Friday, April 22, 2016

Stronghold Economics

Today I heard a story on the radio about a local foundry shutting down. They interviewed the workers. They were all very unhappy about it, and they all sounded all rather unintelligent, too, meaning they probably have few other options besides doing the work they've always known. Every one of them makes more money than I do. Any one of them would probably be seen as having a better work ethic than I. Probably all of them are financially self-sufficient (at least to the extent that you can say someone who depends on a regular paycheck from someone else is "self-sufficient"). I tried to picture myself in their shoes, working my entire life at a foundry or factory or what have you, and it seemed like hell. It seemed like prison-lite. I could do it for a set period of time, to achieve a particular goal, especially if the payoff were substantial. But I couldn't just resign myself to thinking that my only purpose in life is to make money for someone else's business. Thinking of lying on my death bed saying, "Well, I didn't do much with my life, but at least I taped a whole bunch of boxes shut for Plasticorp!" seems like the saddest thing in the world to me.

But I look at where I am financially, by contrast. I look at the struggles that come of not having a regular job and the challenges I've had building wealth. I worry that I will not be a proper role model for my children, especially for my son, and that they will have a harder time supporting themselves as adults as a result of not seeing me go away for so many hours a day, working on someone else's schedule.

But then I thought about what I do, and how my son spends most of his free time, and I'm not quite so concerned. He likes to play civilization-building computer games. One of his favorites is called Stronghold. Let me explain how Stronghold works.

In Stronghold, you are a medieval lord. You start each phase of the game with nothing but a house, some gold, and some undeveloped land. You're given an objective, anything from something as simple as "grow this number of apples" to "rescue Lady Elspeth from the evil knight in the neighboring kingdom." In some of the more complex challenges, you'll start off with more than just the house, but generally, you have to start from scratch at the beginning of each round.

Starting from scratch means that first, you build a storeroom. The storeroom doesn't produce anything. It's just where you keep your stuff. Any homeless person can tell you how critical this is to accumulating any sort of wealth. After the storeroom, you build a woodcutter's hut, because you can't build anything else in the game until you have some wood (that you keep in your storeroom, which is why you have to build that first). To get wood, you must have a woodcutter cut it, and to get someone to come to your castle and work as a woodcutter, you have to build him a woodcutter's hut.

The next step is to procure some food. The quickest, simplest, cheapest way is to build a hunter's hut. The hunter will kill game to feed himself and the woodcutter, putting any surplus in, not the storeroom. He'll put the surplus in the granary, which you need wood and gold to build. You can also build various sorts of farms and mines to harvest other natural resources, and then build different types of workshops for craftsmen to turn those raw resources into weapons, armor, and other useful and valuable commodities.

Having laid all this infrastructure and stockpiled a mass of weapons and armor in your armory, and having built elaborate fortifications from wood and stone to defend your home and all you've built, you can start raising an army. To support all these workers and soldiers, you need to have enough food and housing to support them all, as well as means of keeping their spirits up and keeping them out of trouble. Only after you've done all this and trained an army of sufficient size can you then take on the tasks of defeating your enemies, rescuing damsels in distress, or what have you. You can still fail at this point. You can suck as a general and totally botch your military operations.  But the point is that even if you are a brilliant strategist and tactician, you still have to start from scratch chopping wood.

We live in a society where labor is divided up into many, highly specialized roles. In our world, you can train to be that military commander and nothing else. You don't have to work through wood chopping and eel fishing to get there. The thinking is that you'll be a better commander if you focus on nothing else but learning to command troops effectively. This is true. But what happens to that brilliant commander if he upsets his king? If the king casts him out, and (because of this) none of the other kings want to hire him, what does he do? Does he become a miller or a cook? A wine maker or a pole turner?

In my case, I wandered onto the next screen to be the lord of the next level. I started with a house and a storeroom and a little bit of gold to build a woodcutter's hut. I built the hut, but nobody came to work there, so I worked as the woodcutter myself. I chopped wood until I had enough to build a farm, but when that happened, I was out of food and had to sell some of the wood to keep myself fed. So it was back to chopping, to once again acquire enough wood to build the farm. Then I had it, but needed gold to build the farm, so I sold some of the wood and went back to chopping to replenish what I'd sold. Finally, I had enough wood, gold, and food to build the farm. I built the farm, and no sooner had the crop started to ripen than it was attacked by thieves. And wolves. And neighboring armies of inspectors and enforcement officers from the kingdoms of Health, Building, and Zoning. Each time, I'm back to cutting wood to try to accumulate enough to move on to the next phase.

But unlike those guys at the foundry, I keep on, because I have an objective. My game ends when my life ends. Not before, and I don't get another turn after, so I have to keep on 'til I get it right. My objective is to give my kids a head start when they start their game. My goal is for them to already have a storeroom, a woodcutter's hut, a hunter's camp, a farm, and maybe a couple workshops going by the time they're ready to start the game. It's unlikely I'll ever be called on to rescue Lady Elspeth. Maybe that won't happen until my great-great-grandchildren get a turn. But I won't see my kids struggle just to get past the woodcutter's phase, so I'm trying to get that stuff done for them to lay the groundwork for their later success.

When I worked a regular job and dreamed of what I'd rather be doing, I used to wish I could be a pioneer. I wished I could go into an undeveloped land and, working as a generalist--building structures, growing crops, establishing security, building a community--laying all the groundwork for a new civilization to establish itself.

I see now that I got my wish, and I'm happy for it. I may get frustrated that the game is too full of wolves and raiders when I'm still unprepared to fend them off, but I am so incredibly fortunate just to be playing the game. I think my kids will do fine.