Gunnar Åkerlind - Authorgunnar.åkerlind@osqledaren.se
Roisin Callaghan - Illustratorroisin.firstname.lastname@example.org
Throughout my childhood, just like for most of my friends, gaming was a source of entertainment and the greatest competitor for my spare time. However, in the context of an economy in decay and where resources are scarce, online gaming has come to take up a different role in the lives of many Venezuelans. It has become a necessity for survival.
I was a gamer in highschool. When I wasn’t studying, you’d find me by the computer, playing games or watching others play on YouTube. Now the act seems like a waste of valuable time, if I could even find time to play, that is. Back then however, I was glued to the screen for hours on end. Either trying my best to survive in the dark wilderness of Don’t Starve or shooting down the enemy team in Dirty Bomb or Counter Strike Global Offensive. I even have an embarrassing amount of time on Geometry Dash. The game which takes the prize for getting the most of my time was Team Fortress 2, an iconic team based FPS.
Within this game (like many others) there was a function which allowed players to trade items with each other. From this function a market arose. I won some and I lost some, but to me this little market was still only a part of the game. For others, these virtual economies have come to mean so much more.
The measly money one can make from playing and trading in online games in this sense has next to no value in the richer parts of the world. Look to Venezuela however, a country with a collapsed economy and inflation off the rails, where these sums which to me seem negligible can be a significant sum. A sum large enough to survive on even. And in a context where jobs are few and salaries low, what seems like entertainment becomes essential for survival. The game Old School Runescape has become a staple in the lives of many Venezuelans. This game allows “mining” of the in-game currency where gain is proportional to time put in. By dedicating hours on end to simple, repetitive tasks, one can earn enough money to make a significant addition to a Venezuelan household.
The article “How Runescape is helping Venzuelans survive” by Mat Ombler at Polygon gives a colourful insight to the situation by reporting one Venezuelan’s struggles. “Martinez”, a former accountant, turned to Runescape when inflation had made his former salary inadequate for survival and one neighbour recommended the game, which now has become “super mainstream” in Venezuela. He puts it harshly: without his “gold-mining”, his family would starve.
But let’s zoom out for a moment. How come these Venezuelans need to slave away in this virtual world when their country is one of the wealthiest on earth? In terms of natural resources, Venezuela is rich. Minerals, metal and most importantly the world's largest confirmed oil reserves sound like the basis for abundance, yet the Venezuelan economy is the very opposite. In terms of acquiring basic necessities, survival has become a day to day struggle for many.
The story of Venezuela's economic collapse begins with the development of the economy in the first place. As Venezuela holds immense oil reserves, the logical conclusion for both private and state-run enterprises was to invest in this area. Exports of oil came to make up a majority of the Venezuelan economy and laid the foundation for the growth of the country. Simultaneously, reforms and economic policies by the Venezuelan government during large parts of the current millenia created a strong reliance on imports, something which was possible due to the revenues generated from oil exports. Various shortages would arise during the later years of the ‘00s, with 2010 being a significant year for the economic decline. These negative turns were marked by the country’s leader, Hugo Chavez, declaring an “economic war” to regain control of the economy. An economy based on oil exports as well as a large reliance on imports would prove a disastrous combination when in 2014/2015 the oil prices started to drop globally, leaving Venezuela in a very precarious position. Shortages increased and the economic situation started to deteriorate at a dangerous rate.
The horrible conditions are illustrated time upon time by reports of people going to great lengths to secure the nourishment needed for their survival. A 2017 article by The Guardian reports that zoo animals are likely being stolen and butchered to be used as food. Once again on the theme of zoos, one article from The Daily Mail shows images of emaciated animals as a horrific reflection of the economic situation in the country. Both The Daily Mail and The Mirror reported on people eating rats as a last resort against hunger, which had already been a necessity for prison inmates.
As the crisis intensified around the start of 2015, international intervention turned the difficult situation far worse than dropping oil prices alone would have done. Venezuela is still under harsh sanctions from the US, the EU and Canada among several others in order to combat the current administration on claims of authoritarianism and oppression. While these actions are often claimed to be in the interest of democracy and the Venezuelan people, it has the very opposite effect on most Venezuelans. As one can read on the United Nations’ website, an “Independent UN rights expert calls for unilateral sanctions to be dropped against Venezuela,”
Stating that the sanctions are to the detriment of those who need help the most. Once again, the statements made by the UN are clear as day:
“Imposed by the United States, European Union as well as other countries, the sanctions have sparked economic, humanitarian and development crises, devastating the entire population, especially those living in extreme poverty, women, medical workers, individuals with life-threatening diseases and indigenous peoples.“
This becomes another addition to the long list of suffering following American intervention in South America, including when the US backed the installation and rule of the infamous dictator Augusto Pinochet in Chile.
We return to Martinez, the accountant turned virtual gold miner, who now lives in Peru along with his mother and girlfriend. Using money made from Runescape they managed to flee the country and escape the ever deteriorating problems in the Venezuelan society. Many other expats like him use their money made from mining to help their less fortunate relatives who remain trapped in the difficult Venezuelan reality. Without a change of course for the country, more will follow the path of Martinez and his family.
Today, the Venezuelan economy continues to spiral out of control. Through a nightmarish synergy of poor planning by the state, a dropping oil price and inhumane sanctions, the everyday lives of the Venezuelan people stays on a path of difficulties and suffering. Some search garbage for food while others have been forced to kill and consume their pets out of hunger. In this horrible context, for many with access to the internet the virtual markets of online gaming became a lifeline.
Once we enter the internet, we largely become equals regardless of external circumstance, yet the role the virtual worlds plays in our lives is so very different. For some, a game is a pastime and a source of joy while for others that are less fortunate, gaming becomes a necessity for survival.