I need to preface this with a plug of sorts. I blame this blog post on this Youtube channel, which recently I’ve been listening/watching because it occupies a weird mind space where while it regurgitates modern econ textbook content, it’s repackaged in a soundbyte form that is mostly the right spin, as long as you understand where it comes from. It also breaks down some current event topics, which is always helpful.
So there it was, me, watching Lapis Re:Lights on the weekends. Nevermind that the main character’s (center?) head piece has a vaguely biological diagram in the middle. Never mind her, even. Or the rest of the cast except maybe the few foreigners. It’s “just the facts, ma’am” when it comes to the characters that provide us clues to the setting. In Lapis Re:Lights, people perform “orchestras” to collect mana to power its society. Mana seems to be just some elusive notion that is generated by a crowd or a region of a city.
You can refer to other works out there that think about an economy where magic is a part of it. If our economy today is running on 100% clean, renewable energy, what would the economy be like? What if we can turn this energy into goods and products in a way that scales to flexible demand? Can this energy be easily stored and made available, any time and anywhere? Actually we have some ideas to answer these basic questions.
For one, it is a work of labor to do magic. A person can only cast so many spells, based on some notion of skill (I guess, the characters are at a school to study magic). It takes a person some time to cast a spell, and to deal with the result. It also seems like scale is limited (it isn’t the same effort to magically create 1 widget versus a million widgets). A lot of the spells in the show actually do not go into things that directly generate value. Putting on lights in the sky or being able to do fancy acrobatic moves or obtaining inhuman strength are all fine and well, but it’s hard to see how anyone would exchange those things for currency. Students in the show still participate in employment much like our real world.
Mass production is also an unknown in the world of Lapis Re:Lights. The visual depiction of the world seems to be a mid-industrial-revolution European setting. We see elaborate architecture, furniture and designs. Maybe the cobblestones makinig up the roads and sidewalks clue us in, but that could be a magic thing. But someone out there has to be making magic lanterns and other similar things at bulk, right? We see a city, and it seems to be not that small. In that Lapis Re:Lights is a world with craftsmen (Merrybery is a cute!), it might also be a world with distinct social classes, as implicit both by the structure of the students organizations inside the school, and that there are royalties and rich people, versus common folks.
If we put aside things like colonization that fueled the European powers during the industrial age, then it begs the question of how the basics needs of that society is met. Is there a large number of farmers in that world? If not, where do people get food from? How does such a country generate goods and services to trade for necessities? It does seem that the country the anime takes place have commercial relationships with other nations, such as the far east knockoffs countries that sent the 3 students that makes up Konohana wa Otome and the Asian princess in Supernova.
Of course, there are still a lot of outstanding questions about the fundamentals of the nations in the world, let alone the one the anime takes place in. Is Waleland modeled after a mature European economy like Holland or Norway that we know today? Or like Monaco, where rich people go there to live and tourism makes a big part of the economy, but doesn’t really generate wealth? Or is it more like Liechtenstein, where you have a huge tax haven-style banking and corporate finance system but also a high end manufacturing sector that makes expensive, low-volume, high-tech goods like medical equipment and manufacturing machinery? I mean I would buy their magic tents.
Definitely, if Waleland doesn’t need to import materials to run its energy economy, it can do well exploring expensive magic-infused goods, assuming the global market is mature enough. High-end manufacturing only works when there is enough demand for it, that there is a wealthy group of buyers who would be able to afford it. It could be organizations or individuals, but it’s not clear where the world sits in terms of that. But the vibe you get from this show is Waleland this is a country with a positive trade balance, where a major luxury of its people and a national resource is the magical power that fuels its infrastructure and give reasons for orchestras to exist.
On the flip side of this, in this summer season 2020, is Deca-dence. We know the creator of this series has said that the name is a wordplay on “decadence” and while thematically that is true, the setting is wild in a “reverse Wall-E” kind of way. In it, and spoilers ahead (as of ep7), there are two worlds in the story, one is the “robot” world which is inhibited by digital intelligence–from what we can tell, it is also a physical world even if the anime depicts it like cyberspace. Said digital intelligences can “jack in” to control other avatars in the Deca-dence world, which is another reality, also in the physical world, where these cyborgs and actual humans coexist. In the Deca-dence world, however, when people are killed, they are killed–unless you are a cyborg, in which you only lose your body and you get kicked out of the game (it’s kind of like Permadeath I guess)?
The economics of Deca-dence (the game?) is interesting, because clearly inside the system there is a real economy. I think this is no different than any other video game economy in which NPC (humans?) and players set the price based on supply and demand. There is a proper “sink” in which are the conflicts with Gadolls cost various resources, in terms of equipment needed to fight them, the human casualties, and other damage Gadolls inflict. Looting the Gadolls drive the economy in terms of supplying fuel, food, and other material. I don’t know, for example, where people inside Deca-dence get materials to create robotic parts (protagonist’s cybernetic arm, for instance), or even raw metal used to make those needle pipe things. It seems that there are repair kits people use to fix their homes, and armor plating used to repair the outer wall of the giant mobile rocket-arm-and-home-base. If a humvee gets blown up during the fight against the Gadolls, how do people replace it inside Deca-dence. These are important questions that don’t have clear answers.
That said it’s clear that Deca-dence, as far as a proverbial fish tank goes, is not self-sufficient. It’s clearly not a closed system since Gadolls are created outside of it and put into the game. It’s likely some manufacturing is not done by the facilities inside Deca-dence, although it does manufacture some stuff. I might have missed it, but it never implied all raw material that is needed to create stuff inside Deca-dence came from harvesting Gadolls. Although, as the setting goes, Deca-dence is actually on Earth, so there could still be resources that is harvested from the environment in general.
I mentioned that NPC and PCs set prices in the game, but this is partly true. It does have some kind of developer-set pricing for high end gear, which is really only accessible by external players (who are also called Gears), as it would mean they can purchase upgrades for their Deca-dence characters using currency outside Deca-dence. There is some reason to believe this is actually the case. Which leads us to think about what is actually interesting.
That is, the world outside Deca-dence, to be honest, is way more interesting, even if it is a much more slippery idea. The creation story that the audience is told in episode 2 paints a cyborg new-world in which humanity became nearly extinct, but only after we have uploaded ourselves into cyborgs and live in some kind of hybrid VR world. Deca-dence is really a zoo for humans, but also a “reality” game in which is basically a VR game for the cyborg denizens. So in narrative practice, it is the reverse SAO in which people in the VR is playing a game of reality.
While we were told a lot about the setting, I think much more isn’t really told to us and it’s up to us to find out. In as much the story bothered to tell us that there is an energy cycle in which Gadolls are the core transfer medium in which the cyborgs fuel Deca-dence, the Gadolls have to come from somewhere and there definitely needs be some kind of energy to power that new society of cyborgs. If anything, energy is even more important–it’s not like we can just farm and provide a way to survive anymore.
The idea behind market economics and creating sinks is very relevant to game design, however, so this is possibly the most natural take to our view of this kind of criticism of governing-by-theory, which tangentially is a blow on macroeconomics as well. I think it is kind of a dull blow though, even if it makes an apt analogy of thinking about the lives of main street folks affected by the high rollers on wall street, to use another analogy that gets to the point more succinctly.
To end this long rambling let’s just recap why this is interesting–settings are interesting in any work of fantasy, ultimately, because fantasies are fantasies are a reason. Underpinning any sufficiently robust depiction of any world is its economics. And you would at least think throwing key terms into the explanation of a core plot element would at least mean something.
In Deca-dence’s case, I think ultimately a post-scarcity, demand-based economy is its own criticism. But short of lecturing people on macroeconomics I don’t know what would really work as a compelling and entertaining story. Maybe this is why I watch those videos on Youtube.