The institution of a gaming class is found in its best development at the higher stages of the barbarian culture. The upper classes are by custom exempt or excluded from industrial occupations, and are reserved for certain employments to which a degree of honour attaches. Chief among the honourable employments . . . is warfare; and priestly service is commonly second to warfare. . . . This exemption is the economic expression of their superior rank.
So wrote economist Thorstein Veblen, more than 100 years ago. Except that he wasn't actually writing about gamers, as presciently accurate as he may sound today. The passage above is actually the first few sentences of Veblen's most famous work, The Theory of the Leisure Class - except for the word "gaming" that somehow snuck in to replace the word "leisure" in the first sentence.
Published in 1899, The Theory of the Leisure Class was a scathing economic and social critique of America's habits of leisure, luxury and, to use the phrase Veblen coined, "conspicuous consumption." Though much of it is unreasonably harsh, Veblen's basic observations are no less salient today than a hundred years ago. If Veblen is to be believed, though, the fall of Western civilization is at hand - and it just may be gamers who are going to pull it down.
Veblen held that most of the economic activity that goes on in a modern society is little more than an effort by individuals to distinguish themselves from one another, specifically by demonstrating how much more luxury each one of us enjoys than the next. Society moves forward in a constant game of one-upmanship: When everyone can afford a Lexus, I've got to work that much harder in order to buy my Mercedes. I need the Mercedes as a way to differentiate myself from the masses; God forbid I should simply drive the same car as everyone else.
"Conspicuous leisure," another Veblen coinage, works the same way. The leisure class consists of people who have lots of time to waste on activities that don't specifically produce the kind of staples needed to survive. "Abstention from labour . . . comes to be a requisite of decency," Veblen wrote. Work is for the plebes. Clearly (to Veblen, at least), the fact that I have enough free time to level my World of Warcraft toon to 60 in only four months means that I occupy a higher station in society than the people who spend most of a year getting to the endgame - even though we've all "/played" the same 500 hours to get there. In this case, I belong to what we might call the "gaming class."
Of course, Veblen had his detractors, including the famously acerbic literary critic H.L. Mencken, who wasn't at all convinced that the only reason we enjoy our luxuries is to set ourselves apart from those who can't. To Mencken, leisure was valuable in and of itself:
"Do I enjoy a decent bath because I know that John Smith cannot afford one - or because I delight in being clean? Do I admire Beethoven's Fifth Symphony because it is incomprehensible to Congressmen and Methodists-or because I genuinely love music? ... Do I prefer kissing a pretty girl to kissing a charwoman because even a janitor may kiss a charwoman - or because the pretty girl looks better, smells better and kisses better?"