One phenomenon of rule exploitation often seen in video games, especially class-based fighting massive multiplayer online role-playing games, is the concept of min-maxing. This is a method of exploiting the game’s rules in a way that allows the player to maximize some abilities of their in-game character at the expense of nearly everything else, leaving them exceptionally powerful in specific circumstances. This method is often used for “farming” or collecting many of the drops of specific monsters, usually for the purpose of resale on in the game’s player market. While this is sometimes seen as unfair to other players who do not min-max their characters, it is not usually considered cheating as the min-maxing player is not directly harming any other player, and min-maxing is inherently allowed by the game’s rules as it is maximizing some of the affordances granted by the rules while simultaneously minimizing the constraints of the same rules for a specific purpose.
One game that I have used this method in is Guild Wars. Guild Wars has a few different character classes that have the capability of min-maxing themselves into being nearly indestructible solo farmers against some extremely powerful enemies. The class I had most experience with is the Elementalist, which is essentially a wizard that uses elemental magic to attack his enemies. The “build” or setup of skills and equipment that my character or “toon” needed was very specific, and is known by others as the geomancer, as it uses mostly earth elemental powers for defense. By using the mathematical advantages that these powers gave, such as reducing monster hits by a fixed percentage, a damage-reflection spell that redirected the hydras’ attacks back to them, and life-regeneration auras, my toon would become near invincible to specific types of enemy monsters. Using this specific build, I was able to hunt the enemy monsters known as Hydras, but nearly any other monster would be able to easily destroy me. Fortunately, there was a particular area just outside of a town, Augury Rock, that mostly spawns Hydras and few other types of monsters. While I used an Elementalist, other classes could do likewise, such as the video included below of a specific build of a Monk class toon doing the same Hydra farming that I did with my Elementalist.
Guild Wars has a roaming collector in the game known as “Nicholas the Traveler”, who every week appears in a different location on the map of Guild Wars to collect different items, for which he gives player presents. Since these presents have a chance of being quite valuable high-end gear, Nick has become quite popular with players, but some players do not have access to all of the areas that are required to travel to in order to collect the items that Nick is collecting that week, while others simply are not that good at defeating three headed fire-breathing dinosaurs like Hydras to collect a large number of their drops. This is where my min-maxed Elementalist came in.
When Nick’s weekly collection included the Dessicated Hydra Claws, I would outfit my Elementalist for farming mode and spend a few hours killing Hydras, ending up with many of their drops, which I would then sell to players looking to trade them to Nick. Using this method, I was able to collect the funds for my own guild hall, high end armour and weapons, and basically made enough in-game gold to never have to worry about in-game finances again.
While the actions of the item farmers did not directly affect other players, there were indirect effects. Nick changed locations on Mondays at 11 AM eastern time, and at his new location he would have a new list of items that he was collecting for that day. At around 11:30 or so, whatever items that Nick was collecting would have skyrocketed in price on the player market due to the increased demand. This would entice the farmers to go to work collecting the same items. At around 1 pm, the farmers would be making their wares available on the market, where the increased supply would have made the prices bottom out again. This pricing flux would continue for the rest of the week as supply and demand varied, until Nick finally would move on from the spot and have a new list of collectibles the following week.
While market fluctuation in an online game is hardly a danger to other players, no doubt that some players grew frustrated that the actions of the item farmers caused such massive fluctuation in market prices on some items. One way in which farming was seen as unfair is that not all players can be farmers. Farming requires access to a variety of skills and equipment that are often only available after hundreds of hours have been put into a character, and thus not available to many casual players. But while in real life almost everyone is affected by an unstable marketplace, in an online game where the market is tangential and completely optional to the game’s primary focus of players killing monsters, utilization of such exploits does not directly affect other players. Nevertheless, farming was seen as an irritant to many casual players.
While it seems counter-intuitive, min-maxing is not just a phenomenon that occurs in videogames. The main idea of min-maxing is encoded right in the name: the desire to minimize any expenditure of resources into unneeded traits or skills, in order to maximize the traits and skills that are useful for the player’s goal. A similar thing occurs in large corporations, who wish to minimize their expenditures into things they see as not helpful, such as taxes, and maximize what they find most useful to their goals, which is making profit for their shareholders.
Apple Inc. is often held as a great innovator of products. In spite of the fact that they did not invent the MP3 player, smartphone, or tablet, Apple’s products are often held as the first of these device archetypes that really hit home with buyers and enter the public consciousness, and as a result, Apple has become one of the most profitable companies on the planet, and the one with the highest market value (Forbes). One thing that Apple did invent, according to the New York Times, is the “accounting technique known as the ‘Double Irish With a Dutch Sandwich,’ which reduces taxes by routing profits through Irish subsidiaries and the Netherlands and then to the Caribbean” (Duhigg and Kochieniewski).
Like the Guild Wars farmer, Apple has found a way to use established laws and rules in such a way that it can take advantage of the specifics of these laws so that it can minimize its tax costs, and thus allow more profit to be generated from its sales. Similar to Guild Wars, it could be argued that Apple is not directly harming people by doing so, but while Guild Wars players have an optional and limited dependence on the player market, the real world’s market is not quite so tangential. The New York Times estimates that if Apple paid a standard corporate tax rate, Apple “likely would have been $2.4 billion higher last year” (Duhigg and Kochieniewski), and would have gone into the coffers of the US Government, and presumably spent toward the benefit of the american people.
Min-maxing does not involve any consideration of ethics or well-roundedness in its design. My Elementalist may be a nearly all-powerful force against the Hydra’s physical and fire attacks, but any other type of enemy spellcaster can erase my Elementalist’s advantages and destroy him easily. He is not a well-rounded character at all. Likewise, Apple and companies like it utilize this system of laws not to be more caring and well-rounded corporate citizens or to help pay for the infrastructure and areas that they exist in. Rather than aiming to be well-rounded, the concept of min-maxing is the complete antithesis of well-roundedness. Apple is extremely formidable when it comes to its own goal: making profit. In other areas, Apple’s weaknesses become much more obvious.
No doubt an extra few billion dollars in the tax pool would assist a government to better attend to the needs of its people, but the primary goal of corporations such as Apple is not to better support the government or to help people. The primary goal of any corporation is to make as much profit as possible for their shareholders. To that end, corporations enhance their profit-making ability while all other abilities are made much lower in priority. To this end, Apple manages all of its investments in Reno, Nevada, where the tax rate is cheaper than at Apple’s California headquarters. Apple funnels its iTunes profits from Europe, Africa, and the Middle East through its Luxembourg offices rather than pay higher taxes in other areas. These policies are in addition to the “Double Irish with Dutch Sandwich” method discussed. These methods have proven successful for Apple, and have thus been emulated by many other companies like Google, Amazon, Yahoo, and Dell (Duhigg and Kochieniewski).
The United States tax code is supposed to be “based on the concept that a company ‘earns’ income where value is created, rather than where products are sold” (Duhigg and Kochieniewski), which in the case of Apple where most of the design, marketing, research and development, and executive command is located in the United States, which should mean that most of the value is created in the US, and therefore taxable in the US. Yet, Apple’s dream team of accountants find “legal ways to allocate about 70 percent of its profits overseas, where tax rates are often much lower” (Duhigg and Kochieniewski).
Apple’s own comments about the matter include stating the fact that it has “conducted all of its business with the highest of ethical standards, complying with applicable laws and accounting rules” (Duhigg and Kochieniewski), which is technically true, just as it is technically within the rules of Guild Wars for me to make an indestructible Elementalist. Also like Guild Wars, it is not just any company that can take advantage of the “high-end” rules of finance. A locally owned store likely cannot divert profits through an Irish subsidiary company, as they likely lack the financial means to procure such a subsidiary in the first place. Just as not every Guild Wars player is advanced enough can be a farmer, not every company can be rich enough to purchase other companies in far-off areas of the globe to take advantage of these legal loopholes.
While I maintain that the Guild Wars farmers do not directly harm other players of the game, and that any damage done to the market is limited to a few items, and that players are not dependant on the market in any case, it nevertheless irritates non-farmers that other players have managed to take advantage of the game rules in such a way that grants them an advantage. To appease the larger base of casual players, Guild Wars’ developers Arenanet, regularly make adjustments to the game to reduce or “nerf” the farmers’ ability to farm. From altering the ways that skills and spells work to simply reducing the number and likelihood of drops from certain monsters often targeted for farming, they have a vested interest in keeping the more numerous non-farming player base happy. In the case of Apple, however, such nerfs are not as easily forthcoming.
The market in the real world is not tangential: all of us are dependent on the financial market of the world to exist in some form. While most of us are not Wall Street tycoons directly profiting from the market, the market affects the price of houses and cars, personal taxes and salaries, right down to how much bread and milk cost at the local grocery store. Furthermore, where Arenanet has a vested interest in keeping the majority of its player base happy, the powers that be have less control over worldwide corporations. There is no world power than can override what large corporations do. Individual countries have a degree of control over what a corporation does within their borders, but even there the power that governments have is far from complete. There is often multiple individuals with different goals within the government, some of them no doubt making personal shareholder profit from Apple’s actions, and therefore unlikely to pursue any change that would prevent Apple from making so much profit. Large corporations also have strong lobbying powers, and can threaten to simply move most of their operations to another place, in effect threatening to put many employed individuals out of work if the government does anything to change the status quo. So while a vested interest from an entity with complete control over the situation such as Arenanet over their game-world, there is no such entity with such a vested interest in the real world. Where the damage to a comparatively unimportant sideline market is limited, damage to the real world financial market can be felt by hundreds of millions of people across the world who are affected, directly and indirectly from such actions.
Ultimately the reasons for min-maxing both in games and in real life is the same: the desire to reach a goal. When we think of our heroes, it is usually because of a single thing that they were particularly good at. Edison was great at business, and is remembered for being a grandmaster of innovative success, in spite of the fact that in reality he often copied designs he saw elsewhere, and merely was the first to successfully market the inventions. For example, Edison is held as the inventor of audio recording, when in fact a recording from 28 years prior to Edison’s first known recording has been found (Rosen).
It is success that we measure by, and most often that is directly inferred to be financial success in the capitalist society that we live in. Well-roundedness, being a nice person or a good corporate citizen ultimately mean very little in the grand scheme of measuring success. My farmer Elementalist’s goal was financial success, just as is Apple’s. Being fair about it is of secondary importance.
ArenaNet. Guild Wars. NCsoft, 2005. PC Game.
Duhigg, Charles, and David Kocieniewski. “How Apple Sidesteps Billions in Taxes.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 28 Apr. 2012. Web. 12 Apr. 2015. <http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/29/business/apples-tax-strategy-aims-at-low-tax-states-and-nations.html>.
Rosen, Jody. “Researchers Play Tune Recorded Before Edison.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 26 Mar. 2008. Web. 13 Apr. 2015. <http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/27/arts/27soun.html?ex=1364356800&en=14b6cec0c2c873bf&ei=5090&partner=rssuserland&emc=rss&pagewanted=all&_r=0>.
“The World’s Biggest Public Companies.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine. Web. 13 Apr. 2015. <http://www.forbes.com/global2000/list/#page:1_sort:6_direction:desc_search:_filter:All industries_filter:All countries_filter:All states>.