality and fake contracts (including for those with university diploma’s), as well as the more global phenomenon of the ‘gig economy’ and fake-subcontracting of which Uber drivers are the poster-child.  

    Life appears to many young persons as an unnavigable and lonely search for temporary opportunities, that might or might not turn out to be dead ends once effort is poured into them. Some sectors (politics!) are more vulnerable to this than others or depend on totally external factors (or worse: likes), yet one has to be lucky to find a path where ones efforts will produce predictable outcomes. Outcomes others can build on, since an almost never discussed consequence is that this has implications beyond yourself: the instability of the individual leads to instability of the team (and family), with broken commitments and canceled plans becoming further obstacles.

How do we mortals deal with this glaring gab between ideological promise and reality? People in general will stretch societal values until they can somehow match them (think of the curious incorporation of religion into narco culture), and come up with all kind of mechanisms to make sense of gabs in the dominant ideology promises.

    One way to do so is to simply double down on the ideological lie and fully embrace aspirational culture by projecting rewards further into the future or even the next life. As I have pointed out before, many motivational pseudo-philosophies are far from rational, incorporating ritualistic elements (‘morning affirmations’), straight up superstition (Zodiac signs) and far reaching metaphysical implications (‘the universe of attraction’). What they have in common is that they sooth our anxiety with faith, since efforts are still expected to translate into results, but will do so via some vaguely spiritual backroad rather than in a directly observable way. It’s coming. Supported by battalions of self-help books and anxiety medication, the revival of these mystical elements in career planning is deeply symptomatic for just how uncertain we feel. For those who doubt: find one of the last remaining bookstores and look how many shelves are dedicated to related topics. Last time I counted five-double sided racks.

    Another way is to simulate meritocracy, which is where videogames finally come in. While my point can be made for most games, it is clearest in the case of (online) role playing games. Online role playing games like World of Warcraft, Final Fantasy 14 or Runescape were a popular genre of computer games where players typically advance in a fantasy world. In most of these games the player collect ‘experience points’ (and usually also money) by fighting or gathering materials, which allows them to ‘level up’ and grow the abilities of their characters. This is typically done by performing the same actions (for example fighting wolves or fishing) over and over again for hours. One of the reasons this seemingly dull gameplay mechanic appeals to people, is that in contrast to real life personal advancement (and role occupation) is directly and predictable linked to effort: the more you do, the more you advance. And while there is a hierarchy with other players, unlike in real life, in many games we can at least to some extend all be the hero at the same time. A similar system is used in most offline role playing games, as well as online shooter games (call of duty, for example) which use a leveling or credit system. While they might graphically simulate futuristic warfare or the Lord of the Rings universe, socially they are meritocracy simulators.

    I used the example of role playing games because they literally quantify effort and growth, but in general society is full of past times that we enjoy because unlike in professional life our efforts do (predictably or at least fairly) translate into results. These results that are often shareable with others or form some alternative value hierarchy from with we can draw alternative identities. By getting ahead in our placebo-meritocracies we preserve our sanity and aspirations in an uncertain world.

While we might need ritualization and simulation to get by, just like drugs and porn (you know you want to click that link) they are unfulfilling responses to the chaos of late capitalist society. While the world’s richest people are literally pushing for a virtual reality meta-simulation in which we can all win, we need give voice to and try to confront this creeping discontent. This is easier said than done, yet the keyword is ‘we’, as most structural issues can only be confronted in group. The notion of ‘we’ is also important because what makes life hard today are not necessarily the conditions (which have been worse), but the fact that we have to confront them alone.

    On the most general level, one could use this topic to question the viability of our late capitalist society, and for example give consideration to the plea of Albert Einstein (yes, the real Einstein) for some sort of communist state where people are trained and assigned jobs based on their talents. For those who prefer a less radical road, one way to start exploring how to deal with problems is by looking if we can’t kick them out via the way they came in. A lot of the factors that make our current labor market so unstable are related to the decline in organized labor (or in Mexico’s case, the cooption of it by elites). If you are nervous about your career path within a single sector, joining and supporting trade unions can help to generate more stability. This also goes to a certain extend for political groups, movements and parties who defend worker rights.

    On a more personal level, I want to end with two suggestions to young people. One is to get up earlier motivationally ‘bet on multiple horses’, and not make your life about a single career dream or ambition. In particular, it is healthy for both yourself and society to engage with broader social values and causes, which give meaning irrespective of how well your last job interview went. There are many values outside of meritocracy, and it is ok to be where you are, as long as you strive to be closer to your conception of a good person.

    The second is to try to be reliable in your interaction with others, and be a solid beacon in a stormy sea. In a society where you are expected to ‘make your own way’, we forget that while we are limited in our own engagement with structural obstacles, we sometimes can make significant differences in the lives of others. So many plans fall apart because people drop out, cheat, give up or ‘ghost’ away. Just like justice, order is something we can only give to each other.