What Skyrim taught me about wealth

A few years ago, I got into playing Skyrim on our XBox 360. There are many wonderful things about Skyrim, including its immersive sense of place, its vast and varying geography, its brooding landscapes and complementary atmospheric music, its epic scope, its interesting NPCs, its endless range of ways to power up, and so on.

Early in the game, when cash was scarce, I got into a routine that each dungeon I entered, I would carefully loot every vase and chest, and strip every monster I killed of its weapons, armour and valuables; then when I was done I’d return to civilisation and sell off the spare armour, weapons, etc. Eventually I had enough money to buy Breezehome, the little house in Whiterun, and a while after that I could afford to have it furnished. These achievements cost on the order 7,000 gold pieces.

But much later in the game — when I’d advanced in skills, and after money had lost all value — I realised I was still going through the same routine. Every time I went through a crypt and killed all the draugr deathlords, I’d dutifully tote all their heavy ebony armour back to civilisation, dutifully smith it up to legendary level (I’d become a high-level blacksmith by this point) and then hoik it around half a dozen different shops selling the various high-priced pieces wherever I could.

Why?

I’d long since owned all the homes you can buy in the game, and upgraded their furnishings to the highest level. I had weapons and armour that I’d smithed and enchanted myself, much better than anything I could possibly have bought. Same for potions. There was literally nothing for me to spend money on. Yet I was still going though this tedious process after every single dungeon just to make a number go up.

When I’d reached around 700,000 gold pieces, I realised how pointless this was, and how much less fun it was than I would have playing in a wealth-ignoring way. But I kept on doing it because I had it in my head that it would be good to reach a round million gold pieces before I stopped.

I wonder whether, if I had done that, I would then have thought “You know what, I’ll just carry on till I get to two million”.

Happily, I had a moment of sanity. I went to America for ten days to study sauropods, in a road-trip of surpassing awesomeness known as The Sauropocalypse. Ten days dry turns out to be enough to break the spell, and I’ve not played Skyrim since. (If I ever play it again, I’ll be starting from scratch with a new character.)

So, then.

I was reading Arthur C. Brook’s (excellent) article in the Atlantic, Your Professional Decline Is Coming (Much) Sooner Than You Think, and I was struck by this passage, which nicely articulates something that’s been bothering me for some time:

It has always amazed me that many wealthy people keep working to increase their wealth, amassing far more money than they could possibly spend or even usefully bequeath. One day I asked a wealthy friend why this is so. Many people who have gotten rich know how to measure their self-worth only in pecuniary terms, he explained, so they stay on the hamster wheel, year after year. They believe that at some point, they will finally accumulate enough to feel truly successful, happy, and therefore ready to die.

This makes sense. It explains, for example, why someone who is already as fantastically wealthy as Donald Trump is prepared to do such terrible things to so very many other people even though the extra benefits that accrue to him as a result can make no tangible difference. It’s how he achieves some kind of self-worth.

And of course that’s exactly what I was doing in Skyrim. My stupid level-seventy-something character, with all his luxury homes and all his best-of-the-best equipment, was making the exact same mistake the Trumps of this world make.

What an idiot that character was.

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4 responses to “What Skyrim taught me about wealth

  1. It’s an interesting observation, and one I made myself when playing its predecessor, Oblivion. “What is the point?”, I was asking myself. There wasn’t one. Accumulating wealth had no meaning and the adventure had gone out of my adventuring. I knew that progressing further in that direction was unrewarding and pointless.

    In its case the solution was to install various overhaul mods such as Living Economy which interestingly made having to work for my money to be a thing that was a constant. Yes, it got somewhat easier but money maintained its value, I didn’t become an implausibly rich adventurer and merchants retained their financial power, as you might expect. It was much more satisfying to play it that way.

    The trouble is that a lot of people like the Trumps and Camerons of this world would look at my comment and say that it’s an observation of the values of “hardworking” and totally miss the point that it was about an excess of wealth more than anything…

  2. Skyrim really is a fantastic game; I played it back in 2011 (good year.. Skyrim, Deus Ex: HR, and Portal 2!) … did my 100 hours, never needed to look back.
    I have a VR headset now, and let me just say .. Skyrim in VR.
    Fallout 4 in VR.

    Better yet.. Elite: Dangerous in VR.

    Goodness.

  3. Jeff, don’t do this to me! The last thing I need to be sinking 200-300 hours into half a dozen different games!

  4. Well, I don’t understand people who spend any time playing computer games at all. And yet they pay my rent. So there’s irony for you.

    However.

    I note this:

    I realised how pointless this was, and how much less fun it was than I would have playing in a wealth-ignoring way.

    So there was a way in which you could have played that would have been fun? I find this hard to believe, but imagining for a moment it is true, what exactly would have been fun? I’m guessing — and again I don’t really understand what drives people to play computer games so I correct me if I’m wrong — that it would have been the challenge. That what you objected to about collecting all that armour, and smithing it, and selling it, and making that number go up, was that it was boring. You were just doing the same thing again and again and again. You knew that if you spent X hours doing all that then you’d get Y gold pieces, without fail. Spend the time, get the gold. No challenge. If you’d made your way to one million, then you knew for sure you could make it to two. All it would take would be putting in the time.

    So, let’s go back to the real world. Now, I have even less experience of being a millionaire than I do of playing computer games, but I’m guessing that once you’ve made one million, the way to make two million isn’t just to do the same thing that made you your first million again. I’m guessing that if you make one million then getting to two is a real challenge. You have to make decisions, that could turn out well or badly. You have to risk what you’ve got and you might lose it all. Sure, you could just, having got your million, invest it and live pretty comfortably off the interest. But wouldn’t that be boring? As boring, in fact, as plugging in all those hours on whatever the game is killing orcs and stealing their armour and going back to the town and going out and killing more orcs and… you get the picture?

    And in the real world, once you’ve got to ten million, again, you could easily just sit back and live even better off the interest. Or you could try for a hundred million. Now, again, I don’t know for sure, but I’m guessing that would be a real challenge. You’d have to make investments, and you’d have to pick the right ones. Again, you’d have to risk losing, well, maybe not everything, but a substantial chunk of what you’ve made. You certainly couldn’t do it, like in the computer game, just by doing what got you to ten million ten more times. Real money doesn’t work that way.

    Even if you got to ten million by, say, starting a hotel chain, you can’t just plant ten more hotels: each new hotel is a risk, each one you have to choose location, staff, facilities carefully, set the prices properly, advertise, promote. Each one is a new challenge, like a new level in the game. Sure, you have the experience you gained doing it once. But you can’t just do the same things you did before and know you’ll get the same results, either.

    So… is it not maybe the case that you’ve got things exactly the wrong way around? That you saw making the number in the game go up as pointless because it was no longer challenging, but simply a grind, doing the same thing over and over again — but that in the real world people who have made money want to keep making more money because in the real world, unlike in the game, that’s where the new challenges are?

    I dunno. I don’t play computer games and I’m not rich, so I’m just imagining here, really.

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